Analyzing Gender in Alice

Carroll’s Alice was published during the Victorian period and during this period the expectation was for women to stay and happily serve in the domestic sphere. These gender roles were clearly defined in Victorian England with Queen Victoria being the supreme example of how women should behave. In the BBC article linked in the Week One Initial Post by Professor DeSpain, Lynn Abrams defines the Victorian Era as “epitomized by Queen Victoria, who came to represent a kind of femininity which was centered on the family, motherhood and respectability”. Very early on in the novel Alice is upending this expectation of womanhood. She goes on an adventure that takes her away from reality and into a world of fantasy, she is also curious and very outspoken, and she isn’t afraid to take up space in the public sphere that is reserved for men. The perfect example of this is at the end of the novel when Alice is at the trail for the Queen of Heart’s stolen tarts. At the beginning of the trial, Alice experiences a “very curious sensation” and begins to grow back to her normal height. In response to her increasing size, the Dormouse tells her that she has “no right to grow here” (Carroll 98). This is important because this is taking place in a court room, a place that is in the public sphere and where women were kept out. Alice is growing and literally taking up space in a setting that is typically male dominated. Not only that, but she is also extremely outspoken and even argumentative (I don’t mean this negatively) while she’s testifying as witness. First, the Queen of Hearts tells Alice to “hold [her] tongue!” to which Alice responds, “I wo’n’t!” (Carroll 107). Then after this, the Queen of Hearts yells “off with her head!” and Alice, back to her full size, yells back “who cares for you…you’re nothing but a pack of cards!” (Carroll 108). I think the setting of this scene is so important when thinking about gender in this novel. A court room is like one of the most masculine arenas a woman, or in this case a young girl, could be in. The combination of Alice growing to her full size and Alice’s outspokenness really highlight her differentness (is that the word I’m looking for?) from the traditional expectations of women during this period.

 

Works Cited

Abrams, Lynn. “Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain.” BBC History Talks. 9 Aug. 2001. Web. 29 May 2015. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/trail/victorian_britain/women_home/ideals_womanhood_01.shtml&gt;.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. London, The Penguin Group, 1998.

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29 thoughts on “Analyzing Gender in Alice

  1. Katie, I agree that Alice veers away from the constraints of gender in the era the novel was written in. She’s very outspoken for a young girl who might be at the age of learning how a ‘proper’ woman was expected to act and throughout this novel it’s as if it’s an active defiance against that gender constraint when she speaks up. It’s just so intriguing to think about how purposeful it seems that the author made her so defiant-like.

    • I think it’s also super interesting that she’s young enough that she probably hasn’t realized yet that society expects her gender to behave a certain way and to fulfill certain roles in life. Her defiance is natural almost, rather than in response to the enforced gender norms.

      • I agree! I think that her natural defiance makes her this threat to the gender stereotype, so to say, and for it to be so prevalent in what’s considered a children’s book is pretty much awesome. Alice is pretty much, throughout the novel, being who she wants to be and breaking away from these ‘norms’ which is where the identity theme comes to play and intermingles with her gender. It’s something I didn’t really think about any of this before your post so thanks for the new view on Alice’s character!

      • I agree! I think it is also important to note on how intelligent and self-aware she is at that age. In the beginning of the book, she practices on how to “show off” being smart, while she is falling down the rabbit hole. She repeats certain facts to herself, and on misinformation, she is quick to fix her mistake. She is also very confident (almost to the point of arrogance) in herself, and her capability to know things. The stereotype of this era is perceived that women are quiet, humble, and only intelligent in the subject of self-care and family; Alice is the complete opposite of that. Her natural ability to be bold especially so young means she was not meant to be pushed down to those stereotypes, and why she is always find herself in danger when she goes against the norm.

  2. I really like this post. I never thought about how masculine court rooms are. But you’re right! There’s so much power that exists in those places and the moment Alice starts growing there is huge! I love that Alice is so outspoken and curious. I think a lot of times, we don’t think about the importance of loud women now—because we have so many women who are vocal. However, Alice being who she was in those moments is important because they were times when women—never mind girls—were not expected to be like that. Additionally, her being a child adds to the gender constructs that Alice breaks against. I think that this is especially important.
    This is a bit off topic but the writer of the Hardy Boys, and later Nancy Drew, was very sexist and believed a woman’s place was in the home. However, he created stories about a strong girl who solved mysteries that inspired young girls. Isn’t it weird how things like that work out?

    • I love what you said about loud women! I think its important too that Alice displays her anger as well both to herself and vocally. Women’s anger is not something that is portrayed very often or well and I think having it come from a young girl who hasn’t been molded into expectations is very powerful.

      • Yes! Alice’s anger and frustration only seemed to humanize her more as opposed to weakening her like it it easily could’ve. When she’s crying because she’s too big it’s a moment that could’ve made her seem too dramatic. Instead she seems vulnerable and human.

  3. The greatest thing about that scene is when Alice yells, ” ‘Who cares for you?…You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’ ” (Carroll, 108). It seems like that was the ultimate act of defiance and rebellion Alice demonstrated. Throughout the book, Alice exhibited behaviors and said things that rubbed the natives of Wonderland the wrong way, but they always silenced her. For the most part, she took it. But this time, she wasn’t having it. In standing up for herself that way, Alice completely defied gender norms and societal norms, too. To think that a child would defy adults, especially adults of authority in this whimsical world, and to stretch out of that silence that so characterizes the feminine sphere, makes for quite a statement. Alice successfully does so, making her anything but ordinary.

    • What might be the symbolic importance of them being a pack of cards specifically, and, therefore, in Alice calling them out on their status as cards or lack there of?

      • Could the use of a pack of cards refer to the ways in which the legal system of the Victorian period was reliant on both skill and chance? You have lawyers and judges who possess considerable knowledge and skill, but the process is very subjective and therefore reliant on skill. In the case of the Queen’s justice system chance was certainly the weightier of the two.

        Cards also have a hierarchy based on origin rather than action. Value is given to cards simply because someone decided the hierarchy. The same could be said of Victorian society where the monarchy and aristocracy were each very powerful and had outside influence on the lives of commoners. That their influence was especially great in the legal arena is absurd, and perhaps that’s why Carroll used them to represent his critique of Queen Victoria’s legal system. (Here I go flip-flopping on the Carroll again.)

      • Well, cards are normally played in poker, go fish, cheat, crazy eight, and games that generally rely on probability and chance. Because the cards are present in the courtroom scene, it could be that they’re symbolic of the uncertainty surrounding the trial and its outcome. The cards could also represent the foolishness surrounding the trial and the entire world of Wonderland. Cards are normally used for games or for entertainment to pass the time. They weren’t intended to be taken seriously. Thus, they could represent the frivolity of the trial, evoking Alice’s response that they were just a pack of cards, or objects that don’t possess a seriousness. If this is true, Alice could just as easily have been saying, “So what? This is all silliness anyway!”.

  4. Katie, You’ve identified some excellent textual examples here! It is a good model post for us. You have me thinking about other spaces that Alice moves through and how her gender and even more specifically her class-based gender identity impact the interactions she has in those spaces. What are some other examples we can come up with?

    • In Chapter 5, we have the discussion between Alice and the caterpillar. Specifically, he advises her to “Keep your temper” (41). Which feeds into gender-based norms at the time for a non-confrontational woman or at least not angry.

      Another reference can be seen as her constant changing of size as smaller to appear less threatening in the White Rabbit’s house juxtaposed with being larger or more independent when she needs to: such as when she must grow to grab the key off the table. This could be a parallel to how vocal a woman can be based upon the needs of the situation.

  5. Could the use of a pack of cards refer to the ways in which the legal system of the Victorian period was reliant on both skill and chance? You have lawyers and judges who possess considerable knowledge and skill, but the process is very subjective and therefore reliant on skill. In the case of the Queen’s justice system chance was certainly the weightier of the two.

    Cards also have a hierarchy based on origin rather than action. Value is given to cards simply because someone decided the hierarchy. The same could be said of Victorian society where the monarchy and aristocracy were each very powerful and had outside influence on the lives of commoners. That their influence was especially great in the legal arena is absurd, and perhaps that’s why Carroll used them to represent his critique of Queen Victoria’s legal system. (Here I go flip-flopping on Carroll again.)

    • I like what you analyzed about the card quote! I totally agree that a person’s value in relation to a hierarchy was usually given to them or inherited based on the person or their family’s social class, which is very similar to the different numbers on the cards. I think that Alice is also realizing that she has a voice and shouldn’t let a deck of cards tell her not to speak. It might also mean that Alice sees the Queen’s role as not being serious, like what Jules said in relation to the cards being all fun and games. Like when the Gryphon mentioned that none of the executions that the Queen demands actually happens (“It’s all her fancy, that: they never executes nobody, you know.” (Carroll 82)). It’s as if the Queen is a child playing the role of a Queen, but it is all gameplay with no actual deadly actions happening from her executions or trials. And as soon as Alice says that it’s just a pack of cards and they hold no real power over her, they all turn into playing cards that surround her before she wakes up from the dream.

  6. Nice gender analysis, Katie! One thought that keeps reverberating through my mind as I’m thinking about gender in this piece–is there an age when a 19th-century female child was thought of with more respect and regard than an adult woman of the same era?

    When I say more respect and regard, I’m not suggesting that women were not respected–most cultures in the world have a high regard and respect for mothers–rather that women had one role to play in Victorian society, but perhaps before they began to prepare for and fulfill that role of wife and mother, they were allowed to be a bit more independent.

    Alice is adventurous, logical, and precocious–all characteristics of the man during this time period. Even as she occasionally succumbs to stereotypical womanly features (her tears of frustration), she often uses logic and self-talk to figure out what to do next. I don’t have the feeling that Lewis Carroll was a raging feminist, so is it possible that female children up to a certain stage (possibly menstruation–passage into womanhood) during this time were given some allowances that males always enjoyed?

  7. Katie, I think you put this wonderfully. As a young argumentative child (and still argumentative according to some) I can identify with how Alice’s curious mind and sharp tongue got her in trouble with authority figures. Although not getting in trouble with a fictional queen, I remember a specific time in my childhood where I got detention because “I was arguing too much and it was not ladylike”, although I was simply defending another student when I felt like they were being treated unjustly. I also like how you added the quotes because those are the exact ones that jump out at me while thinking about how Alice is defiant yet not disrespectful. I think that in the Victorian age specifically, speaking out against a higher social casting, especially a male, was completely frowned upon. Although Alice’s words were not meant to be inherently disrespectful, except for the line, “who cares for you…you’re nothing but a pack of cards!” (Carroll 108). Her curious nature and strong attitude could have been perceived as disrespectful, especially with the example of Queen Elizabeth setting the tone of a mild-mannered woman. What I find interesting in Alice in Wonderland is that the Queen of the cards was more prominent and dare I say more dominant than her partner in making decisions. I’m not sure if I am remembering correctly, or what specific line and page it was on, but from my memory, I believe there was a part in the story where the King of cards acted in a more mild-mannered way, especially towards the people that were “condemned” in the croquet game. I find this fascinating, especially since many people, including myself, pointed out that the example set by Queen Elizabeth seemed to be milder mannered in contrast to the ever shouting of “Off with your head!”

    • The passage you’re referring too about the King is, “As they walked off together, Alice heard the King say in a low voice, to the company “You are all pardoned.” “Come, that’s a good thing!” she said to herself, for she had felt quite unhappy at the number of executions the Queen had ordered” (Carroll 81). The best stories have room for conflicting interpretations of course, female empowerment through Alice or a stern warning against female authority in the case of the Queen of Hearts. The Queen as a representation of anger and emotion ruled by the less subtle metaphor of the heart. Not only that, her orders to constantly execute people has no bearing of reasoning or sense. Then, you include this sly interjection in the passage noted above, where the King is representative of the voice of reason in the relationship. As if by some token, a women is incapable of being in authority due to an inclination toward emotional outbursts.

      • Ooo, interesting point on the King and Queen contrasting each other regarding portrayals of authority, I didn’t think of it from that angle. What do you think was intended from the contrast of the Queen and Alice? Could it be reenforcing the social ideals of the time regarding youth and innocence and how that intersected with the ideal Victorian woman or is there more to it than that?

      • The relationship between the King and Queen is very interesting in terms of gender because as you said, the Queen is ruled by emotion and her orders of execution often make no sense and have no reasoning. I agree with you that the King is representative as the voice of reason but I think he also represents man’s place in the world in comparison to women. The Queen is the ruler/tyrant of Wonderland from my impression and the King, like you mention, is like her “fixer” like when he pardons the cards from getting beheaded. But in the court room scene, the King is the one presiding over the trial, not the Queen. However, in the court room the King is the one in charge and the Queen is off to the side making her emotional/senseless demands of execution. The King presiding over the court rather than the Queen implies that the court room is a man’s domain.
        I think your analysis of their relationship being a representation of women being incapable of being in authority is absolutely right. With that in mind, I find it so interesting then that Alice’s act of defiance is aimed at the ruler of the court room- the King. There is a dual representation of womanhood going on in one scene here; Alice is embodying the anti-stereotypical gender expectations and the Queen is the stereotypical female character.

      • Thank you for finding the passage! Unfortunately, at the time I had written that post, I did not have the physical copy of the book with me. I completely agree that the best stories, much like the best arguments, have room for interpretation. I believe that Carroll showed a conflict between the Queen and Alice as an important way of poking fun at the gender expectations of the society he lived in. I also wonder if Carroll portrayed the Queen of hearts as a louder and more dominating figure to impose women rights, or to show that women of the higher class can get away with deviating from the “ideal Victorian woman” more than commoners like Alice. In response to the King being the voice of reason, I can see how that can be another nod towards the sexism in the Victorian age. With objectification such as diagnosing women with female hysteria, it created an idea that women that are not the “tame victorian woman” are seen as hysterical, ill, and an outcast.

        • “women of the higher class can get away with deviating from the “ideal Victorian woman” more than commoners like Alice” — I love how you point this out regarding the connection between both class and sex as having an impact on expected behavior and what might’ve been allowed for a high class woman vs a lower class one. Carroll was definitely poking fun at gender norms of the time with this scene, so what do message do you think he was trying to communicate about women, their behavior, and his thoughts on it?

          • I believe he was trying to communicate that the norms were boring and unproductive to society, especially for women. I believe he saw women, especially younger ones, as intelligent and curious beings vs having thought of them as more silent and compliant. Although I have stated many times that I find some of Alice’s behaviors off putting, I also find it important that Carroll placed a great strength in Alice. I believe her strength showed in her willingness to overcome her obstacles and stand up for her beliefs. Overall, I think Carroll used this as an example to empower young women like Alice to ask questions about anything and everything.

      • Just had to comment here on what an excellent comment this is, George. You’ve taken one quote and read it with such depth, allowing for ambiguity to become part of the meaning.

  8. It’s interesting to notice how Alice changes from the start of the story to the end, becoming more outspoken and sure of herself. Do you think Carroll intended for Alice to contrast the Queen in the courtroom scene? If so what message do you think it might be sending? We have a seven year old girl disagreeing with a middle age “woman”/card. I think this correlates with what mzolson8 touches on regarding girls hitting an age where they might have more freedoms than older women in the Victorian era. What do Alice and the Queen share? How do they differ?

    • I think Carroll did intend to have a contrast of these women characters. I think Carroll may have intended to show the typical stereotype of emotional women. Both Alice and the Queen have moments of emotion in the novel (although the Queen does more than Alice). The Queen orders executions left and right, at being upset at that person and Alice quite literally cried a river in the beginning of the novel at being upset at her size. I think Alice is a stronger female character who is able to go against gender norms by speaking out, while the Queen is limited in her power. I think Carroll wanted to give these women voices but still limited to them by emotions.

      • Lindsey, you have me thinking about anger as an emotion that is often attributed toward women and seen as a challenge to sensibility and reason rather than considering its linkages to the brain and reason. We get angry usually for a reason after all, and rage can be a powerful force for change too. Are there ways Carroll uses it to pigeon hole women, I wonder? And what does it mean to do so in a novel about nonsense? At this point the question is mostly hypothetical, but you have me thinking.

  9. Katie, I agree that Alice challenges gender norms in the novel for the time period she lives in. I love your example of the courtroom. I did not think much about it when I was reading it but I know understand she was literally filling up the courtroom with her size and also her voice.

    In this time period women were mostly kept at home and did not have much to say in the public eye. However, Carroll gives Alice and other women in the novel voices and authority. For example, although there is a King and a Queen, the Queen is more authoritative.

  10. katietrojahn,
    I agree that Alice supersedes a lot of expectations of femininity during the Victorian era. She is curious and questions everything, which are typically characteristics of male characters, and the fact that she goes on this adventure so fearlessly is also remarkable. I appreciated your description of Alice’s defiance during the trial and how this is particularly notable because it is occurring within the public sphere, rather than in a domestic setting.

    I do wonder how Alice’s growth and this act of rebellion in her dream could possibly impact her life upon returning to the real world. After waking from her dream, Alice returns to her home and the private sphere for tea. This makes me wonder if her rebellious nature would always remain solely in her dreams and fantasies, or whether she would eventually be able to display these characteristics in her real life.

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