Puberty in Alice and Wonderland
One of the most prominent themes in children’s is maturation and grasping with adulthood. In keeping with this tradition, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland presents a girl who transforms immensely from the bored little girl who can’t imagine reading a book without pictures to the mature adult described at the end of the novel. Throughout much of the novel, the reader witnesses Alice struggling with frequent, rapid changes in her body.
While the repeated size changes in the book serve to illustrate the difficulties of children in grasping the changes of puberty, the changes in Alice’s personality and state of mind that come with each fluctuation in size hint at the greater rewards of knowledge and certainty that accompany Alice’s maturation. Alice’s first adventure in Wonderland presents the emotional frustration that comes with being so uncertain about one’s identity.
After noticing a fifteen-inch door and the flourishing garden that lays behind it, Alice expresses a desire to shrink in order to fit through it, a wish that is then fulfilled by her consumption of a drink laying on a nearby table (Carroll 22-3). From the onset of her time in Wonderland, Alice is concerned by her inability to fit in with her physical surrounding. We see this in her initial reaction to shrinking; she’s immediately elated expressing her pleasure at being “now the right size” (24). Yet this joy quickly dissolves into apprehension..
Alice’s sudden diminution is accompanied by a strikingly different perspective of her surroundings that creates a more hostile environment. Small and out of place, Alice’s persistent effort to climb up the slippery legs of the glass table brings her to tears. This sudden inability to conquer her surroundings startles Alice and concerns the narrator, who begins to repeat variations on the phrase “poor Alice” (24), causing readers to identify her shrunken state with frustration and dejection. Essentially, Alice’s response to being small in a large world seems to mirror the frustration of those who desire to grow up.
Alice’s confusion merely continues after eating the cake she finds under the table (25). From the beginning, she is unsure in which way her body will respond: will she grow larger or smaller? Alice even delays to see how her body will respond to this relatively ordinary event, placing her hand on her head and awaiting the results “anxiously” (25). The resultant size change further alarms Alice as she explores her body after growing. With her increase in stature (26), Alice is so disconcerted on how far emoved her head is from her feet that she meditates rather nonsensically on the idea in an effort to grasp the new perspective she has developed. Now too small for surroundings that were formerly too small for her (and even before that, just the right height), “[p]oor Alice” (27) is still in no position to achieve entering the garden. Remarkably, her initial reaction is quite similar: she begins crying hopelessly—but she quickly admonishes herself, claiming that “a great girl like [her]” (the word “great” here referring to her new size) has no business crying like the small child that appeared merely two pages before.
Despite her remarkable change in size, then, Alice’s personality and views remain unaffected, a fact that leaves her even more frustrated as she continues crying. In other words, Alice knows she is acting inappropriately for her new size, but she still remains unable to seize control of her increasingly volatile emotions. Similar to biological hormone surges, Alice’s rapid changes in growth are accompanied by fierce emotions and mood swings that she is unable to control. Alice’s meditation upon the recent events also provides great insight into how changes in size have affected her mentally.
On page 28, the girl confusedly discusses the identity crisis that has befallen her, identifying the puzzling question that these changes have led her to: “Who in the world am I? ” As she begins to meditate on whether she may have been changed for another child, we see the depth to which she has been affected. So flustered by these constant changes, Alice’s memory and knowledge have suffered, as she is unable to recall basic facts. This, accompanied by the realization that her voice has become hoarse and strange, once again moves “poor Alice” to tears.
Finding both her body and mind to be completely altered, Alice hints towards not liking who she has become, resolving to stay in Wonderland and only come out if she is somebody else. Just as soon as this stream of thoughts leaves her, though, Alice realizes that she has shrunk once again, and rather than being comforted, Alice is “frightened at the sudden change” (29), saying that she is now “worse than ever” and that she “never was so small as this before. ” She finds herself confronted by a pool of tears that had once seemed so inconsequential, frustrated once again by her uncontrollable emotions: “I wish I hadn’t cried so much! (30). Once again, she realizes somewhat bitterly that “everything is queer to-day. ” Alice’s size continues to come into play through her interactions with the mouse. Not used to seeing things from small eyes, Alice’s etiquette is brought into question as she offends the mouse with her talk of cats (31). Despite being the same size as the normally-small animals she now interacts with, Alice is viewed as foolish for not utilizing the same logic as her counterparts. In essence, while she is physically small, her mind has not adapted to this new size and she does not fit in among small creatures.
The animals’ simplicity seems incredibly childlike throughout the third chapter, particularly with the childlike arguments and faux pretentiousness that many of the creatures utilize (34). The Caucus-race seems to resemble childlike games that make little sense to observers, and Alice notes this absurdity (36), again showing her inability to fit in with this other world. As her travels continue, however, Alice begins to come to terms with the frequent size changes and shows increased logic in dealing with the unpleasant situations.
Upon her foray into the White Rabbit’s house, Alice expresses both a desire to grow and frustration with being “a tiny little thing” (41). While Alice realizes that she will grow upon drinking the bottle, she still does not recognize that her inability to control her growth. She is surprised by the rapidity of the action, and despite her explicit wishes, she continues growing until she is too large for her physical surroundings, her body extending outside of the house.
Alice has not yet learned that her changes in size will cause her discomfort and unhappiness, and once again she finds herself hopeless (42). Commenting on her physical size, Alice notes that she is “grown up now” and pleased that there’s no room to “grow up any more”. However a sentence later, she contradicts this thought, worrying that she will “never get any older,” yet comforted by never having to be “an old woman” (42). This contradiction shows the confusion with which Alice views herself: she is not a child–nor does she desire to be one—and yet she does not entirely see herself as a woman.
In other words, Alice is stuck between stages of her life: while her size suggests maturation, she does not identify herself as a mature adult. This is further evidenced by Alice’s subsequent fear of the White Rabbit (43). Still in the mind-frame of a child, she trembles, neglecting to come to terms with being “about a thousand times as large as the Rabbit. ” Yet with her increased size, Alice has become more assertive and more prepared to handle her situation. Wielding her sudden growth as a weapon rather than seeing it as a ulnerability, she scares the Rabbit with her motions in order to fend him off and kicks Bill the lizard as he goes to retrieve her (44). Contrary to her interaction with the mouse, Alice is now adequately prepared to handle smaller creatures: she displays an increased knowledge and a stronger capacity for coping with her situation. More aggressive now, she embraces the physical change, resorting to vocal threats that are backed by the differences in size between her and the creatures.
Even more remarkable, Alice becomes aware that she can use these size changes to her advantage, responding to the violent attacks of the creatures by shrinking in size (45). Still, after the ordeal, Alice is desperate to reach “the right size”, wanting to “grow up again” (47). Alice’s lack of identity is further underlined in her conversation with the Caterpillar. From the outset of their interaction, Alice explains her identity crisis, explicitly stating, “I can’t understand it myself…and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing. (49) She is remarkably unable to answer the simple question of identity, telling the caterpillar that while she is fully aware who she was when her adventures began, she has changed several times since then. Alice states that her problem is not with the size that she is (an odd contradiction to her previously-stated desire to return to the right size), realizing that she simply doesn’t like changing so often. The Caterpillar responds in scorn, insinuating that Alice is being ridiculous with his standoffish remarks.
He appears to be rather knowledgeable throughout their whole conversation, speaking authoritatively on not only her size changes, but her recitation of ‘You are old, Father William’. After their conversation, Alice launches into a similar identity crisis: eating the mushroom causes her body to undergo strange changes where some parts change and others do not (54-55), but after much experimenting, she eventually manages to return to her “usual height. ” (56) Alice sums up her recent events by stating that the fundamental problem with her physical changes is that she never knows what she’ll be “from one minute to another. The vast knowledge of the caterpillar provides an odd conundrum when compared with the Mouse from chapter III, whose small size seemed to be associated with the childlike state of mind that he possessed. However the size contrast of Alice and the Caterpillar provides a reasonable explanation: he is larger than her (48: “a large blue caterpillar”), and thus more knowledgeable just as Alice was able to outsmart the Rabbit when she was previously a thousand times its size.
This lays the foundations for the idea that relative size appears to indicate knowledge and power in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an idea that is further affirmed by Alice’s final size change in the book and will signal Alice’s passing through puberty. During the trial, Alice’s growth accompanies the point at which her logic finally begins to triumph over the nonsense that dominates Wonderland. Alice begins growing rather helplessly during the trial, but her physical change is now accompanied with a more bold and assertive personality (106).
As she moves to take the stand, Alice suddenly realizes just how large she has grown, but for the first time in the novel, she doesn’t seem concerned or disconcerted by her new stature. Alice is marked by her critical attitude towards the trial, assertively answering the King’s questions and countering the King’s attempted attacks on her with her own logic (112). Alice is also marked by her aggressive attitude towards the Queen; instead of attempting to please her, Alice now cuts her off and demands attention and order rather than nonsense and whim (113, 115).
Alice’s greatest realization occurs as she grows to full size and declares that those who formerly inspired fear are only a pack of cards (116). This is the final change of the novel, and its effects are best summarized by Alice’s sister at the end of the novel. As she dreams of Alice’s adventures, she remarks on Alice’s initial status as “little Alice” with the “tiny hands” and “eager eyes” (117). However after her adventures (in the “after-time”), she views Alice as a knowledgeable and loving “grown woman” who would reflect fondly on “her own child-life” (118).
She creates a contrast, identifying Alice apart from the “simple and loving heart” of her childhood. Thus, with her growth in size, Alice has received a wealth of knowledge and finally achieved maturity. On the surface, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland regards Alice’s physical changes with hostility and apprehension. However upon further examining the mental and emotional changes that accompany them, it becomes clear that the physical changes produce the eventual reward of self-awareness and knowledge that allow Alice to finally triumph over her threatening environment. It is through these changes which Alice achieves the ability to brandish adult logic against the childhood nonsense that governs Wonderland. Thus, Carroll manages to accurately portray the emotional difficulties of maturity by also depicting their eventual reward.