On the Subject of Alice

I still get questions about it, case and I still love to talk about it. I wrote my MA thesis, “Jacques Lacan Read Through the Looking Glass: Reflections of Subject, Self and Desire in Lewis Carroll’s Alice” in 2010 under the direction of Dr. Michael Sharp (English Department, Humanities, UPR RP). This would be the first time sharing any of it, and it’s only a tiny bit of it, because it’s over 100 pages long, so here’s just a teensy little piece of the shortened version I presented last September (you can read about that here).

If you’re curiouser, then, well, find me. Or find it at the Richardson Seminar Room in the College of Humanities. Or La Lázaro.

Lacan and Carroll share stylistic traits. The most outstanding is their fascination with the possibilities of language.

Artist credit pending

Artist credit pending.

In that respect, they have similar projects, though their didactic purposes differ. In the introduction to How to Read Lacan, Slajov Žižek, Lacanian expert, says that “the most outstanding feature of [Lacan’s] teaching is permanent self-questioning” (5). Alice repeatedly experiences self-questioning when, once in her dream worlds, everything around her becomes increasingly more difficult.

In that respect Carroll, like Lacan, obligates the reader to decipher meanings or come to their own conclusions using Alice’s point of view. In both Wonderland and Looking-Glass, Alice confronts dilemmas that Lacan contemplates, which makes them suitable for drawing connections, the purpose behind my analysis.

Alice’s character is an imaginary_symbolic_realexample of a human subject coping with society, its rules of behavior and communication (these belong in the symbolic order), her perceptions of self (in the imaginary), and her expectations, motivations and emotions (pertaining to the Real).

Alice’s character in the Wonderland book is that of a subject facing society, or social symbolic, confused and thirsting for meaning. Wonderland is Alice’s waking world distorted, where confusion is accentuated more than her enjoyment. Wonderland is very much structured like Alice’s waking world because, as a dream, it is based on it. What is true in one world can also be true in the next, realities sometimes overlapping, so Alice expects events to take place as they do in her waking world. When her expectations are contradicted, she is confused to the point of annoyance or distress. This is because the real Alice has already entered the signifying chain as a little girl in Victorian English society.

Credit pending

artist credit pending

Alice is reborn as a grown child into Wonderland, crawling into and then falling down the rabbit-hole, a reversal of the natural process of being born. What makes her entrance into the dream reality traumatic is the fact that she, unlike a newborn child, has already learned the behavioral codes, the language and the logic of her society, making it hard for her to interpret signs that have different meanings in Wonderland. Let’s examine Alice’s first attempt at communicating in Wonderland.

Her experience is comparable to that of an infant’s entrance into the signifying chain (learning language).

 

by Jasmine Becket Griffith

Jasmine Becket Griffith

Once down the rabbit-hole, her first conversation with someone else is with the Mouse that swims by her in the pool of tears. What motivates Alice to speak to the Mouse in the first place is not uninterested polite conversation, but her desire to get out of the pool so she can carry on her journey towards the garden. She approaches the Mouse saying “O Mouse, do you know the way out of this pool?” (24) But the Mouse does not speak to her, and taking note of this, Alice supposes it is because “perhaps it doesn’t understand English” (25). She babbles on, thinking he might be a French mouse, repeating a sentence she has learned in her lesson book, “where is my cat?” – soon realizing this may have been a mistake. When she says aloud “I quite forgot you didn’t like cats,” (Carroll 25) the mouse finally reacts. Alice’s attempts at communicating with the Mouse at this point seem much like that of an infant who is learning its parents’ language. The infant babbles until it gets the parents’ attention and hence, whatever it is it desires. Luckily for Alice, the Mouse does, after all, speak and understand English, but Alice needs a confirmation to be sure they are communicating.

Alice learns that though they speak essentially the same language, there is a difference in codes. To Mouse, cats

Henry Rountree

Henry Rountree

signify something vile. This incident is somewhat like that of a child who innocently repeats an offensive word without the purpose of offending and is told not to say it again. Thus, Alice submits to the language of the other (in this case, the Mouse), by agreeing and understanding that the topic of “cats” is not proper. The Mouse submits to the language of the Other, which is the language of Mice and Mousekind. The signified of “cat” is predetermined by Mice in the same manner that problematic, offensive words and topics are predetermined by culture rather than a personal experience. Alice wants to communicate effectively, so she keeps on correcting herself and trying hard not to offend. She changes the subject of conversation from cats to dogs, only succeeding in upsetting it once more. She enters the Mouse’s language system when she promises not to speak of cats or dogs again. But, being new to it, forgets and mentions her cat Dinah, and, proudly, her ability to catch mice and birds. Her company – the mouse and birds when the pool becomes an ocean- all leave her, and this makes her feel “very lonely and low-spirited” (40). The result of a misunderstanding causes Alice great distress. She is trying to learn their code, but has not fully grasped the conventions. This very same scenario can take place when, for example, a child may innocently speak of subjects that are unsuitable for the dining table, not to offend, but because he or she has yet to conform to codes of etiquette.

rose-garcia-A-Caucus-Race

Camille Rose Garcia

Performative actions also bear significance in culture, and are generated and perpetuated by the Other, preceding us and generated by some authority. One example is the ritual of the Caucus-race. This consists of running around in a something approximate to the shape of a circle indeterminately. The Dodo is the authority, since he dictates the rules. His posture reminds Alice of Shakespeare, who in Alice’s world, commands literary authority. When the Dodo yells “Stop!” one bird asks who has won, and he replies that everyone has. Another bird asks who will give out the prizes, and the Dodo points to Alice. Alice is obligated to produce a prize, so she looks in her pockets and finds a box of comfits, luckily containing one for everyone, except herself. The Dodo then asks her to produce a prize for herself, so she again reaches into her pocket and finds a thimble. She hands the thimble to the Dodo, who presents it as a prize back to Alice. The whole thing seems absurd to Alice, not organized or logical. She takes a cue from the animals and, trying to be proper, acts seriously. The comfits and thimble are worthless objects, but their value is assigned by the manner in which they are presented. Understanding the meanings of the exchanges of actions and objects is a requisite of becoming a link in the signifying chain of culture.

Alice’s repeated misinterpretations and being misinterpreted are what define her in Wonderland as a stranger, or an other. When she does not understand something, it is only because she cannot. Her slightly different language accentuates Alice’s otherness. Our world only makes sense to us because we learn to, by subjecting to it and thus becoming a part of it.

 

Works Cited (here)

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Through the Looking Glass and what Alice Found There. Connecticut: Konecky & Konecky, 1999.

Žižek, Slavoj. How to Read Lacan. New York: Norton & Company, 2006.

I’ve also embedded my PowerPoint presentation below, which will make little sense without me talking on and on in the background (unless you’ve thought these things over yourself)… Enjoy.