Alice, the Caterpillar, and the Serpent




In chapter IV, we see the first evidence that Alice’s feistiness grows and shrinks with her size. When Alice is small she rushes off to do the White Rabbit’s bidding, so frightened by him that she doesn’t bother explaining that he’s mistaken her for someone else. But when she “grows up,” as she calls it, she confidently attacks first the White Rabbit (through the window) and then Bill (in the chimney). This pattern of fluctuating confidence-with-size continues throughout the book. Such changes are emphasized by a row asterisks that Lewis Carroll included to indicate a transformation in Alice. Alice’s frequent metamorphoses could be perceived as symbolizing both the inexplicable changes in a pubescent body and fluctuations in confidence and timidity during puberty.

Chapter V of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can be split into two sections. The first section is Alice’s identity crisis with the caterpillar, and the second section is Alice’s mistaken-identity issue with the pigeon. I will discuss how both of these sections play into the puberty allegory.  
Once Alice escapes being eaten by a playful puppy 10 times her size, she finds a Caterpillar who contentedly smokes his hookah while reclining on a mushroom. When he sees Alice he demands “Who are you?” Rather timidly, Alice responds that she doesn’t know who she is. 

“I–I hardly know, Sir, just at present–at least, I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

Thus commences one of the best known conversations in the Alice books. The Caterpillar continues to demand that she identify and explain herself, and she timidly suggests that she can’t. Finally, she decides that the Caterpillar is in a rotten mood, and turns away. But the Caterpillar demands she return; so she timidly waits for “some minutes” until the Caterpillar finally tells her something useful–one side of the mushroom will make her grow larger, and the other will make her smaller. 

Caterpillars are well-recognized symbols of metamorphosis–they transform first into a chrysalis and then into a magnificent butterfly. Alice points out that the Caterpillar should feel a little bit “queer” when he’s changing, though the Caterpillar insists that he won’t. I believe that the Caterpillar represents an alter-ego of the metaphorically pubescent Alice. He’s that niggle in the mind of a pubescent girl that questions her identity. He represents the uncertainty in change.

After Alice’s Caterpillar-induced identity crisis, she tries a bit of mushroom to modify her size. Throughout Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice refers to growing larger as “growing up.” Here, she realizes that one problem of “growing up” is that some body parts (in this case, her neck) may grow out of proportion with the rest of her body. When Alice begins to wind her serpentine neck through the foliage in hopes of reaching her hands (and the size-morphing mushrooms) a pigeon pops out and attacks her with enraged shrieks of “serpent!” Although Alice has already made the association between her neck and a serpent’s sinuous body, she insists that she’s not a serpent. Remembering all the changes she’s been through that day, she’s not entirely certain that she’s a little girl anymore, but she is quite certain that she’s not a serpent. In this “grown up” state, she argues with a confidence that is absent in the first part of the chapter.

There are two ways of viewing a serpent symbolically. We could take the Biblical/Freudian approach and say that Alice has turned into a temptress–a sexual being. Or, we could view a snake as a creature of change–one that sheds its skin and is born again.** Clearly, both of these interpretations fit with the puberty allegory.


My final blog post on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is: The Confidence of Alice.

*Images were taken from: 

**snakeskin metaphor is compliments of Laura Gibbs, whose Coursera blog can be found here: http://courserafantasy.blogspot.com/

5 thoughts on “Alice, the Caterpillar, and the Serpent

  1. Wow, this is fantastic – and that image of Alice-as-serpent, Alice AS the pigeon sees her, is really fantastic. I'm so familiar with the Tenniel illustrations but it is very cool to see other great artwork inspired by this book. How cool! Maybe I will try to find an excuse to include images in my essay for this week since I think we can include images in the little HTML editor that we use to submit our essays. Anyway, this puberty this is great and is giving me ideas for the more general question of identity that I want to tackle this week. Super!

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  2. Hi, I'm also in the class! Sam, nice to meet you. I liked your very surreal interpretation. I wrote about some similar issues, but taking a totally different approach. We should keep up with one another's blogs 😛

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  3. Thanks Laura and Sam! I'm glad you liked my essay. Laura, I spent longer than I should have pondering over the available pictures trying to decide which was best. 🙂

    Sam: I stopped by your blog.

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  4. Hi Rachel,

    I saw a link to your blog in the comments on the discussion forum, and I actually reviewed your essay there. I like these blogs based on the course and was hoping you wouldn't mind if I linked to your blog from my own.

    Cheers!
    Megan

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