Alice Transformed: Coursera Essay

Lewis Carroll*


In the beginning, Alice falls down a rabbit-hole, landing in a room containing a tiny key, a tiny door, and a large table. When she is small, the door is locked–she’s not allowed out. But then she grows very large…so large, she can hardly fit into the womb room anymore. Ah! Now she can reach the key! But the way out is so tiny! Luckily, she is taken up by a force outside of her control (a sea of tears) and is thrust into Wonderland.

This initial entrance into Wonderland is a metaphor for Alice’s birth into a new life. In Wonderland, she sees many unusual sights that amaze, frustrate, and/or delight her. The Caterpillar leads her to question her own identity—an elusive concept in the ever-changing world of Wonderland. The Cheshire Cat encourages her to be self-aware: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” The Cat is the only creature in Wonderland who recognizes his own madness! After talking to the Cat, Alice is less frustrated by the madness that surrounds her. She allows the Mad Tea-Partiers to entertain instead of frustrate her.

After the tea party, she again finds the room from which she was first thrust into Wonderland. This time, she does not hesitate. She confidently grabs the key, drinks the shrinking potion, and walks through the door–reborn as a new, confident Alice.

Alice is essentially “born” into Wonderland twice. The first birth is full of frustration and self-doubt. But the second birth is followed by self-confidence. She now applies lessons that she learned the first time around. For instance, she stops herself before telling the Mock-Turtle that she eats lobsters and fish. She confidently deals with the intimidation tactics of the Queen of Hearts, whereas she would have been frightened or angry before. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an allegory in transformation. It’s a story about growing up.

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Yes, I have done the unthinkable. Just to spite all those angry essay-format-Nazis, I have written *dum dum dum* AN ESSAY WITHOUT A THESIS STATEMENT. I hope you will all forgive me for this unkindness. 😉


*Images were taken from: 

The Confidence of Alice


As I said in my previous post on Alice (Alice, the Caterpillar, and the Serpent), Lewis Carroll used asterisks to denote metamorphoses in Alice. The last row of asterisks in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was when she shrunk back from a serpent to a reasonably-sized girl at the end of Chapter V. This sudden absence in transformative asterisks suggests that Alice is beginning to gain confidence in herself and to settle into the Alice she will be. 



Chapter VI introduces another well-recognized icon of the Alice books: the Cheshire Cat. The conversation that commences is probably the most sensible she has in Wonderland. Alice asks:

“Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.  

Alice, in her newly acquired perfectly-sized body, is now feeling ready for an adventure. But she doesn’t know where to find one. The Cat, in the guise of nonsense, sensibly points out that if she doesn’t have a goal, she’ll be wandering aimlessly through life. This prods Alice into a decision–she’d like to meet more creatures in Wonderland, but she doesn’t want to “go among mad people.”

“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

The Cat is the only creature of Wonderland who recognizes that he’s mad! This self-awareness allows him to sensibly see the rest of the world as it really is–mad. I believe that, like the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat is Alice’s alter-ego. He represents the sense, self-confidence, and goal-orientation that arises from self-awareness. After meeting the Cat, Alice marches right up to the Mad Tea-Party and sits down despite the party’s calls of “No room! No room!” Later, in the Queen’s croquet ground, she stands proud and erect as the queen’s procession nears. Her companions lie quaking face-down in the dirt. The Queen interrogates Alice:  

“Off with her head! Off with–“

“Nonsense!” said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.  

Ever since meeting the Cat, Alice does not need to be over-sized to have self-confidence. Her responses to the Mad Tea-Party and the Queen are quite sensible and self-assured. Earlier in the book, Alice’s self-confidence fluctuated with size. But the self-assurance she demonstrates at the end of the book is unlike the childish spats she had when she was over-sized. Think of the incident in Chapter IV, where she was stuck in the White Rabbit’s house. Instead of sensibly standing up for herself, as with the Queen, she simply used her bulk to terrorize the White Rabbit and poor Bill. 

Alice also demonstrates a mature self-assurance when she bursts out laughing (twice) in the Queen’s croquet ground. Earlier in the story, Alice’s main emotions were tear-soaking-frustration, foot-stomping-frustration, timidity, and confusion. Now that she is self-aware, she can see the rest of the world as it is–amusingly silly. 
*Images were taken from: 

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/

Alice’s Adventures in the Circle of Life

I read a critique that claims the Alice stories are allegories for puberty–specifically, Freudian analysis suggests that they are about Alice’s change from innocence to a sexual being. I’m generally skeptical of Freudian analysis, but was surprised when I read the first two chapters of Alice in Wonderland and found evidence that the book may, indeed, be about puberty. In fact, I noticed possible allusions to the entire life cycle, from birth to death. I don’t know if this trend will continue throughout the book, but here’s what I have so far:

Birth
In the beginning, Alice falls down a rabbit-hole, landing in a room containing a tiny key, a tiny door, and a large table. When she is small, the door is locked–she’s not allowed out. But then she grows very large…so large that she can hardly fit into the womb room anymore. Ah! Now she can reach the key! But the way out is so tiny! Luckily, she is taken up by a force outside of her control (a sea of tears) and is thrust into Wonderland. 


Puberty–Between the Age of Innocence and the Age of Reason comes the Age of Nonsense
Even before falling down the rabbit hole, Alice has noticed that she acts like a selfish child but reprimands her own behavior like an older child:

She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it), and sometimes she scolded herself so severely as to bring tears into her eyes; 

In the rabbit hole, Alice feels small and insignificant (understandably, since she has shrunk down to several inches high). She has lost respect for herself and doubts the way she used to do things:

 “But it’s no use now,” thought poor Alice, “to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!”

Furthermore, her body keeps changing in awkward and embarrassing manners. Note the grotesque lengthening of her neck in the picture at the beginning of Chapter 2. Does this remind anyone of the awkward phases of growth, when body parts would suddenly become disproportionately too large or too small seemingly overnight? Even her voice sounded “hoarse and strange” when she recited the crocodile poem. These changes make her question her identity:

I wonder if I have changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I”m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’

I know that this question of identity will continue throughout Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Although it may seem strange to suggest that a book about a 7-year-old is an allegory for puberty, remember that Charles Dodgson’s friend Alice Liddle, on whom our Alice was modeled, was just reaching the age of puberty at the time that the first book was to be published. Note a diary entry by Dodgson in May 1865:

Met Alice and Miss Prickett in the quadrangle: Alice seems changed a good deal, and hardly for the better–probably going through the usual awkward state of transition.*

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in November of that year. 

Death
There even a moment when Alice contemplates death: 

“for it might end, you know,” said Alice to herself, “in my going out altogether, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?” And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle looks like after the candle is blown out, for she could not remember ever having seen such a thing.

Later, Alice terrifies the mouse by mentioning her kitten, Dinah, and how great Dinah is at catching mice. When Alice realizes her mistake, she quickly changes topics to a dog she knows…as she chatters on, she again blunders by mentioning what a fantastic ratter the dog is. Apparently this Darwinian eat-or-be-eaten philosophy continues throughout the two books. Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species just been published in 1859, and Natural Selection was the talk of the town. I will watch for Natural Selection allusions while I read; though, apparently, some of them were taken out of the original story and can’t be found in the published book.  

A continuation of this theme can be found here.

Image taken from http://www.mymodernmet.com/photo/the-circle-of-life

*From The Diaries of Lewis Carroll, ed. Roger Lancelyn Green, quoted in Alice in Wonderland: Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1992) p279.

The Brothers Grimm Household Stories


2012 Book 115: Grimm’s Household Stories, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm; Lucy Crane translation (7/27/2012)

Reason for Reading: Fantasy and Science fiction Coursera text: week 1

My Review 
This is a short, illustrated collection of Grimm’s folktales. All of the most famous of Grimm’s tales are in there, without too many of the redundant same-story-but-slightly-different tales that you’ll inevitably come across in a longer collection. The illustrations are enjoyable. The translation has a few small errors (apparently), but overall I think it’s a good place to start with the Grimm brothers.


Essay for Coursera
Many critics claim that the Brothers Grimm had sexist portrayal of women in their stories. These critics ignore the negative portrayal of men that is also endemic in the tales. 
Despite misgivings, Hansel and Grethel’s father leads them into the forest to die. When they return, he leads them back out again because “when a man has given in once he has to do it a second time.” In other stories, like Aschenputtel or The Three Little Men in the Wood, the father conveys not one moment of disquietude at the injustice done to his daughter. Many men in the tales are spineless. In The Fisherman and his Wife, the husband returns time and again to ask the princely fish for favors for his wife—favors he does not wish for, and that he is terrified to request. In The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats, the wolf orders the miller to help disguise him. Despite the fact that the miller suspects the wolf, the miller “was afraid and did what he was told. And that just shows how men are.” The worst man, though, is the father in The Twelve Brothers. He’s willing to kill 12 of his boys to provide his newborn daughter with a larger inheritance!
These stories caricaturize the weaknesses of humans–both male and female. As the German-Swiss Nobel Laureate Hermann Hess said: “The literature of the tales and the legends refers us, often with frightening agreement, to something transcendent, to the very concept of the human race.”1These stories refer us to a deep-rooted fear of our own flaws, and they resonate throughout the ages because the most abhorred flaws of human nature have remained, in essence, the same throughout time.

1. Quoted on page 15 of: Bottigneimer, Ruth (1987). Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys. New Haven: Yale University.


Aside
It was really hard to get this down to the correct word length! I had to leave out so many fantastic examples of horrible snake-like men! As well as examples of brave women. After reading these tales, I’ve decided I don’t agree with the feminist analysis of these stories. Though I probably already had a skeptical bias.

One of the examples I really wanted to include was The Wonderful Musician. This guy had a marvelous power over fellow creatures…he played his music and creatures would come to praise him. These creatures would trust and revere him. However, he kept attracting animals that didn’t please him: a wolf, a fox, a hare. So he promised to tutor them, but deceived them and left them to die. When he finally found a man, he said: “At last! Here comes the right sort of companion. It was a man I wanted, not wild animals.” But the wild animals are more humane than the musician was. The wonderful musician is like a charismatic politician. One that can charm people during the election or important diplomatic meetings, and afterwards he does whatever he wants–essentially stabbing his supporters in the back. I could have written a whole second essay on this subject. 🙂


Coursera–Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World




Tomorrow, I will start a 10 week free internet course on Science Fiction and Fantasy literature offered by Coursera. This will be a fantastic opportunity to interact with people around the world and discuss the importance of speculative fiction for portraying certain types of ideas. The class dovetails nicely with the book I just finished, Fantasy Media in the Classroom, edited by Emily Dial-Driver. Although I already knew that fantasy and science fiction could be rich with portrayals of the human state–in the past, present, and possible future, I was really impressed at some of the ideas in that book. 

I was particularly impressed by a fusion class described in one of Dial-Driver’s essays. She included serious literature such as Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect—books which describe motives for unsavory behavior. She supplemented those with fantasy media such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the BBC miniseries Jekyll, the short video Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and Wells’ The Invisible Man. All of these fantasy works are about grey moral choices, reasons behind these choices, and consequences of these choices. The professor incorporated lessons learned from Frankl and Zimbardo while studying these fantasy works. 

As I was reading that, I wished that I could have taken such an interesting class. Just as I was finishing up that book, I found out about this Coursera course, so I decided to give it a try. (If I want, I can always add some fusion on my own.) 🙂 I am not allowed to post “solutions to homework and quizzes,” but I find nothing wrong with posting my own short essays on my blog for your reading pleasure–so I will be including commentary on the course materials as I proceed. In the end, I will receive a letter grade (participation based) and a certificate signed by the instructor (yea!), Eric S. Rabkin.