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Image of Sigmund FreudThe Psychoanalytic Approach

"To make the dream-story from which Wonderland was elaborated seem Freudian one only has to tell it.” - William Empson


What is a Psychoanalytic Critical Approach?Psychanalytic Iceberg

Psychoanalytic Theory is a branch of literary criticism which was built on the principles of psychoanalysis developed by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).   As Lois Tyson points out, aspects of psychoanalysis have become so ingrained in our culture that terms such as “sibling rivalry, inferiority complexes, and defense mechanisms are in such common use that most of us feel we know what they mean without ever having heard them defined” (11). 
Some of the main concepts of Freud’s theory are that people have within their minds an unconscious self in which painful experiences and emotions are repressed and that our daily life is spent moderating between the desires of our "id" and the demands of our “ego” and “superego."
This school of literary criticism maintains that we can better understand and interpret literature by applying the methods of psychoanalysis both to literary characters and their authors, often at the same time.  This is most often done by treating the work as a dream and interpreting the content to find the hidden meaning, achieved through a close analysis of the language and symbolism.

Psychoanalyzing Alice: Sexual Symbolism

Alice practically begs to be psychoanalyzed; it is easy to treat it as a dream, because it IS a dream. As William Empson wrote, “To make the dream-story from which Wonderland was elaborated seem Freudian one only has to tell it” (357).  And ever since Freud began publishing his theories, critics have been applying them to Alice. The first wave of Alice psychoanalysts focused on the sexual symbolism in the novel, which according to the theory reveals Carroll’s own repressed sexuality. For instance, A. M. E. Goldschmidt interprets Alice’s ordeal in the hallway of doors in Chapter 2 this way:

John Tenniel's Alice by the Little DoorHere we find the common symbolism of lock and key representing coitus; the doors of normal size represent adult women.  These are disregarded by the dreamer and the interest is centered on the little door, which symbolizes a female child; the curtain before it represents the child’s clothes (281).

Goldschmidt provides evidence that certain events, such as Alice’s “penetrating” the rabbit hole, the keys and the locks, and the small door, are “colorful” symbols of the act of sex, which he interprets as proof of the “the presence, in [Lewis Carroll’s] subconscious, of an abnormal emotion of considerable strength” (281). Schilder also interprets the extreme violence of many of Wonderland’s inhabitants as the representation of Carroll’s frustrated sexual urges (291).  Psychoanalysts’ work also reveals addition complexities regarding Carroll’s relationship with his fictional. She represents not only his “love object,” but also a substitute for a mother and sister, and his own unconscious desire to reject his adult masculinity and to become a little girl himself (Schilder 291 and Skinner 297).

And it does not require a great interpretive leap to believe that an “unmarried clergyman of the strictest ‘virtue’” (Goldschmidt 281) with a well-documented penchant for making “child-friends” might unconsciously try to relieve this tension through his writing.   However, psychoanalysis of Alice can produce more than just a highly sexualized reading.  And, indeed, as psychoanalysts began to further refine the Freudian theories, psychoanalytic criticism of Alice began to evolve. 


Psychoanalyzing Alice: The Child and Identity

Later psychoanalysts have focused more Alice’s experiences in Wonderland functioning as an allegory for the developing ego, or, in other words, for growing up. For, despite having been written by a middle-aged man, many critics have found it worthwhile to study the character of Alice as an example of the child-mind dealing learning to understand the world and itself. As Phyllis Stowell writes,

Like all children, Alice must separate herself from identification with others, develop an ego, become aware of aggression (her own and others’), and learn to tolerate adversity without succumbing to self-pity…In other words, Alice has to grow up. (5)

Through her experiences in Wonderland, Alice gradually gains empowering insight and self-understanding in order to embrace her own identity. 

Camille Rose Garcia's CaterpillarIdentity is a crucial theme in Alice. Alice is asked to identify herself by several of the creatures of Wonderland and often she is unable to respond. She usually feels that she is too tall to be herself, or too small, or that she is another person altogether (“I must have been changed for Mabel!”). And it is only when “who she is and how she sees herself are no longer subject to the erratic and uncontrollable unknown” can she gain a measure of power to deal with the absurdity around her (Stowell 7). 
Phyllis Greenacre takes the allegory of childhood back even farther, to the time when verbal language begins to supplant bodily activity, around fifteen to thirty months.  She calls Alice “about as close a portrayal as can be accomplished in language of that realm in childhood’s development when the child is emerging from its primitive state of unreason, to the dawning conception of consequences, order and reason“ (418). And since Alice is a book meant for children that has actually been popular among children for over a century, there seems to be some evidence that children relate to Alice since they are facing the same challenges and issues regarding developing a “reasonable” view of the universe and establishing their own identity.

To Conclude

Some critics have also focused on psychoanalyzing other characters in Alice.  For instance, Roheim identifies the Dormouse’s tendency to fall asleep as a symptom of withdrawal (333), and Empson emphasizes the “Queen of Hearts as a symbol of ‘uncontrolled animal passion’” (345).  And of course the madness of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare is a psychoanalytic playground especially regarding the Hatter’s obsession with time.  
Today, much of the psychoanalytic criticism of Alice seems out-dated, unsurprising since most of it was written over fifty years ago. However, there is no denying that psychoanalysis remains one of the milestones of Alice interpretation, and certainly has affected and still affects all work done on Alice and Lewis Carroll. 


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