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  • We're All Mad Here
  • Phyllis Stowell (bio)

Although, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is satirical, it is not a satire. Its form, its organizing principle, is a metaphoric process through which Alice grows up. This form, an example of what Mary Doyle Springer calls a "plot of learning,"1, makes Alice as significant for children today as it was in Victorian England.

A typical seven-year-old, Alice is bored by books with no pictures, quick to respond to her curiosity, and oblivious of consequences. She likes to demonstrate what she knows. She has a lively imagination, as we see in her monologue as she falls. On the other hand, she has problems with pride, anger, subjectivity, and an unquestioning acceptance of what she has been told. Here expectations and judgments reflect the Victorian social code, the hypocrisy of believing that what is right is whatever is proper form. Because this attitude denies unconscious as well as concsious values, motivations, instincts and emotions, Alice's expectations conflict both with her own behavior and with the behavior of those around her. But the issues she faces go beyond superannuated Victorian codes, for today's children must also cope with the desire of their parents and teachers that they try to "be good." 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. Finally, she must learn to separate power from love. In other words, Alice has to grow up, and she does so through her contact with primitive forces active in her unconscious.

Alice's fall signals an entrance to the underworld of the unconscious. As in dreams, episode follows episode on the basis of a story to be told, a theme to be developed. The seemingly chaotic reversals, the disorientations of time and space, and the linkages between irrational and illogical materials actually represent a self-observing consciousness and images of symbolic and universal power.

In this underground where "very few things indeed [are] really impossible," Alice encounters the Trickster, his presence first indicated by the way her mind plays tricks on her: she begins by wondering if cats eat bats and ends by wondering if bats eat cats. The Trickster never leaves until we return with Alice to the day world. While he is sometimes demonic, the Trickster instigates growth; he is responsible for the ambiguity of a tone that is at once comic and serious, an ambiguity which accounts for the split between those readers who find the tale delightfully witty, and those who consider it anxiety-producing. The second group is best exemplified by the Freudian Paul Schilder in his "Psychoanalytic Remarks on Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll."2 Schilder concludes that no child should be exposed to such a regressive fairy tale. But the mercurial Trickster is always present in the transformative journey, and his ultimate effect is positive; in fact, the presence of this ambivalent energy is crucial for change, and our discomfort with it is merely our discomfort with any new, foreign or ununderstandable experience. The question we must ask is, is experiencing this journey destructive or constructive for children? I believe it is beneficial. [End Page 5]

The journey divides into two parts, before and after Alice's entrance into the garden. Although she finds the golden key early in her journey, half the journey is over before she can open the garden door. That happens because the challenge of this garden, which is far from Edenic, required previous psychological development before Alice can assimilate what she will encounter there.

In the first part Alice must face at least six issues: the nature of existence (what happens to the flame when the candle goes out?); frustration (her repeated inability to control her size) and the emotional reaction to frustration (she nearly drowns in her tears); aloneness (which she feels acutely when the White Rabbit disappears into the darkness and she stands a stark nine feet tall); identity ("Who are you" is her first question of herself, a question later repeated by other characters); fear, uncertainty, and alienation (the...