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Alice in Layers

jrlewis's picture

There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and talking over its head,  ‘Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,’ thought Alice; ‘only as its asleep, I suppose it doesn’t mind, (Carroll, 68). 
How did this pathetic creature, the Dormouse, come to occupy a place in a fantastic tea party with Alice James, Emily Dickinson, Margaret Fuller, and Myrtha?  What might a much abused, semiconscious mammal contribute to the conversation?  What function might this character serve in fleshing out Susan Sontag’s portrayal of Alice James?

The most superficial answer is that Alice James, the Dormouse, and Kundry all spend greater than average time in repose.  The Dormouse and Kundry are only awake for a several brief periods in the tea parties of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice in Bed.  While asleep, all three are peaceful; it is the arguments of other characters that disturb their rest and arouse their passions.  It is not unreasonable to imagine that a removal from the company of others would bestow some measure of tranquility on Alice, the Dormouse, and Kundry. 
Kundry is much more than a female human Dormouse; she represents a part of Alice James personality!  The similarities between Alice and Kundry are deeper than their mutual desire to sleep.  It is equally true of either woman that “[s]he isn’t sleeping, she’s hiding,” (Sontag, 74).  Their slumber allows an escape to unconsciousness from the conflict of their consciousness.  Alice and Kundry feel themselves to be under the influence of forces that would have them do harm.  They exert a significant amount of willpower on the restriction of these impulses.  One “might as well say [they] sleep because [they are] suffering as that [they are] suffering because [they are] asleep,” (Sontag, 48).  The exhaustion of their will is remedied by slumber.  Both Alice and Kundry yearn for the permanent rest that death brings.  Alice seeks her father’s permission to commit suicide.  Kundry must be rescued from the control of the magician Klingsor before it is possible for her to die.  The two women do not have the agency necessary to end their suffering. 

Both women suffer from a series of unresolved conflicts.  Firstly, there is pride and shame in their self-characterization.  Alice is pleased by her country, education and family; yet lives as a émigré, only occasionally receiving family visits, producing a single volume diary.  Kundry is overconfident about her ability to seduce men; she is shamed by Parsifal’s rejection.  Secondly, Alice and Kundry chafe under the restraint of strong male figures in their lives.  Henry James Senior’s strict control and high standards placed an unbearable amount of pressure on his children, particularly his daughter.  The evil Klingsor compelled Kundry, against her will, to his bidding.  Thirdly, they are aiding and sabotaging the quests of themselves and their companions.  In her diary, Alice James characterizes herself as a parasite upon her brother, Henry. (???) Kundry directly interferes with Parsifal’s quest for the Holy Grail.  Both women honor and betray the ideals of men they love; their lives are plagued by dualities. 
Kundry’s presence among the other guests at the tea party reveals other facets of her character.  There is an additional layer of complexity created by her interaction with Emily Dickinson, Margaret Fuller, Myrtha (Queen of the Wilis), and Alice herself.  Each of the famous guests represents a part of Alice’s personality and a component of her cognitive unconscious brain.  The cognitive unconscious is the portion responsible for interacting with the external world, multitasking, and making pragmatic decisions.  It is the source of observations used by the storytelling component of the brain.  The storyteller element involves the concepts agency, free will, creativity, analysis and interpersonal interaction.  In the tea party scene, Alice represents the storyteller component of her brain.  She listens to the advice and opinions of the other guests in order to construct a story about herself.  She is using the other guests to help her make meaning of her life. 

It is curious that Susan Sontag’s tea party has one more guest in attendance than Lewis Carroll’s.  The presence of four guests is reminiscent of the tea parties of Alice James childhood.  The tea party scene of Alice in Bed might represent the interaction between Alice and her four siblings.  There are striking similarities between Margaret Fuller character and William James; both were popular intellectuals with families.  They both feel a fondness for Alice that is complicated their dissatisfaction with her lifestyle and accomplishments.  The enormously productive, sensitive, and artistic Emily Dickinson character and Henry James are sympathetic to Alice James.  It is possible that Kundry and Myrtha share characteristics with Alice’s other two brothers Garth Wilkinson and Robertson. 
With the tea party scene, Sontag offers the reader a multifaceted characterization of Alice James.  The playwright refuses to define Alice as a hysteric, feminist, invalid, or any other single criterion.  The complexity of the tea party scene strongly resists a depiction of Alice as a one-dimensional character.  The playwright is careful to provide a rich and detailed account of Alice James.  With the tea party scene in particular and the play in general, Susan Sontag portrays Alice James in a very sympathetic light.  “Alice in Bed” was a preview of coming attractions for the “Diary of Alice James”.  The reader is able to observe Alice’s internal conflict, struggle to define herself as an intellectual woman, and interaction with her mother and siblings.  She is constrained by the environment of her family, society, and time period.  Alice is rendered as a bitter and brilliant woman who tries to make a place for herself in the world.  The play is about Alice’s journey of self-discovery and invention.

A more recent story of a woman’s struggle to find intellectual and social freedom is told in Jeannette Winterson’s novel, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit”.  The protagonist is a woman who finds herself in an inhospitable environment and therefore embarks upon a journey.  Both Sontag and Winterson use Arthurian legend as a parable for the development of their protagonists.  Sontag includes direction for music from Wagner’s opera, Parsifal to be played at three different times other than the tea party.  She equates Alice James with Kundry, a minor character in the tale of the Holy Grail.  However, Winterson equates her protagonist with the hero of the Grail, Percival.  Her character is free to pursue her interests to their highest achievements.  She is not constrained by her environment in the way that Alice James was.  The difference in agency between the two women is mirrored in the different characters from Arthurian legend that Sontag and Winterson align them with.

Works Cited
Beckett, Lucy (1981) Richard Wagner: Parsifal, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-29662-5
Burbidge, Peter & Sutton, Richard (Eds.) (1979). The Wagner Companion. Faber and Faber Ltd., London. ISBN 0-571-11450-4.
Carroll, Lewis. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll.  New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005. 15-111.
Deathridge, John (2008), Wagner Beyond Good and Evil, Berkeley. ISBN 9780520254534
James, Alice. The Diary of Alice James. Ed. Leon Edel. Northeastern University Press, Boston. 1999.
Sontag, Susan. Alice in Bed. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1993
Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. New York: Grove Press 1985


Anne Dalke's picture

Encountering Oneself

Like so many of your classmate, you've studded this essay w/ some very striking images; it makes the experience of reading the text a much more engaging and inviting experience.

Most striking here is the core of your argument: that what Sontag gives us in her tea party scene is Alice encountering various aspects of her own self: this is a depiction -- an externalization -- of the experience of the conscious, storytelling aspect of her brain in conversation with other unconscious dimensions of herself. When you say, however, that "she is using the other guests to help her make meaning of her life" -- you do stop a little short, in not showing us what meaning she makes!

You go on, then, to offer an intriguing alternative reading, that each character @ the tea party represents one of Alice's brothers. We do know enough of the frustrated, failed lives of Garth and Bob James to say that they might well have been represented by those two angry characters, Kundry and Myrtha. (I am totally flummoxed, however, by your observation that we are "able to observe Alice’s ... interaction with her mother and siblings" --her MOTHER? Where's that??) Such a reading raises actually raises as many questions for me as it answers: why might Alice's unconscious have turned all her brothers into women? Was she imagining, not the childhood she spent surrounded by boys, but one in which her company was all sisters? What (psychological?) sense might we make of that substitution?

More difficult, perhaps, is the question you raise by offering both these readings side by side, without trying to align or even connect them. How can the tea party guests be both AJ's brothers and other dimensions of herself?

I actually like the final gesture towards Winterson, though it feels a little incomplete and un-integrated into your larger argument. It does feel very important to me to locate the work of Alice James in a trajectory that moves into the future. Your comparison of Sontag's use of Kundry with Winterson's use of the hero of the story, Parcifal, suggests what a larger range of life is available to Winterson than was available to her predecessor.

jrlewis's picture

finishing a thought

You are right I didn’t complete the thought.  Here is what I would say if I could continue that paragraph…

She is using the other guests to help her make meaning of her life.  Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, and Myrtha each urge Alice to exert herself in some way, whether through human interaction, travel, intellectual pursuits, or physical movement.  These suggestions lead conscious Alice to live her life very differently than before.  She imagines traveling to Rome, interacts with a burglar, gets out of bed and walks around her room.  This change in behavior is symbolic of Alice’s decision to start a diary.  Switching genre’s from a commonplace book to a diary was a step towards intellectual independence and reliance on her life and thoughts for inspiration.  Her desire to publish the diary signified an attempt at communication with the world outside her acquaintance.  These accomplishments indicate a departure or suppression of her illness, her sleeping.  Alice’s character is diverging from the Dormouse/Kundry character.