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The Visions of Alice James

Marina's picture


Caravaggio's "The Tooth Extraction"

“I had a tooth out the other day, curious and interesting like a little lifetime- first, the long drawn drag, then the twist of the hand and the crack of doom!” (137).

Michelangelo Caravaggio (1573-1610) entitled this painting “The Tooth Extraction.” The image depicts a man having his tooth violently extracted using what seems to be only a set of pliers and human strength. The intense pain is evident as the man is shown with one hand tightly clutching the arm of the chair while his other hand desperately reaches out in a somewhat-spastic motion, illustrating the suffering and discomfort he is experiencing. The onlookers add an additional layer of discomfort to the scene as they closely observe the man in a moment of extreme vulnerability, weakness, and pain. It seems almost voyeuristic as they all tightly crowd around the man, leaning in close. The onlookers give the image an almost suffocating quality. Alice James’s tooth extraction experience, as recorded in her diary, had its own set of voyeurs to observe her in a moment of vulnerability and pain; her nurse and Katharine accompanied her and expressed sympathy to Alice, praising her for her heroism during such a traumatic event. In her diary, Alice rejects the title of hero and instead finds the entire situation humorous and serene. She explains, “Katharine and Nurse shaking of knee and pale of cheek went on about my “heroism” whilst I, serenely wadded in that sensational paralysis…laughed and laughed at ‘em” (137). This image of Alice James elicits a different scene than the painting depicted above. Rather than focusing on the pain the tooth extraction causes her, James chooses to focus on the feelings of calmness and serenity she feels in this moment of paralysis. 




“What a longing to see the shimmering thro’ the pines, breathe in the resinous air and throw my withered body down upon my mother earth, bury my face in the course grass, worshipping all that the ugly, raw emptiness of the blessed land stands for- the embodiment of a huge chance for hemmed in Humanity!” (119).

This particular quote is a side of Alice that I feel we do not get to see very often. Alice is essentially craving the outside world and wants to escape from her bed to return to her homeland in a desperate attempt to connect with nature. If Alice had the chance to ever do this in her lifetime, I feel like the image above accurately depicts how she would experience her re-connect with nature. She is still lying, as if she were in bed, but she is not in bed- she has her face buried in the ground and her limbs are limp, hanging over the edge of the dirt. It evokes the similar quality of “serenity of paralysis” that she cites in her tooth extraction entry.



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“Ah, but such heart rendering objects one sees with no acrid stain to stiffen the sinews, creatures dropped out in the race and left all limp by the way side, decorating with pathetic tags of lace and pitiful ruffles their squalor. Creatures born with no chance, as if made of the scraps left over in the great human factory, and thrust forth weaponless to fight in the hideous battle.” (76).

This image evoked by Alice’s writing is a powerful one. I paired her description with an image of a fictional human factory where human bodies are piled like waste and lined up to be used like old car parts. Alice’s image of “scraps left over in the great human factory” pairs perfectly with this image and elicits feelings of hopelessness and loss as those in the human factory have essentially lost all their human qualities as they become objects for use in the mechanical, cold environment that is the human factory.



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 “How I remember the painful conflict between sympathy and the desire to look and the fear that my baseness should be discovered by a good man as he sat at the head of the table in charge of a big-frosted cake sprinkled o’er with those pink and white worms in which lurk the caraway seed. ” (128).

This image was particularly striking to me as Alice chooses to take something as innocent, celebratory, and attractive as a birthday cake and then transform it into a revolting image of discomfort.  Alice projects the image of a man with a scarred face sitting in front of a pink and white birthday cake infested with worms.  I chose to include the image of a mad hatter cake juxtaposed against the image of worms because it illustrates the extreme conflicting images that were present in Alice’s mind at the time of the entry. The cake brings a dreamy, joyous quality while the worms reveal her feelings of discomfort and disgust. The entire scene James describes evokes a nightmarish quality.




"All the furniture in the house was two chairs, one without a back, two iron beds, one of them in ruins, while there was a mattress black and glazed with filth. The children were in a filthy condition, hanging in rags and swarming with vermin. The house smelt dreadfully. There was no food in the house except a few potatoes.” (108).

This image depicts a poverty stricken migrant family and captures the squalor that James describes in her diary. The children are draped in rags and the interior of the home is small, filthy, and dreary. All those depicted in the photograph have a tired look in their eyes and their bodies seem to be worn down from the difficulties of migrant life. The bare walls match the emotions on their faces as they seem completely empty and lacking of any happiness or joy. They are as worn-down as the walls surrounding them.




“A little girl of twelve dying of consumption so thin and shriveled that she seemed only five or six. Her mother was in a mad-house from drink and her father had died a week before in a drunken fit, and there she lay trying to smile over some biscuits just given to her.” (148).

Eileen, a three year-old world war two victim, is depicted in the above photograph. This image is striking as it reveals the indiscriminant violence of war. This image pairs nicely Alice’s description of the starving child in the infirmary because she was an innocent victim of her parent’s negligent behavior similar to how Eileen was an innocent victim to the perils of war. The image is truly striking as Eileen is depicted clutching her doll close to her chest with a large bandage wrapped around her head. She gazes at the camera with the same nervousness that a child would have around a stranger. 



Alice James’ diary is a jagged, jumpy, and often frustrating work to read because of its erratic form. The diary describes events in haste and often skips days completely leaving large gaps to be filled. These gaps add a jumpy quality to her writing that can often lead to confusion and frustration with her stories. However, despite the erratic quality of her prose, Alice manages to salvage the diary through her rich and intense use of imagery and metaphors. As I read her diary, I found multiple images that struck me simply because of their amazing descriptive qualities. Alice tends to an array of senses in her imagery as she includes descriptions of scenes that appeal to the visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory senses. Alice’s ability to include such rich descriptions and visual imagery allowed me to pair particularly strong descriptions with actual images from the web to attempt to put into perspective the type of scene that Alice must have been imagining in her head bed as she wrote her diary.  This series of images serve as a window into Alice’s mind and attempt to capture the images that went though her mind as she wrote these rich descriptions from her bed.   




Works cited

James, Alice. The Diary of Alice James. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999. Print.

Caravaggio, Michalangelo. The Tooth Extraction. Florence. Bridgeman Art on Demand. Magnolia Soft. Web. 4 Feb. 2010.                    


Christensen, Brett M. Human Parts Factory. Digital image. Hoax-Slayer, 23 Sept. 2008. Web. 4 Feb. 2010.


Worms. Digital image. Ribonucleo Blog. Wordpress, 24 Oct. 2006. Web. 5 Feb. 2010. <>.

Mad Hatter Cake. Digital image. Omchef. Blogspot, 24 Nov. 2009.Web. 5 Feb. 2010. <>.

Migrant Family. Digital image. Asian Chemical Connections. 29 Oct. 2008. Web. 4 Feb. 2010.


Beaton, Cecil. Eileen. 1940. Photograph. Imperial War Museum  Collections, London. Web. 4 Feb. 2010.        





Watash's picture

images and explanations

I began reading the diary because I am curious about what people in pioneer days might be worried or
thinking about most of the time or in their private moments.
Very shortly I concluded that Alice (God Bless her) was an educated and skilled in expression. That surprised
me and shortly thereafter, made me wonder if the diary was for real or just the work of some writer which was
using the diary as a different approach to tell a fictional story.
I am unfamiliar with this blog and do not know what the credentials of people who contribute articles or commentary
etc. I am however, uneducated about many subjects and find the explanations of images and or motives for those
explanations interesting.
I have, as of recent, come to believe that we (humanity) perceive mostly what we have been trained to observe.
Some are blessed with higher level thinking or creative skills, and others, just enough to get by and a few with less
than the established mental tool box.
I hunger for knowledge and contemplate the awesome limitless dimensions created by God that we have yet to nibble at.
All things are possible, most likely not probable. We are limited only by our capacity and or lack of faith.
Thank you for your perspectives.

Anne Dalke's picture


Like several of your classmates (cf. esp. the projects of exsoloadsolem, Fabelhaft,  and kjmason) you have really exploited the image-friendly qualities of the internet in your project. Let me ask you to think a little bit more about how you might frame this so that folks dropping in from outside our class know what they are seeing: explain @ the outset, perhaps, what you say that the end: that you are "extracting" (! cough) some of the visually compelling metaphors from AJ's diary, in order to... what? (still need a bit more of a thesis here: to show that amid all the und so fort und so weiter, the ongoing mundaneness of a diary, there are moments of visual acuity, of strongly imagined images?

My reactions to your analyses of the individual metaphors and their pictorialization:
*in your discussion of "the human factory," "migrant life" and "Eileen," you really focus on describing what is going on in the photographs you found, rather than using them to highlight what is going on in Alice's prose. I'm pretty puzzled, altogether, by her birthday cake image, but I suspect that those "pink and white worms" are actually confectionaries....

*more effective to me--because more illuminating of AJ's prose, were your discussions of "the tooth extraction" and "mother earth." what strikes me most about the Caravaggio w/ which you begin is the fact of the onlookers: it's not just that  they seem (as you say) "almost voyeuristic"--it's amazing to me that a group of observers could watch such agony w/ such calm interest and curiosity. Curious then that (as you again observe) AJ shifts the calm curiosity to the sufferer herself. A means, perhaps, of enduring the suffering--to look @ it from afar?

*in her longing for my "mother earth" Alice is, as you acknowledge, longing explicitly for the U.S.: she wants to revisit the country that allows so much more space for Humanity that finds itself "hemmed in" in Europe. But I would say that she is craving less the sort of "re-connection with nature" than you describe, than what that "outside" SYMBOLIZES. When she says, for example, that she would worship "all that the ugly, raw emptiness of the blessed land stands for--the embodiment of a huge chance," what captures my notice is the language of representation: phrases like "stands for" and "embodiment." What I like about your reading, though, is its emphasis on the "lying down"--when outside, AJ still imagines assuming the same position that she takes in her bedroom.