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Alices in Wonderlands

Molly's picture

           Anne’s mention in class of how the “world underground” is illustrated in the book versus in the various film adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass caught my attention.  I read Alice, as many others have before me, as a parody of the stanch Victorian system of education that existed at the time in which Carroll wrote.  What goes on in the imagination of Alice in the book is the antithesis of what an English schoolteacher of the time would want his or her pupils to be thinking about.  A quote from Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, another novel that addresses the Victorian system of education, illustrates the basic thought process of the average Victorian schoolteacher:

NOW, what I want is, Facts.  Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life.  Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.  You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.  This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children.  Stick to Facts, sir! (Dickens,

The Woody Allen film “Alice” is a take-off of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, but the story of Alice is told in a vastly different way in the film.  The Alice that Mia Farrow played is not a child, but a grown woman with two children of her own.  She has been married to a successful, wealthy man for sixteen years and lives very comfortably in New York City.  The family has maids, nannies, and chefs to do things for them, and it appears that Alice never even has to lift a finger.  Instead, she can shop, gossip, and bask in the wealth that her husband has procured for the family, and she never has to worry about a thing.

  Despite appearances, however, Farrow’s Alice certainly does not have everything.  She is restless in the life she has found herself in, and she longs to experience things that she has not taken the chance to experience, some of which are writing, traveling, and even having an extramarital affair. Although she is not a child, the Alice of the film is rather childlike.  She was raised Catholic, and the naïveté of childhood that has stayed with her through adulthood has allowed her to remain faithful and strong in her beliefs.

            In the same way that Alice’s imagination would have been considered a “world underground” for the powers that be in the Victorian school system, the ambitions and actions of the Alice of the film were a “world underground” for those around her.  The film made it obvious how important gossip and cutting others down was to the people Alice was surrounded by on a day-to-day basis.  Alice was a saintly, kind-hearted woman, and was very different from the people she spent her time with.  It seemed to me that Alice had never had anything but the best intentions for her life and was somehow dragged into a corrupt world.

In addition to the whole “world underground” thing, another part of both the book and the film that struck me was the quest element in both of them.  The quests are different, though, in that the film followed a woman on an actual quest while the book was really a parody of a quest rather than one with a real goal.           

Alice in the book appeared to be on a quest for the entire story.  She certainly was traveling a lot, overcoming obstacles, talking to animals and people, and doing things that one normally wouldn’t do.  I, as the reader, was wondering the whole time I was reading the book when all of the action that took place in Alice’s life would finally get her somewhere.  I realized, though, partway through the book that no goal had ever been stated for Alice, and I started to really wonder where the story was going.

The book concludes with the strong suggestion that the entire story was nothing but a dream coming from Alice’s imagination and fantasies, and I concluded that the story is not just a parody of the Victorian school system, but also a parody of the quest.  Alice always seems to be going, but without really going anywhere.

In the film “Alice,” the quest is actually carried out rather than just parodied.  Although she reaches a goal at the end that she had been working toward in her heart the entire time, Alice does not even realize that she has been working toward this goal of being like Mother Teresa until partway through the film.  The quest starts with Alice visiting an acupuncturist for pain in her back, but the acupuncturist ends up helping Alice with much more than that. 

The acupuncturist, Dr. Yang, gives Alice a remedy for her lack of confidence that allows her to come on to a man she is considering starting an affair with.   He later gives her an invisibility potion that Alice uses to catch her husband cheating on her. Dr. Yang becomes very involved in Alice’s quest, because it is the substances he provides her with that allow her to continue in her quest.  As Alice says to Doug, her husband, at one point in the film, “I’ve done things I didn’t know I had in me” (IMDB). 

So, while Alice is on a quest towards something better than what she has already throughout the film, it is not clear what until she actually gets it.  At the end of the film, Alice finally has the courage to leave her husband and do what she has wanted to do all her life: go to India to help the poor, and then return to New York to do the same.  Alice started off unsure of herself, but because she went on the quest that she did, she discovers herself.

I always find it interesting to look at the environment of the characters in books and films and their personalities in relation to that environment.  In the case of both Alices, this was important to do.  Had they been in different places at different times, both Alices may have had very different life experiences, and their “worlds underground” and quests may not have been considered subversive to the ideas of their environments at all.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and “Alice” both brought to my attention how important context is in studying any and every story.  I think context/environment can be tied into genre in that it carries implications of things being a certain way in the same way that genre does.  For example, the context of a corrupted world that "Alice" was set in can, I think, be compared to the genre of, say, romance novels because each one has a familiarity with readers and/or viewers and changes the way that people reading and/or viewing the text or the film sees things.  Can the environment in which the story is set and genre be compared?



Dickens, Charles.  Lit Quotes (online).


“Alice”: Memorable quotes.  IMDB-The Internet Movie Database.



Molly's picture


 Yes, I was intentionally "letting my mind and keystrokes wander."  I needed to somehow let all my thoughts about both versions of "Alice" out, and although the paper does not have the beautiful transitions and smooth progression of thought that exists in most papers, it was the best way I could think of to let out a jumble of thoughts.

You're right about my unironic interpretation of the film, Anne, and now that you mention it I see what you mean.  The film just made me so happy, though, so it's sad for me to think in the way that you propose.  I didn't want to see "Alice" as ironic, and I think I'd prefer to just optimistically read the film "Alice" for the fantasy that it is--a film with the "everything is going to be all right in time" theory that so many have played on in films and literature.  I see now, though, that the film was meant to be ironic--the only way that Alice could achieve happiness was through, it seems, psychedelics and the help of a drug dealer disguised as an acupuncturist.  Maybe that's a different message altogether, though.

Anne Dalke's picture

Going Underground

I'm so glad you wrote about Woody Allen's Alice: you were the only member of our class (besides me) to watch that film, and so enabled to think about it as a peculiarly modern, adult, urban version of Carroll's tale. Your analysis doesn't center on a single idea, but shifts rather rapidly (and a little creakily, without blinking) from one observation to the next. You begin by drawing a striking comparison between Carroll's story and Dickens' (Hard Times does make a marvelous foil to the world underground). But rather than following up on your point about the satire of the Victorian education system, you shift into a description of the childish naïveté of Allen's adult Alice. From there you move to the idea that the film takes seriously the notion of the quest that Carroll had parodied. And you conclude by asking some great questions about context and environment as possibly determinative of genre.

All these are interesting points, so I found myself resisting your refusal to stick w/ one of them, really playing it out before moving on to (or not moving on to!) the next. Were you intentionally letting your mind and keystrokes wander, as Alice's did underground? Or is the fairly unstructured nature of this paper something you worked on consciously, as an appropriate response to a story that mocks the consistency and transparency of intellectual work altogether?

If you were to go back and develop one dimension of your analysis, I'd be interested in hearing more about the way in which you think Allen's Alice "discovers herself." Is that in direct contrast to Carroll's Alice, who becomes increasingly uncertain about who she is? And I'd probably push back a little bit on your unironic account of the successful quest of our modern Alice. Read through the lens of Carroll's story (as TPB1988, for example, read Phoebe in Wonderland, as Alice on the big screen ), can we really take her "success" "straight," and seriously?

It is of course striking that, w/ the help of Dr. Yang's drugs, Alice recognizes that "does things she didn’t know she had in her"; the film thus acknowledges a key dimension of Carroll's novel -- the rich vastness of the unconscious, a resource available to us all, which most of us are unaware of. But read through the lens of Carroll's underground, which calls attention to the shifting sands of our waking world, is there really nothing problematic about Alice's seeming success @ film's end? What if we take Dr. Yang (for instance, an opium user) as a representation of the caterpillar? What becomes, then, of the guidance he gives Alice? Does your reading of the film refuse the lessons of Alice's Adventures Underground?