A Change in Perspective:
Identity in Alice's Adolescence
"Who are you?" said the Caterpil-lar.
This was not an encouraging open-ing for a conversation. Alice re-plied, rather shyly, "I – I hardly know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then."
"I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feel-ing a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is, who in the world am I?"
While we grow up our sense of identity becomes unstable and our sense of self-perception shifts. We start to grow older. Our bodies change. We start to identify ourselves by means of what we do for a living, what we look like, what we are to others: our identity becomes increasingly determined by external factors rather than the “simple” internal self that governed our youths. It is no longer a given fact that we are just what we are; there is the slow but steady realisation that our identity depends on numerous factors and that it can actually change over the years.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is very much a novel about growing up, about redefining the self, about the instability of identity in adolescence. With the grotesque and exaggerated changes in Alice’s body, Carroll draws upon a characteristic of growing up that has been, to this day, spot-on: a shifting sense of self-perception, a constant re-evaluation of the world around us, and an uncertainness of who exactly we are.
Even though everyone does change while growing up, none of us have had it quite as drastically as Alice. Drinking potions and eating mushrooms – external factors, as we might call them – quite literally change Alice’s appearance. With her perception of this comes a growing sense of un-easiness with herself. It is external factors that challenge Alice to re-evaluate her identity in the world: she is constantly being asked to identify herself by the different characters she encounters. The core of her identity is being questioned; the Caterpillar asks her who she is, the Cheshire Cat questions her sanity, and the Pigeon even mistakes her for a serpent.
Ironically, it is to these creatures that question her identity that Alice turns for assurance of who she really is. Scholar Jenny Karlsson states that Alice “seems to strive for stability concerning her identity, but the strenuous vacillation in size and life phases inflicts considerable confusion on her. Alice seeks confirmation from others.” (10). It only adds to Alice’s confusion about her identity that the creatures are not of much - if any - help. That Alice seeks confirmation outside herself supports the idea that identity can be dictated and altered by external influences.
According to Karlsson, Alice seems to associate growing physically with growing up to be an adult. She argues this can be seen through a comparison of her behaviour in the two states of being (small and large): “To Alice, to grow and to grow up are synonymous. Alice scolds herself for not being able to control her emotional outbursts, being bigger than she normally is [...]Another sign of adaptation is Alice’s tendency to become more rebellious[, she deliberately eats from the mushroom that will make her grow] in order to gain more courage and tackle a future challenging situation better” (9). With these size-linear dynamics in Alice’s behaviour Carroll quite literally shows the shift from adolescence to adulthood in a playful and desynchronised manner, drawing on one’s shifts in self-perception and the constant re-evaluation of the outside world.
by Marlene Cammeraat
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. 1865. London: Dent & Sons, 1957. Print.
Karlsson, Jenny. “Alice’s Vacillation between Childhood and Adolescence in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. N.p., n.d. 2009. Web. 25 April 2015.