Satirical and Underlaying Elements of Victorian Society in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

Categories: Alice in Wonderland

According to Auerbach, Alice is a challenge to Victorian norm, but at the same time she is also a representation of the dichotomy that used to mark the idea of women: she calls her an “amalgamation of the fallen woman with the unfallen child” .

Moving to sexuality, and for instance male sexual behaviour, Donald Rackin carries out an analysis of a possible satirical self-portrait of the author within the book. What Rackin indicates as a self-portrait of the author, could be considered more in general a good description of the common respectable middle-class Victorian that has to repress his sexuality.

A representative source in order to understand this behaviour may be William Acton’s work, The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs in Youth, in Adult Age, and in Advanced Life. Considered in Their Physiological, Social, and Psychological Relations , a book that explains that sex is therefore a problem, that “sexual maladies have physiological (rather than psychological) causes and that control and abstinence are the most appropriate remedies for them” .

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Acton states that sexual desire is dangerous for the society, against nature and religion and, moreover, that “intellectual qualities are usually in an inverse ratio to the sexual appetites” .

The ideal of the separation between head, as center of thinking, and body, as center of desire, is embedded in the narration, according to Rackin, through the character of the Cheshire Cat. The Cat can separate his head from the rest of his body, signifying a complete control over it. The way he talks, his ability of disappearing, everything suggests his superiority.

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Nevertheless, there are very few scholars that would sustain that the Cheshire Cat is a self-portrait of the author. In fact, characters identified with Lewis Carroll are struggling for reach a similar kind od of separation as the one shown by the Cat, but they are not at all as good as him. For instance, the White Rabbit and the White King , are considered burlesques of male celibacy and sexual neutrality. In their attempt to elevate their thinking, they result distracted, absent and ineffectual. White is supposed to stand for purity, but in this case means the self-deprivation of life force. They are opposed and as ineffective as the Queen of Hearts, an embodiment of ungovernable passions. They actually stand on opposite sides of the emotional balance. Rackin argues that even Carroll himself would have represented an extreme example of Victorian man, with his shyness, verbal evasiveness and sexual reticence. The man and the characters are weak and mutilated if compared to Alice: her curiosity, physical exertions, hunger for food and adventure, juxtaposed to the comical denial of body and bodily sexuality, are the core of the matrix of sexual-asexual dynamic in AAW.


Victorian morality was adopted also within ruling class and aristocracy, but there were some doubts about its application. In particular, lower classes seemed at the mercy of a far from impartial, and often corrupted, judicial system. A satirical portrait of this reality in AAW was likely in the intentions of Lewis Carrol. He was a man devoted to equality, author of several political pamphlets and not afraid of power. It seems that he even tricked Queen Victoria: after receiving her request to be the object of Lewis Carroll’s dedication in his next book, she appeared in the dedication of Some Considerations on Determinants , and not of Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There , as she would have expected.

Alison Lurie writes about subversive children literature in Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children's Literature and she uses AAW as an example. She argues that the pomposity and as rigorous as arbitrary etiquette of the Queen of Hearts’ court is nothing but a representation of Queen Victoria’s court. She tells that booth queens liked to surround themselves with reverent servants and rosebushes. As a matter of fact, rosebushes in time become one of the most iconic symbols of the Queen of Hearts:

Five and Seven said nothing, but looked at Two. Two began in a low voice, “Why, the fact is, you see, Miss, this here ought to have been a red rose-tree, and we put a white one in by mistake, and if the Queen was to find it out, we should all have our heads cut off, you know. So you see, Miss, we’re doing our best, afore she comes, to—”

The Cards are so afraid of the Queen and her temper to try to paint the white roses one by one. The imagine of the overbearing ruler is reinforced by the presence of a King, parody of the Prince Consort Albert, completely insignificant compared to his queen.

A further important critique to the ruling class regards parties, and it can be found in the episode of the Caucus-Race which is, as suggested by Laura White, a way to mock English political system . The caucus’s definition provided by the Oxford Living Dictionaries is: “A conference of members of a legislative body who belong to a particular party or faction” . The satirical connotation of the Caucus-Race is evident in its description:

First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (“the exact shape doesn’t matter,” it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no “One, two, three, and away,” but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half- an-hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out, “The race is over!” and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, “But who has won?” (…) At last the Dodo said, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”

The arbitrariness and inutility of this kind of race make it absolutely ridiculous and carries Carroll’s idea of the internal-dynamics of parties. Since there is no way to determinate a winner everybody wins, but at the same time, there are no losers, so the victory is quite overestimated. In the end, Alice finds herself obliged to look in her pockets to give to each participant a prize, such ending suggests the great impact of an absurd activity treated like a serious business.

In the last two chapters of the book Alice attends a trial. The Knave has been accused of stealing the Queen’s tarts, and now is going to be judged. As it happened for the Caucus-Race, also the trial takes place without order or meaning, but following a pointless formality. Donald Rackin states that, many adult readers, who had been in court before, would have recognized similarities between the Knave of Hearts’ trial and the real ones, insanely unjust and prejudiced . Hence, Carroll’s satire of the judicial system follows the development of the trial, putting into question the practice of law not only in Wonderland, but even in England. The judge is impersonated by the King, who looks hilarious because he wears the wig over the crown, representing his ambiguous role of judge and monarch at the same time. The jurors are busy writing things before the beginning of the trial, when asked the Gryphon says that they were “putting down their name (…) for fear they should forget them before the end of the trial.” . The first witness is the Hatter, very nervous because he did not manage to finish his tea before entering the courtroom. On one hand, the King keeps asking him questions that have nothing to do with the trial, threatening him of death while, on the other hand, the Queen who has recognised him as the man that murdered time at the last concert, would like to execute him no matter what. There is too much pressure for the Hatter to answer and, in fact, they let him go without adding any kind of evidence. During the trial Alice starts growing and catches the King’s attention, the discussion that follow results in an example of contradiction and factionalism:

“Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court.”

Everybody looked at Alice.

“I’m not a mile high,” said Alice.

“You are,” said the King.

“Nearly two miles high,” added the Queen. “Well, I shan’t go, at any rate,” said Alice;

“besides, that’s not a regular rule: you invented it just now.”

“It’s the oldest rule in the book,” said the King.

“Then it ought to be Number One,” said Alice.

The King’s attempt to exclude Alice from the trial is evident, but the girl’s objection is legit: the oldest rule should be the first. Such contradiction suggests that the King is inventing rules only to achieve his aim. In general, the King seems to understand only what he wants, in fact, when the White Rabbit brings a letter as proof of the Knives guilt, the King turns the lack of evidence about the fact that the Knives could be the actual writer into an aggravation:

Please your Majesty,” said the Knave, “I didn’t write it, and they can’t prove I did: there’s no name signed at the end.”

“If you didn’t sign it,” said the King, “that only makes the matter worse. You must have meant some mischief, or else you’d have signed your name like an honest man.”

This reasoning does not make sense, but it provokes a general clapping of hands. What makes Alice really angry and, according to Donald Rackin, makes Wonderland explode , is the final declaration of the Queen “Sentence first - verdict afterwards” . Rackin also states that, during the trial, Alice loses faith in Wonderland and renounces to find some kind of logic in it, this would be the reason why she wakes up at the end.


During the nineteenth century Victorian England was living the imperial experience, the British Empire was expanding while new lands and cultures were discovered. What follows is an encounter of cultures and, quite often, an aggression against the foreignness perpetrated by the British Empire. Daniel Bivona, in “Alice the Child-Imperialist and Games of Wonderland” , argues that Alice’s approach to Wonderland is deeply marked by an imperialistic attitude.

Alice’s imperialistic attitude comes from her incapacity of understanding the other culture, assuming that, only because she can not understand it, it must be devoid of logical rules. The girl does not contemplate the idea of fitting in somebody else’s shoes. For example, when she meets the Caterpillar, she assumes that he must understand her being confused by the physical changes she has been through:

The Caterpillar was the first to speak. “What size do you want to be?” it asked. “Oh, I’m not particular as to size,” Alice hastily replied; “only one doesn’t like changing so often, you know.” “I don’t know,” said the Caterpillar. Alice said nothing: she had never been so much contradicted in her life before, and she felt that she was losing her temper. “Are you content now?” said the Caterpillar. “Well, I should like to be a little larger, sir, if you wouldn’t mind,” said Alice: “three inches is such a wretched height to be.” “It is a very good height indeed!” said the Caterpillar angrily, rearing itself upright as it spoke (it was exactly three inches high).

As a matter of fact, for a caterpillar, being three-inch-tall and evolution, since he will become a butterfly, are quite common. Metamorphosis is part of Wonderland and as such it must be accepted. Yet, Alice’s ethnocentrism, is reinforced by the Caterpillar refusal of comprehend her foreignness as well.

Bivona states that, the basis of the social and cultural structure of Wonderland, have to be found in the games that Alice observes during her stay . Initially, the girl simply finds absurd the Caucus-Race and the Mad Tea-Party, claiming their nonsense, but in the case of the trial she interferes with Wonderland’s law becoming physically and verbally aggressive. Most of her indignation against the rules that she considers brutal, is a complete misunderstanding of Wonderland’s linguistic. Bivona suggests that a performative order such as “Off with his head!” pronounced by the Queen, has no fulfillment in Wonderland, while “killing time” could cause a serious and furious reaction by Time himself. Alice assumes that the first order must carry performative force only because in her Country it would operate that way. In this concern, Bivona uses the term “semiotic imperialism”:

Alice’s “imperialism”, such as it is, is a semiotic imperialism: she is uncapable of construing, on a model radically different from here own, the “system” or “systems” that give meaning to the behavior of the creatures.

In order to be fair, she should not judge Wonderland and compare it to Victorian England on the basis of a blind ignorance of the rules that dominate the foreign Country .

Moreover, Alice collects a series of intrusions: she enters uninvited the Duchess’s house, the Mad Tea-Party and the Golden Garden. She is a transgressor, even if no-one openly remembers this concept to her. Nevertheless, there is one case, in “Advice from a caterpillar”, that her neck grows to the point she reaches the top of a tree and meet a pigeon. The Pigeon mistakes her for a serpent, complaining about their bad habits (obviously from the Pigeon’s perspective) of stealing birds’ eggs. Alice knows to be a girl, or at least not to be a serpent, but the Pigeon’s words are quite meaningful:

“I ’ve seen a good many little girls in my time, but never one with such a neck as that! No, no! You’re a serpent; and there’s no use denying it. I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you never tasted an egg!” “I have tasted eggs, certainly,” said Alice, who was a very truthful child; “but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know.” “I don’t believe it,” said the Pigeon; “but if they do, why then they’re a kind of serpent, that’s all I can say.”

These few words do not only satirise the Victorian Imperialism, but also the self-induced state of ignorance lived by Countries which exploit colonies taking all for granted. Alice literally walks in a land full of talking animals that in the real world would represent nothing but a meal and “exist for the purpose of being eaten by human beings like herself” . The protagonist perceives Wonderland as something to consume, her ethnocentric vision of reality prevents her from considering Wonderland’s inhabitants, society and culture on the same level of hers.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Satirical and Underlaying Elements of Victorian Society in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland". (2024, Feb 06). Retrieved from

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