Tag Archives: Alice in Wonderland

The Binging Purging Alice in Wonderland

15 Aug

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland portrays a girl whose over indulgent eating and subsequent purging causes her body to dramatically fluctuate in size.  Alice initially encounters food upon falling down a rabbit hole, a symbolic vaginal passageway that conveys her deep into the realm of fantasy and represents a growing awareness of her sexuality. Alice passes bookshelves that, instead of tedious books contain desirable food: ‘[s]he took down a jar…as she passed: it was labelled “ORANGE MARMALADE”, but to her great disappointment it was empty’.[6] Alice longs for the marmalade because it is sweet and indulgent.

Alice’s voracious appetite has the potential to destabilise social relationships when she frightens others by expressing a desire to consume them:

once she had really frightened her old nurse by shouting suddenly in her ear, “Nurse! Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyena, and you’re a bone!”[14]

When Alicegrows taller a pigeon refuses to believe her protestations that she is ‘“a little girl”’[15] and will not predate upon her unhatched eggs:

“I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you have 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.”[16]

In Wonderland however, Alice also becomes a potential consumable, worrying that she will become a bone to ‘[a]n enormous puppy’[17] and ‘was terribly frightened all the time at the thought that it might be hungry, in which case it would be very likely to eat her up’.[18]Alice relishes being a predator, but not the prey.

Upon consuming food or drink, Alicealters in size, often excessively and not always to her advantage. Contrary to normal experience wherein growth is the consequence of dining, Aliceoften shrinks when she eats. After swallowing the contents of a bottle ‘with the words “DRINK ME” beautifully printed on it in large letters’[19] she becomes ‘only ten inches high’.[20] Transforming in size from small to large and back again represents Alice’s sexual initiation and subsequent withdrawal. Alice’s changes in size are motivated by her desire to escape from places such as the White Rabbit’s house wherein she no longer fits, or to enter smaller places, such as ‘“that lovely garden”’.[21] SinceAlice must ‘“grow to [her] right size again”’ and traverse a locked door in order to gain access to the garden, her entrance therein symbolises sexual maturity.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are located within the protagonist’s imagination, therefore her dramatic physical alterations are psychological possibilities of bodily distortion. In one instance Alice discovers a cake and

ate a little bit, and said anxiously to herself, “Which way? Which way?” holding her hand on the top of her head to feel which way it was growing, and she was quite surprised to find that she remained the same size.[22]

Carroll argues that physical size is usually maintained ‘when one eats cake’,[23] yet conversely, those experiencing anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa would state that the body becomes significantly larger and distorted following consumption, especially of fattening delicacies such as cake. Unlike the anorexic or bulimic, Alice is unafraid of drinking or eating, even if she is not sure of the potential consequences. In the White Rabbit’s house she notices a second bottle:

[t]here was no label this time with the words “DRINK ME”, but nevertheless she uncorked it and put it to her lips. “I know something interesting is sure to happen,” she said to herself, “whenever I eat or drink anything; so I’ll just see what this bottle does.”[24]

Alice’s wish to grow larger by drinking its contents is the opposite of anorexic thinking, in which the aim is to become as small as possible. Having not considered the consequences prior to swallowing the liquid, Alicesubsequently regrets her excessive drinking when it has too much of the desired effect: ‘I do wish I hadn’t drunk quite so much!” Alas! it was too late to wish that!’[25] Shortly afterwards, the White Rabbit throws pebbles in order to drive the giantAlice out of his house, yet ‘the pebbles were all turning into little cakes’.[26]Alice hopes that food will be the means of cure and restore her to her usual size:

“If I eat one of these cakes,” she thought, “it’s sure to make some change in my size; and, as it can’t possibly make me larger, it must make me smaller, I suppose.”[27]

Like the bulimic, Alice binges upon drink, then regrets and repeats the eating cycle by consuming cakes directly afterwards. In Alice’s case, however, the second bout of consumption cancels out the first, thus Alice purges by eating more. She does not purge in the usual sense of ridding herself of food, but rather counters her eating with more eating. In addition, Alice exhibits symptoms of compulsive food consumption as, unable to solve a problem or being in a difficult situation, she turns to food to help her: ‘“I suppose I ought to eat or drink something or other; but the great question is, what?”’[28] In order to fill the void wherein she should act or speak, Alice consumes food and drink: upon being unable to converse with the nonsensical March Hare, Alice ‘helped herself to some tea and bread-and-butter’.[29]

When the Caterpillar asks ‘“[a]re you content now?”’[30] Alice replies ‘“[w]ell, I should like to be a little larger, sir, if you wouldn’t mind…three inches is such a wretched height to be.”’[31] Despite Alice’s constant dissatisfaction regarding her body size, her frustration is of a practical nature. Since Alice is dreaming, a process that involves her mind rather than her physical form, it is ironic that her body becomes a hindrance. In Wonderland, Alice’s body assumes the form of her mental perception and is therefore able to transgress natural law and alter in size. Changing size through eating has a confusing effect upon Alice to the extent that she loses sense of her identity and states ‘“I’m not myself”,[32] ‘“being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”’[33] Alice lacks a constant to which can be measured since she is beyond the patriarchal world of rules and structure, a world which is liberating, yet also frightening: ‘“[h]ow puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be from one minute to another!”’[34]

Nevertheless, Alice is able to control her body size by eating two sides of a mushroom that produce opposite effects:

she set to work very carefully, nibbling first at one and then at the other, and growing sometimes taller and sometimes shorter, until she had succeeded in bringing herself down to her usual height.[35]

This self-control is comforting, yet even though Alice has the ability to change her own physical dimensions, she cannot alter her environment or the other Wonderland characters. After struggling to regain her usual stature, Alice’s surroundings become smaller, compelling her to once again reduce in size. There was

a little house…about four feet high…she began nibbling at the right-hand bit again, and did not venture to go near the house till she had brought herself down to nine inches high.[36]

Even though it appears as though Alice possesses self-control, it is her environment that regulates her behaviour and physical form.

Alice’s bodily alterations prefigure her transformation to a woman as the sexual female body is naturally in a state of flux, changing considerably during pregnancy and menstruation. While Humpty Dumpty’s ‘“name means that shape”’ he is, Alice ‘“might be any shape, almost.”’[37] It is impossible to ascertain Alice’s form from her name alone, reflecting its indefiniteness. As a female, Alice is constantly changing and fluid. By depicting Alice’s body as susceptible to transformation, Carroll demonstrates that women cannot be positioned or contained. During change, the female body produces substances; menstrual blood, milk, amniotic fluid. Alice’s ‘pool of tears’[38] that are secreted when she is nine feet high becomes dangerous when, upon shrinking, she fears she will be ‘“drowned”’.[39] The female body constantly produces fluids, processes that are perceived as threatening to masculine society because they cannot be contained. While seminal fluid is directed towards the woman’s body, female fluids are not focussed upon an Other. Even though women are uncontainable by masculine society, they are self-contained and auto-erotic: this type of woman does not give, she only consumes.

In Carroll’s novels not only does Alice devour various forms of food and drink, she frequently threatens to consume things that never pass her lips, most notably, eggs. The bird that fears Alice may be a serpent who will eat her eggs places Alice in the masculine position of the serpent Satan. Rather than producing eggs and nurturing young, Alice constantly threatens to consume them, thereby rejecting her role as the mother and grown woman that she has not yet become. Yet Alice maintains that she will not eat the pigeon’s eggs because she doesn’t ‘“like them raw”’[40] and is reluctant to buy an egg from a shop as ‘“[t]hey mightn’t be at all nice, you know.”’[41] When Alice does eventually purchase an egg she is prevented from physically claiming it as ‘“[t]he egg seems to get further away the more [she] walk[s] towards it.”’[42]

Following these numerous unusual and confusing experiences, Alice ‘found herself safe in a thick wood.’[43] Despite her impression of safety, however, the thick wood suggests danger, complexity and adulthood. The forest is recurrently threatening in tales by the Brothers Grimm: Hänsel and Gretel lose themselves in a thick wood wherein they are almost eaten by a witch. Their mother states that she ‘“will take the children out into the forest to where it is the thickest”’,[44] to which her husband replies ‘“how can I bear to leave my children alone in the forest?—the wild animals would soon come and tear them to pieces.”’[45] The children are not threatened by animals, however, but by

a wicked witch, who lay in wait for children, and had only built the little house of bread in order to entice them there. When a child fell into her power, she killed it, cooked and ate it.[46]

The witch predatorily gazes upon the sleeping and vulnerable children, observing that their ‘plump and rosy cheeks’[47] will ‘“be a dainty mouthful!”’[48] Designating the domestic role to Gretel, the witch tells her to ‘“cook something good for [her] brother”’ as he is ‘“to be made fat. When he is fat, I will eat him.”’[49] In this tale, putting on weight is associated with death and being devoured. The witch keeps Gretel alive to cook the food that will feed her brother until he is a favourable size to be eaten: in this case, the girl is saved by the traditional female, domestic role.

In contrast, Alice is not accomplished as a Wonderland domestic. When serving cake Alice is frustrated that while she has ‘“cut off several slices already…they will always join on again”’[50] and when carving a leg of mutton she ‘looked at it rather anxiously, as she had never had to carve one before.’[51]  Lacking the security of conventional, female accomplishments, Alice finally loses control and her surroundings descend into ever deeper confusion. Alice experiences extraordinary visions of food and dismembered body parts as the two are associated in a whirling, fragmented scene of distortion and grotesque subversion. The White Queen’s ‘broad good-natured face’ appears in the soup-tureen, cheerfully presenting itself as a consumable ‘before she disappeared into the soup.’[52] Having experienced anarchic excess in the realm of food and the body,Alice loses mental and physical control and upsets the whole dining table:

“I can’t stand this any longer!” she cried, as she seized the tablecloth with both hands: one good pull, and plates, dishes, guests, and candles came crashing down together in a heap on the floor.[53]

At the height of food consumption and the chaos of her own imagination, Alice reawakens into the conventional, stable patriarchal world.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.37

[2] F. Nightingale, ‘Cassandra’, in Self and Society in the Victorian Novel (St. Andrews:University ofSt. Andrews Press, 2004), p.13

[3] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.62

[4] Nightingale, ‘Cassandra’, p.9

[5] ibid, p.18

[6] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.38

[7] Brontë, Villette, p.27

[8] Rossetti, Goblin Market, l.115

[9] ibid, l.235

[10] Rossetti, Goblin Market, ll.108-9

[11] J. Grimm and W. Grimm, Hänsel and Gretel, in Complete Fairy Tales (London: Routledge, 2002), p.69

[12] ibid, p.69

[13] ibid, p.69

[14] L. Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2001), p.159

[15] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.77

[16] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.77

[17] ibid, p.66

[18] ibid, p.66

[19] ibid, pp.41-2

[20] ibid, p.42

[21] ibid, p.66

[22] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.43

[23] ibid, p.43

[24] ibid, p.60

[25] ibid, p.60

[26] ibid, p.65

[27] ibid, p.65

[28] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.68

[29] ibid, p.96

[30] ibid, p.75

[31] ibid, p.75

[32] ibid, p.70

[33] ibid, p.70

[34] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.78

[35] ibid, p.90

[36] ibid, p.78

[37] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, p.219

[38] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, pp.48-9

[39] ibid, p.49

[40] ibid, p.78

[41] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, pp.216-17

[42] ibid, p.217

[43] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.66

[44] Grimm, Hänsel and Gretel, p.66

[45] ibid, p.66

[46] ibid, p.70

[47] ibid, p.71

[48] ibid, p.71

[49] ibid, p.71

[50] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, p.239

[51] ibid, p.268

[52] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, p.271

[53] ibid, p.272

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