Alice in Wonderland - A Counselling Reflection

This article considers how the story line and characters from Alice in Wonderland can be used within the counselling room to enable clients to explore issues by using imagery and imagination

The publicity given to Tim Burton’s recently released film version of Lewis Carroll’s work emphasises the hold that Alice retains on our imagination. Characters, words and ideas from the pages of a book written in the second half of the nineteenth century, have tumbled into everyday usage and remain part of contemporary speech.  In the same way that the notion of the Freudian slip has remained in common parlance, so the suggestion that one is grinning like a Cheshire Cat, continues to be tossed at those sitting with too smug a smile.  Carroll’s characters and words continue to influence us and Burton’s movie has reinforced the use of all those concepts and phrases which originate within this dark, eccentric and whimsical tale.

There has been much speculation over many years on the drivers either conscious or unconscious, which sit behind Carroll’s writings. The notion that those who continue to search will eventually find what they are looking for, may go some way to account for the many different interpretations which have been made of the two stories featuring Alice’s adventures. 

It is acknowledged that Carroll, (Charles Dodgson), was an accomplished mathematician.  Some such as Martin Gardner in The Annotated Alice1  have identified mathematical concepts and riddles at play throughout Carroll’s work. The philosophers may point to Dodgson’s fascination with Aristotelian logic and see within his writings, endless word games which link back to the Greek thinker. Away from form and order, intellectual anarchists can identify with a surrealist approach which sees liberty exalted through nonsense. That approach can perhaps best be seen, or rather heard, in John Lennon’s composition, I am a Walrus.

The myriad of psychoanalytic interpretations which have been suggested will be of particular interest to the counselling and therapeutic world. The sheer extent of the potential symbolism in Carroll’s work and particularly what is seen by some as sexual symbolism, creates some challenges in differentiating between genuine interpretation and satire and this is reflected in Goldschmidt’s 1933 study.   

Those who place importance on the interpretation of dreams have also found much of value within Alice’s fictional world. Some see a number of Jung’s ideas finding expression through Alice’s adventures particularly with her ability to change her size which mirrors those dream sequences where we grow and shrink and transfer from one size to another.  Others may regard Alice’s final rejection of the dream world as she brushes away the tumbling pack of cards as more significant. Alice is able to transform these malevolent forces into nothing more sinister than dead leaves which fall away as she stands up and leaves the scene.

The darker side of the emotional world of the author has been the subject of much analysis. Some will see this disturbing aspect of Carroll’s life as having found expression though the writing of the book. Carroll’s apparent predisposition for the company of children is well documented as is his choice of subject for photographs.  Indeed the very setting for the original storytelling on which the book was subsequently based has also been seen as suspect. It may be in today’s world that Carroll would be more likely to attract attention from a suspicious Social Services Department rather than from a publisher. 

Carroll may well have struggled with some internal demons although since his death in 1898 the writer has not been in a position to answer the myriad of implicit accusations which have been levelled at him.  We are aware however that his interactions in Oxford with Alice Liddell were abruptly severed by the intervention of Alice’s mother, described by Hugh Haughton 5 as the formidable socially ambitious Lorina Liddell. Whatever the reasons for that intervention, the resulting sense of unease with regard to Carroll’s behaviour, has been powerful enough to cast a shadow from the nineteenth to the twenty first century. For some this can still impact on the way in which the stories and the leading characters are regarded.

This sexual undertone has on occasions been brought from a subtle undercurrent into glaring daylight. Beyond academic analysis, there have been various attempts by fiction writers to inject into the Alice Adventures in Wonderland story, an overtly sexual narrative and to use the characters within a strongly sexual setting.  The graphic novel Lost Girls by Alan Moore 6  is perhaps the most notorious example.  Even in turning back toward mainstream literature, some have wondered about the impact of Alice on Nabokov’s Anya despite denials from the author.

This suggestion of something inappropriate is reflected in some of the material produced under the Alice in Wonderland banner. Whilst preparing this article, the sheer variation of available images became very apparent within very different forms of media such as magazines, newspapers and the internet. Content ranged from the adult to infantile, from the intellectual to the absurd and from the raucous to the pornographic.  It is interesting to note that the current debate around the sexualisation of children is seen as a contemporary phenomena rather than something which was apparent when Carroll was writing. A review of the use to which the image of Alice is now sometimes put, would seem to reinforce the importance of that debate.

In considering the many films and web sites which acknowledge the influence of Alice, the notion of what is childlike and what is adult, is in some cases disturbingly blurred.  It may be that this blurring reflects Carroll’s view of sexuality. There is a studied ambiguity about a number of his creations which goes beyond issues of age and gender. The Alice stories in their initial form and with the original illustrations were however essentially sexless.  It is interesting to note that it was not the author but rather others who, with more than a hint of the judgemental, claim to have uncovered an inappropriate sexual underpinning.

Perhaps this guides one back to the maxim that a searcher will usually be able to find evidence to support a chosen theory, if that search is conducted with sufficient energy and imagination. Yet the comment attributed to Carroll when reflecting on the Snark poem, .... “I didn’t mean anything but nonsense”..., provides a warning shot for those who must always look to find meaning in the most random of events.  It is evidence of the meaning that we project onto the object, that we are most likely to find. The frame which seems most appealing to look through, will invariably be that which fits closest to our personal ideas whether that relates to the writings of a nineteenth century cleric or to  client material gained within the counselling room

There is however a potentially useful frame surrounding the Alice stories which some therapists may want to glance through. There are rich interpretative pickings to be drawn from the stories of Alice, particularly if we can allow those thoughts to come from our clients’ reflections on the characters rather than from our allegiance to any one particular interpretation.

Characters from fiction and particularly from fairy stories have often been seen within the therapeutic space as offering a useful model against which we can try to comprehend more fully, a client’s world. In trying to understand their own behaviour, clients can often be extremely pejorative in their self analysis. Carroll’s work may provide a more gentle and imaginative construct which could assist some individuals in their self analysis.

My prompting for this article predates the Burton film and relates back to a reference used by someone in distress who described himself to me as being as Mad as a Hatter. The phrase had for that individual, a resonance which was far clearer and yet softer than any more formal descriptions of his fears would have been. It certainly carried far greater meaning than any interpretation I could have offered.  This suggests that within his writings, Carroll has provided a wealth of symbols which can be used to illustrate and illuminate the human condition. The imagery contained in Burton’s movie can also provide more in the way of assists for some clients seeking self expression than may be found in some self-help books.

A rereading of the text of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland provides countless examples of this imagery. Her early encounter with the golden key unlocks for Alice a door to a world where anything can happen and usually does, where the impossible is commonplace and madness becomes the reflection of normality.  Cognitive therapists may see Alice learning to question her rules, actively challenging some core beliefs and combating her initial negative thoughts. Within a safe therapeutic space, clients may find the ability as did Alice, to swim across a pool of tears, to take sustenance at the most challenging of tables and to stand up and face the expressions of anger emanating from a Queen of Hearts who despite some initial maternal leanings, showed a propensity to both bully and confuse.  

Perhaps ideas around potential client growth can be reflected in one of the most powerful images from Carroll’s original Adventure in Wonderland, with Alice’s continual manipulation of her size. Although there are devices within the story to aid that change, Alice’s ability to increase and decrease her physical presence seem to derive from an unconscious striving to control an unreliable world around her.

Despite the initial frailty of her position and the various threats to her well being, Alice develops through Carroll’s imagination as someone who is able to face down those who threaten her.  Her final riposte to the Queen of Hearts and those surrounding her ........ ‘who cares for you, you are nothing but a pack of cards’......... suggests that she has been able to find a powerful voice through which to express feelings which are spontaneous and self supporting.

Alice continued to explore her fantasy world in a further adventure. Psychodynamic counsellors will note her willingness to go through the looking glass into somewhere just beyond the familiar which suggests that she was also prepared to explore the unknown. It may be that she initially moves through the looking glass with greater confidence than our clients display as they enter the counselling room for the first time. As counsellors we know however, that our clients can subsequently find the courage to confront challenging situations which are even more demanding than those which Alice faced during her fictional adventures.

There are many different explanations of Carroll’s writings. The stories and poems can be seen as nonsense tales, as intellectual metaphors, or as a rich depository of random ideas and themes that still inform us today. That there are also uncomfortable and perhaps malevolent interpretations that can be made of this work is recognised.  Indeed some, who might otherwise want to use these ideas, may hold back because of that unease and that is understandable.

For my part I see a story of fun, absurdity and a nineteenth century nonsense tale. It is however a fictional construct which can hold great appeal. As with many works of art, we will find in a painting, in music or in a book that, which best helps our cause.  I read Carroll’s work as an affirming story in which the central character is able to express concerns, to hear her voice and confront those who accuse her.  

And a final thought.  The main character in this nineteenth century fantasy tale just happens to be young and female and was created by an author who is older and male. If we glance in a contemporary twenty first century looking glass, we can quickly identify a recent popular fantasy story. We can bring to mind of a series of well told stories where magical things happen, which have taken a strong hold on the public imagination, sold many copies and also been turned into film.  This time however the main character is young and male and has been created by a remarkable author who is older and female. 

One can only wonder what interpretations may one day be made of those stories.  A magic wand anyone?

1.  The Annotated Alice.  Martin Gardner 1960

2.  Lewis Carol and the Search for Non Being.  PinHaus Ben-Zivi  

      The Philosopher Spring 2002 Edition.

3.   Alice in Wonderland Psychoanalysed. New Oxford Outlook.  A M E Goldschmidt 1933.

4.   Adventures in Wonderland Dream Journal.  Linda Sunshine  2007

5.   Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.   Lewis Carrol I

     Intro Hugh Haughton  Penguin 1998

6.  Lost Girls. Alan Moore/Melinda Gebbie.  2008

7.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  Lewis Carrol I  Penguin ED 1998. P 108

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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