Alice's Animals in Wonderland

Updated on February 6, 2018
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Animals in the 19th Century

In the beginning of the 19th century, activities involving the use of animals as entertainment were running rampant throughout Britain and the Western world. From bull-baiting to the opening of the London Zoo to cock fighting, many people began to question the handling of non-human sentient beings. The treatment of animals slowly began to improve as various pieces of protective legislation were enacted and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) was put into place. In the midst of all this, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published. John Tenniel then created illustrations of the story that further affect the reader’s view of Carroll’s use of animals, and even challenge the idea of humans as superior to other beings.

Alice and the Dodo

The first image depicts Alice speaking to the Dodo bird. In the scene that the illustration references, the Dodo is in charge of the ‘caucus race’ and also demonstrates an extensive and elaborate vocabulary. The most striking part of the illustration is the anthropomorphism of the bird. He has human hands coming out from underneath his wings, one of which is holding a cane. Canes generally represent wisdom, as those who use them are often elderly and thus stereotypically wise and respected. Tenniel, by giving the Dodo this cane, furthers the reader’s impression that the Dodo is an elder of both the animals and Alice. Furthermore, the illustration depicts Alice to be more or less the same size as the other animals. Instead of looking down at them, as she would if she were her normal size, she is put on the same level as they are. Although this is a physical change, it demonstrates that Alice is no longer superior to the other creatures. Instead, she is seen as their equal, in terms of intelligence as well as size.

Alice and the Pig Baby

The second image depicts Alice holding a pig that is dressed as a baby. Earlier in the scene, the pig had been an actual child, but soon after the Duchess ‘flung’ the baby at Alice, it turned into a pig. The Duchess treated the child very poorly, if not abusively. The mistreatment of the baby causes the reader to dislike the Duchess and to feel bad for the poor child. Alice feels sympathy for the baby as well, and takes care to hold and nurse it properly as seen in the image. However, the illustration does not depict the child being held but rather the post-metamorphosis pig in Alice’s arms. The pig is portrayed with a bonnet on its head, just as a baby would have, and in the same position as a baby would be held in. This scene and Tenniel’s illustration of it both hint at the fact that a pig and a young child are very similar in terms of size and intelligence. Pigs are often said have the same intelligence level as a three year old child. Due to the sympathy created earlier in the scene for the baby, the metamorphosis of the child heavily criticizes the treatment of farm animals by forcing the reader to compare the two beings. Tenniel, by choosing to illustrate the pig, emphasizes this metamorphosis and brings forth the question: if it is unacceptable to treat a child in an abusive manner, then why is the same treatment acceptable for a creature of the same intelligence?

Sentient Beings

The Victorian era undoubtedly contained many important advances in the animal rights movement. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Tenniel’s illustrations throughout the novel help to reflect the growing animal rights sentiments at the time. By humanizing animals in his illustrations, Tenniel helps to portray Carroll’s characters as having the same intellect as Alice and other humans in the story. Giving the animals anthropomorphic features such as hands or a bonnet further convinces the reader to think of them as intelligent and sentient beings. Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice in Wonderland successfully challenge the idea of human superiority and affect how the reader views the animal characters in the story.



Sources:

Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Bantam Books, 1981.

Harrison, Brian. “Animals and the State in Nineteenth-Century England.” The English Historical Review, vol. 88, no. 349, 1973, pp. 786–820. JSTOR, JSTOR.

Questions & Answers

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      • mollystroud profile imageAUTHOR

        Molly Stroud 

        5 months ago from Boston

        Thanks! Carroll's stories are open to so much interpretation, they're fascinating to think about.

      • K S Lane profile image

        K S Lane 

        5 months ago from Melbourne, Australia

        Really interesting read. Alice in Wonderland was my favourite childhood story, but I never really thought about what Carroll's intentions were regarding his use of animals. The fact that the pig dressed as a baby is a statement on the poor treatment of intelligent animals is a really great take on the book.

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