Mental Illness in Alice in Wonderland

Updated on March 13, 2018
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The awareness and treatment for common mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders has improved immeasurably in the past few hundred years. At the time of publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, mental health was still a fairly remote topic. Many of those who struggled with mental illness were simply classified as “mad” and put in an asylum or hidden from the public eye by their families, as mental illness was generally viewed as a “descent journey into a dark, subterraneous realm…” (Falconer 12). “We’re all mad here” is one if the most quoted lines from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This line, spoken by the Cheshire Cat, does indeed reflect many aspects of the story well. When characters such as Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts are looked at individually, they all display clear traits of various mental illnesses. This article will examine the extent to which Lewis Carroll gave the characters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass mental illnesses, and the possible biographical and historical reasons that Carroll had for doing so.

One of the most overt mental illnesses in Alice’s Adventures is dealt with by Alice herself, who seems to be constantly struggling with her eating habits. Eating disorders are generally defined as an unhealthy relationship with food, often including obsessions with “food, body weight, and shape” (“Eating Disorders”). At the beginning of the story, Alice stumbles down a rabbit hole into a brand new nonsensical world in which drinks and food labeled “Eat Me” appear out of nowhere. As Alice eats and drinks and eats some more, she changes size dramatically and constantly feels that she is too large or too small. When Alice eats, she doesn’t simply take a small bite but rather binges and then regrets her actions later. At one point, she even begins sobbing and cries a pool of tears that she later has to swim through. However, Alice does not immediately learn from her mistakes – soon after, she drinks nearly half of an unknown drink and grows so large that she fills up an entire house. Alice is stuck in a cycle in which she overeats and then has to eat or drink even more to correct her initial consumption. She essentially relies on food to solve her problems. Later, Alice speaks to the caterpillar and tells him that she is dissatisfied with her current size and yet again wishes to be different. The caterpillar tells her that the two sides of a mushroom will change her size, and Alice eventually controls her size with the help of the mushroom through trial and error. Still, Alice is relying on this food to basically ‘fix’ her body. Additionally, it is important to note that all of these physical changes are happening within Alice’s own imagination. This is her dream, after all, and it seems clear that much of the dream is focused on Alice’s struggles with her own body. Furthermore, much of the food mentioned in the book is sweets, such as cake, tarts, and custard. Perhaps this is Alice’s subconscious longing for this type of rich, indulgent food that she cannot eat in real life.

Casting a young female protagonist as a child who struggles immensely with food and eating habits may seem odd, although perhaps there is no such thing as ‘odd’ in the context of Wonderland. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are just as much Lewis Carroll’s dream as they are Alice’s; Carroll was known to struggle with his own eating habits. He brought his own meal when invited out to dinners, and he would refuse to attend luncheons because he claimed that he had “no appetite for a meal at that time…” (Cohen 291). In fact, Carroll seldom ate lunch in general. His other meals were quite small and simple, such as “a biscuit and some sherry” (Garland 25). However, when Carroll invited a young girl over for a meal (which he often did) he would prepare meticulously planned out meals for her, including cocoa and jam and other treats (Cohen 292). Perhaps, by doing this, Carroll was reflecting some of his own personal wishes onto both Alice and these young girls. Carroll was so controlling of his diet that he would not eat such indulgent sweets, so instead he gave his young female friends as much food as they could possibly want. However, in Alice’s case, it seems that Carroll not only reflected his wishes onto her but also his anxieties. He clearly had an odd, even unhealthy relationship with food. Although Carroll may not have had anorexia or an easily classifiable eating disorder, he was undoubtedly extremely controlling and obsessive about his diet. Alice seems to be eating all of the food that Carroll would not eat, while also suffering Carroll’s imagined consequences of eating such food.

Lewis Carroll’s true name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. “Lutwidge” was the surname of Carroll’s uncle, Skeffington Lutwidge, whom Carroll had been named after. The two were very close friends, until Lutwidge was killed by an asylum patient. Lutwidge was highly involved in psychology; he was the secretary of the Lunacy Commission for ten years as well as a member of the Board of Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy. He was “…regarded as one of England’s experts on problems associated with insanity” (Torrey and Miller). Carroll, too, was said to display “a fascination with mental derangement” (Henkle) throughout his life, and at one point he accompanied his uncle on a trip to an asylum. Some have hypothesized that Carroll based the Mad Tea Party off of what he saw when he visited the asylum (Torrey and Miller). This would make sense, because as we look closely at the characters involved in the tea party, they display many traits of mental illnesses.

The Mad Hatter himself displays traits of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). BPD is marked by “a pattern of ongoing instability in moods, behavior, self-image, and functioning” (“Borderline Personality”) while ADHD is marked by “an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning” (“Attention Deficit”). In the mad tea party scene, the Hatter goes through a wide range of emotions and thoughts. One minute he is angry at the March Hare for suggesting the use of butter on his watch, then he calmly pours hot tea on the Dormouse, and seconds later he changes the topic completely and asks Alice whether or not she has solved his riddle. The Hatter becomes angry when Alice asks the Dormouse too many questions because she causes the telling of the story to take too long, and he has an issue with staying in the same chair for any significant portion of time, asking the group to rotate seats every so often. The other characters at the tea party, such as the Dormouse, seem to display mental illnesses as well. The Dormouse is extremely tired and constantly on the verge of falling asleep. He specifically notes the difference between “I breathe when I sleep” and “I sleep when I breathe” (Carroll 61). Difficulty breathing whilst sleeping is an known disorder referred to as sleep apnea, in which one does not maintain a regular breathing pattern while asleep, thus interrupting the normal sleep schedule. Sleep apnea is often a cause of “excessive daytime sleepiness” (“What is Sleep Apnea?”). Whether Lewis Carroll knew about sleep apnea specifically is unlikely, but Carroll himself was known to be an insomniac and possibly reflected some of his own experiences onto the Dormouse (Henkle).

Carroll also wrote an entire set of etiquette rules titled “Hints for Etiquette: Or, Dining Made Easy” which satirized an enormously popular book of etiquette rules in the Victorian era titled Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society. In his rules, Carroll tells the reader not to “kick the shins of the opposite gentleman” and warns against eating cheese with “a knife and fork in one hand, and a spoon and wine glass in the other” (Carroll and Collingwood). Carroll’s rules essentially mock dinner etiquette and the formal rules that one is supposed to follow. The Mad Hatter’s tea party also mocks the etiquette of the time, as the Hatter and his friends break almost every single etiquette rule possible. The Hatter pours hot tea on the Dormouse, the group rests their elbows on the table, and they shout and argue with one another throughout the meal. By the end of the meal their guest, Alice, has not had a single bite to eat.

There is no question that Alice is the outsider in this scene. She sits down “without being invited” (Carroll 60) as the Mad Hatter points out, and she finds the manners of her hosts atrocious. Alice, for the most part, displays good manners throughout the novel and seems to have been raised ‘properly.’ She is aware of the normal etiquette that one is supposed to follow whilst dining. At the tea party, Carroll is essentially allowing everything to happen that the typical upper or middle class Victorian would find atrocious. At the end of the scene, Alice leaves the party “in great disgust” and exclaims, “I’ll never go there again… It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!” (Carroll 67). If Alice represents a typical person in the Victorian era, Carroll seems not only to be critiquing social norms but also perhaps pointing out the treatment of people with mental illness. Alice displays no patience or sympathy for any of the characters involved in the tea party and she is horrified by their manners and etiquette. Similarly, many people at the time did not have a good understanding of mental illnesses. One could be labeled as ‘mad’ or ‘insane’ for a wide variety of things, ranging from “confusion and cognitive error to irresistible and uncontrollable instincts” (Eigen).

Another character that clearly displays traits of a mental illness is the Queen of Hearts. Known for the catch phrase, “Off with their heads!”, the Queen is constantly angry and yells at everyone around her without pause. If anyone disagrees with her, insults her, or makes her unhappy in any way, she orders to have them beheaded without a second thought. The Queen displays many traits of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which is marked by “an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention… and a lack of empathy for others.” People with NPD often are “impatient or angry” when they do not receive “special treatment,” and they often display “rage or contempt” for others in an attempt to appear superior (“Narcissistic Personality Disorder”).

In Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts is a cruel monarch. Although she has a husband, he has so little power that he may as well not exist. Alice’s Adventures was published in the midst of Queen Victoria’s rule, who was also a female monarch, and many scholars have hypothesized that Carroll based the Queen of Hearts on Queen Victoria. Carroll himself was a proponent of increasing suffrage, achieving proportional representation in the House, increasing minority representation, and eliminating outside influences in the voting process (Landow). It seems likely that Lewis Carroll would have strongly disliked having a completely arbitrary ruler such as a monarch in control of the country. The Queen of Hearts is also one of (if not the) most disagreeable characters in the story. Carroll seems to be parodying the monarchy; the Queen can do whatever she wants, whenever she wants, however she wants. Carroll may not be attacking specifically Queen Victoria, but rather the dangers of the monarchial system and what it can lead to. With inbreeding as common within monarchial systems as it was in European history, rulers with mental illnesses and genetic disorders were not uncommon. Furthermore, most monarchs were brought up in a royal family and thus experienced the luxury and riches of this lifestyle, as well as knowing that they would likely rule the country one day. This could easily create a narcissistic mindset, although perhaps not specifically NPD. Through the Queen of Hearts, Carroll is pointing out the possibility of having a mentally ill and/or narcissistic ruler due to the monarchial system and, although quite exaggerated by the Queen of Hearts, the extreme dangers of this style of government.

Lewis Carroll reflected much of his own life, beliefs, and politics onto the characters that he created in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The individual mental illnesses that characters in the story display help to critique social norms and the monarchial system. Although almost all of the characters may be viewed as mentally ill, they are all quite funny and entertaining, and with a few exceptions, they are all likeable. It is possible that Carroll’s interest in mental illness simply pervaded throughout his work, but it seems as though he is making a point that those who struggle with mental illnesses are not possessed by the Devil (as many people thought in this era) but rather just misunderstood.

Works Cited

“Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mar. 2016, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/index.shtml.

“Borderline Personality Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Aug. 2016, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/borderline-personality-disorder/index.shtml.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Penguin Classics, 2009.

Carroll, Lewis, and Stuart Dodgson Collingwood. Hints for Etiquette: Or, Dining Out Made Easy. The Lewis Carroll Picture Book, Collins' Clear-Type Press, 1899, pp. 33–34.

Cohen, Morton N. Lewis Carroll: A Biography. Alfred A Knopf, Inc., 1995.

Dyer, Ray. “Theories of Mental Illness in the Nineteenth-Century ‘Bedlam’ Asylum Era, 1815-1898.” The Victorian Web, 31 July 2016, www.victorianweb.org/science/psych/dyer1.html.

“Eating Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Feb. 2016, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders/index.shtml.

Eigen, Joel Peter. “Delusion's Odyssey: Charting the Course of Victorian Forensic Psychiatry.” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, vol. 27, no. 5, 2004, pp. 395–412., www.sciencedirect.com.dartmouth.idm.oclc.org/science/article/pii/S0160252704000846.

Falconer, Rachel. “Underworld Portmanteaux.” Alice Beyond Wonderland. Ed. Christopher Hollingsworth. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2009. Print.

Henkle, Roger B. “The Mad Hatter's World.” The Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 49, no. 1, 1973, www.vqronline.org/essays-articles/2015/07/mad-hatters-world.

Landow, George P. “Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and Contemporary Politics.” The Victorian Web, 28 May 2005, www.victorianweb.org/authors/carroll/politics1.html.

“Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 18 Nov. 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20366662.

Schatz, Stephanie L. "Lewis Carroll's Dream-Child and Victorian Child Psychopathology." Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 76, no. 1, 2015, pp. 93-114, International Bibliography of Art (IBA); ProQuest Central; Social Science Premium Collection, https://search-proquest-com.dartmouth.idm.oclc.org/docview/1669916051?accountid=10422.

Schilder, Paul. “PSYCHOANALYTIC REMARKS ON ALICE IN WONDERLAND AND LEWIS CARROLL.” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, vol. 87, no. 2, Feb. 1938, pp. 159–168., journals.lww.com/jonmd/Citation/1938/02000/PSYCHOANALYTIC_REMARKS_ON_ALICE_IN_WONDERLAND_AND.4.aspx.

Torrey, E. Fuller, and Judy Miller. “Violence and Mental Illness: What Lewis Carroll Had to Say.” Schizophrenia Research, vol. 160, no. 1, Dec. 2014, pp. 33–34., www.schres-journal.com/article/S0920-9964(14)00540-4/fulltext.

“What Is Sleep Apnea?” National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 10 July 2012, www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sleepapnea/.

Questions & Answers

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      • Ladymermaid profile image

        Lorelei Cohen 

        2 months ago from Canada

        I will never look at this tale the same again. I had never noticed the psychological aspects in the story but certainly won't ever forget them now. Wow. How complex we truly are. I wonder if these came from aspects of the writer's personality.

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