On revisiting Disney’s 1951 “Alice In Wonderland”, I was gratified to discover that Alice’s journey through her own psyche isn’t quite what my youthful memory wants me to think. From the tardy White Rabbit to the maniacal Tweedle twins, from the question-smoking caterpillar to the admittedly insane Cheshire cat, from the drunken shenanigans of the Mad Tea Party to the Queen of Hearts’ homicidal bitching, Alice learns the hard truth:
She may not be altogether right in the head.
ALICE IN FREUDLAND
The Alice wandering through the landscape is essentially the same person she is on the outside. Her memory is intact, she retains all her problem-solving, reality-testing, inference-making and self-regulated striving skills–the only thing different is the reality around her.
Leave the symbols and meanings of this reality for another time. For now, let us identify the lifeforms found in Alice’s Wonderland and associate them with their counterparts in the Freudian model of the psyche. Alice, as the only outsider, plays a singular role of consistency. She may be unaware she is dreaming, but she nonetheless remains conscious and in touch with this ‘reality’; ergo, I conclude she represents her own ego.
The first unreal element to appear is the White Rabbit, one of the few recurring characters, always in a terrible hurry to get where he’s late in getting to and nothing will distract him. As Alice’s lure and ersatz guide through Wonderland, his single-minded devotion to duty and guilt mark him as compelled by conscience, and therefore mark him as a manifestation of the superego.
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
As Alice follows the White Rabbit through the grotesquely exaggerated disorder, she sees that he is unique. None of the other denizens of her head demonstrate any purpose to their existence. They are there to indulge, have fun and play, to maniacally be themselves wholly and completely. The caterpillar, for example, won’t stop doing what gives him pleasure (pulling deeply on his hookah and answering questions with more inane questions). Alice needs his assistance, but the spaced-out old pipesucker is of no use – at least not until he morphs into a butterfly (an evolution to a different stage of being; that is, a shift from one level of psyche to another).
Likewise, Tweedledum and Tweedledee won’t take No for an answer. They want only to sing and dance, and though they forcibly confine Alice to be their audience, they happily continue to perform after she sneaks off. Neither do the Mad Hatter and March Hare spare a moment for logic and reason, as they gleefully ricochet through their berserk tea party.
These, and all the other denizens of the wilderness of Wonderland, are Alice’s id. They are looking after their own interests, seeking to gratify personal needs and urges. They are solitary, “entirely self-contained and isolated” . None of them really need another soul around to do what they do. Everything in Wonderland is playful and dreamy, much as we’ve seen Alice to be in the surface world. Down here, the deepest shadowy recesses of her psyche reflect her true self.
One exception is the Cheshire cat, who grins and comes and goes as he pleases, with no respect for authority or order. He seems to be as indolent and useless as the rest… but Alice does manage to elicit some basic directional information from him. He is the first creature to really interact with her and provide any useful help (excepting the doorknob at the start, but that guardian can be seen as technically outside Wonderland). Despite his lackadaisical king-of-all-the-world manner, the Cat does seem to be working, however vaguely, towards some end, and as such he appears to come off like another aspect of her superego. Ultimately though, he reveals himself to be an agent of pure chaos, playing all sides against each other in a maniacal game designed to entertain himself, and so is exposed to be as id as the rest of them.
Alice is naive and innocent, and easily distracted. Her base urges tend towards the fantastic rather than the lustful and violent. Lustful and violent is saved til the end, when she reaches the very core of herself.
ORDER OUT OF INSANITY
At her lowest low, in utter despair at ever finding her way out of Wonderland, she bemoans her fate, crying copious tears and berating herself for never doing things right (ie. following the rules). Until now she’s been content to wander carefree through the mental psychedelia, ostensibly pursuing the White Rabbit, but more truly playing ‘get to know me’ with herself. Now, though, she comes to realize she’s not in a good place, and without some order to the proceedings she’s surely trapped forever in the nightmare of this senseless funhouse mirror.
And there, in the dark night of her soul, she finally finds the rule of order she doesn’t want but desperately needs. Deep in the heart of Wonderland rages the Queen of Hearts, with her castle and grounds and army of playing cards. Brash and loud, violent and temperamental and primitive, the Queen is downright animalistic–and, all appearances to the contrary, NOT the id. The Queen of Hearts is Alice’s true superego. While the id of Wonderland functions independently of all else, content to amuse itself on its own, the Red Queen does not and cannot meet that qualification. She needs her court. She is a bully, and a bully without an audience is nothing. With no one to follow her lunatic decrees, she wouldn’t be the Queen; the untamed nightmare of the wilderness would soon invade her walls, and eventually all of Wonderland would be nothing but id.
Like us all, Alice’s internalized code has been built by grownups. In Alice’s real life her major source of conflict is between her daydreamy, playful personality and the rules imposed on her by external forces (her mother, her teacher). Alice naturally rebels against authority and its silly orders, wishing everything could be her kind of silly. In the Wonderland of her mind, everything is unbearably silly, and the blustery authoritative Queen, representing those adult guidelines, is silliest of all.
But like the White Rabbit, the Queen has a sense of purpose lacking elsewhere. Her powerful presence, as with the chronographically obsessed Rabbit (one can easily imagine Alice often reprimanded for idle tardiness), illustrates the crushing influence of rules that weigh so heavily on poor young Alice’s developing imagination. Alice has little life experience outside of her books and garden; she hasn’t yet collected the experience and pain necessary for a psychotically bloodthirsty id like the Queen of Hearts… and yet here the Queen is.
ALICE IN LESSONLAND
At a casual glance, Alice In Wonderland appears to be a simple moral fable, warning little girls to abandon their useless childish fantasies and accept the way things are. But on a deeper level it is a depiction of the formative mind’s battle to make sense of itself, at a time when the mind’s ideas are contradicted so sharply by the way the rest of life works.
In Alice’s case, this battle is of such epic proportion that it has completely inverted her psyche. Her imagination and capricious whimsy have grown too strong, sequestering rule and order in a fortified enclosure deep inside herself. The inmates are taking over the asylum, and this is the profound danger the Queen rages against–the outright domination of Alice’s id over her superego.
The Queen is no villain. Rather, she is the voice of reason, Alice’s only hope, a plea from the deepest recesses to change her wicked ways. The poor girl must soon find some balance before she spirals out of control, beyond the turning point, on the endless slippery descent into all-out unbridled lunacy.