21 Jul

Discovering Reality: An Analysis of “Alice in Wonderland” (1951)

“Alice in Wonderland” is a classic animated film directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske. The movie, adapted after Lewis Carroll’s novel with the same name is a production that has been seen by millions of children (and, why not, adults) from around the world. The story, while it may be packaged as an easy children’s journey, can be seen as a philosopher’s exploration of the real world, in a way similar to Plato’s cave story, of a man who goes outside the cave where he and his fellow people could only see shadows on the walls, thinking they were reality and then telling them about what the world really looks like, its colors and shapes but is disregarded and mocked by his people.

 

 

Right at the very beginning of the film, when Alice is sitting under a tree, she is reading a book. The book is a book on history, a choice that tells the viewer that Alice is, more or less by choice, interested in discovering the world, but that she is presented only a controlled, superficial version of the world, as history can be correctly described as the current establishment’s view of the world.

 

It’s not long before the beginning that Alice starts chasing the rabbit that is always late and soon enough she finds herself going down the rabbit hole. As she falls, she is first passed by objects of art, the highest expression of people’s emotions and living and then she is passed by everyday objects that compose the medium in which humans live.

 

In order to be able to pass through the door she encounters, she drinks what others call poison. It can be said that for ages the truth has been seen as something that is not be wanted and presented in a negative light. The first encounter with something different is of course a negative one: soon enough Alice is sad and floating on a sea of her own tears. She regrets it because it’s not what she expected or wanted, but there is no going back, regardless of what she may want.

Looking for the white rabbit who is in a hurry, she enters the forest, a clear symbol of the mysterious and the natural. The first characters she meets are Tweedledum and Tweedledee. These two characters, which appear human, but immediately show that they are not are trying to keep Alice from going further, they want to lure her with their actions and words and the reason is not apparent. They are the distractions one meets along the way: they make crazy images and sounds, they morph and don’t get hurt when hit and act silly and foolish making an illusion of interest, when in fact they are just there to keep a philosopher from going. The “razzle dazzle” is something a veritable philosopher always encounts: the flashes of the world, of arts and culture that seem to be full of meaning, but are not more than an empty way of spending time trying to make sense of them.

After getting away from the two, Alice meets The Dodo. While he is a cheerful and polite character, The Dodo is also absent-minded and quite aggressive. He is the reflection of a politician whose main problem is that he does not know where his job begins or ends. The confusion that is in his mind leads to a lot of harm, for which in a way, he cannot be directly blamed.

Alice is now slowly making sense of the world, she is confronted with all the appearances and obstacles that compose the world. No wonder that at this point, every time she eats something she becomes either very big or very small. Every truth she comes in contact with, every decision she makes is taking her on a rollercoaster. A philosopher either feels on the top of the world for conquering things or small as an ant in the face of the discovery of what is yet to be discovered.

After having faced entertainment in the shape of distractions and politics in the shape of collateral damage, she needs to be faced with one of the biggest challenges: the talk of the town. While some people have physical power over you, the chatter of the community can “talk” you to non-existence quite easily. To express this, Alice meets with some flowers who mistake her for a flower, lacking the ability to see beyond their world. While they appear to be friendly, as most moralists in life do, the flowers become quite aggressive and condescend towards her quite rapidly, only one young and innocent flower being able to see Alice for who she is and saying she liked her.

 

After dealing with the three blocking entities, Alice starts to meet the holders of the truth. She first meets with a caterpillar. Pretentious and wise, the caterpillar is resembling a guru who knows things, but whose overconfidence can do him harm. He asks Alice who she is and she says that she is not herself anymore. To our heroine, everything is confusing, but not to the caterpillar. What is remarkable in the conversation between Alice and the caterpillar is that she says she doesn’t remember things the way she used to. And that is a sign of a strong philosopher, who, after dealing with the façade of the world and coming in contact with truth speakers, does not see the world, and more specifically, their own world the way they used to. A truth seeker does not get stuck in the way they perceived the world when they were younger, he reconsiders his past and his present, seeing them through a different prism.

 

After taking the big step and overcoming her caterpillar-caused frustrations, Alice meets with one of the deepest characters of Wonderland. She meets the cat. The cat, whose presence is mysterious and captivating, is a representation of the detached “madman”. He knows so much about the world, that the world would see him as the complete outsider. And the cat is OK with that – he knows that he can’t dumb himself down for the world and that those who refuse his truths won’t grasp them, regardless of how much he may try. This is why, he has no intent to make himself like the others. Alice is scared, she says she does not want to go among mad people, but the cat explains that there almost everyone is mad. If the outside world is fake, then the underworld, or Wonderland is the truth. However, given that in Wonderland the creatures use the same language as they do in the outside world, one needs to understand that “madness” in Alice in Wonderland actually means “right”, “correct” or “true”.

 

Meeting the cat is just an introduction to “madness” , as the next characters she meets are the Mad Hatter and the rabbit who were having the maddest of mad tea parties. Right from the start, the couple seems odd: they celebrate when somebody doesn’t have a birthday, an indicative of the fact that people can be more than it says on their birth certificate. The fact that the Mad Hatter celebrates any other day but one’s birthday shows that a person who sees the truth can choose very well who they are. A philosopher selects and makes his own choices about who he is, he does not follow society’s dictates. It’s about choice rather than giving in to defaults.

Alice is asked whether she wants “more” tea, but she replies that she cannot ask for more, given that she did not have any yet. However, the Mad Hatter replies with a deep thought, that you can have more of nothing. With this, he puts the pin on life as acceptance: this sentence is a brief, but compelling discourse on the nature of the anti-element, of the fact that an element can have two types of opposites, the non-element and the anti-element and that they are not equal and the same.

When Alice mentions the cat, mayhem breaks and it takes some time until things cool down. The rabbit tells Alice that if she does not think before she speaks, she should not speak. This remark is in relation to the fact that language is extremely important, not only in the Looking Glass, but everywhere and that words are the tools which we use not only to understand, but also to shape the world and establish its boundaries.

 

Tired and fed up, Alice wants to go back home and she finds a path that she thinks will take her home. However, a dog shows up and sweeps it away. The dog is a usually a symbol of trust. In this case, it can show the creator’s thoughts that one needs to trust the road to cohesion in thought and that once that way is taken, there is no going back.

At this moment, Alice realizes that there is more to the truth than wisdom. As she is angry and sad, she says that she gives herself good advice, but has a hard time following it. She thus understands the difference between the abstract knowledge and the actions one needs to take. At this moment, the cat appears again, being the right companion for a mood where you have a hard time taking things seriously.

Alice learns that all the ways are the queen’s ways and that there is no way reserved for her. She must either take the path between the roads or follow one of the queen’s paths and see what happens. Having little choice, Alice takes a path that goes to the queen’s castle. The first interaction she has in the land of the queen is with some playing cards whose job it was to paint all the roses red. The queen is angry and downright furious all the time and asks for the roses to be painted red for no apparent reason. She is a symbol of a tyrant (not necessarily a political one) who forces everyone to do as she wants, otherwise placing bad consequences on others. She is the symbol of the unhappy person who is always forcing others into her unmotivated unhappiness. The white rabbit Alice chased throughout the story finally shows up for his job at the court and we understand why he was so scared all the time. Not only from a narrative point of view – because he had a job, but also from a psychological point of view: the rabbit who can never be on time is a symbol of a person living in the shadow of a tyrant who can never be pleased and who imposes their requests through aggression and blackmail.

The king, a character who has a just heart does not seem to have much power, but he influences the way things happen in a strong manner. He is the person shaping people’s minds and events from the background, he is a symbol for the unknown people who stay in the shadows of rulers and who influence the world for good, without the tyrants to notice or to change. He is a hidden gem.

 

Right when Alice was going see the queen’s fury, she remembers that she had some mushrooms in her pockets, which she eats and grows large enough to scare the queen for a while. She then has the courage to tell the queen everything she thinks about her, before turning small again.

This is a powerful symbol, the mushroom here is a placeholder for consciousness, relating maybe to experiences people have when exploring their minds with the help of different substances. When taking in mushrooms, representing her own true consciousness, Alice not only grows a lot, but finally sees the world for what it is and dares to speak the truth in a manner that resembles the way the cat talks, detached and ironic.

But such a position does not last for long (just like the cat always quickly disappears) and Alice must run away from all the chaos that is around her. She runs through a tunnel resembling the cat (the highest expression of “madness” – again, in the looking glass “madness” being “reason” and “truth”) and finally goes back to her outside self.

 

While Alice did learn about truth in her excursion in Wonderland, she must get out or else she can end up badly. She puts order in her consciousness and structures information, but in the end, she must get out because living only inside your mind can have some bad consequences. We need the world, but we also need “dreams” or deep thoughts to be able to navigate the world. To learn about the workings of the world, one needs to go in their consciousness, that is where structured and uncensored information lies. Through systematic learning, a philosopher will get to be able to merge the two: the physical world and the truth.

 

We may not live only on one part of the world, just like we can’t have a completely careless life. In the end, if it wasn’t for problems, we would not go down the rabbit hole. In the end, this is what the white rabbit is: he is someone full of problems and dysfunction. Alice follows him and discovers the truths which will help her have a full and virtuous life. In a way, he is a symbol of the cross one bears to eventually find the truth.

 

The book and film have been analyzed in a variety of ways: as a fairytale, as a biography, as a social satire, many of the names of the characters being references to movers and shakers of the time, but also from a mythological (referencing Persephone, Proserpina and even Ēostre), theosophical, philosophical and even a mathematical point of view (for example, the cat could be a reference to the “catenary”, which is a shape of a perfectly flexible chain suspended by its ends and acted on by gravity).

 

Anyway you look at it, “Alice in Wonderland” is a profound story about how curiosity might lead to trouble, but how it is also highly rewarding, as, as Alice would say, “it would be so nice if something would make sense for a change.” And that’s the veritable mission of the philosopher.

 

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