Looking Glasses:

Sexual Dangers and Curious Responses in Carroll’s Alice Books and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, Part Two

Yet the Alice books do not celebrate our heroine’s change, as suggested by Alice’s several disturbing mirrorings with older women. Three of the four major women in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There are volatile, domineering, and gluttonous – or at least negatively influenced by food. While not particularly volatile, the fourth woman – the White Queen – is nevertheless also gluttonous. She is constantly speaking of food, repeating to herself “Bread-and-butter, bread-and-butter” when Alice first formally meets her (Through the Looking Glass 170) and offering to hire Alice and give her “jam every other day” (TLG 171). At Alice’s own royal banquet, held after she herself become a queen, the White Queen sings about preparing a fish dish (TLG 231) and finally disappears into a “soup-tureen”, having seemingly drowned in her own soup (TLG 232-233).

The Duchess in Wonderland also has a problematic relationship with food. When Alice first sees her, the Duchess is tossing the baby she holds “violently up and down” and singing “I beat him when he sneezes”. Then, “flinging the baby at [Alice]”, she promptly departs (AAW 54-55). Upon meeting the Duchess again under more pleasant circumstances, Alice decides that “it was only the pepper that had made her so savage when they met in the kitchen” (AAW 78). Alice thus encounters two women of power – a queen and a duchess – who both suffer negative consequences because of food. The White Queen’s obsession with it leads to her disappearance into soup, while the Duchess’ proximity to pepper and cooking seems to be the reason for her volatile and violent behavior.

The White Queen’s counterpart in Through the Looking-Glass, the Red Queen, shares to some degree her opposite’s obsession with food, while also displaying a domineering disposition. Within seconds into their first meeting the Red Queen begins her cultivation of Alice’s manners: “Look up, speak nicely, and don’t twiddle you fingers all the time” (TLG 140). She continues to drill Alice throughout the novel, imperiously instructing her (“Speak when you’re spoken to!” (TLG 220)) and quizzing her (“Can you answer useful questions?…How is bread made?” (TLG 223)).The Red Queen not only molds Alice into a queen herself, but also attempts to cultivate in Alice an obsession with food. She does so both by suggesting how bread is made is a “useful” question and by telling a thirsty Alice, “I know what you’d like!…Have a biscuit?” (TLG 143). Alice takes the offering, “though it wasn’t at all what she wanted” (TLG 143), and so the Red Queen forces an inappropriate eating experience upon Alice, forcing Alice to eat for the sake of eating and not for the sake of hunger. The Red Queen grooms Alice, who does eventually display the very same adverse qualities as the other queens.

The most terrifying of these four women is also the most powerful: the Queen of Hearts. This queen is portrayed as irrationally temperamental and single-mindedly violent. She repeatedly screams variations of “Off with his/her/their head/heads!” ten times in the four chapters she appears in Wonderland, yelling out these orders for the smallest of infractions, for she “had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small” (AAW 75). The importance of food to the Queen is evident when she holds an entire trial to determine who stole her tarts so that she can have that person executed. The Queen of Hearts “made [these] tarts” (AAW 96) herself, suggesting a close connection with the food. In this trial, which takes up the final two chapters of Wonderland, we can see a clear linkage between womanhood, irrational violence, and food.

In Carroll’s Alice books, Alice’s own control of her size-changing through eating only leads to her eventually joining the ranks of these madwomen. In Wonderland, Alice herself becomes hungry for the first time at the Queen’s trial – she sees in the courtroom “a large dish of tarts” which “looked so good, that it made Alice quite hungry to look at them” (AAW 95). Alice thinks to herself, “I wish they’d get the trial done…and hand round the refreshments!” (AAW 95). Now that Alice has learned to control the effects of food upon her body, she can consume food for her own benefit, and is thus able to safely desire it. No one is served tarts, and so unsated, Alice’s hunger continues to grow. At the trial Alice sees the Mad Hatter bite “a large piece out of his teacup”, and “Just at this moment Alice [feels] a very curious sensation” (AAW 98). Alice soon figures out that “she was beginning to grow larger again” (AAW 98). Eventually Alice grows to “her full size”, at which point she confronts the Queen and her royal deck, exclaiming, “Who cares for you? …You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” (AAW 108). Alice’s unchecked hunger has empowered to the point where she can challenge the ultimate authority of Wonderland.

While Alice becomes both hungry and powerful in the ending of the Wonderland, it is in the ending of Looking-Glass where she gains the other more fierce qualities of her “role models”. Having reached the final square, Alice the pawn becomes Alice the queen – symbolic for her transitioning into adulthood. She first becomes domineering and irritable while waiting to enter  her own royal hall: upon hearing someone address her as she waits, Alice “turned round, ready to find fault with anybody” (TLG 227). She questions the servant “angrily” and “almost stamped with irritation” at the doorman’s reply (TLG 228).

Alice eventually becomes violent as well, a behavior she exhibits in relation to food. Alice is “introduced” to a leg of mutton, which she then attempts to carve, “taking up the knife and fork” (TLG 229), though she is prevented from following through with her intended action. Alice succeeds with the pudding, however, as she “conquered her shyness by a great effort, and cut a slice and handed it to the Red Queen” (TLG 230). She does this even after having been introduced to the pudding, in fear that “we shall get no dinner at all”, even though the Red Queen tells her “it isn’t etiquette to cut any one you’ve been introduced to” (TLG 229-230). Alice’s hunger has led her to take violent action toward a sentient creature – which even speaks to her in protest (“What impertinence!” (TLG 230)). Carina Garland, in her essay “Curious Appetites”, states that Alice’s newfound capability “to kill to eat” “aligns her with the other fearsome women (the Duchess, the Queen of Hearts, the Red and White Queens)” and “emphasises the notion of vagina dentata” (Garland 35), a clear signifier of Carroll’s own fear of female sexuality. Queen Alice eventually becomes powerful and bold enough to destroy her own dinner party – and perhaps her own guests. Unable to stand the crazed absurdity of the dinner, Alice “jumped up and seized the tablecloth with both hands: one good pull, and plates dishes, guests, and candles came crashing down together in a heap on the floor” (TLG 234). Having become a queen of a Looking-Glass kingdom, the sexually awakened Alice no longer needs the metaphoric dream imagery that had previously couched the truth of her experience.

Considered in terms of pubescent sexual symbolism, we can easily apply a psychosexual reading to Carroll’s Alice novels. After gaining control of her own sexual experiences (her previously life-threatening size changes) by learning exactly how she was being affected by them (or how exactly she was affected by different kinds of eating and drinking), Alice finally becomes sexually aroused (hungry), angry, powerful, dominant, temperamental, and violent. In maturing (or becoming a queen), Alice has overcome the threat of her previously uncontrollable sexual self by learning to command that part of herself. In doing so, she gains sexual agency and desire, but also becomes a new version of the antagonistic image of woman found in Carroll’s books. Considering this fearful imagining as what a young girl’s transition into puberty is like, it is no surprise that Carroll ends his second and final Alice book on a note of melancholy and loss: “Echoes fade and memories die: / Autumn frosts have slain July. / Still she haunts me, phantomwise” (TLG 241). The child friend Carroll knew is now only a ghost, and her purported innocence and purity (“July”) have been “slain” by the adverse effects (“frosts”) of her entering puberty (“Autumn”). Alice’s conquering of the sexual threats she faces is not cause for celebration in Carroll’s Alice books, but cause for loss and mourning.

Conversely, Arkham Asylum ends not on a note of loss, but on a note of hope. Like Alice, Batman must learn to confront his sexual self, which threatens him with destruction. While in Alice’s case this threat originates from her entering into unknown worlds symbolic of the unfamiliar experiences brought on by puberty, for Batman the threat is brought on by his repressing his sexual side, locking away desires he believes bizarre and terrifying into an asylum for the insane. Fortunately, Batman gradually recognizes that the inmates are manifestations of himself, and as he continues to confront each foe individually, he grows less afraid and gains more and more control. Whereas Batman behaves with extraordinary vulnerability in his earlier conversations with the Joker and in his distressing encounter with Clayface, he does eventually regain his authority over these inmates, claiming his “kingly robes”, in the words of the Joker (AA 64).

Batman’s acceptance of the sexuality he’s tried so hard to repress begins with his nonviolent encounter with the Mad Hatter. In this moment of mirroring, Batman recognizes Arkham’s inmates as symbolic manifestations of what is within him. The Mad Hatter puts the  matter rather bluntly to him in a speech: “We’re inside a huge head that dreams us all into being. Perhaps it’s your head, Batman. Arkham is a looking glass. And we are you” (AA 42). Unlike his encounter with Clayface and other adversaries, Batman does not respond to the Hatter with any kind of violence, but instead simply listens, suggesting both a growing introspection and a dwindling of his fear.

After this encounter, Batman engages in his most brutal battle with the reptilian Killer Croc, which mirrors the tale told in the poem “Jabberwocky” in Looking-Glass. Garland states that “the hero of “Jabberwocky” uses his masculine prowess and his sword (representing the phallus) to kill the dragon, which is symbolic of female sexual desire” (Garland 33). Dragons have been a long standing symbol of male fear of an “aggressive, predatory female sexuality” (Garland 33), and Croc is an extension of that idea, “the Old Dragon of Revelations” (AA script 51). Though it doesn’t make it into the final version, Morrison’s description of Killer Croc in his script calls for “a small and pretty locket around his all but nonexistent neck” (AA script 49), signifying the deformed man-beast’s feminine association.

Like the young hero of “Jabberwocky”, whose “vorpal blade” goes “snicker-snack”, leaving the Jabberwock “dead” (TLG 132), Batman also pierces Croc. After being hurled out a window, Batman catches hold of a “jackal-like gargoyle” (AA script 49) and drags himself to the roof where he sees “the statue of St. Michael and Satan” (AA script 50) that rests overlooking Arkham. It is at this moment that Batman recognizes the “mythical intensity” (AA 50) of his being, and comes a step closer to accepting the inmates as a part of himself. Batman takes St. Michael’s metal spear, and eventually spears Croc with it. St. Michael’s victory over Satan, referred to as “the dragon” in the Bible’s account of their battle (Revelations 12:8), is another manifestation of a phallic victory over dangerous female sexuality, a manifestation obviously imbued with a greater spiritual significance.

However, unlike the boy hero in “Jabberwocky” or St. Michael in Revelations, Batman does not slay his foe. Instead, he merges with him. While Batman does impale Croc with the spear (though without the intention of killing him, as that goes against Batman’s code), the spear “is pushed into Batman’s side” while he is “trying to support the huge weight” of Croc (AA script 51). The two foes become joined, “linked like Siamese twins” (AA script 51), until the spear snaps and they each fall back. This moment is, according to Morrison’s script, evocative of “the image of the Serpent/Christ…a medieval allegory which Jung interpreted as being symbolic of ‘an overcoming of the unconscious’” (AA script 52). Batman and Killer Croc become one in a moment of violence, piercing, and blood, and from that spiritually and sexually charged instant Batman emerges psychologically healthier and stronger. Batman has overcome his “unconscious” repression of his sexual self, first by recognizing the Arkham inmates as parts of him, and then by bonding with that part of his, as symbolically depicted in the dual piercing of the spear. Alex Boney, in his article on Arkham Asylum, says that the book complicates “many of the binary absolutes and oppositions we’ve come to expect from superhero books” through both “inversion and mirroring” (Boney 1). However, this moment of merging between Batman and Croc is neither an inversion nor a mirroring, but instead a moment where the binary between Batman and his foes is momentarily dissolved. Batman finds the truth of himself in bloody union. His acceptance of this truth means that “Dragon and Man are now one whole being”, and Batman so attains a “new-found dominance over the spirit of the Arkham House” (AA script 63).

Batman’s final moment in overcoming his previous anxieties is a moment of compassion. In the graphic novel, an Arkham doctor has weaned Two-Face off of his coin onto die and eventually Tarot cards, in an attempt to rid him of his reliance upon the coin to make all his major decisions. However, the unintended consequence of this is that Two-Face is now unable to make any basic decision, like going to the bathroom, without consulting Tarot cards. Batman, unimpressed with the doctor’s efforts in “curing” Two-Face, tells her that “[it] seems to me you’ve effectively destroyed the man’s personality, doctor” (AA 19).

Batman’s final act in Arkham Asylum is to return Two-Face’s coin to him, effectively restoring him to his true self, allowing Two-Face to be “made whole by the holy coin” (AA script 64). Batman gives Two-Face the coin so that he can “decide what to do with [him]” – in other words, to decide whether he will be free to go or whether he is to be killed by the Arkham inmates. Though this act seems mad, Two-Face does determine that Batman “goes free” (AA 65) – even though his coin lands on the scarred side, which should mean Batman’s death. Batman’s act of compassion to his foe is met in kind by Two-Face’s own “act of defiant compassion” (AA script notes 65), Two-Face having “transcended destiny and  made himself free, if only for this one time in his life” (AA script 66). By showing empathy for a psychosexual repressed part of himself – which Two-Face symbolically represents – Batman is able to partially heal what he has kept repressed in the asylum for so long.

The psychologically harrowing experiences of Alice and Batman – two individuals frightened by their own sexually, one a child coming into puberty, the other a man who has repressed his sexual self – both result in people far more in control and aware of themselves. Morrison’s text is an endeavor to have Batman “purified and purged of negative elements” (AA script notes 66), to allow the character to overcome the damaging repression he exhibited in the late 1980’s and reclaim his mythic roll as dark avenger while not losing himself as a man. Carroll’s texts are expressions of his own fears, not only of female sexuality, but of losing a person he knew as a friend to puberty, and he uses the character of Alice and the worlds of Wonderland and the Looking-Glass kingdoms to cope with the changes in his relationship to Alice Linddell. Morrison mirrors Carroll’s work, but creates a text with a healthier outlook on sexuality, one not about a child but about a damaged man, who – like Alice – matures into a fuller version of himself.

References:

Auerbach, Nina. “Alice and Wonderland: A Curious Child.” Victorian Studies 17.1 (1973): 31-47. JSTOR. Web.

Boney, Alex. “Grant Morrison, Architecture, and Mythology: Arkham Asylum.” The Comics Journal. Oct. 2010. Web. <http://classic.tcj.com/superhero/guttergeek-column-arkham-asylum/>.

Carroll, Lewis, and John Tenniel. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ; And, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Ed. Hugh Haughton. London: Penguin, 1998. Print.

Garland, Carina. “Curious Appetites: Food, Desire, Gender and Subjectivity in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Texts.” The Lion and the Unicorn 32.1 (2008): 22-39. JSTOR. Web.

Garnsey, Peter. Food and Society in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.

Morrison, Grant, and Dave McKean. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. New York, NY: DC Comics, 2004. Print.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nikolai Fomich is a writer and teacher in Philadelphia. He received his Master of English degree from Rutgers University, where he wrote his thesis in linguistics. His interests include linguistics, literature, comics, film, history, religion, and politics. He has written for several comic sites, including Bleeding Cool, Sequart, and Monkeys Fighting Robots, as well as many other non-comic related news publications. He is currently working on several projects, both academic and creative. His current academic focus is on the use of perspective in early nineteenth century novels. He is also working on a history of DC comics and media, as well as essays on several superheroes. Among his creative projects are The Colorblind Cannibal, Uhuru, and Jimmy Lin. You can follow Nikolai on Twitter @brokenquiver.

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