A psychology student with years of experience working amongst those with dementia, depression, ADHD, and other common mental illnesses.
Can the characters in this children’s book actually be pointing out serious illnesses in society?
Lewis Carroll may very well have been addressing odd behaviors seen in people that during that time would have been brushed off as “mad” when they actually had something mentally wrong with them. That’s where the Cheshire cat’s famous phrase, “We’re all mad here” comes into play.
Behaviors from main characters in the tale reflect mental illnesses
Written in a time where society did not accept defined mental disorders, Alice in Wonderland can possibly be hinting at mental disorders we now recognize today. Alice in Wonderland, the classic tale about a young girl finding herself in a strange world full of talking rabbits and inanimate objects coming to life, has raised questions on the reason behind the madness. While some view Alice in Wonderland as giving insights on brain function, it has been observed that many characters in this timeless tale depict various mental disorders. Behaviors that are seen in characters such as Alice, the Queen of Hearts, and the Mad Hatter bare an uncanny resemblance to common mental illnesses. The actions of these main characters can be correlated with common disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, attention deficit disorder, and various eating disorders. Can the characters in this children’s book actually be pointing out serious disorders in society? It is possible that Lewis Carroll was creating characters to explain behaviors he had seen in mentally ill people. Odd actions of characters have been brushed off as either odd personality traits or just details in Alice’s strange dream, but there is more evidence pointing towards the characters portraying mental issues. While there is more evidence pointing towards the mental illness notion, it is important to look at the story from both perspectives.
'But I don't want to go around mad people,' Alice remarked. 'Oh, you can't help that,' said the cat; 'We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'
— Lewis Carroll, 94
Eating Disorders Seen in Alice
The most highlighted odd aspect of the book is the fact that Alice is so obsessed with controlling her food consumption and her size altogether. If you think about it, it is a very weird concept to have this be such a core focus in a children’s book. A young girl being occupied by her body size so much that it causes mental breakdowns is not something you often see. Ultimately, it seems as though Alice has the idea that she can fix her problems by controlling her eating habits. Eating disorders demonstrate an unhealthy relationship with food and a need to control something when one feels as though they have lost control of everything else in their life. For example, anorexia nervosa is a condition where the individual is never satisfied with their size and so they opt to eat small portions of food so they can control their size. If they drop too much weight or gain they go into a panic. People with this disorder have a major issue with their body image where they see themselves differently than others see them (Essentials of Abnormal Psychology, 287). This is very similar to how Alice has been feeling and acting throughout the story. The idea of the portion of the food or drink controlling one’s size drastically is first introduced in the beginning when Alice falls down the rabbit hole and spots a bottle labeled “drink me” on the table of this strange new world. In order to fit through the small door and ultimately solve her problem, Alice must drink this potion to shrink in size drastically. This concept of drinking or eating to solve her problems appears several times throughout the tale, including the time Alice was not content with being small and she drank another potion to make her grow. This resulted in her growing too large for Mr. Rabbit’s house and eventually, she ate a piece of cake to shrink again (Carroll, 53-61). Just like those with anorexia nervosa become panicked when they change in size, Alice became panicked when she was not the size she wanted to be. When Alice became too big to fit into the door, she panicked and cried so much that she created a pool of tears (Carroll, 26). It’s not to say that Alice is worried about her size concerning her weight, but it is easy to draw a connection between her anxiety to change in size constantly and common eating disorders we are familiar with today. She is obsessed with her body image and she is still just a little girl.
As shown below, mental disorders were not really recognized until the 19th century
|Period in time||belief of causes of illness||treatment of illnesses|
450- 350 BC
imbalance of the 4 humors
bleeding or blood-letting to restore balance
work of devils/ witches
biological, chemical, etc.
therapy, medicine, other modern treatments
Queen of Hearts showing Narcissistic Personality Disorder
'And who are these?' said the Queen, pointing to the three gardners who were lying round the rose-tree...
'How should I know?' said Alice, surprised at her own courage. 'It's no business of mine.'
The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, began screaming, 'Off with her head! Off--'
— Lewis Carroll, 120
ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Other mental illnesses such as ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Narcissistic Personality Disorder are clearly seen in the behaviors of the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts. Borderline personality disorder, which is characterized by unstable moods and behavior, is evident in the Mad Hatter’s fluctuating emotions towards other characters. Being one of the most common personality disorders, Borderline Personality Disorder is mostly characterized by a lack of control over one’s emotions. People who suffer from this disorder have major issues with any relationship due to their instability and impulsivity (Essentials of Abnormal Psychology, 427). Relating the Mad Hatter to this disorder, you can see at their tea party, he quickly changes moods from anger towards the hare for putting butter on his watch to being peaceful while pouring tea on the mouse. You could also argue that the Mad Hatter displays signs of ADHD, a neurodevelopmental disorder that entails hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity (The Essentials of Abnormal Psychology, 483). The Mad Hatter’s ADHD is depicted in the way he cannot hold a conversation with Alice without changing the subject to something entirely off-topic. The Queen of Hearts demonstrates Narcissistic Personality Disorder through her actions towards others and her interpretation of herself. The Queen of Hearts views herself as so much better than everyone else and thinks she deserves some sort of special treatment. Exaggerating one’s self-importance while being obsessed with getting attention are both signs of a narcissistic personality disorder and the queen demonstrates both of these traits (The Essentials of Human Psychology, 432). These characteristics are successfully depicted in Alice’s first encounter with the Queen when the Queen yells for Alice’s head to be cut off because she felt Alice was trying to make her feel stupid. The Queen, not knowing who the cards were, asked Alice and when Alice told her it wasn’t her business to know, the Queen’s lack of empathy for Alice’s ignorance and her hurt pride leads to her nonsensically demanding an end to this young girl’s life (Carroll, 120).
Another Interpretation: Alice in Wonderland Gives Insights on Brain Functioning
Despite these examples of mental disorders depicted in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, there is another approach to deciphering the oddities in this tale. It has been observed that this story is perhaps giving insight into how the brain works as a whole. Alice may be discovering the wonderland of the brain, dealing with consciousness and memory. This approach interprets the part of the book where the duchess’ baby turns into a pig as insight concerning how the brain works during sleep. During sleep, it is said by neuroscientists that we connect different memories to create one bigger picture and this can be compared to Alice drawing connections to a pig and a baby which made no sense to her at the time, but things seldom make sense in our dreams. Memory insights are also seen in Alice’s interaction with the White Queen. The White Queen often gives Alice insight towards the future and while memory is often associated with the past, it also deals with helping one for the future (Robson). In another part of the tale, it is demonstrated how people give meanings to the sounds of words. The sounds that make up the name “Humpty Dumpty” do very well portray a good sized figure who is perhaps not very balanced on his own feet. Before you even see this character, the name can give you insight on his personality. This is a play on how our minds give meanings to sounds to further create an image of a figure. While these few examples from the book can be compared to concepts such as memory and consciousness, Alice In Wonderland goes into much more detail that implies something much more complicated than simple insight with these two concepts. On top of this, there is simply not enough solid evidence for these assumptions. The few examples pulled from the book to support this approach can have several meanings and it is a reach to say they are implying memory and consciousness when there is insufficient information in these portions of the book to back it up. On the opposing side, pretty much every character’s behavior can easily be traced to some commonly known mental disorder.
Furthermore, with the numerous examples of behaviors of several characters throughout the book, mental disorders are definitely present in this story, whether Lewis Carroll intended to imply this or not. In the time period that this book was made, people were not exactly aware of mental disorders. Lewis Carroll may very well have been addressing odd behaviors seen in people that during that time would have been brushed off as “mad” when they actually had something mentally wrong with them. That’s where the Cheshire cat’s famous phrase, “We’re all mad here” comes into play. While mental disorders were not identified back then, it can be interesting to look back on this story’s characters and see the connections between their characteristics and personality disorders we now know of today. Mental Disorders can be seen in characters such as Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts. Eating disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder are all mental disorders reflected from the behaviors of these main characters.
© 2020 Eden Harbour