Zoe Jaques on Alice Among the Animals

Dr Zoe Jaques gave a paper on 'Alice Among the Animals' at our Study Day, Alice in Space, on 25 February 2017 at Stapleford Granary. Here she explains some of her ideas.

Alice Among the Animals

Carroll’s Alice books are saturated with animals, both real and imagined. These are narratives, as we know, invested in pictures and conversations: illustrators have invariably been drawn to interpreting the books through their bizarre range of composite creatures, and almost every one of Alice’s conversations is either with, or concerns, an animal. Every chapter of Wonderland includes at least one animal interlocutor. Looking-glass is a bit broader, introducing dialogue with plants and eggs, too, but is equally invested in the animal question. In short, thinking about the Alice books necessitates thinking about animals, and, I would argue, it involves thinking about those animals in distinctly animal terms.

A fascination with the non-human animal has always been at the heart of philosophy. Understanding the self, in any guise, relies upon negotiating that selfhood through the lens of an ‘other’, of which the animal is perhaps the most evocative and compelling form. Such mediation on otherness, however, frequently works to serve the dominant order – in this case mankind – so as to position the animal as of an ideologically lower order and to reinforce the anthropocentric status-quo. The animal’s perceived lack of rationality and capacity for language has dominated a great deal of philosophical thinking about ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Carroll’s Alice books, however, trouble these boundaries in a world in which all creatures reason with Alice and challenge the basis human of supremacy. From the Mock Turtle, who exists only as a recipe, through to the pigeon, who exposes that one’s status as human or animal is merely a matter of perspective, Carroll’s fantastical creatures draw attention to their lived animality and its relationship to humanity. Such an interest is in keeping with Carroll’s biographical investment in animal rights. More surprisingly, his fantasy worlds suggest that young readers are especially capable of negotiating these ontological complexities, making them particularly suited to new form of fantasy that divulges the intricacies of human-animal relations. He does, after all, send his young heroine to ‘follow’ an animal down a rabbit hole, exposing her to encounters with all manner of beasts intent on destabilising her sense of self. Undoubtedly Alice struggles with the radical ontologies depicted here, but Carroll emphasises the value of that struggle, repeating and recasting the debate as she moves through her dream world. While many critics have argued that there is a cultural relegation of ‘the animal to children’s stories and children’s thoughts’ (H. Peter Steeves, introduction to Animal Others, 1999, p. 2), Carroll’s works demonstrate that the stories and thoughts of childhood give animal studies philosophy some of its earliest developments.

Zoe Jaques
Homerton College, Cambridge