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Literature and Its New Animal Phenomenologies

Alice’s Non-Anthropocentric Ethics: Lewis Carroll as a Defender of Animal Rights

L’éthique non-anthropocentrique d’Alice: Lewis Carroll, défenseur du droit des animaux
Anna Kérchy

Résumés

Les contes de fées fantastiques victoriens de Lewis Carroll, Les Aventures d’Alice aux Pays des Merveilles (1865) et De l’autre côté du miroir (1871) offrent de nombreuses reformulations fictives de la relation ambiguë des Victoriens avec les animaux. Le chat de Cheshire, qui disparaît et réapparaît sans cesse, représente les qualités répressives idéologiques et subversives poétiques du langage qui distingue le sujet humain parlant des animaux (Lecercle 1994) ; la course saugrenue menée par le Dodo est une répétition absurde de la lutte sans merci décrite dans la théorie évolutionniste darwinienne (Lovell-Smith 2007), tandis que le loir de la théière renvoie à la façon dont la possession de certains animaux pourrait indiquer une appartenance à une classe sociale (Ritvo 1987). Ces animaux incarnent une étrange altérité et semblent incompatibles avec le soi humain picaresque d’Alice qui est progressivement déstabilisée par ses nombreux changements de forme, au point d’être tantôt méprise pour une fleur, un serpent ou une bête mythique. Malgré cela, Carroll décrit son héroïne avec des attributs animaliers à connotation positive – elle "aime comme un chien" et elle est "douce comme un faon" (1887) – qui font écho au programme éthique présent dans ses romans où l’on sent émerger une relation solidaire et égalitaire entre les différentes espèces. Leur non-différence est ainsi conçue telle que Derrida l’envisage dans sa vision déconstructiviste et post-humaniste (2008). Partant des enjeux politiques et pragmatiques de l’allégorie animale à l’époque victorienne, cet article démontre comment l’on peut détecter, au sein même des récits d’Alice, des références au soutien de Lewis Carroll en faveur du droit des animaux, y compris à son engagement contre la vivisection explicitement dénoncée dans ses pamphlets et librement transposée dans des écrits du merveilleux en apparence apolitiques.

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  • 1 Often Victorian advocates of animal rights and vegetarianism were involved in mysticism like Anna K (...)

1Lewis Carroll’s Victorian nonsense fairy-tale fantasies Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) provide plenty of fictional reformulations of the Victorians’ ambiguous relationship with animals. The vanishing and reappearing Cheshire Cat represents language that is both ideologically manipulative and poetically subversive and is supposed to distinguish the speaking human subject from the animals whose inarticulate growling and purring never makes sense in terms of human symbolisation (Lecercle 1994), while the mouse’s tale/tail allows the challenging of linguistic conventions to be mapped upon the body of a rodent endowed with anthropomorphic storytelling skills which endlessly bears the human heroine. The Caucus Race led by the Dodo is an absurd rehearsal of the Darwinian evolutionary theory’s controversial notions of natural selection and the competitive struggle for survival that turns Alice’s inward dream journey into a ‘public adventure, a jocular reflection on the natural history craze’ (Lovell-Smith 2003, 385). Creatures like the Rocking-horse-fly, the Bread-and-butter-fly or the Snap-dragon-fly echo how nineteenth-century science books for children use the fantastification of wonders of nature for didactic purposes (see Keene); whereas the impression of Alice being a stranger in Wonderland is enhanced by John Tenniel’s mimicking natural history illustrations since the original ‘scientific images of animals in their own natural environment normally do not include the presence of a human, especially a well-dressed little girl’ (Paolozzi). The dormouse in the teapot evokes how the ownership of certain pet animals could indicate class belonging with reference to prestigious feral commodities of Victorian bourgeoisie (Ritvo 1987, 85), and the tales’ use of a hierarchy of animals—with an aristocratic caterpillar, a gentlemanly White Rabbit, frog and fish footmen, the workman Bill the lizard, along with exploited hedgehogs and guinea pigs—corresponds to the competitive Victorian class system (Crutch 18). Alice’s kitten turned Red Queen to transport her owner to Looking Glass land likely reminded Victorian readers of the mysterious powers of animal magnetism exercised to hypnotise patients during the era’s (pseudo)scientific projects of mesmerism which held a special interest for advocates of animal rights.1 The heroine’s spying on elephants mistaken from a distance for bees tied in with the popular subgenre of travelogues about hunting for exotic beasts or the fascination with the spectacularisation of strange beasts in newly opened public menageries like London Zoo founded in 1828 by means of an endorsement of modern colonial conquest (Berger 22). The Wonderland animals’ curious self-definition along the lines of the fear of being eaten or the desire to eat has been interpreted in psychoanalytical terms as a fictional reformulation of the author’s alleged eating disorders (Mavor 103) or of the remorseful intimacy he cultivated with his child friends (Lovell-Smith 2003, 410), but from a sociohistorical perspective it could also be related to the emerging vegetarian movement.

2Since ambiguity is the fundamental feature of Wonderland and Looking-Glass land—which are alike in challenging the hierarchy of dream and reality, order and chaos, sense and nonsense—it is no wonder that boundaries between different species become blurred in both fictional realities through a curious cast of characters containing an overwhelming variety of uncategorizable animal hybrids. These features mock mythological beasts like the Gryphon in the first and the Unicorn in the second book, or monsters born from linguistic innovation including nonsensical neologisms like the Jabberwock and the Bandersnatch, portmanteau word coinages like the ‘slithy toves’ who are ‘slimy and lithe’ and ‘something like badgers, something like lizards, and something like corkscrews’ (226), literalised metaphors like the March Hare, and tongue-in-cheek cultural references like the mock turtle (a turtle portrayed with the head of a calf as a reference to a popular dish of the era, a soup made from calf head as a substitute to the expensive turtle meat). There are real and fake shapeshifters like the baby transformed into pig and the elephants mistaken for bees, semi-anthropomorphised creatures (like the frog and fish footmen, Humpty Dumpty the egg man, or the elegantly dressed White Rabbit), and fictitious textual creatures emerging in the poems embedded in the narrative (haddock, crocodile, bat, eel), as well as animals which are not mentioned in the text but just figure on John Tenniel’s drawings (apes, toucan) complementing the narrative designed from the beginnings as an illustrated picture book. One could go on for long with the catalogue of this mad menagerie including a mouse, a lizard, a dog, a hedgehog, a flamingo, a goat, a dormouse, a deer, a serpent, an eaglet, a guinea pig, and beetles, among others. On the whole, taking all these categories into consideration, I counted as many as 86 different animals in the two volumes!

3Much in line with the recognition that the title of Wonderland’s first manuscript version (a giftbook for Alice Liddell handwritten and decorated by Carroll) Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (1863) points more towards a Darwinian scientific interest in earthworms than an enchanting make-believe fairyland, the grotesque human characters based on playing cards and chess figures are outnumbered by the strange, chimera-like animal characters. These reflect the Victorians’ interest in non-human beings, the complex and controversial significations associated with animals which could alternately serve as ‘food, symbol of masculine or national power, zoological spectacle, scientific specimen, even domestic pet’ (Mayer 432).

4While their literary nonsense genre toys with the elusive nature of meaning, the Alice books also offer a ‘fanciful and nonsensical perversion of any illustrated natural history’ of the Victorian era (Lovell-Smith 2007, 29) in so far as the Carrollian hybrid creatures resist the scientific classification the late nineteenth-century naturalists were so obsessed with. Collecting plant and animal specimens, fossils, ferns, and beetles, arranging them taxonomically and displaying them in emerging museums and menageries represented for Victorians a feat of the rational human mind capable of ordering the nonhuman world as a means of asserting cultural dominance over lesser beings. However, taking a stand against the epistemological endeavours of the era, in his anti-vivisectionist pamphlets Carroll spelt out a harsh criticism of his time’s ‘lust for scientific knowledge’ that exploited animals for vain professional gain.

5In his ‘Some Popular Fallacies About Vivisection’ (first published in June 1875 in the English magazine Fortnightly Review) Carroll challenged with logical arguments the rhetoric of scientific research as yet another petty tyrannical discourse (Mayer 431) that he parodied via the nonsensical language games permeating his twisted replicas of Victorian England in the fictional realms of his fantasy novels. Although he never questioned mankind’s superiority over animals (influenced by the Biblical notion that animals existed ‘explicitly for man’s benefit and rule’) and even ridiculed humanitarian attempts at an entirely peaceful interspecies cohabitation as childish illusions (‘Never may we . . . light a candle in a summer evening for mere pleasure, lest some hapless moth should rush to an untimely end!’—he pondered (1191)), but he was very strongly against using animals for scientific experiments like vivisection. He claimed that man has no right to inflict suffering on any fellow being without proper justification. The usual scientific reasoning justifying animals’ exploitation with the project of ‘lessening future human suffering in the name of “boundless philanthropy”’ was regarded by him ‘a mere dummy set up to amuse sentimental dreamers’ (1192) and debased as a hypocritical argument covering up men’s selfish, ruthless epistemophilia, a will to dominance via the quest for higher knowledge. He passionately rejected as a fallacy the presumption that the pain of the innocent creatures, animals, is different from the agony of men, reminding all of the findings of Darwinian evolutionary theory concerning the kinship of living beings. ‘A strange assertion this from the lips of people who tell us that man is twin-brother to the monkey!’ (1192)

  • 2 The combination of scientific and moral arguments was typical in pamphlets supporting the goals of (...)

6His counterarguments based on moral grounds2 criticised the torture of animals because of the demoralising, brutalising effects produced on human observers and operators involved in these abominable acts. He recalls with horror some anatomical students’ fiendish behaviour on mimicking in derision the moans of a dog suffering on the dissecting table. In his account, the traditional human/animal distinction got reversed. The dog on the dissecting table was perceived as a sentient being, while the onlooking gentlemen turned into degenerate brutes devoid of feeling, spiritually degraded, their humane sympathies deadened and their ferocious, bestial thirst for blood and power awakened. The anxieties about the beast within the self and the bestiality involved in the human pursuit for knowledge resonate with the era’s popular anecdotes about ‘Darwin-the-collector [The Scientist of the era] transmogrified into Darwin-the-animal’ such as when, during a memorable expedition, he had to put a precious beetle into his mouth so that he could have both hands free to gather more specimens, while tearing off bark on his all fours (Schmitt 39).

7For Carroll the recognition concerning the exchangeability of the human-animal experience and interspecies kinship provided ground for the voicing of ethical considerations and socio-political criticism. In his ‘Vivisection as a Sign of the Times’ (published in Pall Mall Gazette, February 12, 1875), in a rather apocalyptic tone Carroll questioned if intellectual power earned at the expense of compassion for powerless beings could actually contribute to the progress of human civilization. He went as far as to link practices of the physiological laboratory with scientific, political, economic, and domestic exploitation (Mayer 435), and to draw a parallel between the oppression of animals, labourers, women, and children. The pamphlet concluded with a grim prophecy of the time: ‘When the man of science, looking forth over a world which will then own no other sway than his, shall exalt in the thought that he has made of this fair green earth, if not a heaven for man, at least a hell for animals’ (Carroll 1875, 171).

8This intellectual anxiety concerning the vulnerability of non-human living beings is in fact a cornerstone of posthumanist / humanimal studies, not only with reference to the ethical responsibility humans must show towards non-human life forms, but also because the experience of vulnerability based on inability—the capacity to feel pain, the fear of suffering, of the inevitability of mortality that belongs to the finitude of life, as well as the impossibility of direct communication with other species, the alienation from the rest of the world—are regarded as a shared trans-species experience (Wolfe 2010, 46). Paradoxically, as Zoe Jaques stresses, posthumanism—strategically circulating around interrelated issues of likeness and difference—both exposes, undermines, and ironically re-establishes boundaries between the human and non-human, to ‘facilitate a dialogue as to how those borders might become more fluid’ (Jaques 3). Carroll’s protest against the inhuman, violent treatment of animals as a gesture to attempt to minimalise the pain inherent in being is a precursor of seminal twentieth-century philosophical thought, like Jacques Derrida’s ethics of compassionate responsibility (2002, 395) encoded in the humane relation to all fundamentally remote ‘others’ like ourselves.

  • 3 Jed Mayer calls attention to the chronological simultaneity of Carroll’s composition of his anti-vi (...)
  • 4 The SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) was founded as early as 1824. The Royal (...)

9I wish to argue here that Carroll’s dilemmas concerning the humanity of men prone to the bestial exploitation of cognisant, sentient animals, and his challenging of the hierarchisation of disinterested human intellect and dumb animal innocence—best epitomised by his question ‘Is the anatomist, who can contemplate unmoved the agonies he is inflicting, for no higher purpose than to gratify a scientific curiosity, or to illustrate some well-established truth, a being higher or lower, in the scale of humanity, than the ignorant boor whose very soul would sicken at the horrid sight?’ (Carroll 1875, 167)—are already lurking in a fictionalised form in his Wonderlands. His in-between creatures refuse to be dominated by aggressive taxonomical knowledge claims through celebrating nonsensical ambiguity manifested in what we could call a human-animal ethics. Transient embodiments, shapeshiftings, elusive meanings overturn the tyrannical rule of human reason and reclaim the relevance of alternative perspectives of formerly powerless lesser life forms. We could go as far as to suggest that the clandestine animal rights activism carried out by Carroll’s fantastic fiction3 conventionally coded as escapist could have contributed via fictional means to important political steps in animal protection, such as the royal assent given to the Cruelty to Animals Act on August 15, 1876 (Mayer 444).4 The connection between Carroll the activist and Carroll the fantasist is reinforced by the fact, Paolozzi highlights, that the pamphlets were published under the penname associated with the fictional universe of the Alice books, whereas as a photographer and a mathematician-logician he used his birth name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.

10In his 1887 essay ‘Alice on the Stage’ commenting on the theatrical adaptation of his work, Carroll’s own description of his heroine with positive animal attributes—‘loving as a dog’ and ‘gentle as a fawn’ (225)—resonates with the ethical agenda outlined in his novels starting out from the multidimensional human-animal relationship that conceives of difference in a non-dual, Derridean (2002) way. Inspired by the Cheshire Cat’s advice ‘Whichever way you go, you are sure to get somewhere “if you only walk long enough”’ (67) and the Unicorn’s suggestion ‘If you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you’ (241), and ready to join any Lobster Quadrille she is invited to, Alice is the epitome of the curious wonderer/wanderer, the dreamer, the fantasist against all odds who is ‘getting so well used to queer things happening’ to her (68), willing to consider as a feasible possibility every delusionary reality-version presented to her. She open-mindedly shares a variety of different worldviews, and offers readers a model on how to empathically relate—via an ethics of trust and an ‘environmental philosophy’ (see Zimmerman)—to the non-human otherness lurking within ourselves, welcoming unpredictability, uncertainty, non-sense and embracing the miraculous multiplicity of animalistic-humanistic being along with an empathic relationality.

11Initially Wonderland animals embody a curious otherness radically incompatible with the picara’s human self that she—a proper Victorian bourgeois little girl—insists on preserving as a homogeneous fixed entity. (The most obvious example is the Cheshire Cat, a carnivorous double of Alice’s pet Dinah, a messenger figure between dream and reality realms, with an elusive grin indicating its ambiguity as pet and predator, as inedible magical being.) However, Alice gradually accepts to become affected by animal alterity throughout her journey. She is not particularly flattered when her numerous shapeshiftings result in her misidentification as a flower, a serpent, or a mythical beast. Yet her frustration is not a result of her confrontation with the animalistic, but rather comes from the anxiety caused by the destabilisation of her identity. It is of pivotal importance that the inevitable identity crisis as a central theme of the text is voiced by Alice upon her animal-encounters which make her consider the stakes of interspecies kinship throughout her recurring self-questioning ‘Who am I?’ and its latent subtext ‘Who are we?’ and ‘How are we related to each other?’.

  • 5 The caterpillar is literally transformed into a butterfly in the finale of Tim Burton’s 2010 3D CGI (...)

12Most memorably, she is reminded of the uncertain status of her selfhood by the Caterpillar, a metamorphic creature of Wonderland itself.5 The Caterpillar occupies a dominant role in the interspecies exchange both verbally and visually. In Carroll’s text he offers Alice a nonsensical lecture on the unpredictability of identity and reality, while the matching Tenniel illustration ‘envisions a type of court scene in which the lowly Alice presents herself to the imperious insect’ (Carter) she is contemplating with eyes full of amazement, the only features visible of her face. With a curious twist, the observer and observed positionalities become interchangeable, ‘the identified or named ones [animals] now claim the status of her [human’s] identifiers or namers’ (Lovell-Smith 2007, 39). Nature itself toys with the explorer’s sense of self, foregrounding the fundamentally metamorphic quality of all living beings. The radical alterations in Alice’s size certainly make her question the human-animal hierarchy given that shape shifting implies being ‘repositioned on the food chain’ (Lovell-Smith 2003, 387). Turning large or small holds the stakes of becoming eater or eaten, and reminds all of vulnerability and empowerment, mastery and enslavement being transient states for anthropomorphic animals and animalistic humans alike.

13When she meets a puppy in Wonderland, Alice is shrunk tiny to the size of a potential prey, and hence necessarily hesitates about the safety of this encounter (‘she was terribly frightened all the time at the thought that it might be hungry’ (46)), yet she spontaneously (‘hardly knowing what she did’ (46)) starts to play with the dog and later daydreams about teaching it tricks once she grows again. Although the dog seems more beastly than domesticated, Alice knows that it is just her altered perspective that makes it seem monstrous, for she keeps on addressing the puppy as ‘little thing’ (46) and ‘dear little puppy’ (47). I believe that her initiation of a game with the animal is not just a strategy to escape fatal danger or to aggressively manipulate a lesser being as some critics suggest (Paolozzi, Auerbach 37), but more likely a benevolent attempt to establish a mutually satisfying interspecies connection based on a shared desire to play. (Becoming animal via games fostering affective bonds emerges in a reversed way in Through the Looking Glass, when imaginative Alice embarks on typical children’s pretence play shouting: ‘Nurse! Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyena, and you’re a bone!’ (147)).

14On Tenniel’s illustration the dog’s face mirrors Alice’s hesitation overwhelmed by playfulness. It is fascinating to read the democratic, egalitarian take on human-animal relationships in the Alice books along the lines of the intermedial image-text dynamics, the creative complementary/contradictory correspondences between Carroll’s story and Tenniel’s drawings always lurking ‘within the peripheral vision of the reader, effortlessly incorporated into the reading process’ (Wong 140). Alice’s words and the Puppy’s look/s match to undermine the hierarchisation between text and illustration, between human and animal alike.

15Alice’s comparison of playing with the puppy to ‘a game of play with a cart-horse’ (47) also holds exciting subtextual implications concerning the cultural history of animal studies. Dogs unleashed in baiting matches and drought animals brutalised by their drivers were two of the Victorian era’s most widely abused helpless creatures. Contemporary animal rights activists fought for their welfare through a variety of means, including political pamphlets like Carroll’s or popular children’s books such as a seminal example Black Beauty. Anna Sewell’s novel published in 1877 advocated the fair treatment of horses through allowing readers to slide in and out of horse-consciousness, blurring the human/animal divide.

16The puppy as the only non-speaking Wonderland animal might be put in parallel with a transverbal episode of Looking-Glass where Alice and the fawn enjoy a tender companionship in the ‘woods where things have no names’ and hence all beings apparently escape the violence involved in language, the ground of normative scientific investigation debased as despotic by Carroll. Via this alternative, non-discursive, nonsensical classification based on empathic interspecies relationality, a child can be ‘grouped with other organisms “like any other natural species”’ (Dusinberre 7), hinting at humanity’s new, post-Darwinian position, as merely that of a ‘nameless’ clever animal (Lovell-Smith 2007, 39).

  • 6 Harriet Ritvo points to the borderline status of human-animal studies, a disciplinary marginality t (...)
  • 7 This parallel is maintained by the 1951 Disney animation adaptation of Alice in Wonderland in which (...)

17It is indeed tempting to draw an analogy between Victorian children and animals based on their shared marginality.6 As Mayer opines, popular children’s writer Carroll’s expertise at ‘subverting the paternalist logic which subordinated children to the whims of their powerful elders’ results from his ‘concern with the plight of the powerless’ (Mayer 429) that was extended into other areas as well, including the solidarity with the revolt of the non-human against human oppressors. According to John Berger, in the first stages of the Industrial Revolution, along the lines of Cartesian philosophy, animals were considered soulless machine-like entity, while poor children were regarded as little brutes. Both were treated as expendables, reduced to raw material and exploitable productive unit ‘devoured’7 by a labour market that made no difference between the status of the draught animal and the little chimney sweep.

18In more privileged spheres, it was a nineteenth-century bourgeois innovation to keep animals as pets disregarding their usefulness, isolating them from the outside world in small family units, feeding them artificial food, limiting their exercise, anthropomorphising them, and treating them like spoilt children. The Victorian upper-middle class attitude to their pets was characterised by an affective relationality previously reserved for human offspring. Owners selfishly revelled in the joys of becoming a special man only to the pet fully dependent on its master for physical needs (Berger 13). As a result, the reproductions of animals became a regular decor of middleclass childhood—in toys, magic lantern show, and storybooks.

  • 8 As Zoe Jaques puts it, via their ‘innate connection’, ‘child and animal overlap, address, and refle (...)

19Advancing from background to figure, increasingly popular animal characters populating children’s fiction have been given a voice to teach a ‘radically posthumanist’ moral lesson on how to ‘value heterogeneous beings outside of debilitating hierarchies’ (Jaques 13), to reclaim the rights of those who have been deprived of ‘human’ agency: children and animals alike. The Victorian toy makers’ shift from the symbolism of the hobby horse to the realism of the rocking horse (Berger 22) coincided with the Victorian social scientists’ move away from the idealism of the Romantic ‘cult of the child’ and the era’s antagonistic myths—which defined children either as innocent angels or as animalistic savages—heading towards a more realistic, scientifically rigorous, in-depth (philosophical, artistic, medical) exploration of the authentic inner world, the mental and psychic functioning of minors (Shuttleworth 3).8

20The adventures in Wonderland easily read as an account of a child’s troublesome socialisation through encounters with animals which often served as the first test subjects for techniques of social conditioning researched by contemporary scientific endeavours. As a female child, Alice is aligned with unknowable Nature but she also stands for a ‘querulous human observation of nature as mysteriously other’ (Lovell-Smith 2007, 47). Hence she is just as an intermediary figure as the ambiguous animal creatures she meets. This interspecies identification also emerges in Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno (1889)—a somewhat saccharine tale that includes arguments for animals’ having a reasoning capacity, a soul, and consequent rights—in which the Professor refers to the child protagonists as ‘small human animals’ (452).

21The human-animal analogy does not stop here. In Wonderland, Carroll notoriously toys with the notion of the autobiographical animal. The Dodo is the most obvious fictional self-portrait, paying a nod to the speech impediment of the stammering author who could only pronounce his name as Do-do-dodgson. A hybrid creature, whose dysfunctional wings are complemented by human hands holding a walking cane and a thimble offered as prize to Alice, the Dodo is an odd mixture of civilised intellectual supremacy and natural vulnerability. As a memento of mankind’s involvement in the extinction of an entire species, it also reminds of the ‘embodied finitude we share with nonhuman animals’ (Wolfe 2009, 570). The White Rabbit, frequently interpreted as another authorial self-projection, a literal embodiment of Derrida’s phrase ‘l’animal que donc je suis’ (the animal that I am, that I follow, that I am to follow) and the emblematic icon of the philosopher’s seminal thoughts on human-animal studies (Derrida 2002), acts as Alice’s guide towards her experience of animal alterities. Yet the White Rabbit is also the most human of all the Wonderland creatures due to his sophisticated anthropomorphic looks (he wears a waistcoat decorated by a pocket watch, and on Tenniel’s illustration even holds an umbrella in a dandyish pose), his cultivated speech, and a name capitalised like a human formal name. Ulrich Knoepflmacher distinguishes between the ‘fragile animal personations’ of Carroll (the White Rabbit, the anxious Mouse, and the tearful Mock-Turtle) and other creatures like the Caterpillar or the Pigeon which are ‘imports from a Darwinian world of aggression, voracity, and sexual selection’ (Knoepflmacher 176 in Lovell-Smith 2007, 41). For Lovell-Smith, even the image of an egg collected by a child—emptied, sterile, dangerously fragile, ultimately broken—stands for another Carrollian self-depiction (2007, 49).

22These autobiographical animals who fluently speak a nonsense language stupefying Alice communicate a Derridean message, suggesting that

we are not the auto of autobiography, we are always radically other, already in—or ahuman in our very being—not just in the evolutionary, biological, and zoological fact of our physical vulnerability and mortality, which we share as animals, with animals, but also in our subjection to and constitution in the materiality and technicity of a language that is always on the scene before we are, as a radically ahuman precondition for our subjectivity, for what makes us human. (Wolfe 2009, 571)

  • 9 Jean Jacques Grandville’s Les Métamorphoses du jour (1828–29) comprised seventy scenes in which ind (...)

23In spite of the similarities, the anthropomorphisation of animal figures does not erase the animal features to produce parodies of stereotypical attitudes of cultured humans as social beings like in nineteenth-century French caricaturist Jean-Jacques Grandville’s popular animal drawings9 or today’s Walt Disney animations. Animal alterities prevail to subvert representational confines: on Tenniel’s images we witness animals running out of the story, lurking as silent observers in the background, or returning the gaze and facing the onlooker human with the blindspots and faulty perspectives involved in her act of looking, on what we could regard as metapictures. As Ashley Elizabeth Paolozzi puts it, Wonderland functions as an inverted anti-zoo: when Alice is trapped in the White Rabbit’s house, the animals gain voyeuristic priorities over the displayed human. Like the example of Derrida’s nudity reflected in his cat’s eyes demonstrates, the gaze of animals holds a capacity to make us reevaluate the concept of our own natural corporeality (Derrida 2002, 372). In Carroll’s Looking-Glass land, the Lion eyeing Alice spontaneously challenges Alice’s humanity by asking ‘Are you animal—or vegetable—or mineral?’ (242), a question that is not only a reference to a Victorian parlour game but also a destabilisation of her existential stance. The Unicorn’s response ‘It’s a fabulous monster!’ denies her reality status to push her towards fictional realms where mythical beasts and flesh-and-blood human girls have an equal amount of co-dependent empowerment, attested by the Unicorn’s words to Alice, ‘I’ll believe in you if you believe in me’ (241).

24In Berger’s words, humans and animals contemplate each other through an abyss of non-comprehension, looking with fear, ignorance, or surprise, when a human is ‘being seen by the animal he is being seen as his surroundings is seen by him. His recognition of this makes the look of the animal familiar. [but] The animal [also] has secrets specifically addressed to man’ (Berger 5). The appealing politics of Carrollian nonsensical realm resides in the recognition that these secrets do not necessarily have to be solved by scientific means supposing the supremacy of mankind, but the sanest choice might be the admission of our not knowing anything, of embracing uncertainty resulting from the multifocality of the human-animal pluriperspectivism.

25This ethical stance is reinforced quite explicitly in the preface of Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893) in a philosophical exchange between Lady Muriel and the Earl on a popular subject of Victorian parlour conversations. They voice a hesitation about the privileged status of Man as the only thinking animal with a monopoly of Reason, and ponder about the mental and affective agency necessary for the neatly coordinated action of a swarm of bees or a dance of ‘happy insects in this sunbeam for one hour of bliss, for no other object, that we can imagine, than to swell the sum of conscious happiness’ (690), and argue for the possibility of ‘animals having some kind of soul, which survives their bodily death’ (687). Because of this possibility the senseless infliction of pain upon animals becomes an ethically unpardonable act, yet an even ‘greater mystery than a man over-driving a horse’ (687) concerns the moral responsibility of the cat playing with the mouse, of animals causing suffering to each other. The capacity to feel pain and joy—proving the omnipresence of the immaterial essence of a spirit—emerges as universal trans-species attributes of all living beings and the ground of empathic relationality. The conversation’s ‘logical’ conclusion is grounded in imagination, suggesting that ‘the wisest answer . . . is to behold, we know not anything’ and a willingness ‘to accept anything [even the existence of ghosts, fairies, or animal souls] on good evidence that was not a priori impossible’ (689). (Embracing uncertainty as ‘part of the great Riddle’ (687) matches the novel’s oscillation between a realist plotline set in Victorian England and a fantastic plotline located in the world of Fairyland.)

26Critical consensus agrees that Carroll’s novels illustrated by Tenniel provide a commentary on the violent Victorian power struggle between humans and animals, in a chaotic fictional realm that is far from the utopian realms often embraced by children’s literature such as Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood where humans and animals can co-exist without any conflict (Paolozzi). According to Paolozzi, Alice’s unfavourable relationship with Wonderland animals is due to her own intrusive actions, willing to master and discipline the defenceless beasts she spontaneously treats as inferior to herself, while animals have nothing to do with a fairy tale’s magical helper figures and prove to be unhelpful in assisting her quest to return home to England. In James Kincaid’s view this troubled relation reflects Victorian society’s invasion of animal spaces paralleled with the invasion of lesser human civilizations throughout colonisation (Kincaid 97). In Lovell-Smith’s reading the theme of kindness to animals becomes inverted through Alice’s misguided relationship with victimised Wonderland inhabitants (Lovel-Smith 2003, 387), while Nina Auerbach calls Alice’s general attitude towards the animals she encounters ‘often of casual cruelty’ (Auerbach 37). These arguments are often supported by the parodic travesty of Isaac Watts’s pious poem about the busy bee transformed into a Wonderland verse about the predator crocodile child ‘welcoming little fishes in with gently smiling jaws’ (23)—a poem that is, I believe, interpreted far too seriously along the lines of a ruthless interspecies struggle for existence (Lovell-Smith 2003, 386) disregarding the playfulness and non-moralizing intent of nonsense poetry.

  • 10 In Wonderland’s Pool of Tears episode, Alice attributes affective agency to the mouse by projecting (...)

27I find equally unconvincing the other frequently quoted proof of Alice’s torture of animal, the Wonderland episode in which she frightens the Mouse by telling him about the hunting skills of her pet cat Dinah. In my opinion, Alice’s mentioning her feline companion is a proof of her fondness of animals that surfaces at the very beginning of her adventures when instead of excitement she feels homesickness for leaving her cat at home. First, Alice’s addressing the mouse in the only French sentence she knows ‘Où est ma chatte?’ is a benevolent attempt at approaching the foreignness of the other and an ironic commentary on the failure of human language (as well as an obviously sexual allusion to the female body). Then, the girl’s pondering about ‘the right way of speaking to a mouse’ (26), her willingness to change the subject so as not to hurt the animal’s feelings, her apologizing, and her soothing of her interlocutor all underline how this interspecies verbal exchange proves to be a lesson in empathy for Alice who considers her partner in non-human discourse as a sentient being.10 The episode is in line with the parallel Gillian Beer (2015) draws concerning the rhetorical similarities between Alice’s polite conversations with Wonderland creatures and Socratic dialogue’s attempt to explore others’ views of moral, philosophical issues by means of gentle questioning.

28According to Lovell-Smith, Alice ‘challenges the Romantic Wordsworthian notion of child as pure hearted innocent, growing up nurtured by a fundamentally benevolent nature’ (2007, 28). I believe that Carroll’s little bourgeois heroine does not deny the era’s popular connection between noble English manners and kindness to animals. Her accidental cruelty, criticised severely by many, results from her childish carefreeness coupled with a willingness to empathically learn more about the other; and a sign that Carroll, despite writing a fairy-tale fantasy for children, is no idealist. This realistic attitude also surfaces in Sylvie and Bruno (1889) that combines the trademark Carrollian nonsense fairy-tale fantasy with a social novel’s fictionalised thematisation of the era’s popular religious, social, philosophical, and ethical dilemmas, fused with a pinch of romantic sentimentality. In a telling episode when Sylvie is deeply disturbed by the sight of a dead hare during a forest walk, sobbing in an agony of grief over the corpse she laments how humans can hunt down such a lovable and sinless creature and how a benevolent God can allow them to do so.

‘Oh, my darling, my darling!’ she moaned, over and over again. ‘And God meant your life to be so beautiful!’ . . . keeping her face hidden on the ground, she would reach out one little hand, to stroke the poor dead thing, and then once more bury her face in her hands, and sob as if her heart would break . . . Very reverently she kneeled down, and kissed the dead hare; then rose and gave me her hand, and we moved on in silence. (461)

29However, just a few minutes after this passionate episode she begs to stop the forest walk delighted by the sight of some lovely blackberries she longs to joyously munch on, allowing the narrator to comment on the intense but brief sorrow of children. In a less sceptical reading, Sylvie’s choice of food is a nod in the direction of the popular Victorian vegetarian movement. Fruit emerges as a more peaceful dietary alternative to the cannibalistic consumption of flesh.

30Meat-eating in itself, however, is not a sin in Carroll’s eyes. With an odd combination of down-to-earth pragmatism, an Anglican deacon’s religious self-confidence, and a conjoint belief in humanist supremacy and in the need to minimise the suffering of others, he argues in the preface of Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893) that whereas Man holds a God-given ‘absolute right to take the lives of other animals, for any reasonable cause, such as the supply of food’ (517) but the unnecessary infliction of pain for mere pleasure, advantage, scientific curiosity, or sports is morally unpardonable. Carroll’s argumentation is surprisingly similar to posthumanist philosopher Kelly Oliver’s lines: ‘We can eat only what we need to eat in order to nourish ourselves . . . or we can kill animals for the sake of conquest and mount our trophies on the wall, dissect them, write about it in journals, or train them to jump through hoops of fire on a Las Vegas stage.’ (3) This distinction between ‘eating well’ and ‘devouring the other in poor taste’ serves the basis of Derrida’s ethical agenda making a precarious differentiation between the two senses of the term ‘trophe.’ Food and trophy symbolise two opposing attitudes one can adopt towards the others, either in terms of nourishing relationships or aggressive ties built on conquest and domination. The first results in healthy, wholesome assimilation, the second in a display of triumph and empowerment gained at the expense of the victimised. Hence, the questions we can ask on the ‘literal level of hunting and killing animals or humans’ leads to dilemmas on the ‘figurative level about assimilating speech and cultural conventions’ (Oliver 126). However, the choice is not so obvious between the alternatives of a virtuous relationship with/in a healing environment or a hunger for violence, war, and victory, since we cannot always distinguish that clearly between nourishment and trophy. Still, for Derrida, and very likely for Carroll, a constant vigilance over not only ‘what’ but also ‘how’ and ‘why’ we eat (and/or assimilate the other) permits us to claim to be a vegetarian in the soul, even if we eat meat (Oliver 3).

31Alice ‘struggles to view certain animals as more than just food-stuffs’: the fantastic ‘talking food’ creatures she encounters—the baby turned into a pig, the Queen transformed into a sheep, or the Mock Turtle, a ‘communicative soup recipe’—are not merely anthropomorphic animals but hybrid creatures who ‘draw attention to their actual animality and its relationship to humanity’ (Jaques 49). Zoe Jaques thinks that the voice given to these consumed creatures unsettles the distinction between the carnivorous humans and the animals they devour, and encapsulates Carroll’s overall project to ‘displace the naturalised assumption of human dominion over the animal kingdom’ (50).

32The humanimal blurrings and contacts hold ethical stakes besides their playful ambiguity. After the Caucus Race Alice is meant to feed the animals comfits but eventually her human superiority is questioned as she receives a prize, an empty little thimble, from the animals. The mythical Jabberwock embodies a monstrosity incompatible with humanity but on Tenniel’s illustration it is wearing an all-too-human bourgeois waistcoat; and although it threatens the lives of all local creatures yet Alice regards its killing by a human hero the epitome of nonsense: senseless, incomprehensible, unacceptable. The Cheshire Cat is a carnivorous aggressor who ‘should be treated with respect because it has a great many teeth’ and very long claws potentially prying on Alice, however the severed head left behind its vanishing body reminds of animals’ victimisation by vivisection, while its animal gaze watching over Wonderland reflects humans both as radically alien others and also similar in their possibly becoming eater and eaten alike.

33Surprisingly for a non-moralising nonsense fairy-tale fantasy testing the limits of imaginability, Carroll’s arguments against the violence inflicted on animals take shape in the name of an ethically charged notion of ‘love’, an affective relationality entailing the decision not to hurt the other even if we could, and a wondrous promise, or an unvoiced agreement not to cause pain to anyone else. This loving, supportive attitude towards differing species is a matter of self-conscious, self-reflective negotiations of one’s mental automatisms, revisions of formerly fossilised assumptions, of cultural practices which, turned into customs, make us blind to their prejudiced inhumanness and speciesism.

34In a telling episode, when the Mock Turtle mentions whitings to Alice, the human girl first instantly associates the marine fish with the dish she regularly eats as food for dinner, but soon checks her own logic hastily to interrupt her comment mid-sentence, as she has second thoughts realising how the whiting figured as the snail’s eager dance partner with a will and desires of its own in the Lobster Quadrille. Hence, Alice quickly adopts the viewpoint of the Mock Turtle and the other sea creatures who see the whiting as a fully fledged, sentient, cognisant citizen of the wondrous realm she attempts to accommodate to throughout her brief visit. Alice’s self-correction results in a mishearing that amuses readers and paves the way for a rapid evolution of the whiting from food object to autonomous real person and fictitious textual creature mobilised by wordplay: ‘“Yes,” said Alice, “I’ve often seen them [whitings] at din—” she checked herself hastily. “I don’t know where Dinn may be,” said the Mock Turtle, but if you’ve seen them so often, of course you know what they’re like.”’ (107) The Mock Turtle’s etymological explanation of the whiting’s name—it polishes its boots in a reversed world, under water where it must use whiting instead of blacking—reflects the twisted discourse-based hyperlogic of Looking-Glass land, but the civilised act of cleansing clothing in the natural environment of the unmappable sea also serves to anthropomorphise animals while blurring the human/non-human divide, and on a metaphorical plane might even ironically represent the intellectual’s attempt to whitewash humanity’s humaneness as well as the struggle to cleanse the reputation of animals so easily reduced to the status of bestial victimisers or subhuman victims.

  • 11 During the writing of this essay the author was supported by the János Bolyai Research Scholarship (...)

35Via an elaborate conjoining of the escapist playfulness of make-believe fantasy and the political responsibilities of everyday lived reality, the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon’s invitation to join the square dance might eventually address Carroll’s contemporary Victorian readers just as much as his heroine Alice, encouraging all to empathically revise customary viewpoints and exchange aggressively domineering interspecies relationships for morally grounded, mutually enriching humanimal interactions. As a result, the Mock Turtle escapes ending up as a soup and performs a little jig for our shared delight.11

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Notes

1 Often Victorian advocates of animal rights and vegetarianism were involved in mysticism like Anna Kingston who studied medicine in Paris so that she could argue her vegetarian and anti-vivisection views with a firm medical background. She became Britain’s first lady doctor advising on women’s health issues, edited a women’s magazine, was at one time president of the London Lodge of Mme Blavatsky’s British Theosophical Society, and later initiated her own Esoteric Christian Union. (see Pert)

2 The combination of scientific and moral arguments was typical in pamphlets supporting the goals of the NAVS in newspapers or handbills, as in Dr Arthur Beale’s ‘Why I oppose vivisection’ in Animals’ Friend Magazine 2 London (1896 Jul): 174–75.

3 Jed Mayer calls attention to the chronological simultaneity of Carroll’s composition of his anti-vivisection pamphlets and his writing his most ambitious nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark in the same year 1876. Mayer opines that the lengthy poem subtitled ‘Agony in Eight Fits’ is a nonsensical response to the agonies of the vivisection laboratory vividly evoked in contemporary papers, journals, and pamphlets. The scientific quest for knowledge and power is ridiculed in the form of an absurd sea journey, in which an eccentric cross-section of English professionals set off in search of an elusive hybrid creature. In Mayer’s view, the poem and pamphlet outline the same argument in different genres, by exposing the close ties between professional advancement and the advancement of science, between the accumulation of knowledge and the accumulation of wealth and power.

4 The SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) was founded as early as 1824. The Royal R was added to the name of the charity when Queen Victoria became its patron in 1840. The London Vegetarian Society was formed in 1888 (based on the merging of two former societies, the Vegetarian Society and the London Food Reform Society. The third main society of the age that demonstrated this was the National Anti Vivisection Society (NAVS) founded in 1875.

5 The caterpillar is literally transformed into a butterfly in the finale of Tim Burton’s 2010 3D CGI cinematic adaptation of the Alice novels reinterpreted as Bildungsroman where the moral/mental growth of the protagonist as a happy ending is emblematised by the cliché sentimentalised image of the pupa’s biological development into an insect.

6 Harriet Ritvo points to the borderline status of human-animal studies, a disciplinary marginality that allows the study of animals to challenge settled assumptions and relationships within representations and among fields of knowledge. (Ritvo 2007, 275)

7 This parallel is maintained by the 1951 Disney animation adaptation of Alice in Wonderland in which the poor little oysters devoured by the Walrus and the Carpenter are depicted in shell bonnets and cribs to align them with human babies. (Jaques 57)

8 As Zoe Jaques puts it, via their ‘innate connection’, ‘child and animal overlap, address, and reflect one another’, ‘each subjected to an awkward dialogue as to what is “real” and what is “represented”’ (13). With symptomatically recurring questions about their knowledgeability, the nineteenth century established the frameworks of our current understanding of childhood and animality.

9 Jean Jacques Grandville’s Les Métamorphoses du jour (1828–29) comprised seventy scenes in which individuals with the bodies of men and faces of animals performed a satirical enactment of the human comedy.

10 In Wonderland’s Pool of Tears episode, Alice attributes affective agency to the mouse by projecting her own feelings on the rodent, because she assumes a basic similarity between humans and animals. But she also realises the need to nuance her first intelligent guesses and acknowledge the individual differences of the animals’ non-human psychic responses to reality. Moreover, her particularly sensitive responsiveness to the feelings of others makes her empathically mime feral emotions. In this rare humanimal encounter, human and animal affects mirror each other. On the level of the text, as Alice is inquiring about the way out of the water, the mouse too appears in her eyes ‘rather inquisitive’; when the animal ‘seems to quiver all over with fright’ the girl is afraid herself that she might have hurt its feelings; and when Alice sees the poor little creature tremble with passion she is agitated in her turn about the misunderstandings involved in their conversation.

11 During the writing of this essay the author was supported by the János Bolyai Research Scholarship of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

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Anna Kérchy, « Alice’s Non-Anthropocentric Ethics: Lewis Carroll as a Defender of Animal Rights »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 88 Automne | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 22 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/3909 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cve.3909

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Anna Kérchy

Anna Kérchy is an Associate Professor at the English Department of the University of Szeged, Hungary. She holds a PhD in Literature from the University of Szeged and a DEA in Semiology from Université Paris VII, as well as a Habilitation degree in literature and culture from the University of Debrecen. Her research interests include intermedial cultural representations, the post-semiotics of the embodied subject, interfacings of Victorian and postmodern fantastic imagination, gender studies, women’s art, fairy tales, and children’s/YA literature. She has authored two monographs: Alice in Transmedia Wonderland. Curiouser and Curiouser New Forms of a Children’s Classic (McFarland, 2016) and Body-Texts in the Novels of Angela Carter. Writing from a Corporeagraphic Point of View (Mellen, 2008). She (co)edited 5 essay collections on postmodern reinterpretations of fairy tales, the literary fantastic, the iconology of law and order, the cultural history of Continental European freak shows, posthumanism in fantastic fiction, as well as an EJES special journal issue on feminist interventions into intermedial studies, a Bookbird special journal issue on Translating and Transmediating Children’s Literatures and Cultures, and an Americana special issue on Interspecies Encounters in Postmillenial Filmic Fantasies.  E-mail: akerchy@ieas-szeged.hu.
Anna Kérchy est professeure agrégée au département d’anglais de l’université de Szeged, en Hongrie. Elle est titulaire d’un doctorat en littérature de l’Université de Szeged et d’un DEA en sémiologie de l’Université Paris VII, ainsi que d’une Habilitation à diriger les recherches en littérature et culture de l’Université de Debrecen. Ses recherches portent sur les représentations culturelles intermédiales, la post-sémiotique du sujet incarné, l’interaction de l’imaginaire fantastique victorien et postmoderne, les études de genre, l’art des femmes, les contes de fées et la littérature pour enfants et la littérature de jeunesse. Elle est l’auteur de deux monographies : Alice in Transmedia Wonderland. Nouvelles formes étranges d’un classique pour enfants (McFarland, 2016) et Textes corporels dans les romans d’Angela Carter. Écrire d’un point de vue corporéographique (Mellen, 2008). Elle a (co)édité 5 recueils d’essais sur les réinterprétations postmodernes de contes de fées, le fantastique littéraire, l’iconologie du droit et de l’ordre, l’histoire culturelle des spectacles de monstres en Europe continentale, le posthumanisme dans la fiction fantastique, ainsi qu’un numéro spécial du journal EJES consacré aux interventions féministes dans les études intermédiales, un numéro spécial de Bookbird sur la traduction et la transmission de littératures et de cultures pour enfants, et un numéro spécial d’Americana sur les rencontres inter-espèces dans les fantasmes cinématographiques postmilléniaux. E-mail : akerchy@ieas-szeged.hu.

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