Alice in Wonderland: Obsession & Sublimation

Eddie Ejjbair
4 min readDec 24, 2022

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was inspired by a girl called Alice Liddell, the daughter of one of Carroll’s colleagues at Christ Church Oxford. Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was a career mathematician and part-time poet/ photographer, who would, in his capacity as family friend, tell stories and take photographs of the three Liddell children; Lorina, Edith and Alice. Carroll’s interest in Alice has been the subject of a lot of speculation (and a couple books; including Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland), but we cannot make any definitive claims as to Carroll’s intentions. What we can say is that he was clearly obsessed with Alice, and that she served as a muse for ‘two of the most popular and influential stories in the history of children’s literature’ (Douglas-Fairhurst).

With a few ‘perhapses and ‘probablies’, Camille Paglia, in her introduction to the 1994 edition of Alice in Wonderland, writes that:

Carroll’s intentions were probably not overtly physical, like those of Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita, but perhaps it is naive to deny there was an element of sublimated, voyeuristic eroticism in his attraction to girls, with whom he may have secretly identified

Carroll, who suffered from a speech impediment (and debilitating shyness), felt more comfortable in the company of children than that of adults. In Katie Rophie’s novel, She Still Haunts Me — which is a convincing semi-fictional account of Carroll’s obsession — Rophie writes that Carroll, who ‘lived too much in his own mind’, admired the ‘charming’ ‘fierceness of imagination’ that came with youth.

To say that Carroll ‘identified’ with Alice might seem a strange statement. He was, after all, a rather staid individual — described as ‘orderly’ and ‘religiously adamant’, with a ‘stubborn attachment to the rules’. Alice, on the other hand, was, by all accounts, ‘a dark, wild, and tousled thing’ — the very opposite, in fact, of the Alice illustrated by John Tenniel. Upon seeing the illustrations, Carroll writes in his diary that:

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Eddie Ejjbair

‘Gradually it’s become clear to me what every great philosophy has been: a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’