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Alice Liddell of Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland photography criticism


Truth can be found in the psychology of an image.


            In 1899, Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams and sparked an obsession with psychoanalytic examinations of literary works, artistic works, and biographical studies, exploring the mind’s unconscious thoughts and motivations.

            Especially important to psychoanalytic critiques are the explorations of the significance of Carroll’s own childhood and his preoccupation with the childhoods of others, and the unconscious nature of Carroll’s personality made manifest through his acts of creative photography, which psychoanalysis approaches like dream interpretation, focusing on such terms of “wish fulfillment or fantasy gratification of desires.” Through a psychoanalytic analysis, the act of artistic creation is seen as acting out wish fulfillment and fantasies, and therefore much criticism has focused on what seems to be an inappropriate fascination in Carroll with girlhood – focusing on possible sources of Carroll’s repression, trauma, or potential neuroses, and more attention has been given to Carroll’s sexual identity. Carroll also took photographs of children “sleeping,” which could be taken as a manifestation of his unconscious desires (although a formalist reading would interpret the same as a solution to the problem of long shutter speeds), and his writings and other works show a fascination with altered states of consciousness.

            Psychoanalytic readings of Carroll’s images argue that he imagines realities not already extant; his photographs proving to be less a record of his life than a record of his fantasies. These scenes were staged to reference paintings or allusions from literature, invoking a theatre of symbolism, dress-up, and imaginary play. Carroll, unlike many other Victorian portrait artists, did not use props such as wings or halos to sentimentalize and desexualize the bodies of the girls that he shot without clothing, thereby obviously excusing their nudity and offsetting and allegorizing their reality. Instead, he more subtly plays out a popular style of the day and places the girls themselves in imaginative tableau – mythologizing and re-imagine their surroundings and context, as well as literally painting over and beautifying their extant realities. Modern critics therefore often assert that these images overstep the allowance of imagination; their ramifications seeping dangerously into real life.

            Central to the reception and many interpretations of “The Beggar Maid” are Freud’s writings introduced the notion that children possessed their own sexualities, which opened the door for many interpreters to the idea that Carroll may have been attracted to more than just the innocence of children. Although Carroll’s earliest biographers purposefully emphasized his relationship with children to emphasize what they felt to be an admirable quality in Carroll’s character, signaling his admiration of purity and innocence, Freudian studies took a much more critical stance on a grown man’s desire to befriend young girls. Due to a combination of the quirks in Carroll’s character, the number of revisions that his biographers underwent and the inability of those changes to adapt with changing societal values, and perhaps due to the fact that Alice in Wonderland is written as a dream, which Freudian analyses understand as an in-road to the unconscious thoughts and desires of its creator, Lewis Carroll and all of his associated works have been subjected to a staggering number of psychoanalytic analyses.

            Pointedly psychoanalytical readings of Carroll’s photography constitute the majority of critical scholarship for many legitimate reasons, but strangely, they may have been sparked by a work of satire. As an aspiring writer – “1933, when Anthony Goldschmidt published a four-page article in the New Oxford Outlook, “Alice in Wonderland Psychoanalyzed,” painting Carroll as a repressed pedophile, and Alice as full of Freudian imagery. (Leach 1999, 35) This article became highly influential in the world of Carroll studies, “tragic-comically,” as there is evidence to suggest that the article itself was not written entirely seriously. In attempts at understanding complex personalities, however, the irresistible appeal of drives, stages, and complexes often takes hold. In working to make chaos understandable, such simplification relegates to fiction that which has been drawn from the real, reduces historical character to caricature, and confuses agency with psychological affect.”

            This set of a flood of essays and psychological readings of Carroll’s work, including essays by Scilder, Grotjahn, Lennon, Gernsheim, Alexander Taylor, Virginia Woolf’s reading as Carroll’s character as unrecognizable split, repressed.

As Jenny Woolf Summarizes in her article, “Lewis Carroll’s Shifting Reputation”:


“We are reasonably sure that the little girls substitute for incestuous love objects,” wrote New York University professor Paul Schilder in 1938. The meaning of an illustration of a long-necked Alice is “almost too obvious for words,” psychoanalyst Martin Grotjahn offered in 1947. Similar analyses would appear as the literature on the Alice author grew. In 1945, Florence Becker Lennon advanced the case that Dodgson had had an unhealthy attraction to Alice with Victoria Through the Looking Glass, the first modern critical biography of him. “People have wondered what he did with his love life,” Lennon wrote. “Now it can be told. He loved little girls, but, like Peter Pan, he had no intention of marrying them.” (Woolf 2010)


            However, Carroll’s photographs could also be read problematic therefore not entirely for their content and over-sexualization of little girls, but for their denial of the sexuality of the girls and their representation of a denial of the full complexity of reality. Instead, they speak to a nostalgic gaze and misplaced projection of childhood, effectively robbing youth of their true character and independence, even if not literally harming them or stealing their innocence in any more explicit way.  In this light, the perfection of the child can be argued to be not an appreciation of beauty in the effort to bring oneself closer to God, but rather an avoidance and evasion of sin and guilt. Assigning the child as innocent and refusing to acknowledge its sexuality in any way simplifies and purifies not only the child, but our own relation to it. It creates a fantastical, misremembered world in.

            Traditional psychoanalysis has been criticized for being short-sighted in many ways, particularly in its assumption of a male perspective and lack of consideration for a female (or, in this case, Alice’s perspective). Thought most interpretations of Carroll’s life and work similarly speak over Alice, the 21st century introduced several new interpretations to Carroll’s story. (Read more: Feminist/ Queer)


1. Widely considered to be the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud’s thoughts and theories extend widely into almost all readings of Carroll’s photography.

2. Psychoanalytical readings of Alice in Wonderland and Carroll's photography attempt to uncover the makeup of Carroll's psyche and unconscious motivations that underlie his work.

3. Contemporary readings of Carroll's work are often psychoanalytic, as well. Carol Mavor, a literary (often feminist) critic, talks about the Victorian painters of the female nude who “imaged their naked women like children, without the telltale marks of development." (Mavor 1995, 16) She points to Fredrick Leighton’s Actaea, Nymph of the Shore, 1868 as being particularly like this image of Beatrice Hatch, in order to draw attention to the use of nostalgia in the paintings, and the act of looking to the past in the image as an aesthetic which allows it be much more explicit in its physicality than it otherwise would be able to. The women nudes are therefore innocent and sexualized all at once.

“Despite the fact that their bodies have been washed of the markings of “sex,” they are not unfeminine. Familiar signs of femininity are offered as emblems of reassurance for the male viewer; pose, transparent draperies, flowers, and so forth all connote the womanhood that is not there. As a result, their sexual difference operates like a fetish and is represented as being both there and not there, simultaneously absent and present." (Mavor 1995, 16-18)​

Mavor argues that, from its origin, the Cult of the Child is associated in essence with that of performance – there to perform for other people, to fulfill a need or desire, and not to act as themselves. It can perhaps be said that the Victorian Cult of the Child had further-reaching desires than to simply view the child as innocent – but was interested in watching the child perform narratives controlled by adults.

4. Many of the 20th-century biographers of Lewis Carroll were highly influenced by psychoanalytic thought. Virginia Woolf (pictured) wrote in a 1939 essay that Lewis Carroll was a grown man who, though perhaps repressed or starved of nourishment, purely and innocently “slipped through the grown-up world like a shadow, solidifying only on the beach at Eastbourne, with little girls whose frocks he pinned up with safety pins.” (Woolf 1948, 82) ​ Herbert Langford Reed, in his 1932 publication The Life of Lewis Carroll, incorrectly reports the number of pages missing from Dodgson’s diary, casts him as possessing differing sexual tastes, and concludes in his text that Dodgson had a split personality based on the fact that he occasionally wrote in purple ink. He suggests that all Dodgson’s relationships with girls ended at puberty, and even claims that Dodgson would only correspond exclusively with women above the age of puberty through the mail.

5. As Florence Becker Lennon wrote in 1945, “He was the last saint of this irreverent world…” (Leach 1999, 38) ​ As Karoline Leach wrote in her influential 1999 biography In the Shadow of the Dreamchild, “The Victorians had saints; the twentieth century has psychological disorders.” (Leach 1999, 35) ​ The public perception of Carroll changed drastically in a post-Freudian world. While his love of children had been interpreted in the Victorian era as a sign of his saint-like good-heartedness and love of innocence, 20th-century biographers viewed his love of a children as a more sinister trait. ​ This view of Carroll's character also influenced the readings of his photography. When Helmut Gernsheim published the first exploration of Carroll's photography, Lewis Carroll, Photographer, he corresponded with Florence Becker Lennon, and took her recently-published biography - in which she asserted that Carroll proposed marriage to Alice - as a main resource in shaping his own thoughts. ​ Gernsheim viewed Carroll's photography as an art, but because Carroll was an amateur, Gernsheim understood Carroll's photographs as reflection Carroll's personality more than an artistic statement. Gernsheim therefore took a psychological view of Carroll's work and intentions, and this same psychoanalytical lens was picked up when Carroll's work was curated by Edward Steichen and Phyllis Greenacre in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern and made more widely known in the mid-20th century. (Nickel 2002, 32)

6. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung warned that examining the artist’s psychology detracts from investigating the psychology of the work of art and argued against solely focusing on the individual experience in favor of looking at why a work of art might have a collective and enduring appeal, and why this might be.  This image can, therefore, be read by the exceptional public interest it has held throughout the years. From this perspective, it is not Carroll’s psychology which is on trial, but the collective fascination that society has held with both Lewis Carroll and his works.

7. Another key psychoanalytic thinker, particularly for photography and the ways in which his theories have been applied to Lewis Carroll’s work, is Jacques Lacan. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan defines what he calls the “mirror stage” – a stage an infant child goes through in learning to organize its thoughts and the universe, which includes recognizing itself through reflections and learning about its own subjectivity, differing perspectives, and the ways in which we are seen by others. According to Lacan, the mirror stage’s discovery is focused on the child’s discover that he is a different being than his mother and the world around him, and, as he builds his world view and self-identification through his reflected image from his place in the world, he begins to define himself through his separation – yearning for that which has been externalized and separated. ​ Lacan’s mirror theory has held particular relevance to studies of Alice in Wonderland, since one of the iconic images is of Alice wandering through a literal mirror. Alice remains uninverted in her adventures into Wonderland and is able to perceive the strangeness of the inverted and topsy-turvy world she is presented with. As both an insider and an outsider to her worlds as she moves between them, Alice is capable of entering Wonderland while bringing the formal logic and conventions of her world with her. ​ As Geoffrey Batchen writes: “Lacanian reading of psychoanalysis to describe the operation photography in terms of a productive exercise of power. according to Burgin, the human subject is photography's illusory effect as well its real producer. but we should ask once again, what of the subject's body? Is the body also produced by photography or does the brute matter of flesh and blood somehow proceed its embrace by representation?" (Batchen 199)

Read More:


Appel, Alfred Jr, "Nabokov's Interview," Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, vol. VIII, no. 2, spring 1967,

Douglas-Fairhurst, Robert. The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland. Vintage, 2016.


Feldstein, Richard. "The Phallic Gaze of Wonderland." In Reading Seminar XI: Lacan's Four Fundamental Concepts of


Psychoanalysis. Ed. Richard Feldstein, Bruce Fink, and Maire Jaanus. Albany: State U of New York, 1995, 149-74.

Greenacre, Phyllis. Swift and Carroll; a Psychoanalytic Study of Two Lives. International Universities Press, 1955.


Jacques Lacan

Leach, Karoline. In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: A New Understanding of Lewis Carroll. Peter Owen, 1999.

Lennon, Florence Becker. Victoria through the Looking-Glass: the Life of Lewis Carroll, by Florence Becker Lennon. Simon and Schuster, 1945.

Phillips, Robert S., and John Tenniel. Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll's Dreamchild as Seen through the Critics' Looking-Glasses. Vintage Books, 1977, pp. 279-82

Reed, Herbert Langford. The Life of Lewis Carroll. 1932.

Schilder, Paul. "Psychoanalytic Remarks on Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Caroll." 1938. Aspects of Alice. ed Robert Phillips. New York: The Vanguard Press Inc., 1971. (291).

Scott, Robert. “Alice as Anima : The Image of Woman in Carroll’s Classic.”  Aspects of Alice. ed Robert Phillips. New York: The Vanguard Press Inc., 1971. (291).

Sigmund Freud

Snider, Clifton. “'Everything Is Queer To-Day': Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Jungian Looking-Glass."” Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Jungian Looking-Glass,

Woolf, Jenny. “Lewis Carroll's Shifting Reputation.”, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Apr. 2010,

Woolf, Jenny. The Mystery of Lewis Carroll Understanding the Author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Haus Books, 2010.

Woolf, Virginia, and Leonard Woolf. The Moment, and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948. 

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