“Curiouser and Curiouser”
The “Wonderland” of Dreams in the Context of Carl Jung
Where would one meet a grinning cat, a despotic playing-card and a caterpillar smoking a hookah, except in the world of dreams? I’ve always thought that Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland shows nothing but the extent to which dreams can be removed from reality. Carl Jung’s theories caused a shift in my perspective – I began to notice how dreams may in fact reveal hidden truths of real life. Alice’s “Wonderland” may be what Jung refers to as a Big Dream, dreams that are “absolutely foreign to one’s experience of conscious, normal reality in wakeful life” (Collier). This is a dream that is usually memorable (Collier), and it is also referred to as an “archetypal dream” (Hurd).
The concept of the archetype is central to the Jungian idea of Big Dreams. Defining them as “psychic innate dispositions to experience that represent basic human behavior and situations” (“Collective Unconscious”), Jung says of archetypes, “We often meet these themes in the fantasies, dreams, delirious ideas and illusions of persons living nowadays” He notes that they are seen, repeatedly, in popular literature, mythology and art (“Archetypes”). I understand archetypes to be themes and ideas that seem universal to the human experience, represented in the individual context. It is interesting that this concept, when applied to Alice’s “Wonderland”, could create a meaningful and memorable Big Dream.
The first archetype I noticed in Wonderland was the Jungian “Persona” of Alice herself, as she appears in her dream. The archetype of Persona is defined as “our conscious presentation of the self” (Adams and Nelson, “Jungian Dream Interpretation”), referring to the social role we believe we are supposed to play. Alice’s social role is, in her young life, defined by her education, the knowledge she has acquired in school, the logic and the social and natural rules and hierarchies she has been taught about. The more I observed Alice’s behavior through the book, the more I could see evidence of her Persona in Wonderland –she tries to project a social image of being knowledgeable and wise, despite often having a limited understanding of many concepts both in the real world, and in Wonderland itself: down the rabbit hole, she speaks of geography with a sense of self-importance, but the reality of her knowledge is that, “Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but thought they were nice grand words to say.” (Carroll 6) In her need to appear well-informed and erudite, she is hesitant in acquiring true knowledge when she has the chance. This may be seen in her encounter with the Duchess, when she says to herself: “And what an ignorant little girl she’ll think me for asking! No, it’ll never do to ask: perhaps I shall see it written up somewhere.” (Carroll 6) She is constantly applying the social institutions of her own world to Wonderland, eager to identify different members of a court of law, to talk about her school, home and even her cat Dinah.
Wonderland itself is not conducive to the development of Alice’s Persona – where she tries to apply logic, none exists; the limited knowledge she has is inapplicable; the social institutions she understands are proven useless and turned upside down. According to Jungian dream theory, the reason why Wonderland is so bizarre could be because the place itself is Alice’s “Shadow” – the antithesis of her Persona.
The Shadow archetype “refers to that part of the unconscious psyche that is nearest to consciousness, even though it is not completely accepted by it.” (Zweig and Abrams I:4) It could thus refer to one’s hidden fears and desires – something that is, in part, informed by the social context of one’s life. In the introduction to Meeting the Shadow, Zweig and Abrams say that “Many forces play a role in forming our shadow selves, ultimately determining what is permitted expression and what is not. Parents, siblings, teachers, clergy and friends create a complex environment in which we learn what is kind, proper, moral behavior and what is mean-spirited, shameful and sinful.” (Zweig and Abrams Introduction XVII) As the Shadow, this place of Alice’s dreams shows us everything considered unacceptable in the normal world: a woman treating her baby the way the Duchess does, the idea of schooling turned upside down by the Mock Turtle, a court of law as a place of chaos and disarray. Wonderland is the exact opposite of Victorian England, where Alice grows up, in how it is completely chaotic, devoid of the social conventions and rules that must permeate through every aspect of her waking life. She is annoyed when the Duchess declares, “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” (Carroll 53) – a statement that seems to satirically suggest the social attitude of Alice’s time. Perhaps Alice’s experience of Wonderland shows the yearnings of a young girl caged by the strict social order and moral conventions of Victorian England exploring a secret desire for freedom from these things.
Events in Wonderland mirror those Alice would experience in real-life, and her reaction to them shows fears and thoughts she may not acknowledge when she is awake. An example of this is in how the Duchess tells her, “You don’t know much…and that’s a fact.” (Carroll 49) – words that reflect her own fear of appearing ignorant, that her “knowledgeable” Persona is a farce.
Many children are overwhelmed by how quickly they are changing during adolescence. In Wonderland, Alice finds herself constantly shrinking and growing when she falls down the rabbit hole. When the caterpillar asks her, “What size do you want to be?”, she replies, “Oh, I’m not particular as to size,” going on to state, “only one doesn’t like changing so often, you know.” (Carroll 40-41) This experience and talk with a caterpillar, completely fantastical on a literal level, could reflect, in real life, the pains and fears related to the physical changes of puberty that a girl of Alice’s age would encounter. Adolescence also brings forth questions on life choices. Alice’s talk with the mysterious Cheshire Cat reflects an uncertainty about her purpose and direction – literally, as she asks him, ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ (Carroll 53). Adolescent questions of identity that Alice might have when she is awake are also a part of the Shadow that is Wonderland, seen in her talk with the caterpillar and one of the most famous lines from the book: “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” (Carroll 14) Thus, Alice’s many experiences in Wonderland can be seen through the Jungian lens of the Shadow archetype; they reflect the unacknowledged fears of a young girl changing physically, emotionally and intellectually as she grows up in the rigid social order of Victorian England.
Alice’s Wonderland also seems to depict other archetypes. The archetype of Anima in males and Animus in females shows “the internalized ideal images of the opposite sex” (Zweig and Abrams I:5) The Animus archetype, in females, is meant to depict the masculine aspects of one’s character and the way this part of us affects the way we live (“Animus”). Alice’s Animus might be represented by the character of the Duchess, who in many ways does not show behavior that is stereotypically feminine in nature. In a society with stringent gender roles, the somewhat violent, aggressive and volatile Duchess could be showing a side of Alice that wants to break free of the norms imposed on her as a girl and act in a primarily “male” way.
The Divine Child archetype is something that “not only symbolizes your innocence, your sense of vulnerability, and your helplessness, but it represents your aspirations and full potential.” (dreammoods.com) This could be the baby that the Duchess abandons – a baby that “would have made a dreadfully ugly child”, but could become, according to Alice, “rather a handsome pig” (Carroll 52). This pig-child could symbolize Alice’s innocence and imagination, something that is potent and powerful but does not fit into the real world that she’s growing up in. Thus Wonderland, a dream that at first glance has nothing to do with reality, may in fact provide insight into Alice’s subconscious conflicts in the context of the era in which Carroll’s book is set.
In interpreting Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Jungian psychology seemed to make sense of the fantastical. Encouraged by this, I decided to test Jung’s theories on my own dreams. I realized that like Alice, I have experienced “encounters with mythological creatures and strange, intelligent animals” – one of the indicators of a Big Dream (Hurd). Many of my dreams have left a profound impact on me that has made them markedly memorable, as a Big Dream should be. Graham Collier, in his article, “Dreams – Big and Little”, says:
“Jung regarded the Big Dream as a kind of ‘wakeup call’: as a means of alerting one to psychological imbalances in character development that are working against one’s wellbeing, and are therefore injurious to one’s positive and meaningful psychological growth. He also pointed out that such important dreams were not to be taken literally; could only be understood if ‘read’ symbolically.”
When I “read” Alice’s bizarre Wonderland using Jungian archetypes, it gave me insight into her fears and worries, her personality, in the context of her life. When I did this with my own Big Dreams, many elements of my dreams acted as archetypes and pointed to personal conflicts and weaknesses prevalent in specific situations in my life. For example, just recently I dreamt that I was back in the auditorium of my old high school in Bangalore, India, at an event called SING! – something that happens in my roommates’ school in Queens, New York. As I watched performances by a bizarre mix of Indians and Americans known to me, I was acutely aware that it would soon be my turn to perform. Suddenly, I was stumbling onto the platform with no idea of what the role required of me. I stood there confused and embarrassed as the spotlight shone on me and the audience simply watched from the shadows – the next thing I knew, I was waking up.
This dream occurred when I was staying with family friends in New Jersey over Thanksgiving Break. They were a conservative South Indian family, and I felt pressurized to play the role of the docile, conforming Indian girl around them. Although I enjoyed spending time with them, I felt as though I had to pretend to be someone I’m not. My failure to “perform” in the dream perhaps, using Jungian archetypes, showed my struggle to execute this uncomfortable social role in real life. The Persona here is the character I am in my dream-play, and like in real life, I am unable to keep up the act. Thus, using Jung’s archetypes helped me make sense not only of a rather strange dream, but also of my own struggles and feelings with respect to the social context I was in.
Another dream that clued me in on a social and emotional aspect of my life was one that recurred every night last summer. I dreamt I was desperately trying to evade a half-seen, silhouetted male figure who wanted to confront and capture me. This threatening man was often armed, faceless and nameless; even when I couldn’t see him, I was aware of his presence. Every dream was set in the stairwell of my apartment building – while I ran up and down, he was constantly one step ahead of me. I usually woke up panting and sweating, just before I was caught. This mysterious, frightening dream made no sense to me until I read about the Jungian Shadow archetype. According to Jung, the Shadow “represents everything that a subject refuses to acknowledge about himself” (Jung 284). This corresponds with my greatest fear, one that I have only recently come to terms with – the fear of making decisions.
I’m afraid of committing to one thing and closing out my options. This dream occurred to me when I had to make the biggest decision of my life: where to go to college. The figure in my dream was a literal, as well as an archetypal, Shadow. It symbolized a choice I was struggling to make: the choice between staying in India for college or coming to New York. I felt threatened by this decision, daunted by its immense consequences, but it was a situation I could not evade – just like the threatening men in my dreams. John A Sanford, in his interview with Patrick Miller, says of one’s reaction to the Shadow in dreams, “You may remember running very fast during the dream… and not remember why. But in the dream, you know.” (Miller). This relates very strongly to my own dream where I ran from this strange figure with a very particular reason in mind in the dreamscape, but with no idea of why I had done so, when I woke up. Jung says about confronting the Shadow, “To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance.” (Campbell 145) In real life, I refused to acknowledge that I was struggling with my indecision, and this is seen in how I was constantly running away from my archetypal Shadow in my dream. Facing my fear gave me immense self-confidence; interestingly, after I made the decision to come to New York for university, I have never had this dream again.
I also found it significant that the person I was afraid of in my dream is male. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense that the male figure I was running from but could not escape may have also represented the Animus, the masculine part of my otherwise feminine self-identity. The man in the dream was always overtly aggressive and armed, and even though I often could not see his face, I associated with him a strong image of masculinity. The one time I identified the figure, it was a fictional character – Harvey Specter from the television show Suits – someone whom I have always considered to be a stereotypical example of male egotism, emotional repression and anger. Perhaps confronting my Animus shows a recognition of the fact that I have been repressing a side of me that is aggressive, that is angry and proud. In real life, I have always been afraid to express emotions of anger – both because I like to think of myself as a calm, composed person, and because it was often reinforced, socially, that aggression or pride are not characteristics that a girl should show.
In Meeting the Shadow, Zweig and Abrams say, “For different people, in different families and cultures, what falls into ego and what falls into shadow can vary. For instance, some permit anger or aggression to be expressed; most do not.” (Zweig and Abrams XVII) In my case, the characteristics that fell into Shadow perhaps also fell into the Animus archetype, for I could not, in real life, bring myself to express the “masculine” emotions that I felt, and this fear of showing such a side of myself manifested in my dream.
I realize now that my archetypes speak of my own fears and decisions as I emerge into adulthood in the twenty-first century, just like how archetypes in Alice’s dream speak of gender and identity in the context of an eleven-year-old girl in Victorian England. However, there is one archetype that has featured in a Big Dream of mine, but that I could not identify in Alice’s: that of the Self. When I was taking my final high school exams, I was under great pressure, from myself and society, to perform to my full potential. At this time, I would often dream of myself walking alongside a lioness. I was very aware during these encounters that I was in the presence of a dangerous beast, but I was not afraid of the animal – in fact, I felt quite at peace by her side. There was a strange sense of unity and calm in this dream that occurred at a time when reality was full of with anxiety and stress. After I read about the presence of the “Self” in dreams, a Jungian concept, the dream made more sense to me. Jung compares the experience of the Self to the “unified duality” (“Self”), like the Taoist symbol of Yin and Yang. It shows two separate parts of one’s identity coming together and has been likened to a half-man half-animal situation (“Self”). Jung says that “The Self appears in dreams, myths and fairy tales as a “superior personality””. I believe that in my strange dream, out of place with reality, I saw my Self symbolized by the image of my human figure walking alongside the lioness with a pervading feeling of peace, both of us aware of, but not threatened by, the other. In Vedic dream interpretation the lioness usually symbolizes strength, power and grace (dreamsnest.com)– all aspects of my personality that I was desperately trying to reach. In how this lioness was beside me, it seemed as though my subconscious mind was showing me a unified picture of the different parts of my personality that I needed in real life. It is also interesting that “According to Jung, the experience of the Self on the empiric plane is similar to a religious revelation” (“Self”): my dream was set multiple times in a Hindu temple.
In both the case of Alice in Wonderland and that of my own dreams, the dream itself seemed removed from reality. Yet, it was pertinent to the experience of reality because it revealed hidden truths about its subjects, Alice and me. I believe that Jung was right to talk about such dreams as “Big Dreams” for they are indeed pervasive, impactful forces. Different elements of the dream world, such as the archetypes of the Persona, Shadow and Animus, seem to form a looking glass that mirrors reality. I believe this goes to show that dreams, if interpreted with care and context, can provide access to meaningful insight into one’s personality; this would be a powerful tool to carry along on a journey of self-discovery. Opening the door to my dream world with a Jungian key has made me, as Alice would say, “Curiouser and curiouser!”
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- Hurd, Ryan, et al. “Dream Studies Press.” Dream Studies Portal,
- Jung, Carl. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Collected Works, Vol. 9, p. 284.
- Miller, D Patrick. “What The Shadow Knows: An Interview With John A Sanford”. Interview. Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. TarcherPerigree, 1991.
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- Zweig, Connie and Jeremiah Abrams. Introduction: “The Shadow Side of Everyday Life”. Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. TarcherPerigree, 1991.
- Zweig, Connie and Jeremiah Abrams. Part I: “What Is The Shadow”: “Introduction”. Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. TarcherPerigree, 1991.