In Search of Cupid and Psyche: Myth and Legend in Children's Literature

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures In Wonderland is an unabashedly derivative work, achieving its effects through various modes of imitation, including parody and travesty, and drawing its rhetorical power from a determined exploitation of myth. Irreverently rewriting didactic literary texts—old proverbs, sententious poems, etc.—Carroll ridicules stuffy self-importance and the failure of Victorian society to value the details of a fresh and potentially fascinating world—a "numinous world of transpersonal happenings."

The effectiveness of Carroll's comedy depends to a large extent upon the immediate familiarity of his targets. The grapeshot morals of the peppery Duchess puncture familiar maxims, belittling the trim and secure world they invoke. Similarly, Alice's rendition of "You Are Old, Father William" ingeniously corrupts "The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them, by Robert Southey (1774-1843), mocking its pious values and grey, depressing, view of the transience of youth. Ironically, were it not for Carroll’s travesty, Southey would hold little interest for us. His works would probably not have faded completely from view, but they would certainly not receive the attention that they do. We could say that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland possesses a kind of mythic power—that it is perceived to "narrate a sacred history" (Myth and Reality, 5), and therefore "The Old Man’s Comforts" is valorized by association, although it is the earlier work.

While Carroll’s satire on Victorian manners draws irreverently upon Southey and other normative literary and rhetorical models, it also relies upon exemplary models as well—on myth—as a basis for its satire. For example, Carroll's final vision of

dull reality—the grass . . . rustling in the wind, and the pool rippling to the waving of the reeds . . . the tinkling sheep . . . the voice of the shepherd boy . . . the confused clamour of the busy farm-yard . . . the lowing of the cattle in the distance

suggests a version of the Pastoral, a classical verse form that presents an idealized "vision of life as a simplified rural existence" (Frye, Fearful Symmetry, 237), customarily posited in opposition to the "artificiality of the court or city" (237). Opposing perspectives on life certainly seems to be at least a part of Carroll’s intent. On one level, he is contrasting the ugliness and pointless artifice of the Court of the Red Queen, and the senseless behavior of her subjects who are forever trying to please her, or at least elude her wrath, with the simplicity and serenity of the country. Perhaps suggesting that a bit of dullness in the "real" world might be a small price to pay for its order and coherence. On another level, Carroll seems to be implying a parallel between the country/city binary and the pair of opposites William Blake characterized as innocence and experience. To better emphasize the beauty and transience of the world of innocence, which is the child’s world, Carroll exaggerates the pandemonium of the world of weary (adult) experience, in which

the frightened Mouse splashed his way through the neighbouring pool . . . the March Hare and his friends shared their never-ending meal . . . the shrill voice of the Queen [ordered] off her unfortunate guests to execution . . . the pig-baby . . . [sneezed] on the Duchess's knee . . . plates and dishes crashed around it . . . the shriek of the Gryphon, the squeaking of the Lizard's slate-pencil, and the choking of the suppressed guinea-pigs . . . mixed up with the distant sobs of the miserable Mock Turtle.

Having read Eliade’s essay (in particular the section entitled "Structure and Function of Myths"), we can see how the Pastoral vision of the golden age borrows the modality of myth in its emphasis upon "sacred’ Time, the "indefinitely recoverable" moment when something "new, strong, and significant was manifested." The final vision of Alice reclining on this side of the bucolic hillside is, I would argue, founded upon the myth of the golden age, which, in our own cultural view, is identified with the "sacred time" of childhood. By elevating Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland to the canon, we reveal a cultural desire to participate in the mythic reality of Wonderland, and "recover," on the level of the imagination, and perhaps vicariously through the projected transports of our children, this transient yet revitalizing bucolic moment.



Without overstating Apuleius’s influence or implying Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland may be reduced to an imitation of "Cupid and Psyche," we may explore the numerous ways in which the myths constituting "Cupid and Psyche" serve as the source code for understanding Carroll, and for bringing certain of the book’s meanings into focus.

A few key resemblances cluster around the obvious comparison of the young female protagonists. Like Psyche, Alice embarks on a journey (Quest or Initiation) lacking both clearcut direction and well-mapped ports of call. Like Psyche, Alice is following a magical being, and similarly she encounters other magical beings who either assist or hinder her. Like Psyche, Alice possesses courage, sensitivity, gullibility, a mixture of passivity and determination. Both find themselves locked in a confrontational relationship with a sensual and dominating mother figure—an archetype of the Terrible Mother. And, of course, the nightmarishness of Alice's wanderings, which are both chaotic in themselves and defined by their struggle against the chaotic, and the unpredictable, imperious and irrational behavior of the beings around her, and, as well, the irregular, ungovernable growth of her own body, all in all evoke the sense of Psyche's helplessness and her perilous marriage and subsequent trials.

Other meaningful similarities can be found in the themes of the two stories. As we have read, Erich Neumann interprets the tale of Cupid and Psyche as a "myth of feminine individuation," or a "psychic development of the feminine,"—whatever that might be interpreted to mean—in which Psyche symbolizes female consciousness, and the complications of the story represent a process of individuation, or maturation or a progress toward self-realization (see neumann). Interestingly, Neumann asserts that Psyche precipitates her separation from "nature"—and "unconscious unity" or a state of sensual inertia—through an act of rebellion, boldly violating Cupid’s charge against looking at him. (The taboo against looking in "Cupid and Psyche" has attracted the attention of many painters; check out their interpretations of Psyche "gazing," and, as well Cupid "gazing," and the notion of voyeurism this implies—see images.) If one wished to argue that Alice's adventures typify a rite of passage, which consists of a journey from meek and accommodating childhood to self-reliant and assertive maturity, can we find a moment, or moments, of dangerous self-assertion comparable to Psyche’s? Are there LOOKING taboos Alice violates?

(And, if we see Alice as progressing along a linear path from childhood to adulthood, or from unconsciousness to self-consciousness, how do we understand her return to the beautiful hillside and the transient moment of youth?)



Even in points of contrast, likenesses between Carroll's novel and Apuleius's fairy-tale emerge. Let's look quickly at the plot of each story for examples. Psyche's adventures properly commence after the marriage of death episode, when Psyche is "left alone weeping and trembling at the very top of the hill" (100-101) (after her father and mother have given her up to certain death.) On the other hand, Alice's journey properly concludes after a similar scene in which another royal figure, the Queen of Hearts, clamors savagely for her head. Although placed at roughly opposite ‘ends’ of the journeys Alice and Psyche undertake, these story elements—Carroll's climactic scene and Apuleius's inaugural scene—mirror each other, replete with matching ironic distortions: Both scenes involve spurious deaths, both involve key transitions, from ordinary reality to magical reality, and both involve the young female protagonist escaping the control of a sovereign authority figure who also symbolizes the social order. (This is not to overlook that Psyche's father is rendered sympathetically and Alice's Queen, farcically—a caricature of Venus.)

Finally, although the terms of their rewards differ—Psyche awakens from a death-like swoon to marry her divine lover, bear a divine child,Voluptas, and to deification (perpetual, frolicsome youth among the urbane immortals), and Alice awakens on a green hill in England, still, blissfully, a child, companioned merely by a sweet and affectionate sister—the fact is, in each case the reward for their perseverance is bliss. In both happy endings the heroine achieves an ideal world, purified of its fatigue and terrors.



Among the characters in the novel, no character cuts so enigmatic a figure, both daftly amusing and menacing, as the White Rabbit. (His various offices within the story suggest his ambiguous, mercurial, identity.) While there is no single character in "Cupid and Psyche" that completely matches Carroll's Rabbit, in the way Alice and Psyche, the Queen of Hearts and Venus, the Duchess and Dame Habit, Pan and the Cheshire Cat,, the various functions he performs seem to conjure several allusive comparisons. On one hand, as he entices Alice across a magical threshold, he seems a version of the mythic herald and thus one might liken him both to Charon, the ferryman who transports bodiless souls across the River Styx, or--taking a cue from the Neo-Classical painters--to Zephyrus (again, see images), who conveys Psyche to Cupid's temple (and, later, causes Psyche's sisters to perish on the pointed rocks). And, of course, as herald, the White Rabbit suggests the character of Mercury, the herald of the gods—both obediently yield to the will of their relative mistresses.

 On the other hand, we could suggest that the Rabbit shares crucial traits with Psyche's jealous sisters. According to Neumann, who views Psyche's betrayal of Cupid as positive, for it implies a willingness to learn, to take risks, and propels her from the dark paradise of sensual ignorance (see above), the jealous sisters represent Psyche's unconscious strength. Although Neumann has been criticized for stretching the story a bit to fit his theory, and perhaps we also open ourselves to similar criticism, we might suggest that the White Rabbit may at times represent an unconscious strength within Alice that impels her to go beyond the ordinary—what Jòng might call an anima figure. This would press a comparison upon us that might seem at first a trifle strange. However, perhaps we are forced to consider that Alice’s "White Rabbit with the pink eyes" serves a very similar function to that of Psyche’s Cupid. Alice's steadfast pursuit of him certainly shares characteristics of Psyche's pursuit of Cupid, while the White Rabbit's gluey devotion to the Queen of Hearts also conforms to the filial (and, from a psychological point of view, disquieting) devotion Cupid demonstrates toward Venus. From a mythological viewpoint, the White Rabbit as spouse would conform to the motif of the animal-husband, which is, of course, a central part of the Cupid and Psyche tale.

Viewing the White Rabbit in this way opens up Alice's Adventures in several intriguing ways. Following the Jò ngian point of view advanced by Neumann, the White Rabbit's final rigid adherence to the rules and inane protocol of the Queen's court would implicate a critical insufficiency in Wonderland, an absence of what Neumann defines to be "the genuine love principle of personal development and encounter." This insufficiency raises the implicit question of whether 1) Carroll preferred his heroine to remain childlike, undeveloped, immature; 2) whether, by showing that Wonderland lacked the vital spark, Carroll meant to justify Alice's return—implyiing that "dull reality" held a certain beauty although this would be hidden from an innocent child; 3) or whether, oppositely, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland embodies an arrested, asexual, mode of being that accords with an idealized Victorian notion of childhood, which Carroll, despite his distance, buys into—or some of all three.



1a. In what other ways are Psyche and Alice alike?

1b. In what ways are they different?

2. Compare and contrast the use of curiosity in each story.

3a. The Red Queen's identification with hearts, a traditional emblem of love, suggests a close rapport with Venus. In what other ways are the Queen of Hearts and Venus alike?

3b. In what ways are they different?

4a. In what ways are the Duchess and Dame Habit alike?

4b. In what ways are they different?

5. In what ways are the Cheshire Cat and Pan (or his surrogates, the reed, and the tower) alike?

5b. In what ways do they resemble Jung's archetype of The Wise Old Man? (see Mythological and Archetypal Approaches)

6. Can Alice's adventures be understood to constitute a movement from indolence toward consciousness, or from infanthood to maturity? Or does the circularity of the story (ending where it began) suggest a lack of development, a frozen world?

7. Erich Neumann asserts that a state of consciousness is marked by "suffering, guilt and loneliness." Say specifically how Alice suffers, and how she experiences feelings of guilt and loneliness. Say whether you agree or disagree with the statement that the trial of the Knave of Hearts resonates with a profound sense of guilt, and that this guilt is responsible for making Wonderland an anxious, depressing place.

8. Neumann asserts that Psyche begins her progress toward consciousness with an act of rebellion--the lamp scene (p. 116-118). Alice's Adventures of course reach their climax with an act of rebellion, when Alice proclaims that her assailants are "nothing but a pack of cards." How are these scenes different? How are they alike?

9. Would you agree that Alice's rebelliousness indicates a quality of maturity, or would you say that it reveals her childishness? (Or would you say both?)

10a. Does the opening phrase of Alice's Adventures--"Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do,"--suggest the kind of languid existence Neumann (neumann) seems to have in mind?

10b. In a few words, contrast this placid location with Wonderland.

10c. Is this place the same one Alice returns to at the end of the story? How have things changed? In framing your response, consider the archetype of the Garden (see Mythological and Archetypal Approaches)

11. Say how the symbolic importance of Psyche's pregnancy and of the ensuing birth of Voluptas helps to sharpen our appreciation of the black comedy of "The Pig and Pepper" chapter (chapt. VI).

12a. The White Rabbit appears in chapters, I, II, IV, VIII, XI and XII, and, after Alice and The Queen, may be considered to be the most essential figure in the novel.

12b. In your opinion, does the unsuitability of the White Rabbit as marriage material disqualify him as a Cupid figure? (Consider that the White Rabbit also suggests a Mercury figure, and that Mercury/Hermes possesses attributes of both sexes, traditionally symbolizing "the synthesis of opposites.")

12c. Does it perhaps indicate the unsuitability of marriage to this children's novel, or to Carroll's idyllic notion of the value (i.e., the permanence) of youth?

 12d. From a Jungian point of view, by finally identifying the White Rabbit with stasis, or a kind of arrested development exemplified by bureaucratic rigmarole, Carroll may appear to be flouting the traditional process of development: explain.

12e. How does a consideration of the Alice ---> White Rabbit relationship as a distorted version of the Psyche ---> Cupid relationship sharpen, dull or distort your appreciation of Alice's Adventures?

13. Compare and contrast chapter XII, "Alice's Evidence," which concludes with Alice returning to the everyday world, with Psyche's marriage scene (p. 100 to 102), in which she departs the everyday world. Say how the moods of each scene differ; how the protagonists relate to the others, and to the ritual in which they are forced to participate; (are Alice and Psyche merely helpless victims, or do they show insight, courage, independence and grace?) Say how each scene typifies the overriding themes of the story.