Recently on an afternoon hike, I passed by the above hollowed out tree, which reminded me immediately of the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice in Wonderland. I knew that I must write about the image and story of the rabbit hole from a Jungian psychological perspective. I read the book Alice in Wonderland many years ago, but reacquainted myself with the story through the most recent Walt Disney (2010) remake of the movie. This article will mostly refer to this movie version of Alice’s adventures.
In the story, the heroine Alice has a nightmare about following a white rabbit and then falling down a dark hole. When arriving at the other end of the rabbit hole, she enters a strange and uncanny new world where she sees exotic creatures like the white rabbit, a dodo bird, a smiling cat, a blue caterpillar, and other strange and fascinating creatures. Alice awakes from the nightmare and tells her father about it wondering if she is mad. Her father replies, “All the best people are mad.” So begins the journey of Alice into the great unknown of her unconscious, as symbolized by the fall into the rabbit hole.
The story of Alice in Wonderland is a strikingly familiar tale of the journey into the unconscious with its true perils, pleasant surprises, adventures, animal guides, and ideally, its corresponding increase in consciousness. Similarly, the process of individuation inherent in Jungian psychotherapy has at its core, a goal of maximizing the development of the individual personality (Edinger, 1963) which often will include a correlated increase in consciousness.
At the beginning of the story we find Alice perplexed and unsure if this great adventure is one that is real, or perhaps, she is still dreaming? She questions everything that she sees on the journey. The strange creatures in the story are waiting for “the Alice,” because it has been written that she will be the one to slay the dragon and reclaim the land for the just and good Queen. They are not too sure if Alice is in fact “the right Alice,” or maybe she is “the wrong Alice?”
Like Alice, some of us are called to take this journey into the unconscious. And also like Alice in the world of Wonderland, danger can also lurk there. But there will also be opportunities for growth and the expansion of consciousness. According to Edinger (1999), Jung was fond of quoting Holderlin who said, “Where danger is, grows also the rescuing power.” Alice is confronted by plenty of danger, but she ultimately finds “the right Alice,” and opportunities for the development of the personality abound.
In the beginning of the story Alice still thinks that it is she (ego) that directs her safe path through life. In the story, she is befriended by a dog, often represented in dreams as instinct. The dog warns her and says, “If you diverge from the path…,” which Alice replies, “I make the path.” At this point in the story, Alice is clearly at a place of naiveté concerning the operations of the unconscious. She speaks as if it is in her best interest if her ego charts the course through life. The dog warns her about this, and seems to encourage her to follow “the path.” In other words, she has a better chance of surviving the perils of Wonderland if she follows the path of her instincts, as represented here by the dog.
In the beginning of the Disney story Alice is prepared to wed a man who she is not in love with. He comes from good “stock,” and therefore Alice has the support of family and friends to wed this man. It is expected from others that Alice will marry this man, and it is implied that she is a fool if she does not. Alice clearly is wrestling with the notion of spending her entire life with a man she does not love. She sees a white rabbit in the periphery of the scene and intuits that she must follow it. Hence, her discovery of the rabbit hole and her fall down to Wonderland.
Alice may not have entered the rabbit hole if it was not for the fall. This is often the case with people who are called to journey into the unconscious. It’s as if there often must be a “fall” of one kind or another as the gateway to the unconscious. It will require courage to follow the unconscious, but this archetypal fall is one that should ideally be embraced after one “dusts oneself off” as a result of the fall.
Another animal who personifies a voice of wisdom in Alice’s story is the blue caterpillar. After a time in Wonderland, Alice is speaking to the caterpillar and he says to her, “you are almost Alice.” Alice appears to have learned some things by now. She now seems to know that her ego does not create the path. She has learned that many of the strange and fascinating animals in the story can be trusted to serve as guides. They may in fact take her to the unexpected.
I was taken by surprise many years ago when I was following a real rabbit. I was following a rabbit while out for a hike in an extremely dense wooded area and I soon lost track of the rabbit. I looked around and around in the thick brush that I thought I saw the rabbit run into. Then, just as I was about to leave, I looked up, and there was the rabbit sitting in the crotch of a tree. When I examined the scene more closely, I realized that the rabbit had made its way up a fallen tree branch that was leaning against the crotch of the tree that held the rabbit. I have not before or since seen a rabbit in a tree. Similar to how Alice is learning to follow her instincts and animal guides, my rabbit in the tree symbolizes and illustrates further how following our inner (or outer) guides can lead to the unexpected.
Additionally, Alice is now beginning to see that the irrational, the “mad” creatures in Wonderland can actually have much to offer her on her journey of development and greater consciousness.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice is many things, but I was intrigued by how she was described in an essay about Alice by Megan S. Lloyd (2010). Lloyd, a professor of English, called Alice the “unruly Alice.” Lloyd said, “…this Disney heroine Alice is a precursor to the strong Belle and Mulan and counter to the pliable Cinderella and the passive Aurora and Snow White, who require male aid to bring them to life and reality again.”
The “unruly” spirit and character of Alice also reminds me of the story of Libby Riddles, another woman of strong character who was willing to follow her own unique path through life. Libby Riddles was the first female dog-sledder to win the famous dog-sledding race, the Iditarod. Like Alice’s willingness to follow the white rabbit, Riddles made the decision to go out alone into the unknown, which in this case, was into a raging Alaskan wind/snowstorm while competing in the Iditarod. The decision was against collective advice, but it also seems to have ultimately helped her to become the first woman to win this great race across Alaska. Both Alice and Libby Riddles succeeded in part by entering into a great unknown not knowing if they would ever get out again. These acts are the ultimate definition of courage.
Lloyd (2010) reminds us that Alice rejected the stereotypical female traits and roles that can trap some women into taking positions in society that are against their greater Self. Some women seem to be called on the journey into Wonderland, or the unconscious, before marriage and children. For others, the call comes later in life. It is no small feat for a woman, or man, to part ways with these stereotypical roles and expectations of others and to follow custom-made direction and images from within.
In close to the final scene of the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland, and with the help of her friends, Alice takes up the sword and fights the dragon. Just prior to this final test, however, Alice again meets the blue caterpillar where he is in the process of turning into a cocoon. Alice sees this and says, “You are going to die.” The caterpillar replies, “No I’m going to be transformed.” It is clear that Alice is projecting onto the caterpillar. When she sees the caterpillar’s change of appearance, she immediately fears her own death. Additionally, we witness the Jungian concept of synchronicity when we view Alice’s interaction with the caterpillar. Her inner psychological process is reflected back to her by this meaningful encounter with the caterpillar at the perfect time. Just around the corner, Alice has her most heroic task yet, and her own chance of transformation. It is not at all surprising, however, that Alice worries that she may die instead. She has a mighty dragon to slay.
To the astonishment, or not, of the others, she defeats the mighty and ferocious dragon and the good queen regains her crown. For Alice, the unexpected has occurred. She has found a source of power that she did not know she possessed and she used this power for the greater good. Order is restored to the land. The good queen rules again. Alice proves to herself and to the other inhabitants of Wonderland, that she is in fact, the right Alice…she became herself.
Next is the really interesting and fitting conclusion to the story. Alice clearly learns from her adventure and ordeals. She knows now that she must leave Wonderland. Alice says, “There are questions I have to answer. Things I have to do.” She has found a new sense of purpose.
Alice decides to return “home.” She climbs out of the rabbit hole and returns to the scene of the altar from the beginning of the story. Her groom is still waiting there. In front of everyone, Alice says quite simply and boldly, “I will not marry you. You are not the right man for me.”
The final scene places Alice on a ship where she has been accepted as an apprentice in a grand business venture, and a blue butterfly lands briefly on her shoulder. She recognizes it as her friend, the transformed blue caterpillar. Alice’s transformation has been validated, it seems.
In this wonderful story and movie, Alice brings home an increase in consciousness. An increased consciousness is one of the significant gifts of her journey through Wonderland and the unconscious. The “unruly Alice” will have a new awareness for her upcoming journey through life. Alice answered the call and followed the white rabbit into the unknown. She will exit Wonderland as a changed woman; a woman who has cast aside societal expectations, not as a rote act of rebelliousness, but because she was called to something greater. She was both called to and embraced a path leading to wholeness and a meaning that cannot be found by simply trying to fit into others’ expectations.
Alice in Wonderland, the movie (2010). Directed by Tim Burton; Screenplay by Linda Woolverton; based on the book by Lewis Carroll; Starring, Mia Wasikowska as Alice, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway; Released by Walt Disney Pictures.
Edinger, E.F. (1963). Review of C.G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy, volume 14 of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Bollingen Series XX. In (2009) G.R. Elder & D.D. Cordic (Eds.), An American Jungian: In Honor of Edward F. Edinger. Toronto: Inner City Books.
Edinger, E.F. (1999). Individuation: A Myth for Modern Man. In (2009) G.R. Elder & D.D. Cordic (Eds.), An American Jungian: In Honor of Edward F. Edinger. Toronto: Inner City Books.
Lloyd, M.S. (2010). Unruly Alice: A Feminist View of Some Adventures in Wonderland. In R.B. Davis (Ed.), Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.