Wonderland. Across generations, people have come to love the madcap characters of the White
Rabbit, the Caterpillar, Bill the chimney sweep, and others. However, it is not all laughter and
fun in what is considered a children’s story written by an opium-addled but otherwise harmless
gentleman. There are also very sinister forces present within the work, and characters to be
feared. Perhaps the most frightening character in the story is the Queen of Hearts, known
alternatively as the Red Queen. She is a tyrant and the only character in the story that poses a
direct threat to Alice’s life. However, Lewis Carroll’s depiction of the Queen of Hearts is
arguably far more sinister than the character herself. In the character of the Red Queen, Carroll
drew a tangible connection between female power and tyranny, female strength and cruelty.
Through the Queen of Hearts, Carroll created an example of negative feminism in order to
preserve the status quo between the sexes in Victorian England.
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice first encounters the Queen of Hearts
indirectly through some cards she meets in a garden. She observes the cards clustered around a
rose tree, painting the white roses red. When they explain to Alice that they are painting the roses
red because they planted the wrong color tree by mistake and are terrified that the Queen will
behead them unless they somehow correct their mistake, Alice has her first exposure to the
tyranny of the Queen of Hearts. Very soon afterward, Alice has the opportunity to observe the
Queen of Hearts and the fear that her subjects have of her firsthand. When the Queen of Hearts
passes by Alice at the head of a procession, she halts the procession to inquire, “severely”, who
Alice is. The Queen directs her question at the Knave of Hearts, her attendant, who “only bowed
and smiled in reply” for fear of giving the Queen an unsatisfactory answer. Indeed, is in those
first few moments of Alice’s interaction with the Queen that both Alice and readers learn the
most about her.
“The Queen turned crimson with fury, and after glaring at her for a moment like a
wild beast, began screaming ‘Off with her head! Off with her –‘
‘Nonsense!’ said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.
The King laid his hand gently upon her arm, and timidly said, ‘Consider, my dear;
she’s only a child.’
The Queen turned angrily away from him, and said to the Knave ‘Turn them
This excerpt from the text gives a great deal of information about the Queen’s personality traits,
as well as her relationship with her husband and her subjects. The most obvious trait that the
Queen of Hearts possesses is a horrible temper. She is likened to a wild animal, and her
explosion of fury can certainly be considered savage, perhaps even beastlike. It is clear also that
the Queen is not very well in control of her emotions, because her outburst is quite uncalled for.
Directly preceding this excerpt, the Queen asks Alice who her card companions are, and Alice
answers quite simply that she doesn’t know. This answer is what causes the Queen’s flare of
temper. When the Queen shouts “Off with her head!” it becomes clear that she has a sadistic
streak, and takes a sort of pleasure in commissioning violence. Why not “Take her to prison!” or
“Clap her in irons!”? Again, the Queen’s reaction is totally inappropriate to the preceding action,
and Alice is completely undeserving of the death sentence impetuously placed upon her.
Less obvious but still present in the excerpt is information concerning the Queen’s
relationship with her husband and with her subjects. When the King of Hearts suggests that
cutting Alice’s head off may not be the best course of action, he does so timidly. First he lays a
hand gently on the arm of the Queen in an effort to sooth her, and then meekly asks her to be
reasonable. He is obviously apprehensive and perhaps fearful of his wife’s displeasure. She
disregards his input by turning away from him. Apart from being rude, that particular gesture
shows her to be the dominant one in the relationship. The Queen’s relationship with her subjects
is also presented in the excerpt, although very indirectly. When the Queen of Hearts begins her
characteristic “Off with her head!” tirade, Alice has the gall to tell the Queen that what she is
shouting is “nonsense”. This silences the Queen, and readers are led to believe that the ferocity
of the Queen’s anger in response to Alice’s statement actually renders her incapable of speech.
One is given the impression that the Queen of Hearts is not a woman who is used to having
people stand up to her, probably because none of her subjects are brave enough to do so. They
are all very likely terrified of losing their heads.
The Queen of Hearts is loud, overbearing, sadistic, and dominant over her husband. In
short, she is everything that the ideal Victorian woman was not. The Victorian era was a period
of rigid gender distinction and a strict binary between the masculine and the feminine. The public
and private spheres experienced increased separation during this period, with the domestic
sphere being assigned to women (Abrams). The Victorian era is famous for its depiction of
woman as “the angel in the house”, a term gleaned from a poem by Patmore that was found in
the most popular book of poetry of the period (Gilbert and Gubar). The qualities of these “angel-
women” of the Victorian period were considered to be piety, patience, frugality, and industry,
and all women were encouraged to embody these ideal qualities, regardless of their social class
(Abrams). Even if a woman belonged to the lower classes and had to find work, be it as a
teacher, a shopkeeper, or a governess, she was still expected to be quiet and reserved and to
defer to the men that she interacted with (Women of Victorian England). A woman was expected
to be the supportive helpmeet of her husband, and to transform their home into a sort of haven
into which the man could retreat from the world of work (Abrams). A woman’s education, if her
family could afford to give her any sort of education, took place entirely in the home and
consisted of things like French, drawing, dancing, music, and embroidery, which were all things
that could be used to entertain and give pleasure to her future husband (Victorian England: An
Introduction). It was widely accepted that a woman “had no story of her own” but instead lived
entirely for others, selflessly devoting herself to their good (Gilbert and Gubar).
These expected qualities and the social conditioning of the behavior of women in the
Victorian era created a rigidly defined feminine gender role, which women were expected to
perform to the letter. According to Judith Butler in “Performative Acts and Gender
Constitution”, gender identities are established through the performance of stylized acts. For
Victorian women, these acts would have consisted of submissive gestures and selfless aid to
family members. The correct performance of gender was considered critical for the existence of
a happy home, and if women did not perform their gender role correctly they were subject to
punishment in the form of harsh criticism from their peers. The character of the Queen of Hearts
is an example of a woman who is not performing her gender correctly by Victorian standards.
Through various performative acts the Red Queen effectively creates a gender identity for herself
that is in direct contradiction to the Victorian idea of the feminine gender. These performative
acts include violent fits of temper, giving orders, indulging in the personal pleasure of playing
croquet, and actively presiding over legal proceedings. Although these performative acts are
largely negative, the Red Queen’s performance of them creates the gender identity of the strong
or “masculine” woman, and identity that was quite foreign to most people of the Victorian era.
Judith Butler also states that it is generally the case that individuals that fail to perform their
gender “correctly” (i.e. the way that the majority of society views discrete gender roles) are
punished. After a fashion, this is true of the Queen of Hearts. She is not punished in any way
within the novel itself because she is in a position of power and can therefore escape direct
punishment, but the character is punished by Lewis Carroll by being painted as a villain.
Another important feature of the Red Queen’s incorrect performance of her gender is the
way in which her mistake affects others, most notably her husband. The King of Hearts is in a
difficult position because the performance of the “masculine” gender (the qualities that the
Victorians viewed as masculine) has been usurped by his wife. He has no freedom with which to
perform his assumed gender role because the position has already been filled. He therefore is
forced to perform the gender role that his relationship with his wife would be lacking otherwise:
the feminine. The King of Hearts is forced to take on the usually feminine role of the nurturer
and comforter, seeking to soothe the Queen’s temper with tender gestures such as gently laying a
hand upon her arm. He also displays a feminine fondness for children by suggesting that the fact
that Alice is a child should be an adequate reason for the Queen to refrain from having Alice’s
head cut off. As Lewis Carroll seeks to show through the portrayal of the King and Queen of
Hearts, the incorrect gender performance of one individual can directly force the incorrect gender
performance of another.
The decidedly unfeminine Queen of Hearts, through the incorrect performance of the
feminine gender role as it was defined in Victorian England, becomes the “monster”, one of only
images of women found in literature (Gilbert and Gubar). The archetype of the monster-woman
embodies female autonomy, and this can truly be said of the Red Queen (Gilbert and Gubar). In
order for a monster-woman to be recognized and fully realized within the context of a story, the
binary must be complete. Therefore an angel-woman must also be present in some form. In
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the role of the angel-woman is filled by Alice herself. Alice
is not a typical angel-woman, mostly because curiosity is not a valued trait in angel-women, and
Alice’s curiosity is far too great to be considered seemly. However, Alice can be considered an
angel-woman in training. Despite her curiosity, she has a rather passive nature, and through the
course of the story she often faithfully recalls the lessons she has had about how to be a lady.
Readers are left with the impression that Alice will eventually become a perfect angel-woman.
Alice’s feminine virtues contrast sharply with the unfeminine faults of the Red Queen. It is due
as much to this contrast as it is due to the faults themselves and her incorrect performance of her
gender role that the Queen of Hearts receives her literary identification of monster-woman.
While Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is often considered an innocent story, one
could argue that the way that Lewis Carroll chose to portray the Queen of Hearts was an attempt
to preserve the status quo between the sexes in Great Britain. At the time Alice’s Adventures in
Wonderland was published, women were second-class citizens. The only women who had any
sort of property rights were married, and no women had any civil rights. However, women were
picking up the pen in greater numbers and “the woman question” began to surface. People began
to look toward earlier writers like Mary Wollstonecraft and contemporary writers like Christina
Rosetti who challenged the popular view of how women should be perceived. Even some men
began to argue for an alternate view of the feminine. In light of this changing climate, equating
characteristics that were considered unfeminine by the majority of British society with evil and
villainy would show many people the dangers of the strong woman. By making female strength
the main characteristic of the monster-woman in literature, one could convince a large number of
men that the best course of action in their everyday lives would be to keep women second-class.
The most important feature of the Red Queen is that she is a tyrant. She rules with a
heavy hand, and maintains control through fear by ordering her subjects beheaded for minor
offences such as planting the wrong color of rosebush or defeating her in a game of croquet. She
allows fair legal proceedings only as long as they don’t inconvenience her, and manipulates the
justice system to satisfy her personal needs. She has managed to effectively emasculate her
husband, and her rule goes unquestioned by her subjects. However, although she is in a position
of power, she is shown to be obviously unfit to rule because of her infamous temper and volatile
nature. This portrayal of the Queen of Hearts can be interpreted as a more general statement
concerning women and power. Since women were considered irrational beings, at the mercy of
their emotions, it was widely accepted that they were unfit for any sort of important decision
making and that it was best for the men in their lives to make their decisions for them. The
portrayal of the Red Queen seems to suggest that if women are left to make their own decisions,
it will be dangerous for all concerned. If women are given power, they will become tyrants like
the Queen of Hearts. Their impetuous decision making will cause others to live in fear, just as
the subjects of the Red Queen live with the fear of having their heads cut off at any moment.
They will force the men in their lives to fill the gender role that they have abandoned, just as the
poor King of Hearts is forced to “wear the skirt”. If women are allowed to assert themselves and
have power, society will fall into chaos.
Lewis Carroll’s portrayal of the Queen of Hearts as a monster-woman is a statement
against female strength by painting it in an incredibly negative light. This negative view of
female strength can be interpreted as an attempt to preserve the status quo between the sexes in
Victorian England. The intent behind the Red Queen is a malicious message disguised in a
children’s story. What is distressing is that the Queen of Hearts does not stand alone. There are
countless examples of strong and powerful monster-women in children’s literature, from all of
the witches and evil stepmothers in fairy tales to Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. All of
these examples of negative feminism condition children to believe that female strength is wrong,
and contribute to the continuation of women being dominated by men. Recently, however, this
negative image of female strength has begun to change, and the extremes of the monster-woman
and the angel-woman are beginning to disappear. Female strength is becoming positive and the
two extremes seem to be reconciling with each other. In the words of Virginia Woolf, the angel-
woman and the monster-woman are being “killed”. This “killing” of both female extremes in
literature has coincided with the acceptance of female strength in Western society and the
increasing equality between men and women. We have indeed come a long way from the days of
Victorian England and the Red Queen.
1. Abrams, Lynn. “Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain.” 9 Aug. 2001. 9 Aug. 2009.
2. Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” Literary Theory: An
Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
3. Carroll, Lewis. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” The Complete Works of Lewis
Carroll. New York: Barnes and Noble Publishing, 2005.
4. Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory: An
Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
5. Unknown. “Victorian England: An Introduction.” 9 Aug. 2009.
6. Unknown. “Women of Victorian England.” 9 Aug. 2009.