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Gabrielle Mc Caffrey

Dr. Tamara Wilson

ENG 340

18 June 2009

When the Reflection Becomes Reality:

Wolf-Alice and the Fine Line of Beastliness and Humanity

The mirror is a marvel of humanity; it holds no secrets, tells no lies. The mirror is

unbiased, inanimate, and hauntingly accurate. Most humans would generally, if given a

choice, avoid mirrors at all costs. Contrarily and ironically, however, this painstaking

truthfulness of mirrors is not enough to turn away the self-conscious, vain, insecure, as

well as the egotistical. A mirror can tell us what no one else can; painting a picture of

absolute truth, imitating back who we are (which may or may not be who we try to be).

In order to assess the results which a mirror regurgitates, the viewer must first be

entirely aware the image is of course, his or her self. Humans recognize themselves as

separate entities from others, from the world. This ability draws the line between beast

and human. A literary exploration of this idea is Angela Carter’s Wolf-Alice. In the story,

the main character is a feral child who has been raised by wolves since birth and does

not recognize herself as a human. Although Wolf-Alice is a human, “nothing about her is

human is except that she is not a wolf” (1032). She functions in an animalistic state of

timelessness, existing strictly in the “now,” oblivious to the past and the future. She

walks on all fours because she cannot stand. She howls because she cannot speak. By

being a human physically but acting inhuman as well as failing to recognize herself as a

human, Wolf-Alice brings into question what separates beast from humanity. By gaining

existential knowledge with the ability to recall experience as well as shifting from a
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mode of animal objectivity to humanistic subjectivity, Wolf- Alice is able to understand

as well as execute human traits which are expected from her in a contemporary society.

Wolf-Alice possesses human characteristics but it is not until she is in the presence of

human belongings such as a mirror or a dress which she can realize them and consider

them beyond her initial animalistic view.

Wolf-Alice begins by explaining the animalistic manner in which she operates on

a day to day basis. She possesses no concept of time, inhabiting “only the present tense,

a fugue of the continuous, a world of sensual immediacy as without hope as it is without

despair” (1033). This nature of Wolf-Alice to live in only a present tense is decidedly

inhuman as humans live with existential reality as well as reaction to experience. Wolf-

Alice, at this point, cannot discern between past events or learn from the experiences

she has already had. Essentially, time is nonexistent to her as it is a humanly defined

characteristic of the world.

Wolf-Alice is found her laying next to her bullet ridden mother and brought to a

convent. In true hubristic nature, the nuns take her in to try to teach her how to act as a

human. When their attempts fail she is deposited at the house of a Duke who is half-

man, half-beast and presumably does not eat Wolf-Alice due to the fact she is so

inhuman. She does not entirely react to the change of location and when she is left with

the Duke she “settled down on her hunkers with that dog’s sigh that is only the

expulsion of breath and does not mean either relief or resignation” (1033). She is

unphased by the events which have occurred more-so than even an animal or beast

would be without the presence of time or experience to relate to.

In her time at the Duke’s castle, she exists in a dreamlike state, barely employing

the small tasks which the nuns had taught her for the Duke, such as making his bed,
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serving as an extremely primitive maid. She grew in the castle “amongst things she

could neither name nor perceive” (1034) until a major event occurs—she begins to

menstruate. For her, the flow seemed to continue on for “a few days, which seemed to

her an endless time” (1035). This seemingly endless continuation of her menstrual cycle

only seemed so because she had no human concept of time as well as her nature of being

ruled by an animalistic endless “now”. Although she is, at this point, accustomed to

being dirty, she cleans up herself as the narrator notes “it was not fastidiousness but

shame that made her do so” (1035). This feeling of shame is unusual to Wolf-Alice, as it

denotes a humanistic characteristic that is only present when one is self aware as well as

a conscious minded individual, an inescapable human characteristic. Additionally,

Wolf-Alice learns to track her menstrual cycle as well as prepare for it ahead of time,

which lends itself to force her to understand the concept of time. “She learned to expect

these bleedings, to prepare her rags against them and afterwards, neatly to bury the

dirty things… you might say that she discovered the very action of time by means of this

cycle” (1036).

While Wolf-Alice searches for ways to stop her bleeding in the house, she

discovers a mirror. Here Carter utilizes the mirror to draw lines between beastliness as

well as humanity. This echoes to an earlier passage drawing parallels to the Duke with

his half-beast-half-wolf appearance, when it is stated he “ceased to cast an image in the

mirror” (1033). Wolf-Alice does not understand what she sees in the mirror is her own

reflection such as when “she was lonely enough to ask this creature to try to play with

her, barring her teeth and grinning; at once she received a reciprocal invitation” (1035).

In his book The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim comments on this

phenomenon of the reflection that is found in animals and children. He notes "When he
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spies his mirror image, he wonders whether what he sees is really he, or a child just like

him standing behind this glassy wall" (47). While this characteristic is true of both child

and animal, the realization of the product of a mirror ultimately sets beast apart from

human. The realization that her reflection is just a shadow forces her to realize she is in

control of her surroundings. It is then her perception begins to shift to a form of human

subjectivity. She succeeds in separating herself in a physical form from her surroundings

as well as a psychological form from others, “she goes out at night more often now. The

landscape assembles itself about her; she informs it with her presence. She is its

significance” (1037). Wolf-Alice is caught between two worlds much as the Duke is, but

her ability to recognize herself in the mirror is what draws her out of her timelessness

and into a realm of human experience.

Her first memory, evidence of her growing existential reality, is one of her foster

mother wolf. It is then she “perceived an essential difference between herself and her

surroundings that you might say she could not put her finger on—only, the trees and

grass of the meadows outside no longer seemed the emanation of her questing nose and

erect ears, and yet sufficient to itself, but a kind of backdrop for her” (1036). Wolf-Alice

explores her new self as well as the boundaries of her existence. The more human Wolf-

Alice feels on the inside, the desire to outwardly look human becomes stronger.

When the humans in the town try to take revenge on the Duke for killing as well

as eating a bridesmaid, Wolf-Alice shows she has not completely abandoned her

animalistic nature by showing pity towards the injured Duke. When she lived with the

wolves, she was looked upon as flawed as noted when the narrator says, “The wolves had

tended her because they knew she was an imperfect wolf” (1034). Much in the same way

Wolf-Alice was considered like a defective wolf, the Duke is considered a flawed human.
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If Wolf-Alice had completely abandoned her animalistic instincts as well as completely

embraced her newly found human experience she would have been inclined to seek

revenge on the Duke as well. The townspeople cannot understand his torment as Wolf-

Alice does because she has felt those sensations in the way he has. It is through her own

kindness alone which she is able to save the Duke at the end of the story; she is capable

enough to recall her own innate animal kindness in the face of a terrorizing matter, she

as one stuck between a beast and wolf transformation. Through her grasp of her internal

as well as external human, she is able to help the Duke regain control of his own.

Studying cases such as the one described in Wolf-Alice is a contemporary issue

as well as an ancient one. In his book Feral Children and Clever Animals, Douglas

Candland demonstrates the pertinence behind the case studies of wolf-children or feral

children as he states “The importance of feral children and clever animals is not that

they are feral or thinking, but that we human beings ascribe characteristics to these

situations. Such characteristics tell us much about ourselves, if less about the children

and animals we study" ( 17). Here Candland is referring to the manner in which we place

importance of communication through language as well as behavioral habits that are

characteristic of humans, such as sitting at a table while eating or standing upright.

When Wolf-Alice was at the convent, human’s hubristic nature came out as she was

forced to behave like a human rather than animal. Despite the nun’s efforts, however,

Wolf-Alice is not able to complete most of the tasks and in frustration, is kicked out.

This is not because Wolf-Alice is not able minded enough to learn but because in her

animalistic mind, walking on four legs is not efficient and utilizing a bathroom is not

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Wolf-Alice, despite learning to recognize human qualities in herself, does not ever

learn to communicate with language. According to his article entitled "Mysterious

People: Feral Children" Archeologist Brian Haughton asserts "Study of such children

can cast light on the differences and similarities between human and animal natures,

the process of how language is acquired, and whether certain human characteristics are

learned or genetic" (1) . No account of a feral child coming back into civilization has

been successful due to the complications that are involved with the proper training that

is needed.

Wolf-Alice channels themes from Through the Looking Glass and What Alice

Found There by Lewis Carroll, The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, and Little Red

Riding Hood. These stories are additional examples of children who not only embrace

their animalistic or childish curiosity, but utilize it as a tool for self-identification and

definition. Wolf-Alice employs similar thematic elements such that her childish curiosity

is view as strength, as well as challenges human’s hubristic nature to impose accepted

societal norms on a child who was only exposed to the animalistic and primal culture of

her wolf family. Angela Carter leaves the transformation of the two at the end of the

story ambiguous to demonstrate the fine line between human reality and innate, yet

inherently primal instincts. The ending also offers a dichotomized picture of physical

outward appearance of beastliness coupled with reality. Wolf-Alice is a human who acts

in a primal manner which includes acting upon her animalistic pity. The Duke is a half-

beast transforming into a human-like appearance. Wolf-Alice demonstrates the

hubristic notion that the existence of culture is what defines a human from an animal.

Wolf-Alice also demonstrates the relationship between behavior and cultural

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expectations while calling into question what defines a human from a beast, from a

human's point of view.

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Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of

Fairy Tales. New York City: Vintage, 1976.

Candland, Douglas K. Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human

Nature. New York City: Oxford UP, 1993.

Carter, Angela. “Wolf Alice.” The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature. Ed.

Mary DeShazer. New York, Addison-Wesley. 2001. 1032-37.

Haughton, Brian. "Mysterious People: Feral Children." Mysterious People. 2006.