Wordy Wednesday: The Garden Trope

It’s my last week of classes of college! Next week is finals and then the week after that is graduation and I don’t know what to do with myself.

Things that have happened in the past week:

  • Went to my last release party for a university lit mag I have a story in! I was lucky enough for my short fiction to be accepted to three university lit mags/anthologies this school year. If you’d like to read any of those, I’ll link to them as they become available online on the “My Writing” page.
  • Did interviews for a couple very cool things that I am SUPER EXCITED about! I’ll give details on those once the features themselves are released, but what I can tell you now is that one interview was about being a graduating senior at U of M and the other was about Ch1Con (and did I mention that I am SUPER EXCITED?).
  • Illustrated, put together, and ordered the picture book final project for my writing children’s literature class! Fingers crossed it gets here soon because I am dying to see it. (Also: that was my last project of the semester, so all I have left to do now are final exams ahhhhh!)
  • Took my first final of the semester! Only two more to go. (And then my first day of freedom will be my birthday, so good job on the symbolism there, Life.)
  • Had the showcase for my dance class! I was barely in it, since I had to sit out so much of the semester with my bum knee, but it was really fun and I loved getting to watch my class kick butt after working so hard all term.
  • Got nine hours of sleep last night! I don’t know about you, but this is the thing I am most proud of.

And, now that I have bored you with my life (per usual): this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. In honor of it being my final week before my final finals (say that one five times fast), I figured I’d share one last paper from an undergraduate class with you. This is from my history of children’s literature class, discussing the use of the Garden Trope (term defined in the essay, if you don’t already know it) in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Disney’s The Princess and the Frog.

As always with these essays for classes, apologies for the obnoxiously long paragraphs and all that jazz.

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Children’s literature encompasses a great variety of stereotypes and running themes. From the rise of the child as the trickster figure in works such as Peter and Wendy and the stories of Brer Rabbit, to the use of magic in order to empower the child in novels such as Matilda and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it’s easy to pick out the threads that run from work to work in order to altogether come to define the literary category. However, perhaps the most intriguing of all of these tropes is that of the garden, or: the connection between the child and the natural world. Rousseau first developed the garden trope in the eighteen-century, with his work delving into the philosophy behind childhood and child development. He believed that children and nature were inherently connected, using terms such as “sapling” (Rousseau 5) and extended metaphors about trees in order to explain the child’s soul—and how best to protect it from the darkness of the increasingly urbanized world. In his book Emile, he writes that “education comes to us from nature” (Rousseau 6), and it is this concept of Rousseau’s that arguably has been most pervasive throughout the years. This relies upon placing the child in nature—and giving him or her freedom to explore this space (and thus his or herself)—in order for the child to properly develop and grow, thus protecting Rousseau’s “sapling” (or, the child’s soul). By drawing a connection between children and the natural world, the garden trope offers a safe space in which the child can explore his or her identity, away from the pressures of societal conventions and adults’ expectations. However, many storytellers interpret this in different ways. Thus, through works such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Disney film The Princess and the Frog, it becomes clear that different elements of the garden trope—from the journey into nature, to learning from nature, to the role of nature in the final lesson conveyed—all play roles in presenting differing representations of this trope, which altogether ultimately convey each work’s unique interpretation of the role of nature in the child’s development. (Rousseau)

The deviations between Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Princess and the Frog become clear almost immediately in the two works. In his classic novel of fantasy and nonsense, Carroll presents Alice as connected with nature from the beginning. In fact, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland opens with a line about how “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank” (Carroll 1). In other words, Carroll immediately associates Alice with nature by situating her on a river bank, which one can infer to combine both the more common elements of nature (such as grass and trees) as well as a slightly less common element (water); Alice is entirely surrounded by the natural. The fact that Alice is sitting still amongst all of this, much like she herself is rooted to the ground (similar to Rousseau’s sapling) solidifies this connection. This passage also quickly goes on to include references to the “hot day” (Carroll 1) and “making a daisy-chain” (Carroll 1), both of which strengthen the enmeshment of Alice and the natural world, especially in comparison with Alice’s early complaint about her sister’s book, which she thinks is pointless and boring. By rejecting the opportunity to read the book, Alice likewise rejects the infiltration of the domestic into the natural world, which prefaces the fact that she will soon embrace the natural, instead, further by following the White Rabbit down the rabbit-hole. In contrast, the animated Disney fairytale film The Princess and the Frog opens with the titular princess, Tiana, far away from nature. Tiana lives in a big city—New Orleans—and, due to this, she spends the first several scenes entirely immersed in the urban. In particular, she finds herself surrounded by her rich friend Charlotte’s opulence, which takes Tiana as far from the natural world as possible. When a young Tiana is presented with the natural—which occurs when her mother reads the two girls the classic fairytale “The Frog Prince”—she outright rejects it, disgusted, stating, “There is no way, in this whole wide world, I would ever, ever, ever—I mean never—kiss a frog” (The Princess and the Frog 2:25-2:32). This separation and abhorrence of nature continues when Tiana grows into a down-on-her-luck young woman who finds herself presented with the opportunity to kiss Prince Naveen, in frog form. It takes all of Tiana’s will power to complete the act, and she is horrified when she finds herself transformed into a frog as well, rather than Naveen into a human. In line with this, even as a frog, she continues to reject the natural, only reluctantly leaving the urban for the bayou and grousing about things like how frog skin is covered with mucus and “[t]here is no way [she’s] … kissing a frog and eating a bug in the same day” (The Princess and the Frog 43:49-43:54). This shows how Tiana sees herself as separate from nature, and thus she does not understand it (or herself). Altogether, the examples of both Alice and Tiana’s journeys into the natural world portray how this element of the garden trope affects the child character’s development overall, as it is Alice’s initial acceptance of nature—and Tiana’s rejection of it—that shape the lessons each character must learn throughout her story.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that said lessons are a second way storytellers can represent their differing interpretations of the garden trope. These two works teach their protagonists lessons in greatly differing manners, aligned with the relationship between the character and the natural. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for instance, because Alice is already part of nature, she is open to learning from the creatures she encounters, and thus is able to learn through broad conversations with them concerning a variety of topics. This means that although Alice truly is learning in part from Wonderland’s residents, she is doing so through compromise and interpretation—by not just listening, but interacting as well—so that it feels almost as if she is teaching herself. For example, in the chapter “Advice from a Caterpillar,” the advice the Caterpillar gives Alice in terms of her size is that she will “‘get used to [being three inches high] … in time’” (Carroll 61); however, Alice disagrees with this and so is able to learn something about herself (that she is not the kind of person who will just get used to something she dislikes) in the process. The Caterpillar presents her with an intended lesson, but Alice reinterprets it to learn something else instead. In essence, because Alice is part of nature, like the Caterpillar, she is able to take the lessons conveyed by the Wonderland creatures and decide whether or not they fit with the sense of self she is developing, so that ultimately she decides the lessons she learns. On the other hand, because Tiana of The Princess and the Frog rejects nature, she is not able to be in conversation with it. Instead, nature essentially must talk at her, with the hope that she will listen. The filmmakers convey this by having Tiana interact with a number of bayou creatures, all of whom have strong senses of self from which she must learn. However, at first Tiana dislikes these characters, because each of them believes in something seemingly impossible. For example, Ray the lightning bug is in love with a star, which he calls Evangeline. This at first appears to associate the natural with the impossible, but it becomes clear that these dreams only appear impossible because Tiana does not accept things she does not understand (i.e. nature). Tiana must accept these impossible things—and thus the lesson each character represents—in order to reinterpret her personal identity and be able to move the plot forward. Essentially, Tiana must listen to nature, and find it in herself to accept nature, in order to learn the lessons necessary in order to achieve her goal of becoming human and returning home again.

It is the ultimate goal of each character that draws the most attention to the importance to the role of nature in the child’s development. After all, it is Alice and Tiana’s shared goal of getting home that drives them to explore the other worlds in which they find themselves. However, the role of the natural differs greatly here. Because Alice is part of nature, and has been learning in conversation with nature—and thus in large part from herself—her resolution relies not upon continued learning from the natural, but upon learning to control it and thus learning to empower herself as an important element of the natural. To be more specific, Alice spends the entirety of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland voraciously eating and, due to this and the magic associated with the nature of Wonderland, her size continually changes, out of her control. However, in the final chapters, Alice’s size changes not because of something she has eaten (a type of change which Carroll has presented throughout the text as “natural”), but rather because she has felt a strong emotion. She has deposed of what has been natural thus far in order to create a new natural order—one in which, rather than something else controlling her, she takes control of herself and, because she is part of it, the natural world at large. In doing this, Alice is no longer subjected to the rules of nature, but instead defines the rules herself. This is especially clear when, in finally taking control of her growth, she “ha[s] … grown to her full size” (Carroll 140)—the first time she has been her proper size since entering Wonderland—and she is able to state to those who are antagonizing her that they are “‘nothing but a pack of cards!’” (Carroll 140), at which point they transform into just that. It is Alice taking control in this manner that allows her to wake up from Wonderland and find herself back on the river bank with her sister—only now, she isn’t bored. In contrast, Tiana’s resolution relies not upon controlling nature, but simply embracing it. She must learn to overcome her urbanized prejudices against the natural world, and acknowledge herself as part of it, in order to return to human form. She does so by falling in love with Naveen, so that when he is given the opportunity to return the two of them to human form—by kissing, and then marrying, Charlotte—Tiana asks him not to, because she’d rather be a frog with him than a human without him. She says that her “dream [of opening a restaurant upon becoming human again, for which she has worked her entire life] wouldn’t be complete without [him] … in it” (Princess and the Frog 1:1:23:29-1:23:35). Because Tiana accepts being a part of nature—and thus remaining a frog for the rest of her life—she and Naveen stop trying to become human again, and instead choose to move on with their lives, happily, as frogs. Due to this acceptance, they then get married, at which point the curse is finally able to lift and they do become human again after all. These are two very different interpretations of the role of nature in the resolution of the child’s story, but ultimately do both reflect the trope of learning in and from nature, as it is each child’s reevaluation of her place in relation to nature that allows her to return home.

Truly, it is all three of these elements, combined, that reflect how storytellers can interpret the garden trope in different manners. Alice’s immediate immersion in nature leads to her ability to converse as an element of it, which subsequently also leads, naturally, to the need for her to take control of nature—to assert her agency as part of it—in order to return home. Tiana, on the other hand, first rejects nature, and so must learn to accept it and find her place within it in order to find her happy ending and thus become human again. However, both of these interpretations do ultimately reflect the Rousseauan model of development, as both Alice and Tiana rely heavily upon nature to shape their character arcs and the plots of their stories. Although they learn different lessons, both learn from nature, which exemplifies Rousseau’s idea that children are part of nature. Therefore, through works such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Disney film The Princess and the Frog, it becomes clear that different elements of the garden trope—from the journey into nature, to learning from nature, to the role of nature in the final lesson conveyed—all play roles in presenting differing representations of this trope. Ultimately, these elements work together to convey each story’s unique interpretation of the role of nature in the child’s development—and altogether show how children and the natural world truly are connected, making nature crucial to the child’s growth in order to become who he or she is meant to be. (Rousseau) (Carroll) (The Princess and the Frog)

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Bibliography

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

The Princess and the Frog. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Walt Disney, 2009. Online.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile. London: J.M. Dent, 1993. Print.

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Thanks for reading!

~Julia

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9 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday: The Garden Trope

  1. Julia, I found your blog totally out of the blue, and I’m so enjoying reading your posts! I’m a rising sophomore in college so I really like reading about your experiences as someone who’s a bit older than me. You’ve accomplished so much during college, and you’ve seriously inspired me to get off my butt and work towards my goals. Gotta write that book….Get that internship…. 😉

    Also, I saw you studied abroad during your time at college, and I was wondering if you applied to your programs directly or through your home university. I’m thinking about studying abroad but I feel like my home school doesn’t have affiliations with programs I’m interested in.

    Hope to see you in the Twitterverse! I’m @EmilyMReeves

    Like

    • Hi, Emily! Sorry for taking so long to reply to your comment! (Gack.) You have no idea how much your kind words mean to me.

      With my particular program, I applied through my home university. (I knew I wanted to study abroad at Oxford through a summer program, and luckily my school had an affiliation with one.) However, it’s super easy to study abroad separate from your home university as well, if you don’t like any of the programs your university has to offer. Most of the time, if you talk to your adviser once you’re accepted to a program, you can get approvals so that the credits from your program will transfer to your home university, no problem.

      Good luck, and let me know if there’s anything I can do to help in any way! Feel free to email me anytime at jbyerswriting@aol.com. 🙂

      Like

  2. College is truly winding down now and pulling into the finish line – Graduation. You have done so well and have had so many great experiences!

    Lots of new firsts await you. I’m every excited to see where life takes you and where you take life. Keep being ambitious, wonderful you and you will do well! 🙂

    Like

  3. Julia, your entire range and depth of insights have been superb and invaluable!! Please continue your blog following graduation from the U of M (and lots of congratulations!!!). You will be an exceptional person in the writing community for many years to come!!!

    Kind Regards

    Like

  4. Hi Julia,

    Thank you for all of your writing process posts. Your motivation and optimism for life really inspires me! You’re awesome and congrulations on (almost) graduating!

    Best,
    Marie

    Like

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