Image credit: Jessie Willcox Smith / Wikimedia Commons
[Lewis] Carroll’s books furnished the basic metaphors with which I came to understand my world and the people in it. My mother seemed to me, when I was a child, a combination of the Queen of Hearts and the Red Queen. She was, like the Queen of Hearts, idiosyncratic and imperious, someone with whom you could never win an argument, even when you knew you were right and she was wrong. The Red Queen was kinder but also, like my mother (and like the Queen of Hearts), impervious to reason and infuriating in her insistence that her often palpably bonkers ideas were the only true ones. Years later, when I discovered Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice, I found that Lewis Carroll had carefully sorted out the resemblances and differences between the two red queens and described them in terms that did indeed seem to describe my mother: “I pictured to myself the Queen of Hearts as a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion—a blind and aimless Fury.” “The Red Queen I pictured as a Fury, but of another type; her passion must be cold and calm; she must be formal and strict, yet not unkindly; pedantic to the tenth degree, the concentrated essence of all governesses!” (Gardner 1960, 109, 206, quoting Carroll 1887). Or, to us simple American Jewish children who never had a governess, the essence of all domineering but ultimately well-meaning mothers. My mother, doubly red from her resemblance to both the red chess queen and the red court card (triply red, in fact, as she was also a passionate Communist), was therefore a sometimes hot and sometimes cold Fury, and though she never threatened to behead me (as the Queen of Hearts does constantly in Wonderland, starting in the chapter “The Queen’s Croquet-Ground”), I was careful not to excite her wrath.
Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, Emerita. Her last book is The Donigers of Great Neck (Brandeis University Press, 2019).