Wolf-Alice is a child raised by wolves. Even though she is physically a woman, "Nothing about her is human except that she is not a wolf"; she runs on all fours, is nocturnal, howls rather than speaks, and does not wear clothes. What distinguishes Wolf-Alice most from other humans is the fact that she is unaware of her own mortality. Peasants discover Wolf-Alice sleeping next to her wolf mother, whom they shot to death. Once they realize she is human, they bring her to live in a convent. She learns to cooperate with the nuns in order to get food, but they cannot break her of her animal habits. Exasperated, they send her to live with a werewolf called the Duke.
The Duke is a lonely, invincible creature who does not cast a reflection. When the moon comes out, he becomes ravenous and devours humans and human corpses. To the townspeople, he is an abhorred ally of the devil, but their attempts to scare him off are hopeless because he is not afraid of garlic or Christian symbols. Even wolves would not accept the Duke, because he eats his own kind. Since he does not belong among humans or wolves, the Duke is terribly lonely. Presumably because she is so "inhuman," the Duke does not devour Wolf-Alice. She lives in the Duke's castle and serves as a sort of primitive maid to him, using skills the nuns taught her.
Wolf-Alice lives in a strange state that is neither dreaming or waking. That is, until a major event occurs; she begins to menstruate. Confused by her bleeding, Wolf-Alice is struck with wonder for the very first time. She is accustomed to being dirty, but she cleans up the blood out of shame. While searching the house for rags to stop her bleeding, Wolf-Alice sees her reflection in a mirror for the first time. She tries to play with her reflection because, like an animal or very young child, she does not recognize it as her own.
As months pass, Wolf-Alice's menstruation makes her aware of the passage of time. Simultaneously, she acquires a sense of being different from her surroundings. Whereas before she felt at one with nature, as though it was "the emanation of her questing nose and erect ears," now she sees it as "a backdrop for her, that [waits] for her arrivals to give it meaning." Wolf-Alice, previously as engaged in the moment as a baby or animal, starts to become more withdrawn. Then one day, she discovers the truth about her reflection. As she plays with her reflection, she spies a wedding dress behind the mirror. She finds the dress so beautiful that she makes a point of washing herself thoroughly before putting it on. Wolf-Alice leaves the castle wearing the dress.
At the same time Wolf-Alice wanders into the town, a young bridegroom is plotting revenge against the Duke for his bride's death. He waits with a group of townspeople in the village church, which he has filled with every known anti-werewolf device including silver bullets and holy water. Wolf-Alice sits outside the church, fascinated by the people's chanting. Just when she smells the Duke approaching, Wolf-Alice senses that something is amiss. She and the Duke flee as the townspeople throw holy water and fire bullets in their direction, one of which hits the Duke's shoulder. When the townspeople see Wolf-Alice running after the Duke in her wedding dress, they assume that she is the bride's ghost wreaking vengeance upon him. Awed and frightened, they flee.
Back at the castle, the injured Duke lies bleeding and howling in his bed. Wolf-Alice jumps onto the bed and begins to tenderly lick the blood and dirt off his face. Now we turn our attention to the mirror. Little by little, the Duke's face begins to appear in its glass until it is reflected there fully, "as vivid as real life itself."
"Wolf-Alice" borrows themes from Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, and Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. It also invokes twentieth-century case studies of 'feral children' who were actually raised by wild animals, such as world-famous Victor d'Aveyron. In many of Carter's stories, we see heroines embrace their bestial or lustful natures to become enlightened; in "The Tiger's Bride," the heroine even becomes a beast. Wolf-Alice's development is opposite from these heroines' because she begins as a de facto beast and becomes human. Whereas in "The Werewolf," Carter combines grandmother and wolf into one character, in "Wolf-Alice," she combines girl and wolf into one; hence the title character's hyphenated name.
Because wolves raised Wolf-Alice, she behaves exactly like a wolf and has no awareness of being human. By being human and inhuman at the same time, Wolf-Alice calls into question what defines humanity. It cannot be our physicality, because Wolf-Alice has a human's body. Carter points to several things that distinguish humans from animals: knowledge of our mortality, the ability to feel shame and subsequent desire to wear clothing, and the belief that we are more important than, and masters of, our surroundings. All of these human characteristics are latent in Wolf-Alice, but she cannot realize them until she is in the presence of human things: a house, a mirror, a dress. Wolf-Alice is a somewhat bracing reminder that we are mere beasts without our culture. As the narrator admits, the townspeople "[feared] her imperfection because it showed [them] what [they] might have been."
Whereas the heroine in "The Company of Wolves" ends up safe in the wolf's den, Wolf-Alice starts out there. Because she grows up without society to inform her of how she should behave, she is the antithesis of the well-pampered, well-behaved, and sheltered woman. In his book, The Myth of Irrationality, John McCrone examines the case of Amala and Kamala, two children raised by wolves until the ages of three and five, respectively. McCrone says that just like babies, Amala and Kamala were "mentally naked" when they were found because they did not have other humans to shape their thinking. So, too, is Wolf-Alice "mentally naked" as well as physically naked. She walks on all fours because no one has taught her to stand, goes naked because no one has taught her to wear clothes, and howls because no one has taught her to speak. Bacchilega calls Wolf-Alice "a new Eve" because she retains an authenticity of being that has been lost on humans since we tumbled out of Eden. Through her largely undisturbed experience of her surroundings, the audience sees the world objectively and anew. The narrator goes so far as to suggest that Wolf-Alice's ignorance makes her a visionary and even a messiah by predicting, "[she] could prove to be the wise child that leads them all."
Wolf-Alice's penchant for original vision connects her to one of her namesakes, Alice from Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Alice is a young girl who gains knowledge by adventuring through the world on the other side of her mirror. Her strength, like Wolf-Alice's, is her childish curiosity; having no magical powers, Alice manages to step through her looking glass just by wondering what is on the other side. In the same way, Wolf-Alice's enlightenment stems from pure wonder at her own reflection. For a time, Wolf-Alice thinks that it is another creature, whose presence comforts her in her loneliness. During that time, she becomes more restrained and therefore more human simply because menstruating causes her to experience both time and shame. But it is Wolf-Alice's realization about the mirror that truly separates her from her surroundings and makes her realize her own power. Once she sees that her reflection is her "shadow," she understands that she has control over it. Her perspective shifts from animal objectivity to human subjectivity. Once she is human on the inside, she is inspired for the first time to look human on the outside by wearing clothes. Having gained control over her own mirror-image and begun to create a self-image, Wolf-Alice is able to help the Duke regain his own.
We can isolate the mirror in the story as a distinguisher of human, beast, and half-being. Humans recognize their reflections, beasts do not, and half-beasts cast no reflection. Both Wolf-Alice and the Duke are trapped in liminal existences, which the mirror brings to light. Wolf-Alice is trapped between being a beast and a human until she recognizes her reflection. Her revelation draws her out of the timeless, undefined beast's experience into the calculated human experience. The Duke is a half-being in two ways; he is a half-beast-half-wolf and is trapped between the physical and metaphysical worlds. He is "an aborted transformation, an incomplete mystery." The Duke is 'real' enough to kill and eat people, but not 'real' enough to cast a reflection in the mirror. His image breezes over it as though he is dead. Just as the mirror witnesses Wolf-Alice transform from beast into human, it witnesses her transform the Duke from half-being into being. When the Duke is shot, he is in danger of disappearing entirely into the metaphysical world. He is so weak that his body barely occupies space in his bed.
Wolf-Alice takes pity on the Duke because she recognizes that he is imperfect, just as the wolves pitied her for being a human, a 'flawed' wolf. Like the heroine in "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon," she transforms the tormented half-being by her kindness alone. We must not mistake Wolf-Alice's pity and kindness for human traits, however. The heroines in "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" as well as "The Tiger's Bride" have to become less civilized and less human in order to save their respective beasts. They both reject their fathers' wealth and the urban social scene in favor of lives with their beasts, whom the rest of humanity has forced into seclusion. The heroine in "The Tiger's Bride" regresses so far that she actually becomes a tigress.
Wolf-Alice's pity, like the other heroines', is a function of her animal side and not her human side. All the other humans in the story want to kill the beast because they cannot understand his ravenousness and his torment, but Wolf-Alice can because she has experienced these sensations in the way he has. In "The Tiger's Bride," the heroine transforms into a tigress. In "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon," the beast transforms into a human. In "Wolf-Alice," the heroine becomes more human throughout the story, but still retains enough animal kindness to save the Duke. Because her name does not change like Mr. Lyon's does, we know that Wolf-Alice is still caught between worlds. As for the Duke, we cannot be sure whether he transforms into a human or a wolf. We are told only that the mirror reflects "the face of the Duke." Carter leaves both characters in liminal ambiguity to suggest that authentic living requires one balance one's humanity and beastliness.