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In equal parts deliciously mocking and delightfully nonsensical, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has captured the hearts of countless generations of readers. Its characters and imagery have had such an incalculable effect on popular culture as to have spawned many adaptions, re-interpretations, and spin-offs. Here, Tara Heuzé unpacks the literary phenomenon, exploring its plot and themes, in honour of Alice’s Day, a celebration of all that is ‘Carrollian’.
In 1862, on a cloudy July day, Charles Dodgson, don and tutor of Mathematics at Christ Church College, Oxford (where he also spent his undergraduate and postgraduate years), and a close friend of the Liddell Family, was asked by the Liddell children to narrate a story to them as they were being rowed down the River Isis. Dodgson obliged, weaving a fantastical tale of a girl called Alice (the name of one of the Liddell daughters), who, whilst bored and looking for an adventure, fell down a rabbit hole in hot pursuit of an errant waist-coated rabbit. This was exceptionally well-received by the Liddell children at the time, though they had grown used to such extravagant tales of whimsy from their family friend, and Dodgson was even asked by the heroine’s namesake if he could give her a written copy. Many months later, Alice Liddell was presented with Alice’s Adventures Underground, complete with the author’s own illustrations and rhymes.
Given the popularity of the tale with the select number of children who had heard the story, Dodgson decided to capitalise on his creation and send it in for publication. After editing and emendation, the manuscript was sent off, and, on the 26th November 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, and with the timeless illustrations of John Tenniel; a literary phenomenon was thus born. The rest, as they say, is history…
The novel itself, as well as its sequel, has been the source of much delight to its readers, and is considered one of the finest example of nonsense fiction in the English language. The premise is simple: Alice, the spirited female protagonist, is dozing by the riverbanks, when she spies a large white rabbit, unusually dressed in an elaborate waistcoat and fancy pocket watch, rushing towards something. Bored, and in need of something to occupy her, Alice follows the harassed-looking rabbit, until she sees him disappearing into a rabbit hole. Throwing caution to the wind, she follows him still further into the rabbit hole, thus ending up in Wonderland, a wonderful and whimsical alternate universe where nonsense in the norm, and non-sequiturs are standard. In Wonderland, she meets a whole host of peculiar individuals, anthropomorphic or otherwise, including, the Mad Hatter, who has gone insane through continual abuse of Mercury in maintaining the pristine quality of his obscene hat collection; the Queen of Hearts, who uses flamingos as croquet mallets and has an unquenchable penchant for beheading “disloyal” subjects; the ever-grinning Cheshire Cat, who scolds Alice for her poor skills of “evaporation”, and engages her in questions on esoteric philosophy; and the Caterpillar, fond of hookah pipes and giving advice, to name but a very small handful. The episodes in which she meets this eclectic assortment of characters form the overarching structure of the plot, until she is eventually woken up by her sister, and realises that it was all a nonsensical dream.
Though Alice in Wonderland is a wonderful piece of children’s fiction that serves as an excellent tool for inspiring the imagination, the plot itself is far more complex than it superficially appears. Critics have always been fascinated by the layers of complexity within the book, declaring that the book is a great gem of literary creation that always reveals something new and exciting upon re-reading. Below are three literary theories that, though unsubstantiated in many cases, have been noted for their unusual angle and interesting hypotheses.
Alice as Satire
It is clear from a cursory reading of Alice that, underneath the book’s whimsicality, there is a steel edge of satire and good-humoured mockery beneath. Carroll was said to be a shy person, often at the butts of other people’s jokes, or, at any rate, relegated to the fringes of conversation during High Table banter with other academics in college. It has thus been argued that Alice’s Adventures is satirical take on the society at large, taking the idiosyncrasies and quirks of his colleagues, and enlarging them to such a degree as to make them utterly ridiculous, and masking it in the guise of ‘nonsense’. It was said that upon publication of Alice’s Adventures, many Christ Church dons took offence to the book, as they could clearly recognise themselves in the absurd characters in it: there was, apparently, a constantly flurried and anxious individual rushing about the college grounds in a similar manner to the White Rabbit; a narcoleptic who could not stay awake even for the most important of college meetings (like the Dormouse); and, there was even a don who would, in all probability, consider good quality butter as an effective means of fixing a timepiece, as the March Hare did. Another popular, though unsubstantiated, theory even suggests that the Dodo was a mockery of Dodgson himself, who, due to his stammer, had, on more than one occasion, introduced himself as “Do-Do-Dodgson”, thus inspiring him to remodel his own personality in the form of a Dodo. Much of this has been subject to much speculation and doubt, but it is hardly difficult to see the layers of satirical mockery under the light-hearted frivolity.
Alice and Drugs
Some people of the modern era have suggested that the book is a criticism of the increasing use of pharmaceutical drugs for medicinal and recreational purposes. In the era of Darwinian naturalist theory, breakthroughs were constantly being made in both zoology and botany, including the discovery of the hallucinogenic plants or stimulants, such as harmaline, or ephedra. The increasing use of, and dependence upon, such substances was potentially a source of distress to polite society, and this anxiety is said to be reflected in Alice’s Adventures. Alice’s startling fluctuations in size whenever she eats and drinks something in Wonderland (be it the sides of the mushroom proffered by the lymphatic Caterpillar, or the neglected tea treats in the first place she fell into) have been construed as an allegory for the perceptions in changing sizes and forms that an individual feels during a hallucinogenic trip. Furthermore, some have also argued that the literary tool of the mushroom, and the alarming alacrity with which Alice eventually starts eating the mushrooms in order to manipulate her size, is an overt reference to the dangers of “magic mushrooms” and their overuse. However, like many literary theories, these have been considered purely subjective and unsubstantiated by other critics.
Alice and Numbers
It is often easy to forget, when enrapt by the wonder that is Alice’s Adventures, that its author was, first and foremost, a mathematician, and an extremely gifted one at that. During his time as an academic and tutor in Mathematics, imaginary numbers and other such innovations in ‘New Mathematics’ were starting to be introduced and formally accepted as correct mathematical theorem. This upset many traditionalists, who believed that, with the introduction of such theories, Mathematics itself was becoming increasingly ridiculous; Dodgson was said to be one of those ‘traditionalists’, and it is said that his reaction to ‘New Mathematics’ was indeed Alice’s Adventures, thus expressing his opinions about the ridiculous nature of such ideas through nonsense fiction. In creating such a nonsensical world where illogicality was the norm, Dodgson was thereby voicing his discontent about the study of Mathematics, which, it is suggested, he believed what becoming as illogical and random as Wonderland itself.
Reception and Legacy
At the time, and up to the present day, Alice’s Adventures became an enormous hit, as its effervescence and charm instantly struck a chord within the hearts of all its readers. Its imaginative flair and quirky frivolity have made its mark in several aspects of popular culture, such as music, film, literature, fashion, food and beverage, and even popular psychology! It is said that Queen Victoria loved it so much, that she communicated directly to Dodgson, expressly commanding him to send to her, personally, a copy of the next book he published. Dodgson, with his own peculiar brand of humour, followed her instructions to the letter, and, when he next published, did indeed send a copy to the palace; however, it was a paper on Mathematics, rather than being another work of fiction, and the gesture was not particularly appreciated.
The effect of the book is no less potent now, and the 1951 Disney adaptation (a cartoon named Alice in Wonderland), did little to assuage the fervour. Not only has it raised both Oxford City and Christ Church College’s public profile – with thousands of tourists streaming into the city annually to walk the ‘footsteps’ Alice walked – it has inspired generations of writers and poets to equal heights of whimsy and nonsense, creating the building blocks to the fantasy genre. This was later consolidated by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels, Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, and Peake’s Gormenghast Series, to name but a few fantasy writers. Moreover, sayings and quotes from Alice’s Adventures have become so much a part of the wider consciousness as to have been introduced as standardised sayings into the lexica, such as “everyone has won, and all must have prizes”, which was proclaimed by the Dodo during the ridiculous Caucus Race; “curiouser and curiouser”, a phrase uttered by Alice; the classic unanswered riddle from the Mad Hatter, “why is a raven like a writing desk?”; as well as the March Hare’s snappish retort to a confused Alice that “you can’t say what you mean if you don’t mean what you say!”. Equally, allusions to the cake and phial labelled with “Eat Me” and “Drink Me”, and the metaphor “grin like a Cheshire Cat”, all have their origins in Alice’s Adventures, and have become an integral part of English culture and literature.
Much also has been made of Dodgson’s subsequent works, such as the poem The Jabberwocky, and other such signs of Carrollian whimsy, with other authors trying their hand at creating a special form of ‘gibberish’ language, or trying to create memorable anthropomorphic creatures with which to amuse the reader. Either way, Alice’s Adventures have had a profound impact on the shape and character of English language and literature through the ages.
In celebration of Carroll’s genius and creativity, The Story Museum annually co-ordinates and runs Alice’s Day on the first Saturday of July. A city-wide initiative to get children and adult readers fully engaged in the stories and characters, Alice’s Day celebrates, with the collaboration of over twenty other organisations, a wonderful array of events and workshops that is sure to commemorate the publication of Alice’s Adventures in the best possible way. This includes lessons in the Lobster Quadrille; opportunities to win prizes for the best Alice costume; a chance to compete in the Caucus Race in Oxford Castle, and the possibility of playing judge, juror and executioner in a mock-trial of the Knave of Hearts! A wonderful throwback to childhood games, and an excellent way of engaging with a literary classic, Alice’s Day is both a celebration of Carroll’s imaginative flair, and as well as being a festival commemorating all that which is at the very heart of the entire Wonderland myth: the utter normality of absolute insanity in everyday life.
By Tara Heuzé
Tara Heuzé is a 20-year-old undergraduate living in Sunny Albion. She loves Asian cooking, reading plays, and trying to decipher inscriptions in crazy languages. Usually found panicking over some form of essay or translation crisis, she also tries to keep up a (sporadic) blog, which can be found here.