As a child, I would often fall asleep listening to various adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I came to love the story and its characters, but have never, since entering adulthood, considered this book from a literary perspective. Perhaps, in my mind, it will always be a children’s book; after all, its protagonist is a child, and it considers such imaginative creatures and scenarios that it would seem out of place alongside the Victorian realism of its time. I was therefore surprised when I noticed this book, along with Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, on my reading list for this university term, but having now appreciated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as an adult, I realise my mistake: whilst it was once written for children, it has long since been considered an adult read, dealing with issues and themes that are considered in many other Victorian novels, such as Brontë’s Villette, and Dickens’ Great Expectations.
A Bit of Context
The first shocking thing I discovered when beginning to study Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was that the man named ‘Lewis Carroll’ did not exist. This name was actually a pseudonym for the writer, Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who was known for his physical deformities, occasional deafness, and, interestingly, a quite severe stammer. This stammer produced the inspiration for the character of the Dodo within the novel, as Carroll would often pronounce his name ‘Do-Do-Dodgeson’.
It has often been noted that, because of Carroll’s stammer and general awkward manner, he became much more comfortable in the company of children, than in the company of adults. Within his own family, he would put on performances for his younger siblings, and wrote much fiction for the purposes of the family magazine. Then, in 1856, he met the Liddell children, one of which, by the name of Alice, became the inspiration for Carroll’s most well-known stories.
At the time of publication, however, Alice in Wonderland, along with Through the Looking-Glass, was met with chiefly negative reviews. Cast alongside Victorian realist works such as the novels of the Brontë sisters and Thomas Hardy, there seemed no place for Carroll’s fantastical adventures. However, he enlisted John Tenniel to produce illustrations for the books, and it was perhaps these, more than anything else, that began to win favour for Carroll’s stories.
I would ordinarily end my context section here, but I feel honour-bound to address the scandal often associated with Lewis Carroll. I have already said that he maintained strong relationships with children, particularly young girls, and he often used them as subjects in his photography. This connection he had with children was doubtless unusual, and has since caused much speculation regarding the nature of these relationships, critics often suggesting that there was something sinister to them.
The first thing I want to say is that there is no proof of Carroll committing any crimes or atrocities. The only suggestion towards anything untoward taking place, lies in the fallout between Carroll and the Liddell family. Sometime in the 1860s, Carroll stopped visiting the girls, and it has often been noted that Mrs Liddell burned Carroll’s early letters to Alice, and even Carroll himself ripped pages from his diary during the time of this separation. Nobody knows what happened during this time, or what caused the fallout, and so perhaps it is wrong to speculate, particularly as there is no real evidence, but all of this certainly casts a shadow over the writer of some of our best-known children’s books.
Going Deeper into the Novel…
That was quite a bit more context than I was planning to throw at you, but the life and history of Lewis Carroll certainly is an interesting one. Now, though, I will turn to the most important thing: the text, and begin by talking about issues regarding identity. Brought on by the Industrial Revolution, and thus the bringing together of entire rural communities into a few overpopulated cities, questions regarding the individual began to circulate. After all, in a place so bursting with life, what made one person all that different from another? Carroll focusses on Alice’s identity crises throughout Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as she grows as large as the white rabbit’s house, and shrinks so small that she fears she will be gobbled up by an innocent puppy. The body is distorted and played with in this way, and Alice often supposes that, as she is growing taller, she is also growing more mature. From the minute she falls down the rabbit hole, she begins to question who she is, and often complains of not knowing herself, as she considers the possibility of having switched into the body and personality of another girl her age.
‘Who in the world am I’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle! And she began thinking over all the children she knew that were of the same age as herself, to see if she could have been changed for any of them. ‘I’m sure I’m not Ada,’ she said, ‘for her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn’t go in ringlets at all; and I’m sure I ca’n’t be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh, she knows such a very little! Besides, she’s she, and I’m I, and – oh dear, how puzzling it all is! – Lewis Carroll, “The Pool of Tears”.
In a way, these questions regarding the self can be especially targeted at adolescents, as they are still growing and changing and are, perhaps, easily influenced by the world around them. After all, Alice often soaks up her environment in Wonderland, and uses her experiences of it to answer her questions from the real world. For example, towards the end of the story, Alice sees a guinea pig breaking into applause, and then being stuffed inside a sack and sat on. She uses this to explain occassions she has read about where “[t]here was some attempt at applause, which was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court” (Lewis Carroll, “Who Stole the Tarts?”).
Another big theme running throughout Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is that of class. Alice is the typical middle to upper-class child; she has been well educated, and continually notes the importance of proper articulation, as she often corrects herself, along with others, on their use of the English language. Not everyone she meets has been granted the same comforts and education as she has, however, and conflicts sometimes arise from these differences.
‘We had the best of educations – in fact, we went to school every day-‘ ‘I’ve been to a day-school, too,’ said Alice. ‘You needn’t be as proud as all that.’ ‘With extras?’ asked the Mock Turtle, a little anxiously. ‘Yes,’ said Alice ‘we learned French and music.’ ‘And washing?’ said the Mock Turtle. ‘Certainly not!’ said Alice indignantly. – Lewis Carroll, “The Mock Turtle’s Story”.
There are instances throughout the novel of such class conflicts, such as when the Duchess’ cook takes to throwing pans and plates at her. The servant is essentially rebelling against her mistress, yet the Duchess takes no notice of the cook, at all. For me, this represents the class struggle in England, as the working class attempts to rebel against the masters, performing strikes and demanding better pay. For a long time, though, these attempts are quashed by the upper classes, as they essentially ignore the attacks made from the workers, just as the Duchess ignores her cook.
Alice, too, demonstrates her upper-class position, through her condemnation of Bill the Lizard. In the court, Bill is one of the jurors taking notes as witnesses come forward, yet Alice takes his pen away from him and calls him stupid, watching him as he attempts to write with his finger, instead; really, she is being exceptionally cruel, yet this is passed off as comedy by Carroll. This may have been an incidental reference to the oppression of the rich over the poor, for Carroll himself had a wealthy upbringing, or it may indicate towards the issues of suffering that were so often suppressed and ignored by the upper classes.
Throughout this review, I have considered Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as both a children’s book and an adult’s book, and I really cannot decide which category it should fall into. It certainly tackles adult themes and subverts traditional children’s songs and rhymes, yet the story itself has been loved by children for generations, and it seems wrong to say it is only suitable for adults. I think, then, it must be both: let children enjoy the story, but, as you grow older, don’t reject the stories of Lewis Carroll, because they can still be enjoyable, both for the story and for more critical purposes.
I’m going to be honest: I read this book in a day, and look forward to getting stuck into Through the Looking-Glass as soon as I can, because, when it really comes down to it, Lewis Carroll knows how to tell a good story. There’s nothing quite like these books when it comes to imagination, not even Terry Pratchett’s or J. R. R. Tolkien’s works. They’re fantastical, unbelievable, and somehow mesmerising, if only because they are just so different to what we are used to reading. So, whether you’re already familiar with Alice’s adventures or not, I thoroughly recommend you give this book a read, and see whether you think it is only meant for children. It’s very short, and each chapter is only a couple of pages long, which makes it easily accessible and a good read for when you only have a few short breaks in a day. Read it to analyse it, or read it for the sake of a good story; either way, read it!
Thanks for reading, and please do comment below if you’ve read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or have any other comments regarding Lewis Carroll, or pretty much anything else that takes your fancy!