Lewis Carroll and the Victorian Reaction against Doubt

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Author: Robert Higbie
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,123 words

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[(essay date 1980) In the following essay, Higbie argues that, because Carroll’s “Alice” books and The Hunting of the Snark are not realistic, they can be read symbolically, and one possible allegorical interpretation involves religious doubt. This particular analysis, he claims, also relates to Carroll’s life and the spiritual uncertainties prompted by the philosophical developments of the nineteenth century.]

One of the peculiarities of Lewis Carroll’s works is that since they have no clear meaning, no direct correspondence with reality, they are especially susceptible to interpretation on many levels. The Alice books [Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There] in particular create patterns which can be fruitfully compared with some of the most basic patterns of human experience or thought. Without being led into looking for a conscious allegorical meaning in the Alice books, we find meaning in the intellectual and emotional patterns they re-enact. One revealing way of describing these patterns, and an interpretation to which critics have paid little attention, is in terms of religion. Beneath their comic surface, the Alice books—especially Alice in Wonderland—can be seen as descriptions of a search for religious certainty. They deal with the problem of finding certainty of any kind, but we can see the various kinds of doubt they express as manifestations of one deeper uncertainty, about God.

This interpretation of Carroll has the advantage of enabling us to relate him to his culture. The pattern of thought re-enacted in the Alice books is surprisingly similar to that found in serious Victorian writers, especially Tennyson, who are explicitly concerned with religious questions. It is at the ending of the Alice books that the similarity is clearest. These endings, like so much in Lewis Carroll, are rather puzzling. The Alice books and The Hunting of the Snark all end with a kind of explosion which cancels out what has come before; the works then turn against themselves, making us pull away from the imaginary world, as if suddenly waking from a nightmare. In works ostensibly written to amuse children, why is there such anxiety; why such a need to escape from the fictional world? We can begin to get at the answer to these questions by looking at the way the endings of the Alice books resemble certain passages in Sartor Resartus and In Memoriam:“Who cares for you?” said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her; she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves. …“I can’t stand this any longer!” she cried, as she jumped up and seized the tablecloth with both hands: one good pull, and plates, dishes, guests, and candles...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420110379