The Animals of Wonderland: Tenniel as Carroll's Reader

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Date: Fall 2003
From: Criticism(Vol. 45, Issue 4)
Publisher: Wayne State University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,633 words

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WHEN JOHN TENNIEL was providing 42 illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1864 he was in his mid-forties, an established illustrator and a Punch cartoonist. At that time C. L. Dodgson and Lewis Carroll were equally unknown as authors, for adults or children. Tenniel, on the other hand, already had a professional understanding of the visual codes and illustrative techniques of his day, and already had an audience--an adult rather than a child audience--who would expect from him a certain level of technical proficiency, humor, and social nous. Tenniel's illustrations should therefore interest us today not just for their remarkable and continuing success as a felicitous adjunct to Carroll's text, but also as the first--arguably, the best--Victorian reading or interpretation of Carroll's text. After all, as a reader Tenniel enjoyed considerable advantages, including his personal position and experience, his access to the author's own illustrations to the manuscript version of the story, and access to the author himself. In his study of illustration in children's literature, Words about Pictures, Perry Nodelman has argued that "the pictures in a sequence act as schemata for each other"--that is, all the expectations, understanding, and information we bring to reading an illustrated book, and all the information we accumulate as our reading proceeds, "becomes a schema for each new page of words and each new picture as we continue throughout a book." (1) If this is so, all Tenniel's choices relating to subject matter, size, position, and style of illustration must come to operate, as we proceed through Alice in Wonderland, as a kind of guide to reading Carroll's text. An examination of Tenniel's opening sequence of illustrations as they appeared on the page in the 1866 edition of Alice in Wonderland (2) will therefore begin to reveal Tenniel's preoccupations, the kind of interpretation of Carroll's text he is interested in making.

As William Empson pointed out in 1935, two aspects of Alice are traditional in children's stories: the idea of characters of unusual size (miniatures and giants) and the idea of the talking beast. (3) Tenniel's opening drawing, the White Rabbit at the head of chapter 1, draws on both these traditions. The rabbit occupies a point between animal and human, simultaneously both these things and neither of them, an implication hardly made so firmly by Carroll's text. The rabbitness of the rabbit is emphasized by the meadow setting, the absence of trousers, and the careful attention paid to anatomy and proportion. But the rabbit is slightly distorted towards the human by his upright posture, his clothing and accessories, his pose, and his human eye and hand. Less obviously, Tenniel also extends Carroll's text by offering information about the size of the rabbit. From the grass and dandelion clock (a visual joke) in the background the reader grasps the rabbit as rather larger than normal bunny size: about the size of a toddler or small child, perhaps. As this illustration was invented by Tenniel (Carroll's headpiece illustration shows Alice, her sister, and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A121283927