Wonderland Lost and Found? Nonsensical Enchantment and Imaginative Reluctance in Revisionings of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Tales

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Author: Anna Kérchy
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,850 words

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[(essay date 2011) In the following essay, Kérchy interprets the Alice books as “anti-fairy tale[s]”—works that subvert the conventions of traditional fairy-tale literature. She states that Carroll’s stories strike a balance between enchantment and disenchantment and that this balance is an important element of modern Alice-inspired fiction.]

Lewis Carroll’s Victorian children’s classics, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871)1 fascinate readers by the ambiguous evocation and subversion of fairy tale fantasy narrative conventions. The dynamic interaction of strategies of familiarisation and defamiliarisation2 results in a “curiouser and curiouser” intellectual-imaginative turmoil of meaning-de/formations and reconceptualisations. I wish to argue here that these self-destabilising textual dynamics, increasingly foregrounded by postmodernist rewritings, and canonically attributed to literary nonsense, can be equally associated with the dissident notion of “anti-fairy tale/fantasy.” Immersed in the Carrollian universe, we are invited to become childlike readers, willingly suspending our disbelief to interpret Alice’s make-believe tale in a literal, referential way. We embrace the fairy tale fantasy’s alternate reality, where even the most bizarre things—from grotesque anthropomorphic animals to shape-shifting metamorphoses—can come true, to be accepted as natural simply on account of being “elsewhere,” in an unknowable, consistently illogical, fictional realm meant to exercise our imaginative capacities. Yet the illusion created is deliberately disillusioning. Alice’s adventures seem oddly non-(con)sequential, almost static; instead of a teleological progress of trials, tribulations, and triumphs, they are disorganised by an aimless wandering between nearly-interchangeable dream-like-scenes/states. Meetings fail to establish a real contact or communication with characters that confound the archetypal poles of good versus evil, and rather proliferate as mad trickster figures, misguiding the slightly amnesiac protagonist, who is particularly forgetful about her own self-identity and whereabouts. Alice remains solitary all the way through, embarking on a quest that questions its own validity, as it has no real aim apart from a vague desire to get back home to the calculable safety of Victorian England’s “dull reality”3 of rattling five o’clock tea-cups, books without pictures, and rainy afternoons. Her adventures imply a shift from predictable bourgeois boredom to a predictably eccentric, proto-surrealist nonsensical madness and then back. In the one world of historical referentiality “we are not [that easily] amused,” as the legendarily detached Queen Victoria famously claimed;4 in the other, imaginary one, “we are all mad” as the Cheshire Cat puts it in a witty conundrum that undermines its own truth value to illuminate the very illogics of Wonderland. Since the two worlds are alike in their uncertainty and their lack of a solid reality status, limits between fictionally conceived reality and unreality become blurred. According to the typology of Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy,5 the Alice-books are “portal quest fantasies” in so far as an alternate universe is entered upon the fall down the rabbit hole, and then a passing through the looking glass. But here the protagonist does not gain any radically transformative knowledge in/from the other world that could help her in somehow changing that world and maturing in...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420119808