Lewis Carroll: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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Editor: Gerard J. Senick
Date: 1989
From: Children's Literature Review(Vol. 18. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,209 words

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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland constitutes a perennial enigma for all readers. Is it primarily funny or primarily frightening? Is Alice to be thought of as little, over-polite, easily cowed, too focused on manners, snobbish, often bored, often in tears? Or is she to be thought of as courageous, in love with adventure and fun, indomitably seeking self-understanding and her own maturity? The creatures Alice meets are mostly "mad", yes, but by mad, does Carroll mean senseless or angry? What is he saying about the nature of language and logic, reality, and growth and time? In Alice what are rules, manners, and social conventions for? What makes the creatures of Wonderland so original and so fascinating? Does Carroll make a case for linking creativity and perverseness? What is the basic human image that emerges from the book? To these and related questions readers will frame divers answers, but there will always be agreement on the central fact: the astounding brilliance of Carroll's tragicomedy.

No parent, teacher, or critic can really "do justice" to Alice in Wonderland. The work is far too dense and multivalent to be explicated and interpreted at all satisfactorily, and the work now has become surrounded by so much mystification and hoopla that interested readers must pick their way carefully through a mass of theories and counter-theories about Carroll and Alice if they wish to guide themselves or any children to sensible understanding and judgment of the work.

It may be best to begin by attempting a "native" reading of the text. One might usefully chart for oneself what happens in the twelve mock-epic chapters, keeping special track of Alice's changes in size. It is an open question whether the basic sequence of adventures suggests a progression in knowledge and mood. Alice might be seen as moving from a kind of birth trauma--falling down the tunnel, the long low hall, the amniotic pool--through meeting little animals (mouse, rabbit, lizard, caterpillar, pigeon) to meeting larger animals and adult humans. Her adventures intensify in the sense that the Duchess and plight of the baby seem more powerful and threatening than the Caucus Race or Caterpillar, and the tea party picks up the pace of madness while the Queen of Hearts and the Mock-Turtle adventures introduce increased fear and nostalgia ("off with her head", songs of voracious shark and panther). Then comes the final trial, a full social event in which Alice reaches the limit of her frustration and anger, asserts herself aggressively, yet wakes to "dead leaves" and "dull reality". Alice is in one sense "socialized" but with decidedly mixed results (just as in Through the Looking-Glass she becomes Queen all right yet finds it is not all "feasting and fun").

Another way to approach the same sequence of adventures is to note that Alice is engaged in a romance quest for her own identity and growth, for some understanding of logic, rules, the games people play, authority, time, and death. How each adventure contributes to or deepens the multiple...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420025212