'All Sorts of Pitfalls and Surprises': Competing Views of Idealized Girlhood in Lewis Carroll's Alice Books

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Author: Jennifer Geer
Editor: Tom Burns
Date: 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,021 words

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[(essay date 2003) In the following essay, Geer argues that the framing structures Carroll uses to bookend the more fantastical aspects of his Alice in Wonderland novels emphasize the differences between adult and juvenile perspectives of an idealized fairy tale universe.]

The opening and closing sections of Lewis Carroll's two classic children's novels, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, have posed perennial difficulties for critics. The prefatory poem and final paragraphs of Wonderland, as well as the poems and drawing-room scenes that frame the central narrative in Looking-Glass, are nostalgic, gently teasing, and ostensibly serene--and they stand in sharp contrast to Alice's unsentimental, chaotic, and often violent adventures. Although this dichotomy has been interpreted in several ways, most critics agree that the framing sections give a much more conventionally idealized picture of Alice and her dream-journeys than the adventures do.1 Such idealization is hardly surprising in light of Carroll's legendary devotion to little girls, but in the context of Alice's adventures, the frames do surprise. Their portrayals of her journeys through Wonderland and Looking-glass country bear so little resemblance to the journeys themselves that it is difficult to take the frames quite seriously. The closing paragraph of Wonderland is lovely but absurd as it blithely affirms that the tale of Alice's adventures, in which mothers sing sadistic lullabies, babies turn into pigs, and little girls shout at queens, will lead Alice's older sister into reveries about delightful children and domestic bliss. From a logical perspective, this final scene is as nonsensical as anything in Wonderland. I would like to suggest that the contrast between frames and adventures in the Alice books implies that the frames' idealized visions of Alice are themselves constructed narratives, as fantastic in their own way as the dreamtales they so radically reinterpret.

The Alice frames encourage readers to interpret Alice's adventures as fairy tales, a category that in nineteenth-century usage includes literary and traditional tales, nonsense, and what we would now call fantasy fiction. In mid-Victorian discourse, fairy tales often exert a recognizably domestic influence on their readers or listeners. Contemporary periodical articles and reviews commonly portray the tales' virtues as analogous to an ideal home's: readers young and old will find their sympathies awakened and the corrosive effects of an amoral, competitive, and violent world lessened.2 Wonderland and Looking-Glass, like many Victorian texts, thus characterize the values inscribed in idealized childhood and its tales as domestic and feminine. The Wonderland frames suggest that the tale of Alice's dream fosters the happy, loving childhood that will enable her development into a good woman and mother, while the Looking-Glass frames anticipate that the tale will create a domestic space powerful enough to keep the stormy world at bay.

In both novels, the contrast between frames and adventures works to undermine such hopes and suggestions by foregrounding potential conflicts between adult and child figures. Adult and child characters in the Alice books, as well as the implied readers, often want rather...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420066752