Educating Alice: The Lessons of Wonderland

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Author: Jan Susina
Editor: Tom Burns
Date: 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,205 words

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[(essay date winter-spring 1989) In the following essay, Susina argues that Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is intended as a less overt presentation of proper values for children, rather than simply representing the antithesis of Victorian didacticism in children's literature.]

Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)1 has frequently been celebrated as a ground-breaking text that liberated nineteenth-century children's books from the didacticism which burdened earlier forms of children's literature. F. J. Harvey Darton in Children's Books in England2 has suggested that Wonderland changed 'the whole cast of children's literature' (p. 252) while Percy Muir in English Children's Books3 sees Wonderland as such a pivotal text that he dates children's books as 'From Harris to "Alice"' and 'After Carroll' (pp 100, 148).

Rather than a radical departure from the tradition of literary fairy tales for children, Wonderland is a part of the well-established British tradition of didacticism for children. In composing his fairy tale, Carroll uses both his imagination and the belief that children's fiction ought to be entertaining as well as edifying. Although Wonderland does not provide the same overt sort of moralizing and conventional piety as does Kingsley's The Water-Babies (1863)4 or MacDonald's Dealings with the Fairies 1867,5 it does contain a number of social lessons for its younger readers.

Lessons and rules abound in Wonderland, which is curious for a book frequently praised by critics as being nondidactic. Even Alice realizes this: 'How the creatures order one about, and make one repeat lessons! ... I might just well be at school at once' (p. 82). Alice is constantly referring to her lessons whether they be geography, mathematics, history, foreign languages, or natural science. She is frequently being given advice by the Caterpillar, the Duchess, the Hatter and the Mock Turtle and even herself, 'though she very seldom followed it' (p. 12).

Alice is an exceptionally articulate seven-year-old. She is seldom shy in displaying her accumulated, although imperfect, knowledge. Alice is a bit too pleased with herself, and is just as apt to give a recitation whether or not there is an audience. The narrator notes that Alice recites bits and pieces from her geography lessons while falling through the rabbit-holes:

though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over ...(p. 8)

She uses her lessons as a form of self-validation, a sort of 'I can recite, therefore I am.'

I'm sure I can't be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh, she knows such a very little!(p. 16)

Alice uses her knowledge as a marker of social status. When she engages the Duchess in conversation, Alice is 'glad to get the opportunity of showing off a little of her knowledge.' (p. 48) Her education is shown to have little to do with understanding a subject but rather with making one feel superior to someone else....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420066753