Lewis Carrolls classic Alices Adventures in Wonderland has entertained not only children but adults for over one hundred years. The tale has become a treasure of philosophers, literary critics, psychoanalysts, and linguists. It also has attracted Carrolls fellow mathematicians and logicians. There appears to be something in Alice for everyone, and there are almost as many explanations of the work as there are commentators. It may be perhaps Carrolls fantastical style of writing that entertains the reader, rather than teaching them a lesson as was customary in his time. Heavy literary symbolism is difficult to trace through his works because of the fact he wrote mainly for entertainment.
In fact, Carrolls stories, including Alice, are usually described as being direct parallels to Carrolls life. This is obvious due to the various references Carroll makes of the favorite things in his life such as his obsession with little girls and not to mention his nostalgia for childhood1. The most prominent interpretation of Alice is the theme of fantasy versus reality. The story continuously challenges the readers sense of the ground rules or what can be assumed. However, with a more in-depth search, the adult reader can find Carroll may have indeed implanted a theme relative to the confusion Alice goes through as well as the reader.
In Alices Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll uses not only his love for children and logic but his linguistic playfulness to create a story in order to show the psyche of a child. Moreover, Carroll makes fun of the way Victorian children were raised. In the nineteenth century people were expected to behave according to a set of rules and morals. Carrolls nonsensical behavior of his characters can be seen as making fun of the way children were forced to behave and their rationale. Alices Adventures in Wonderland overall is contradicting the standard way childrens literature was written. As one can see, the story of Alice takes its reader through many different levels. With the lovable creation of a fantastical world, Carroll invites his readers on a nonsensical yet familiar journey of the questioning of identity by child yearning to take the step into adulthood prematurely, enabling him to entertain while simultaneously satirizing the Victorian Era.
Alices Adventures in Wonderland begins with Alice sitting beside her sister commenting, what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations (Carroll 3). Alices narrow point of view will now begin to raise fundamental questions in her head about who she is. Alice has reached the stage of development where the world appears explainable and unambiguous where, paradoxically, curiosity is wedded to the ignorant faith in the sanity of things (qtd. In Otten 50). Alices curiosity will proceed to carry her on a complete rebirth in order to question the inevitable step from childhood to adulthood.
It seems to her that she is quite the young adult. This is not such an unfamiliar thought as it is quite usual for a young child to want to behave as an adult. Her journey will sure enough challenge her belief of who she is. This journey begins when she found herself falling down a very deep well (Carroll 5). By falling down this hole, Alice is acting as a father. In hitting the bottom of the well she has moved on to the fetal stage. The first problem Alice encounters is finding a way to fit through the little door so small that she could not even fit her head through the doorway. She soon find a bottle labeled drink me. The wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry (At this point, Alice is still behaving the way a proper Victorian child would conduct themselves in the Victorian period.)
She must find a way to exit the womb she is in so she can question the world she exists in. Thus, she compromises to drink whats in the bottle causing her to shrink in size. This is the beginning of what the reader will see as Alices way of questioning her identity. Being just the right size to fit through the door, however forgetting the key, Alice begins to weep causing the entire room to fill with tears. Now Alice can be seen as becoming a mother in creating the amniotic fluid. Alice makes two more changes in size before she enters the magical world of Wonderland. The reader is well aware that Alice is very torn between childhood and adulthood as she begins her journey through the terrifying world of experience.
Throughout the rest of the story Alice continues to question her identity. Naively an image of the fallen adult society that she embodies at an age when she wholeheartedly embraces its values and assumptions, Alice barely retains the most precious gift of childlike innocence- a potentially redemptive imagination that gives her passage to Wonderland (Otten 51). The reader becomes aware that Wonderland attempts to evoke the child back out of Alice, who they know already feels so grown up. Her attitude towards people in Wonderland illustrates her attempt to prove that she is in fact an adult.
For example, she fears being Mabel because Mabel lives in that pokey little house and has ever so many lessons to learn!. Later, she feels no remorse in knocking the Rabbit into the cucumber-frame or in kicking Bill out of the chimney. Perhaps the most convincing argument for Alice occurs at the Duchesss house. In her attempt to save the baby from abuse, Alice assumes moral responsibility: Wouldnt it be murder to leave it behind? (Carroll 69). Her compassion here coexists with her adult-like and proper behavior. Dont grunt. Thats not a proper way of expressing yourself. It seems however, in most all of the other instances in the book, Alice appears more piteous than authoritative. Challenged by the Caterpillars rude questions about her identity, Alice realizes she knew who she was when she got up this morning, but she seems to think shes changed several times since then (Carroll 50).
Obviously, Wonderland is beginning to take its toll on Alice. Alice realizes her lack of control in this situation and complains three inches is such a wretched height to be (Carroll 56). This results in Alice once again changing her size. She is now a giant, towering above all the trees, described as a serpent by the Pigeon. Alice of course claims she is a little girl. The reader of course knows she is both. The big question here is which one will she leave Wonderland as, knowing her stay is temporary.
It is in fact, the final climatic chapters where Alice is introduced to the King and Queen of Hearts. It is at the trial of the Knave of Hearts that Alice decides she has been ultimately defeated by the nonsense of the characters throughout the book and ends her journey with the classic line, Youre nothing but a pack of cards! (Carroll 147). It is precisely this breaking of tension between her expectations and the actuality of Wonderland and her regressing back into Alice the child that the book is all about (Kelly 82). Thus, the underlying message of Alice is the rejection of adult authority and the vindication of the rights of a child.
Finally, analyzing several of his works leads the reader to believe the search for identity is actually a common theme Carroll uses in order to parody the Victorian Era. The Victorian Era was a time in which proper etiquette meant everything. The Victorians, however, had certain expectations of childrens literature ; Carroll choose not to follow the established pattern of childrens books. (Kelly 80)2. Thus much of his humor for most of his life is based upon social protocol. One of his earliest attempts is a hilarious parody of the sort of copy-book maxim that every Victorian child would be familiar with entitled Rules and Regulations3 . Carrolls use of social parody continued with his Alice books. He particularly makes fun of Victorian attitude towards morals and several customs.
One of the numerous rules which governed a proper Victorian ladys behavior was against cutting. Alice encounters this rule at the feast given for her when she becomes a queen in Through the Looking Glass4. Clearly, Carroll is poking fun at etiquette here both through the punning of the term to cut as well as the ridiculous bowing of the leg of mutton. The Lobster Quadrille that Alice encounters in Alices Adventures in Wonderland is a parody of the quadrille, a dance that was used to open nearly every fashionable ball at the time that the book was written and published. The Mock Turtle and Gryphons mad romp can hardly be associated to the politeness the original dance had5. Thus, again Carroll points out the stupidity of a social protocol. Another point Carroll makes is that Victorian children were expected to behave at all times.
When Alice is at the trial of the Knave of Hearts, Carroll parodies this sort of rule and the expected behavior by having Alice talk back to the King6. Merely allowing Alice to question the authority of the King and point out the stupidity of his rules he is pointing out the stupidity of contemporary standards set by the time, otherwise symbolized as the King. These scenarios perhaps symbolize the authors hopeless struggle in his own quest to fight between the simplicity of childhood and the stage in adulthood in which one realizes the actual chaotic and ridiculous standard of living (Chang 1). More so, the absurdity of the Victorian Era is comparable to that of Wonderland. Alices Adventures in Wonderland is one of the worlds most translated books, and Carroll ranks among one of the most quoted authors. The characters he created have lived in the imaginations of his audience. Lewis Carroll has often times been described as the master of nonsense.
Although this is true, Carrolls sense of humor has been proven that it was not just to entertain. The creations of many of his poems and books are the results of the struggles he faced throughout his life. His incorporation of logic and puzzles, puns, rules and anarchy elaborate the main point of his stories. Thus, a single interpretation of Alices Adventures in Wonderland is the battle between bridging from childhood to adulthood. With a simple overview, Carroll truly fulfilled that function in his writings. He seems to bring out the imagination and childhood in all his readers. It is obvious Carroll also found the rules and obligations of the time were ridiculous as he satires them throughout most of his works. Thus, the Alice books have provided the world with an inexhaustible fairy tale which has achieved a purity that is almost unique in a period so cluttered and cumbered (qtd. In Kelly 141).
Carroll, Lewis. Alices Adventures in Wonderland. New York: Random House, Inc., 1946.
Chang, Annette. The Grotesque and Chaotic in Alice in Wonderland. The Victorian Web. 23 January 2000.
Kelly, Richard. Lewis Carroll. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.
Otten, Terry. After Innocence: Alice in the Garden. Lewis Carroll: A Celebration. Ed. Edward Guiliano. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1982.