Way Beyond Retro: Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland

Source of legend and lyric, reference and conjecture, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is for most children pure pleasure in prose. While adults try to decipher Lewis Carroll’s putative use of complex mathematical codes in the text, or debate his alleged use of opium, young readers simply dive with Alice through the rabbit hole, pursuing “The dream-child moving through a land / Of wonders wild and new.” There they encounter the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts, the Mock Turtle, and the Mad Hatter, among a multitude of other characters–extinct, fantastical, and commonplace creatures. Alice journeys through this Wonderland, trying to fathom the meaning of her strange experiences. But they turn out to be “curiouser and curiouser,” seemingly without moral or sense.

For more than 130 years, children have reveled in the delightfully non-moralistic, non-educational virtues of this classic. In fact, at every turn, Alice’s new companions scoff at her traditional education. The Mock Turtle, for example, remarks that he took the “regular course” in school: Reeling, Writhing, and branches of Arithmetic-Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision. Carroll believed John Tenniel’s illustrations were as important as his text. Naturally, Carroll’s instincts were good; the masterful drawings are inextricably tied to the well-loved story. (All ages) –Emilie Coulter 
(Description taken from Goodreads) 

Before reading the book, I’d only ever seen the Disney film and that was last seen twenty years ago. Despite that lapse of time, I still recognised a lot of it in the story. This either means that either Disney was very true to the book or my memories of the film are so fragmented that I only recognised its and the book’s iconic scenes, such as the Cheshire Cat, the Hatter and the Hare, the Caterpillar and the Red Queen’s game of croquet.

Alice in Wonderland is a strange story. It’s funny and entertaining, but it has no plot whatsoever and doesn’t really make much sense. It’s a link up of seemingly loose scenes and encounters Alice has once she goes down the rabbit hole. Considering the origins of the story, this isn’t all that surprising. Carroll first invented the tale while telling stories to the Liddell sisters while on a series of afternoon boating expeditions. Alice is based on the second sister, Alice Liddell. Her insistence that the stories should be put into proper book form, was the impetus for Carroll to actually write the stories down and see them published.

The characters of Alice in Wonderland are fantastic and fabulous. They are what make the book shine, from the huffy mouse Alice meets in her pool of tears, to the dodo and the owl that tell tales to get them dry, to the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, the Duchess and her cook, they are all distinct and weird. My favourite ones are the Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat. The Rabbit because he’s what I remember first and foremost about the film; the entrance of the Rabbit and his little song. I can still hear it in my head to this day. On top of that he is such an officious little soul in the book, he makes me smile every time. And the Cheshire Cat, because, well, who doesn’t love the Cheshire Cat? To me he is one of the epitomes of felinity, with his casual mysteriousness and smugness. He always made me grin in the film and continued to do so in the book.

The story seems simplistic, but that’s probably only on a surface read. From what I’ve read in the Bakewell biography of Carroll’s life, there’s a lot beneath the surface. Carroll, under his true name of Dodgson, was an enthusiastic satirical pamphlet writer, and no doubt this facet is also present in his Alice in Wonderland. Still, it was meant primarily as a children’s book, so whether its intended readership was supposed to get the references is doubtful. I know I didn’t, though that is probably partially due to the fact that I’m not familiar with most of Carroll’s contemporaries and the contemporary issues.

While Alice in Wonderland is fun and fantastical (in the broadest sense of the word) I didn’t really like the book. I guess I just couldn’t handle there not being a plot to the book. Despite this, I can appreciate the literary merits and importance of Carroll’s seminal work, as a classic of English literature and as the first true children’s novel. As such it is a work that any one with an interest in the development of English literature and children’s literature in particular, should read.


2 thoughts on “Way Beyond Retro: Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland”

  1. It is very cool that you are getting to read these for the first time. I don't recall when I first read these, but it was certainly as a youth. I'd agree that Wonderland as a whole doesn't necessarily have a plot–it's more a collection of episodes in Alice's adventures. I think it does have a theme connected with growing up and dealing with the not entirely logical rules of adults.

  2. I think you're right about the theme, Steve, and I guess that would make the book more appealing to children than adults. As an adult the grown up rules (mostly) make sense to me, so they don't seem as confusing as they would to a child and maybe that added to the leack of appeal to me.

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