Monday, March 1, 2010

"Life, what is it but a dream?" A Look at the Alice Books by Lewis Carroll

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here." -Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Oh, you had to know this was coming. Lately, the TV has been veritably flooded with advertising for Tim Burton’s new “reimagining” of the Alice books. These books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872) were written by Oxford mathematics professor, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—or Lewis Carroll as he’s more popularly known—at the request of a ten-year-old girl named Alice Liddell, and promptly caused a sensation that continues to this day. They tell of a young girl who dreams her way down a rabbit hole and through a looking glass into new worlds filled with nonsense, poetry, royalty, beheadings, chess, madness, existentialism, tea parties, and a wild cast of now iconic characters who challenge our heroine with all of the above. Sir John Tenniel provided illustrations that have become as famous as the stories themselves.

Marking a change from the didactic, moralistic stories written for children during the Victorian Age, the books were an instant success. In the century and a half following their publication, they have never gone out of print and their readership rivals Shakespeare's. They have been interpreted as a hero’s journey, an allegory of childbirth, a mathematical guidebook, a plea for women’s rights, an exaltation of childhood, a coming-of-age story, a pedophile’s manifesto, and the ultimate drug trip. Whatever the interpretation, the Alice books are literary classics, representative of children’s literature, fantasy literature, English literature, Victorian literature, and literature itself. And they are two of my favorite books. What with all my jabber (wock!) about kid lit, fairy tales, and reimaginings (of all sorts) it only makes sense that I revisit them before the new film arrives. It’s especially appropriate since this healthy slice of self-indulgence takes its name from a Looking-Glass character (the Man in White Paper). But that’s all for later on.

First of all, I’d like to begin by saying, if you want an extensive analysis of the Alice books that’s actually extensive and truly analytical, look up Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice (which I think just made an appearance in an episode of Lost). It’s a brilliant work filled with fascinating information about Lewis Carroll, Victorian England, the real life inspirations for some of the most outlandish characters (many of them are caricatures of people Carroll knew) and the surprising logic behind some of the books’ most confusing and/or philosophical moments. Reading this is what truly made me fall in love with Alice and I recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in delving deeper into the books. But be it ever so humble, you are here with me, so let’s continue.

Wonderland begins on a sunny day in May and seven-year-old Alice has nothing to do but sit on the riverbank beside her older sister who is preoccupied with a dull book without pictures or conversation “and what is the use of a book, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?” She soon snaps out of her boredom when she catches sight of a white rabbit. Not just any white rabbit, of course—The White Rabbit, dressed in a waistcoat, checking his pocket watch, and muttering about his unpunctuality. And soon we’re off after the rabbit, down the rabbit hole, and into Alice’s dream. Something I particularly love about the Alice books is how accurately Carroll captures the seamlessness of falling asleep and entering a dream. One minute, everything is as per usual—Alice is your average kid, shackled in the care of an older sibling who really can’t be bothered—then suddenly Wonderland enters the real world, and Alice begins to dream without even realizing that she’s asleep. Wonderland doesn’t have much a plot apart from Alice trying to catch up with the White Rabbit and trying to get into an elusive garden she sees through a door keyhole (this winds up being the property of the Queen of Hearts). The bulk of the story is made up by Alice’s episodic encounters with crazy creatures! She nearly drowns in her own tears (after an unsettling experience, growing and shrinking, thanks to some magical refreshments), participates in a Caucus Race (a race with no victor), seeks advice from a hookah-smoking caterpillar and directions from a grinning Cheshire Cat, and rescues a baby from his abusive mother (the Duchess!) only to watch him turn into a pig. Later on, she takes tea with the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse, and plays croquet with the King and Queen of Hearts only to get shanghaied into testifying in court as part of a ridiculous (sentence first! verdict after!) trial. All the time, she keeps on growing and shrinking until she barely recognizes herself anymore. Almost everybody she meets is abrasive, if not outright mean. Some are even quite enthusiastic about their murderous tendencies. And yet she wakes up with only happy memories of her curious dream.

Appropriately for a book without a plot, Wonderland can be viewed as a story about identity. Beginning with the fall down the rabbit hole, Alice’s Wonderland adventures send her on a existential journey. Every time she eats or drinks anything in Wonderland (starting with those infamous Eat Me-Drink Me refreshments), she shrinks and grows and shrinks again. She begins to doubt her identity, and wonders if she’s actually changed into another person. When the Caterpillar asks her who she is, she answers “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.” Similarly, a few pages later, when she’s asking the Cheshire Cat which way to go, he replies in his snide, Cheshire Cat way, “That depends a good deal on where you want to go to.”
“I don’t care much where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you walk,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

This dialogue is so much more haunting to a post-grad than a seven-year-old kid. At least it is to this post-grad.

Luckily for Alice, as her journey progresses so does her sense of self. In spite of the fact that she occasionally talks likes a middle-aged woman, Alice leaps off the page as a very real girl. Her emotions change with the scenery. One minute she’s scared, the next she’s laughing, the next she’s annoyed. And she’s always curious. She tries to impress the other characters with extensive knowledge only to get most of her facts wrong, but this never deters her. Despite her initial confusion, she manages to navigate Wonderland as the lone voice of reason in a literally mad world. Before long, she’s able to calculate just how much mushroom to eat in order to fit into specific buildings (all the buildings in Wonderland are different sizes). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that even the sinister Queen of Hearts (OFF WITH HER HEAD) ends up being more funny than menacing. Though she orders executions right and left, none of them are ever carried out because the King just pardons everybody. Otherwise, there would be nobody left in the kingdom. Still, it’s not until Alice has gained enough confidence to be the one who puts the Queen in her place (“Oh, who cares for you…you’re nothing but a pack of cards”) that she’s able to finally grow back to her right size and wake up.

If Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an existential meditation, then Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There is the Hero’s Journey (hey, Joseph Campbell!). Even though Looking-Glass is considered a sequel to Wonderland, the term companion is more appropriate. There’s nothing in Wonderland you need to know before reading Looking-Glass. Alice doesn’t even go to back to Wonderland in Looking-Glass; she goes to, appropriately, Looking-Glass Land. Only Hatter and Hare (or Hatta and Haigha as they are called in Looking-Glass) cross over and they play such a different role in the story, I’m not even sure they’re supposed to be the same Hatter and Hare. Also The Queen of Hearts in Wonderland should not be confused be with the Red Queen, Alice’s dubious mentor in Looking-Glass. Despite all the movies versions that claim otherwise (including Burton’s from what I understand) they are NOT the same character and are not interchangeable.

Okay, now that that’s off my chest.

In my personal opinion, Looking-Glass is the better book, though it’s not as well known as its predecessor. Both books are episodic in nature, detailing Alice’s encounters with the mad residents of alternate worlds, but in Looking-Glass, Alice is on her own personal quest. Serving as a human pawn in a live chess game, the book follows her on her journey across the board, in hopes of becoming a queen when she reaches the other side (in accordance with the rules of chess). The Red Queen offers guidance, giving her dry biscuits to quench her thirst and suggesting she curtsey while trying to think of things to say. Halfway across, Alice also meets the White Queen who lives backwards in time (she screams before she pricks her finger) and is so helpless, she walks around with her hairbrush stuck in her hair because she doesn’t know how to fix it. Dubious mentors, indeed.

Along the way, she encounters a pair of strange little fat men in schoolboy uniforms—Tweedledum and Tweedledee. They recite “The Walrus and The Carpenter,” and plant the frightening notion in her head that she may not be real; she may just be a “sort of thing” in somebody’s dream (the Red King in this case). This question haunts Alice for the rest of her journey even through to her waking, though she never reaches a conclusive answer. The book ends by asking what we think about the matter. On her journey, Alice also engages in an intellectual spar with Humpty Dumpty, gets the Mean Girl treatment from a bunch of talking flowers, discovers a treasure trove of bizarre bugs (bread-and-butterflies!), and of course, shares a train compartment with a man dressed in white paper. She no longer grows and shrinks, but she still listens to a lot of poetry and ponders many philosophical questions. She also hovers between laughter and tears on almost every page. Meanwhile, the shadow of the ominous Jabberwocky, Carroll’s famous nonsense poem, hangs over all. As Alice says, “It seems to fill my head with ideas and yet I don’t exactly know what they are.”

One striking difference between Wonderland and Looking-Glass is the tone. Both books are filled with humor and are often laugh-out-loud funny, but Looking-Glass has a melancholy tone that Wonderland lacks. Wonderland begins outside on a bright sunny day; Looking-Glass begins indoors on a dark, snowy night. In Wonderland, Alice must question the nature of her own existence, but in Looking-Glass, she’s faced with the question of existence itself and what it actually means to be alive. One character who represents this shift in tone is the White Knight who accompanies Alice along the last stretch of her journey. The White Knight rescues Alice from capture by the Red Knight, but instead of being dashing and handsome, he’s an old man in ill-fitting armor who can’t stay on his horse and has a gift for inventing useless things. But he also gives Alice her greatest memory from the Looking-Glass Land: an absurd but poignant song about the meaning of usefulness.

“Of all the strange things that Alice saw on her journey Through the Looking-Glass, this was the one that she always remembered the most clearly. Years afterwards she could bring the whole scene back again, as if it had been only yesterday—the mild blue eyes and kindly smile of the Knight—the setting sun gleaming through his hair and shining on his armour in a blaze of light that quite dazzled her…and the black shadow of the forest behind—all this she took in like a picture, as, with one hand shading her eyes, she leant against a tree, watching…and listening, in a half-dream, to the melancholy music of the song.”

In The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner suggests that Lewis Carroll may have based the White Knight on himself. Carroll remains a mysterious, even controversial figure, to readers and scholars of today. A brilliant mathematician and remarkable author, Carroll is now also suspected of having been a pedophile, or at least a man who entertained an unheathy fascination with young girls as evidenced by the many (occasionally nude) photos he took of them. Granted, photos of naked children were all the rage in Victorian England, representing the Victorian ideal of childhood’s inherent purity and innocence. Perhaps this is all Carroll intended with his photographs as well, but the image of him as a man awkward around adults (he had a stutter that plagued him with insecurity) but vivacious around little girls--his so-called "child-friends"--has not helped his contemporary reputation. Alice Liddell, the ten-year-old who asked Carroll for the story she eventually lent her name to, was one of these girls. Some scholars believe that Carroll’s feelings for Alice were innocent while others believe he was in love with her. In Looking-Glass, when the White Knight guides Alice to the final brook, only to ask her to wait until he’s ridden away to cross it and wave her handkerchief to encourage him, it’s very easy to see this as Carroll’s own bittersweet goodbye to Alice Liddell—who was almost 20 when Looking-Glass was published. If, for Carroll, becoming a queen meant becoming a woman, the real Alice had already gone where he couldn’t follow (he infamously ended his friendships with most of his “child-friends” as they reached womanhood). So it is with the White Knight. He can only see her part of the way; Alice must cross the final brook by herself.

And speaking of becoming a queen, does Alice finally get her crown, fulfilling her Hero’s Journey? And how can becoming a queen live up to the hype if it means enjoying your newfound majesty alongside the eternal nonsense of the Red and White Queens? Does Looking-Glass end happily with all questions resolved? I’ll let you decide. The answers tend to change.

A Few Tempting Tidbits to Leave You With In Case You Aren’t Sick Of Me Yet

1. Over the course of both books, illustrator Sir John Tenniel became very involved with the creative process of the text as well as the illustrations, giving Carroll criticism based on what he thought would and would not make a good illustration. Carroll ended up cutting out a whole chapter of Looking-Glass (featuring Alice’s encounter with a Wasp in a Wig) because Tenniel found it boring and had no idea how make a picture out of it. Tenniel also played a pivotal role in the creation of “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” Carroll gave him three options—a carpenter, a baronet, or a butterfly—and told him to choose based on what he wanted to draw. Tenniel chose the carpenter. So all those theories about the Carpenter representing Christ…meh.

2. Alice Liddell had short dark hair cut off at her shoulders and wore bangs. Carroll specifically requested that his heroine NOT be made to resemble her—hence, Alice’s long blond hair sans bangs.

3. Carroll was born in Cheshire, England and named the Cheshire Cat after his hometown.

4. Wonderland takes place on May 4. Looking-Glass takes place exactly six months later on November 4. In Looking-Glass, Alice gives her age as “seven and a half exactly” revealing it to be her half-birthday, making May 4th her actual birthday. May 4th was also Alice Liddell’s birthday. She asked Carroll for the story on July 4, 1862, exactly two months after she turned ten. Carroll was 30.

5. The iconic image of Humpty Dumpty as an egg began with Tenniel’s illustration of him as an egg. Note: nowhere in the rhyme is it mentioned he's an egg. Before Looking-Glass, I guess he was just a guy on a wall.

6. Many of Carroll’s poems, including “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” “You Are Old, Father William,” “The Lobster Quadrille,” “Beautiful Soup,” and “The White Knight’s Song,” are parodies of poems that were popular at the time.

7.“Remember what the Dormouse said”—the penultimate line of Jefferson Airplane’s Alice-inspired song “White Rabbit”—might be a reference to a moment during the courtroom scene in Wonderland when the Mad Hatter is called to testify and the King threatens to have him executed unless he can remember something the Dormouse said. This line later went on to be the title of a book of popular quotes from children’s literature.

8.Wonderland’s original title was Alice’s Adventures Underground. Alice’s Golden Hour was also in contention.

9. At the Mad Tea Party, the Dormouse tells a story about three little girls, Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie, who live in a treacle well. These girls are, in fact, the Liddell sisters—Lorina Charlotte or L.C. (Elsie), Alice (Lacie is an anagram), and Edith (whose family nickname was Tillie). All three sisters were present when Carroll first told the story. Their two younger sisters, Rhoda and Violet, are mentioned in Looking-Glass as part of the Garden of Live Flowers—as the Rose and the Violet.

But that isn’t even the half of it. If you want to know more, read The Annotated Alice. Even if you don’t want to know more, read (or reread) the Alice books anyway. Good for the mind and soul…as a little madness always is.


  1. Hello from a fellow Alice lover, the owner of the gardening blog The Garden of Live Flowers! Your post popped up in my google alerts today. I really enjoyed your essay. I agree, The Annotated Alice adds so much to the enjoyment of the books (I especially like the translations of Jabberwocky into other languages). I look forward to the new movie but so far the movie adaptations have left me disappointed, despite how well-cast and special-effected they are. I think my favorite adaptation was actually the video game "Alice"!

  2. Hello. Thank you so much for reading. It's always nice to meet a fellow Alice lover. Funny that you mention that multi-language versions of The Jabberwocky--I study German and just read it for the first time in German.

    I'm also anticipating the new movie with excitement and dread. There a few Alice movies I really enjoy (the Disney film and the 1998 BBC version of Looking-Glass) but I wouldn't call either perfect adaptations. Things always get lost in translation. The new movie, however, looks like the characters thrown into a completely different story. But we shall see. Thanks again for reading.

  3. Hello, awesome post. In a few years you're going to have as many followers as Sur La Lune. And, btw, open an associates amazon account to post book that you display on your website for you to get some cash.

  4. Thank you so much for reading and for the encouragement. If I get even a fraction of the following Surlalune (fantastic blog, isn't it?)has, I will be overjoyed--and stunned. I really, shamelessly, love getting comments so your input means a lot. Thanks also for the advice about Amazon. I'll look into it.

  5. hey, thanks to your recommendation i bought the book Annotated Alice in Barnes and Noble this weekend, it's really good. Thanks to that my library has reached 1,500 books.

  6. Wow! I'm so glad. It's money well-spent, I assure you. Enjoy!