Study Guide

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland presents a world in which everything, including Alice’s own body size, is in a state of flux. She is treated rudely, bullied, asked questions that have no answers, and denied answers to her own questions. Her recitations of poems turn into parodies, a baby turns into a pig, and a cat turns into a grin. The essence of time and space is called into question, and her romantic notion of an idyllic garden of life turns out to be a paper wasteland. In order to escape that oppressive and disorienting vision, she finally denies it with her outcry, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!,” and happily reenters the morally intelligible and emotionally comfortable world of her sister, who sits next to her on the green banks of a river in a civilized Victorian countryside.

The assaults on Alice’s senses of order, stability, and proper manners wrought by such characters as the Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, and the March Hare make it clear that Wonderland is not the promised land, a place of sleepy fulfillment. Rather, Wonderland stimulates the senses and the mind. It is a monde fatale, one that seduces Alice (and the reader) to seek new sights, new conversations, and new ideas, but it never satisfies her. Conventional meaning, understanding, and the fulfillment that comes with illumination are constantly denied her. That is the secret of Wonderland: Its disorienting and compelling attractions make it a Wanderland and Alice herself an addicted, unfulfilled wanderer.

Significantly, she is presented with a stimulating, alluring vision early in her adventures. Alice finds a tiny golden key that opens a door that leads to a small passage. As she kneels and looks along the passage, she sees a beautiful garden with bright flowers and cool fountains. She is too large, however, to fit through the door and enter the attractive garden. Alice’s dream garden suggests an adult’s longing for lost innocence and youth, and her desire to enter it invests the place with imagined significance. Later, when she goes into the garden, it loses its romantic aspect. In fact, it turns out to be a parodic Garden of Life, for the roses are painted, the people are playing-cards, and the death-cry “Off with her head!” echoes throughout the croquet grounds.

Alice’s dream garden is an excellent example of Carroll’s paradoxical duality. Like Alice, he is possessed by a romantic vision of an Edenic childhood more desirable than his own fallen world, but it is a vision that he knows is corrupted inevitably by adult sin and sex-uality. He thus allows Alice’s romantic dream of the garden to fill her with hope and joy for a time, but he later tramples that pastoral vision with the fury of the beheading Queen and the artificiality of the flowers and inhabitants.

Through the Looking-Glass abandons the fluidity and chaos of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for artifice and strict determinism. In the first book, the emphasis is on Alice’s adventures and what happens to her on the experiential level. In the sequel, Alice’s movements are controlled strictly by the precise rules of a chess game. The giddy freedom she enjoyed in Wonderland is exchanged for a ruthless determinism, as she and the other chess pieces are manipulated by some unseen hand.

Whereas Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland undermines Alice’s sense of time, space, and commonsensical logic, Through the Looking-Glass questions her very reality. Tweedledum and Tweedledee express the Berkele-ian view that all material objects, including Alice herself, are only “sorts of things” in the mind of the sleeping Red King (God). If the Red King were to wake from his dreaming, they warn Alice, she would disappear. Alice, it would seem, is a mere fiction shaped by a dreaming mind that threatens her with annihilation.

The ultimate question of what is real and what is dream, however, is never resolved in the book. In fact, the story ends with the perplexing question of who dreamed it all—Alice or the Red King? Presumably, Alice dreamed of the King, who is dreaming of Alice, who is dreaming of the King, and so on. The question of dream versus reality is appropriately set forth in terms of an infinite regression through mirror facing mirror. The apprehension of reality is indefinitely deferred, and the only reality may be one’s thoughts and their well-ordered expression.

In the final chapter, Alice, having become Queen, asserts her human authority against the controlling powers of the chessboard and brings both the intricate game and the story to an end. In chess terms, Alice has captured the Red Queen and checkmates the sleeping Red King. In human terms, she has grown up and entered that fated condition of puberty, at which point Carroll dismisses his dream child once and for all from his remarkable fiction.