One summer afternoon in 1862, the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, his Oxford friend, and three little girls set out on a boat trip. Somewhere along the way, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was created. Although it was not the first story that Dodgson had told the daughters of Henry George Liddell, the dean of Christ Church in Oxford, it was one that immediately captivated Alice Liddell, the prototype for the fictional seven-year-old heroine. Her later requests for Dodgson to “write it down” led to his becoming one of the world’s favorite authors; his work was eventually translated into more than forty-five languages and became part of the heritage of most literate people growing up in Western culture.
Dodgson, who transposed his first two names into the pen name Lewis Carroll, was a shy and seemingly conventional Oxford mathematician who could relate most easily with children, particularly young girls. Later ages regarded his seemingly innocent affinity for children as the sign of a possible neurosis and an inability to grow up. Alice Liddell was only one of many young girls who shared with him the secret world of childhood in which he spent much of his adult life.
Carroll’s attraction to fantasy expressed itself in many ways, among them his love of whimsical letters, gadgets, theatricals, toys, and, of course, fantasy stories. The Alice stories were first prepared for Alice Liddell in a handwritten manuscript and initially given the title Alice’s Adventures Under Ground; the book was published in its present form in 1865 and was an almost immediate popular success. Adding to its originality were the illustrations by Sir John Tenniel (for his model, he did not use the real Alice, who, unlike the pictured child, had short dark hair and bangs).
The book—which was followed in 1871 by the even more brilliant sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There—has always been enjoyed on several levels. It is a children’s story, but it is also a book full of interest for adults and specialists such as mathematicians, linguists, logicians, and Freudians. It may be the suggestion of a philosophical underpinning that gives the work its never-ending appeal for adults.
Viewed as children’s literature, the book offers its young readers a charming new outlook that dispenses with the moralistic viewpoint then so prevalent. Alice is neither continuously nice nor thoroughly naughty; she is simply a curious child whose queries lead her into strange situations. In the end, she is neither punished nor rewarded. A moral, proposing that she do this or that, is absent. Indeed, Carroll pokes fun at many of the ideas with which Alice, a well-bred English child, was imbued. The Mock Turtle, for example, chides the sacred subject of learning by terming the branches of arithmetic Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision. Children who read the book are permitted to see adults quite unlike the perfect beings usually portrayed. It is the story’s adults rather than Alice who are rude, demanding, and ridiculous.
As a work for the specialist, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland touches on many puzzles that are subsequently even more thoroughly presented in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. The playfulness with language, for example, involves puns, parodies, and clever phrasing but does not deal as fully with the basic nature of language as does its sequel. Even in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, however, Carroll’s casual amusement with words often has deeper meaning. When he parodies the well-known poems and songs of his day, he is clearly questioning their supercilious platitudes. When he makes a pun (the Gryphon tells the reader that boots and shoes under the sea are “done” with whiting rather than blacking and are, of course, made of soles and eels), Carroll asserts the total logic of illogic. When he designs a Cheshire cat, he is taking a common but unspecific phrase of his time—“Grin like a Cheshire cat” referred either to inn signs in the county of Cheshire depicting a grinning lion or to Cheshire cheeses modeled in the shape of a smiling cat—and turning it into a concrete reality. Logicians also find a multitude of tidbits. The Cheshire cat “proves” it is not mad by adopting the premise that if a dog is not mad, anyone who reacts in ways opposite to a dog must be so. The March Hare offers a nice exercise in logic and language with his discussion of taking “more” versus taking “less” and his challenge as to whether “I mean what I say” is the same as “I say what I mean.”
For mathematicians, Carroll presents the Mad Hatter’s watch, which tells the day of the month rather than the hour. The watch does not bother with the hour, since from the center of the earth, the sun would always look the same, whereas the moon’s phases would be visible. For the Freudians, the book is also a mass of complicated mysteries. Freudians see significance in most of the characters and incidents, but the fall down the rabbit hole, the changes in size, the great interest in eating and drinking, the obnoxious mature females, and Alice’s continual anxiety are some of the most revealing topics, all of them possibly suggesting Carroll’s neuroses about women and sex.
The larger philosophical questions raised by Alice center on the order of life as readers know it. Set in the context of the dream vision, a journey different from a conscious quest, the book asks whether there is indeed any pattern or meaning to life. Alice is the curious innocent who compares favorably with the jaded, even wicked, grown-ups. Always sensible and open to experience, she would seem the ideal messenger of a true concept, yet her adventures hint that there is only the ridiculousness of logic and reality and the logic of nonsense. Readers see that Wonderland is no more incomprehensible—and no more comprehensible—than Victorian England, that the Mad Duchess lives next door, and that, as the Cheshire cat says, “We’re all mad here.”
Alice brings to Wonderland certain acquired concepts and a strong belief in order. When Wonderland turns her views askew, she can withstand only so long, then she must rebel. The trial, which is the last refuge of justice in the real world, is the key factor in Alice’s rejection of Wonderland, for it is a trial of Wonderland itself, with many of the earlier creatures reassembled to assert forcefully that expectations and rules are meaningless. Like the child of the world that she is, Alice (and Carroll) must deny the truth that there is no truth. She must shout “Nonsense” to it all. As one critic pointed out, she rejects “mad sanity in favor of the sane madness of the ordinary existence.” The reader faces the same confusion and, frightened by what it implies, must also rebel, though with laughter.