Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
River bank. The story opens on the bank of a river. The location is not specified, but it is presumably near Oxford, England. In a prefatory poem, Lewis Carroll recalls a boat trip he made in that region in 1862 with Alice Liddell (his model for the fictional Alice), two of Alice’s sisters, and a friend. At the village of Godstow, about three miles up a branch of the River Thames called the Isis, he first imagined and told the story that became Alice in Wonderland. The book begins and ends on the river bank, whose quiet and order are bookends surrounding a noisy and disordered dream world.
Rabbit hole. Passage through which Alice enters Wonderland. Just as Wonderland is a realm of transformation, the tunnel through which she reaches that realm is a classic symbol of birth. Much of the book unfolds against a background of symbols of gestation and birth, such as a too-small passage to a bright new world through which she can see but not pass; the pool of salt water produced by Alice’s own tears, in which she swims; the too-tight room in the rabbit’s house, where she kicks out; and her many changes in size.
Wonderland. Despite Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole and her references to being “down here,” there is no definite indication that Wonderland itself is underground. It is a parody of Victorian England from a child’s point of view:...
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The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an outgrowth of Lewis Carroll’s earlier and shorter tale titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, which he based on a story he told to Alice Liddell and her two sisters during a boat trip they took in 1862. Carroll completed this story, written in longhand and illustrated with his own drawings, in 1863. In 1864, he gave the manuscript to Alice as a gift. Revised and expanded by Carroll and newly illustrated by John Tenniel, this work evolved into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland the following year.
While listening to her older sister reading aloud, Alice drifts off to sleep and begins her dream adventures. She follows a white rabbit and falls down his hole into Wonderland. Alice is constantly at odds with the creatures who inhabit this alien world and also with her own body, which shrinks when she drinks from a mysterious bottle, then grows to enormous size when she eats a small cake.
She encounters many creatures endowed with wit and cleverness, who confuse her at every turn. She meets the ugly Duchess, whose baby turns into a pig in Alice’s arms. Things are not what they seem. It is at the Duchess’ house that she first sees the unsettling Cheshire Cat, who sits in the corner grinning, with his eyes fixed on Alice. Later, the Cheshire Cat reappears on a tree branch, from which he demonstrates his ability to vanish, leaving only his eerie smile lingering in the air....
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The Victorian Age in England
According to his own account, Lewis Carroll composed the story that became Alice's Adventures in Wonderland on a sunny July day in 1862. He created it for the Liddell sisters while on a boating trip up the Thames River. Although the book and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There have since become timeless classics, they nonetheless clearly reflect their Victorian origins in their language, their class-consciousness, and their attitude toward children. The Victorian age, named for the long rule of Britain's Queen Victoria, spanned the years 1837 to 1901.
The early Victorian era marked the emergence of a large middle-class society for the first time in the history of the Western world. With this middle-class population came a spread of socalled "family values": polite society avoided mentioning sex, sexual passions, bodily functions, and in extreme cases, body parts. They also followed an elaborate code of manners meant to distinguish one class from another. By the 1860s, the result, for most people, was a kind of stiff and gloomy prudery marked by a feeling that freedom and enjoyment of life were sinful and only to be indulged in at the risk of immorality. Modern critics have mostly condemned the Victorians for these repressive attitudes.
The tone for the late Victorian age was set by Queen Victoria herself. She had always been a very serious and self-important...
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On a riverbank in the English countryside during a "golden afternoon," Alice listens while her sister reads from a book with no conversations or pictures in it. Just as she is becoming unbearably bored and sleepy, Alice notices a White Rabbit who runs by exclaiming that he shall be "too late!" When the rabbit actually takes a watch out of his pocket, Alice's curiosity overcomes her; she jumps up and follows the rabbit down a large rabbit hole. There begins her fantastic adventure in a completely fantastic land.
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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was originally told to entertain a little girl. One of the devices Lewis Carroll uses to communicate with Alice Liddell is parody, which adopts the style of the serious literary work and applies it to an inappropriate subject for humorous effect. Most of the songs and poems that appear in the book are parodies of well-known Victorian poems, such as Robert Southey's "The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them" ("You Are Old, Father William"), Isaac Watts's "How Doth the Little Busy Bee" ("How Doth the Little Crocodile"), and Mary Howett's "The Spider and the Fly" ("Will You Walk a Little Faster"). Several of the songs were ones that Carroll had heard the Liddell sisters sing, so he knew that Alice, for whom the story was written, would appreciate them. There are also a number of "inside jokes" that might make sense only to the Liddells or Carroll's closest associates. The Mad Hatter's song, for instance, ("Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat") is a parody of Jane Taylor's poem "The Star," but it also contains a reference to the Oxford community. "Bartholomew Price," writes Martin Gardner in his The Annotated Alice, "a distinguished professor of mathematics at Oxford and a good friend of Carroll's, was known among his student by the nickname 'The Bat.' His lectures no doubt had a way of soaring high above the heads of his listeners."
What makes Carroll's parodies so special that they have outlived the...
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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, like all great literary works, challenges the young reader to question certain conventional ways of thinking, in this case to recognize that the meaning of words can be flexible. They can be played with in such a way that a listener or reader becomes confused, amused, or even angry over what may be, upon closer examination, nothing but nonsense. Alice's adventures also demonstrate the importance of words to our sense of identity and value. Because Alice's Adventures in Wonderland calls attention to the slippery relationship between words and meanings, the reader is made aware that language (in textbooks, novels, films, and newspapers) must be challenged again and again if important concepts are to be separated from nonsense.
The humorous verses Carroll places in the mouths of his Wonderland characters provide a literary treat for his readers. From Alice's rendition of "You are Old, Father William," to the Mock Turtle's tribute to "Beautiful Soup," the teasing verses in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are real tests of the imagination. In fact, the Victorian prose of the story demands that the reader visit a world of expression not available in modern everyday experience. Thus, the reader who stays with Alice from beginning to end comes away from the adventure verbally and intellectually enriched.
When Alice leaves the security of the riverbank to satisfy her curiosity about the White...
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As a literary character, Alice is valuable for breaking the stereotype of the demure, passive Victorian girl. Alice's adventures suggest that intellectual curiosity and competency are characteristics not limited by sex. Alice is interested in discovering meanings in life; her kind of curiosity is valuable in the study of science and philosophy.
Many aspects of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland question the solemn and sometimes hypocritical attitudes toward children demonstrated in the literature of Victorian England. The lullaby the Duchess sings to her baby, for example, parodies a song, popular in Carroll's time, called "Speak Gently." The popular song urges parents to "Speak gently to the little child/ Its love be sure to gain," while the Duchess insists that a parent must "Speak roughly to your little boy/ and beat him when he sneezes." By giving directly opposite advice on the question of child rearing, the Duchess reveals the excessive sentimentality of the popular view, and hints that the reality may be different from that portrayed in the song.
Throughout Alice's adventures, Carroll calls upon the reader to note that nonsense can be made to sound very much like sense. He thus alerts the reader to think critically about the sense behind everyday language. This critical way of looking at language is especially important when applied to the words of those in authority. The King and Queen of Hearts assert their authority over the...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Alice almost drowns in her own tears. What might Carroll be suggesting about self-pity by using this image?
2. Discuss the meaning of the word "caucus" and suggest an ironic interpretation of the "Caucus Race."
3. What might be the significance of the fact that the White Rabbit refers to Alice as Mary Ann? Is it likely that there is another little girl in Wonderland who looks like Alice?
4. Why does Alice hurry off on the mission that the White Rabbit assigns her (to fetch him another pair of gloves and a fan) even though she has no idea where she is going?
5. What does Alice's handling of the frightening situation with the huge puppy tell us about her character?
6. Why is the White Rabbit so concerned about the time?
7. Why do we find the behavior of the Duchess to her baby so astonishing? What might be the significance of the fact that the Duchess calls her baby a pig and the baby later turns into a pig?
8. The Mad Hatter's tea party features a series of riddles and puns which make it impossible for Alice to carry on any real communication. Discuss the nature of puns and riddles. Do these two forms of expression make meaning impossible?
9. What might the Mock Turtle be getting at when he explains that he was once a real turtle and then goes on to say that he attended school where he learned "the different branches of Arithmetic Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Compare Alice's adventures in Wonderland with Dorothy's adventures in Oz. How do both stories emphasize the competence of young girls to deal with challenging situations? How is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland more an intellectual challenge and The Wizard of Oz more an emotional challenge?
2. How might Alice have answered the caterpillar differently about her own identity?
3. Pick out at least ten puns in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and explain the double meaning of each.
4. Compare Tenniel's illustrations with those in one of the other editions. How are they different? Which do you prefer, and why?
5. Some critics argue that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is not for all young readers, and should always be tested on them by reading parts of it aloud in class. Explain why you agree or disagree with this notion.
6. The garden turns out to be nothing like Alice expected. What does Carroll seem to mean by the symbolism in the garden?
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Topics for Further Study
Make a chart of the sequence of events in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Many critics find a definite pattern to Alice's adventures. Do you agree with them? Explain why or why not, and give examples from the text to support your argument.
One of the chief characteristics of Wonderland is its twisted logic. Read Carroll's books on Symbolic Logic and The Game of Logic and compare Carroll's concept of logic in these books to that in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Compare Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to other Victorian works of fantasy, including John Ruskin's The King of the Golden River and Jean Ingelow's Mopsa the Fairy. How does Alice compare to these books?
Research the roles of women and children in Victorian England during the period when Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was written. Write a diary of what daily life might have been like for the real Alice, and include what her expectations for the future might have been.
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Carroll followed Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with Through the Looking- Glass (1871), which continues Alice's adventures. She meets more fantastic characters, like Humpty Dumpty, who challenge her to examine her language. There is a quality of sentimentality in Through the Looking-Glass, however, that is absent from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. This more human quality is particularly evident in the character of the White Knight. The book contains the most famous of Carroll's poems, "The Song of the Jabberwocky," which is composed almost entirely of meaningless words, yet is delightfully inspiring and reminiscent of chivalric songs.
The Walt Disney Studios created a cartoon movie of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1951. The animated characters in this children's classic are very likely the most familiar to American audiences. The effect the Disney version has had on the book's popularity is difficult to assess. At any rate, modified versions like Disney's help keep the title and the major fantastic premises of the work alive.
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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland came to the stage quite early in its history. Carroll himself wrote about an early stage version of his story, written by Henry Savile Clarke and produced in London in November, 1886, in a late article entitled "Alice on the Stage." Later dramatizations produced under the title Alice in Wonderland, but usually based on both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, include adaptations by Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus, Samuel French, 1932; by Madge Miller, Children's Theatre Press, 1953; and by Anne Coulter Martens, Dramatic Publishing, 1965.
But Never Jam Today, an African-American adaptation for the stage, was written in 1969. Other dramatic adaptations include Alice and Through the Looking Glass by Stephen Moore, 1980; Alice, by Michael Lancy, 1983; Alice, a Wonderland Book, by R. Surrette, 1983; and Alice (a ballet) by Glen Tetley, 1986.
The first movie featuring Alice was Alice in Wonderland, produced by Maienthau, 1914, featuring Alice Savoy. Another was produced the following year by Nonpareil. Other versions were released by Pathe Studios in 1927 and by Macmillan Audio Brandon Films. The most famous film versions of Alice include: the 1933 Paramount version, featuring Charlotte Henry as Alice and a variety of contemporary Paramount stars (including Gary Cooper as the White...
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What Do I Read Next?
The roughly contemporary fairy tales of the Danish novelist Hans Christian Andersen (available in many editions), which established a Victorian passion for fairy stories.
John Ruskin's The King of the Golden River (1851), a classic Victorian fairy tale that, like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, was originally written for a little girl. Ruskin was at one time an instructor for Alice Liddell.
The Victorian wordplay of Edward Lear, contained in A Book of Nonsense (1846), Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets (1871), More Nonsense, Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, Etc. (1872), Laughable Lyrics: A Fourth Book of Nonsense Poems, Songs, Botany, Music, Etc. (1877), and Nonsense Songs and Stories (1895).
George Macdonald's allegorical fairy tale about growing up and coming to sexual maturity, The Golden Key (1867).
Victorian poet Christina Rossetti's famous narrative poem "Goblin Market" (1862), which, like the "Alice" books, is outwardly for children, but nonetheless deals with many adult themes— particularly repressed sexuality.
The American fairy tales of L. Frank Baum, including The Wonderful Wizard ofOz (1900) and its many sequels.
Gilbert Adair's Alice through the Needle's Eye (1984), a modern attempt to add to the "Alice" stories.
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For Further Reference
Clark, Anne. Lewis Carroll: A Biography. New York: Schocken Books, 1979. This biography of Carroll contains interesting details of his life but no criticism of his writing.
Gattegno, Jean. Lewis Carroll: Fragments Through a Looking Glass. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1974. Combines a literary, historical, and psychoanalytical approach to Carroll's life.
Green, Roger Lancelyn, ed. The Lewis Carroll Handbook. London: Oxford University Press, 1962. Provides valuable bibliographical and biographical information.
Hudson, Derek. Lewis Carroll. London: Constable, 1954. Considered by many critics to be the best biography of Carroll.
Kelly, Richard. Lewis Carroll. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Summarizes Carroll's life and provides critical introductions to his writings.
Ovendon, Graham, ed. The Illustrators of "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass". New York: St. Martin's, 1972. A history and commentary on the illustrators of the Alice books with many sample illustrations.
Phillips, Robert, ed. Aspects of Alice, Lewis Carroll's Dreamchild as Seen Through the Critics' Looking Glasses. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1971. One of the largest single collections of essays about Carroll, with a bibliography up to 1971.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Morton N. Cohen, Lewis Carroll: A Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
Martin Gardner, editor and author of notes, The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, Bramhall House, 1960.
For Further Study
Daniel Binova, "Alice the Child-imperialist and the Games of Wonderland," in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 41, No. 2, September 1986, pp. 143-171.
Reading Alice in the context of Victorian imperialism, Binova argues that Alice behaves as an "imperialist" by attempting to force the behavior of the creatures she encounters to fit the "rules" for such behavior as she understands them. He concludes that Carroll is critiquing the ethnocentric attitude that underlies such an attempt.
Kathleen Blake, Play, Games, and Sport: The Literary Works of Lewis Carroll, Cornell University Press, 1974.
Blake's work examines the many ways in which Carroll's works play with the reader.
Kathleen Blake, "Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)," in Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 4: Victorian Writers, 18321890, Gale, 1991, pp. 111-28.
A brief biographical and critical survey of Carroll's life and works.
Harold Bloom, editor, Lewis Carroll, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House, 1987.
A useful compilation of essays that contains several...
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Bibliography (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
Blake, Kathleen. Play, Games, and Sport: The Literary Works of Lewis Carroll. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974. Wittily argues that the Alice books create a world of games spinning out of control. Firmly establishes their author in a Victorian context.
Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Edited by Martin Gardner. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1960. Martin Gardner’s notes in the margin alongside the text help to clarify jokes and conundrums and explain contemporary references.
Carroll, Lewis. More Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Edited by Martin Gardner. New York: Random House, 1990. Based on letters from readers of the original The Annotated Alice, as well as new research, this sequel supplements rather than revises the first book. Reprints for the first time Peter Newell’s illustrations and includes Newell’s essay on visually interpreting Alice in Wonderland.
Guiliano, Edward, ed. Lewis Carroll: A Celebration. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1982. A collection of fifteen essays, most referring to the Alice books, written to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s birth. Provides many photographs and illustrations, including Lewis Carroll’s original renderings for Alice in Wonderland.
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