Wonderland bears certain rough similarities to A Garden of Earthly Delights. It follows three generations of a family through stages of rage, searching, and emptiness. It offers critical comment on the lust for knowledge and power. It spans a particular period of American political and economic history. It moves irregularly, with sudden shifts and changes. It also draws on another work of art as a model. Wonderland, is, however, stylistically much less naturalistic, its commentary more satirical, and its concern for the issues of dislocation and identity more fully focused on a single central character, Jesse.
As the title suggests, Oates used Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) as a thematic source for her novel. Like Alice, Jesse bursts into new worlds and must deal with characters that verge on caricatures and that parallel the Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat, and others. Oates has taken Carroll’s thematic framework and applied it sharply and imaginatively to the American scene.
The novel begins abruptly: Fourteen-year-old Jesse Harte returns home one day to find his family murdered by his crazed father. Jesse escapes through a window (like Alice’s “looking glass”) and is orphaned by his father’s suicide. Emotionally numbed, Jesse embarks on a passive search for replacements—for a father figure, for a home, for a viable belief system, for a name that is truly his. He lives first with his silent, bitter grandfather (taking the surname Vogel), then with uncomprehending cousins, then in an orphanage.
Book 1 of the novel is titled “Variations on an American Hymn,” and most of it details Jesse’s life with the Pedersens, his adoptive family of freaks. The father is a dogmatic, morphine-addicted doctor/mystic, the mother an obsequious alcoholic, the son a blithering piano virtuoso, the daughter an angry mathematical genius. The Pedersens are all grotesquely obese, and with them Jesse expands accordingly. He takes their name and their ways but never gives himself completely to the doctor’s maniacal egoism. In the end, after helping Mrs....
(The entire section is 875 words.)