Wonderland is divided into three sections. Book 1, entitled “Variations on an American Hymn,” follows Jesse’s journey from family tragedy through life with the Pedersens; book 2, “The Finite Passing of an Infinite Passion” (a phrase drawn from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard), depicts his academic career, marriage, and relationships with Monk and Reva; and book 3, “Dreaming America,” is an account, through letters and prose, of Jesse’s search for Shelley. As the titles imply, Joyce Carol Oates is concerned with the nature of American passion and dreams.
Oates uses Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871) as thematic sources for her novel. The Alice novels were important influences in Oates’s literary development, and she has thoroughly investigated their psychological and dramatic structures. Thus, like Alice, Jesse bursts into new worlds and must deal with characters that verge on caricatures. The Pedersens, Monk, and others in Wonderland parallel Alice’s Mad Hatter, Red Queen, Cheshire Cat, and other Carroll creations. Oates takes Carroll’s thematic framework and applies it sharply and imaginatively to the American scene.
That scene is Oates’s “Wonderland.” It is the name of the new shopping mall where the dissatisfied Helene meets her lover. “Wonderland” is the name of a...
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