Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) - Essay

Lewis Carroll


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)

The following entry presents criticism of Carroll's stories Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872). See also, Lewis Carroll Criticism.

Classics of children's literature, Lewis Carroll's richly imaginative fantasy stories Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass have earned a reputation as serious works of art. The stories, as Donald Rackin has said, "often say to us more than Carroll meant them to say." Alice's dream-world adventures have since the 1930s been read by many scholars as political, psychological, and philosophical metaphors, and as literary parodies. Widely translated, quoted, and adapted for various media, the Alice books are considered enduring classics whose ideas, disguised as "nonsense," are provocative enough to enthrall critics and philosophers alike.

Biographical Information

The son of a country pastor, Dodgson led a quiet childhood, showing a precocity in mathematics and parody. He went to Oxford at age eighteen, and was made a fellow of Christ Church two and a half years later. He was to remain there for the rest of his life, lecturing in mathematics and writing an occasional parody on a local political matter. A bachelor in the serious, male-dominated world of Oxford, Dodgson liked to entertain young girls with his story-telling; he invented toys, mathematical games, and puzzles for their enjoyment, and he maintained a whimsical correspondence with young girls throughout his life. The "Alice" of his stories was Alice Liddell, daughter of Henry George Liddell, the dean of Christ Church. On a boat trip up the river Isis with Alice and her two sisters on July 4, 1862, Dodgson invented the story which he later published, under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In 1871, following the great success of the first story, Carroll published its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. He died early in 1898 and is buried in Guildford, Surrey.

Plot and Major Characters

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice falls into a rabbit hole and emerges in the imaginative world of Wonderland, where she soon discovers that the solid, logical laws of science no longer apply. In Wonderland, Alice grows and shrinks, animals talk, and language makes little sense. She meets a peremptory hookah-smoking Caterpillar, a dodo, then a Duchess with an ever-smiling Cheshire Cat. The Cheshire Cat directs Alice to a tea party with the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse. The Wonderland Queen—a playing-card Queen of Hearts—introduces Alice to the Gryphon, who takes her to the Mock Turtle, and, after telling Alice about the Mock-Turtle's education, the two perform a dance, called the Lobster Quadrille. Alice then finds herself at a trial where she has to give evidence. Finding the trial absurd, she tosses the playing-card participants into the air. Her dream comes to a sudden close, and she finds herself awake on a river bank with her sister. In Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Alice steps through a looking-glass and into the backwards world she has seen from her drawing-room. The Looking-Glass world resembles the chess game Alice has been playing with, and Alice herself becomes a pawn for the White Queen. She meets other live chess pieces, a garden of talking flowers, and insects that resemble her toys. She again encounters a series of fantastic characters who entertain her as well as test her patience. Alice finds herself variously in a railway carriage, in the woods, and in a little shop. She is introduced to Tweedledum and Tweedledee, who relate to her the verse tale of the Walrus and the Carpenter, and to Humpty Dumpty, who invents meanings for words and explains the nonsensical poem "Jabberwocky." She encounters the Looking-Glass equivalents of the March Hare and the Mad Hatter, named Haigha and Hatta. After witnessing a fight "for the crown" between the Lion and the Unicorn, Alice meets the White Knight. Finally, Alice herself becomes a Queen, and her dream ends at a banquet where the food talks. The banquet soon degenerates into chaos, and the Red Queen turns into Alice's black kitten. Suddenly Alice is back in her drawing-room, awake.

Major Themes

Alice's chaotic nonsense world, originally invented by Carroll to entertain a young child, has yielded a variety of thematic concerns. As children's stories, the Alice books relate the dream-world adventures of a young girl with a number of obstinate animals, insects, and the imaginary characters Carroll has taken from the worlds of playing cards and chess. As James R. Kincaid (1973) has noted, an important theme of the Alice books is "growing up." In addition, the insanity of Alice's dream world has been considered a satire on the ordered, earnest world of Victorian England. Readers have also found references to Darwin and to mathematics, and have seen in Alice's repeated encounters with meaninglessness and absurd authority the darker, existential dilemmas of the human, and especially modern, condition.

Critical Reception

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was well received from the outset. The collaboration between Carroll and John Tenniel, the illustrator of Alice, was an enormous success, and the demand for the book exceeded all expectations. The enormous popularity of the work, published at a time when most children's books were designed to instruct rather than entertain, prompted the sequel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Throughout Carroll's life and into the early twentieth century, the Alice books received little serious critical attention; however, beginning in the 1930s, essays by such respected figures as William Empson established the stories as complex literary works that would reward close interpretation. The field was thus opened for a wide variety of approaches to the stories. Philosophical readings have addressed the absurdity of Carroll's world and examined the author's treatment of space, time, logic, lawlessness, and individual identity. Donald Rackin's 1966 essay on the search for meaning in a disordered world is often cited as one of the most significant essays on the subject. Several critics have analyzed the books with respect to the development of children and their movement from a disordered, primitive state to a state of reason and consequence. Focusing on the character of Alice, commentators have addressed her various roles as a child, mother, and queen, and disputed whether or not she is truly "innocent." Other critics, particularly Paul Schilder (1936), have expounded on Carroll's incorporation of violence, identifying incidents of aggression, brutality (the Queen wishes to chop everyone's head off, for example), and destruction. Scholars have explored the relationship between these elements and Dodgson's personal life, and investigated the effect of these violent episodes on young readers. Provoking much critical debate also is the problematic "nonsense language" in both Alice books; scholars have speculated that Carroll used nonsensical language and situations in order to break free from the rational, ordered world of his own reality and to transcend his own personal distress. Other topics of critical study include Carroll's fascination with and incorporation of games and puzzles, and his use of humor, parody, and satire.

Paul Schilder (essay date 1936)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Psychoanalytic Remarks on Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll," in Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, Vol. 87, No. 2, February, 1938, pp. 159-68.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a speech in late 1936, psychiatry professor Paul Schilder uses the Alice books to psychoanalyze Charles Dodgson (Carroll), warning that the stories could have a detrimental influence on children.]

Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There are classics of stories for children. As far as I know nobody has tried so far to find out what is offered to children by these...

(The entire section is 4258 words.)

Joseph Wood Krutch (essay date 1937)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Psychoanalyzing Alice," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 144, No. 5, January 30, 1937, pp. 129-30.

[Krutch is regarded as one of America's most respected literary and drama critics. A conservative and idealistic thinker, he was a consistent proponent of human dignity and the preeminence of literary art. In the following essay, he rejects Paul Schilder's psychoanalytic reading [reprinted above] of the Alice books.]

Most readers of The Nation must have seen in their daily paper some account of the adventures of Alice in the new wonderland of psychoanalysis. Many years ago the late André Tridon undertook to explore the subconscious mind of the same...

(The entire section is 1225 words.)

Mark Van Doren (essay date 1941-1942)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lewis Carroll: Alice in Wonderland," in The New Invitation to Learning, edited by Mark Van Doren, Random House, 1942, pp. 206-20.

[Van Doren, the younger brother of the poet Carl Van Doren, was one of America's most prolific and diverse twentieth-century writers. Van Doren's criticism is aimed at the general reader, rather than the scholar or specialist, and is noted for its lively perception and wide interest. In the following excerpt, Van Doren chairs a discussion of the Alice books with American novelist Katherine Anne Porter and English philosopher Bertrand Russell. The discussion was originally broadcast nationally on Columbia Broadcasting System radio.]...

(The entire section is 4953 words.)

Harry Levin (essay date 1965)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wonderland Revisited," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Autumn, 1965, pp. 591-616.

[Levin is an American educator and critic whose works reveal his wide range of interests and expertise, from Renaissance culture to the contemporary novel. In the following essay, he provides a centennial re-assessment of the Alice books and of their author, Charles Dodgson (Carroll).]

In the twentieth century's commemoration of the nineteenth, we have reached the centennial of Alice. Not uncharacteristically, the date has been somewhat blurred. The author, whose fussiness has endeared him to bibliophiles, was dissatisfied with the first edition, so that...

(The entire section is 9143 words.)

Donald Rackin (essay date 1966)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alice's Journey to the End of Night," in PMLA, Vol. LXXXI, No. 5, October, 1966, pp. 313-26.

[Rackin is known as a leading Carroll scholar. In the following essay, he explores the theme of chaos and order in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, calling the work "a comic myth of man's insoluble problem of meaning in a meaningless world."]

In the century now passed since the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, scores of critical studies have attempted to account for the fascination the book holds for adult readers. Although some of these investigations offer provocative insights, most of them treat Carroll in specialized...

(The entire section is 10497 words.)

Grace Slick (song date 1966)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "White Rabbit," by Grace Slick, in The Poetry of Rock, edited by Richard Goldstein, Bantam Books, 1969, p. 113.

[Slick was a cofounder and lead singer of the San Francisco-based rock band Jefferson Airplane (later Jefferson Starship, then Starship). Her 1966 song "White Rabbit, " reprinted below, celebrates the Alice books of Carroll and the psychedelic drug culture of the 1960s.]

White Rabbit

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small.
And the ones that mother gives you
Don't do anything at all.
Go ask Alice
When she's ten feet tall.


(The entire section is 388 words.)

Jacqueline Flescher (essay date 1969)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Language of Nonsense in Alice," in Yale French Studies, No. 43, 1969, pp. 128-44.

[In the following essay, Flescher provides a close analysis of the complex "nonsense language" of Alice, concluding that the work "can be read with the freshness of a child or the critical mind of an adult. "]

Nonsense bears the stamp of paradox. The two terms of the paradox are order and disorder. Order is generally created by language, disorder by reference. But the essential factor is their peculiar interplay. Elizabeth Sewell, in a penetrating analysis of nonsense, stresses the idea of dialectic. Yet her analysis deals almost exclusively with the formal...

(The entire section is 4663 words.)

Jack J. Jorgens (essay date 1969

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


SOURCE: "Alice Our Contemporary," in Children's Literature: Annual of the Modern Language Association Seminar on Children's Literature and The Children's Literature Association, Vol. 1, 1969, pp. 152-61.

[In the following essay, which focuses on a theatrical adaptation of Alice, Jorgens considers the relevance of Carroll's stories to twentieth-century society.]

In his discussion of the fairy tale, W. H. Auden nicely sums up the stereotypical view of children's literature. The world of the fairy tale, he says, is an unambiguous, unproblematic place where appearance reflects reality. It is a world of being, not becoming, where typical,...

(The entire section is 4849 words.)

Charles Matthews (essay date 1970)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Satire in the Alice Books," in Criticism, Vol. 12, Winter, 1970, pp. 105-19.

[In the essay below, Matthews considers the recurrence of satire and literary parody in the Alice books.]

Criticism of Lewis Carroll's works usually runs to extremes. There is a tough-minded school largely made up of psychoanalytical critics who take a no-nonsense attitude toward Carroll's nonsense. Some useful criticism, such as William Empson's characteristically stimulating and unsound essay, has been produced by the tough-minded approach. At the other extreme are tender-minded critics like G. K. Chesterton, who insist that the Alice books were written...

(The entire section is 5372 words.)

James R. Kincaid (essay date 1973)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alice's Invasion of Wonderland," in PMLA, Vol. 88, No. 1, January, 1973, pp. 92-99.

[In the following essay, Kincaid addresses the complex mix of innocence and aggression in Alice and argues that Carroll's books are, "above all, about growing up. "]

In the fifth chapter of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is alarmed to find that her neck has stretched to such "an immense length" that her head is above the trees. The narrator adds, however, that the alarm soon passes and that she "was delighted to find that her neck would bend about easily in any direction, like a serpent." This simile, like other Wonderland similes, is more than...

(The entire section is 6142 words.)

Neilson Graham (essay date 1973)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sanity, Madness and Alice," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 4, No. 2, April, 1973, pp. 80-89.

[In the following essay, Graham considers the function of the insanity theme in Alice.]

One of the most interesting characters in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is the Cheshire Cat. Unlike most of the creatures, the Cheshire Cat is sufficiently detached from his environment to be able to comment, in a fast, facetious sort of way, on the characters who share Wonderland with him, and one of his more challenging comments in particular deserves attention.

He tells Alice that everybody in...

(The entire section is 3169 words.)

Nina Auerbach (essay date 1973)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alice and Wonderland: A Curious Child," in Victorian Studies, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, September, 1973, pp. 31-47.

[In the essay below, Auerbach considers the genesis and development of the character of Alice.]

"What—is—this?" he said at last.

"This is a child!" Haigha replied eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her . . . "We only found it today. It's as large as life, and twice as natural!"

"I always thought they were fabulous monsters!" said the Unicorn. "Is it alive?"

For many of us Lewis Carroll's two Alice books may have provided...

(The entire section is 6062 words.)

Jean Gattégno (essay date 1976)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Assessing Lewis Carroll," translated by Mireille Bedestroffer and Edward Guiliano, in Lewis Carroll Observed: A Collection of Unpublished Photographs, Drawings, Poetry, and New Essays, edited by Edward Guiliano, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1976, pp. 74-80.

[In the following essay, Gattégno considers Carroll as a children's author and linguistic innovator.]

It is not necessary to reestablish Lewis Carroll. Today he is neither unknown nor underrated. Yet perhaps we should try to determine his true place, which may not necessarily be the one we had thought. For those who see him only as "the author of Alice," the forerunner of the new and unusual, modern...

(The entire section is 3042 words.)

Alwin L. Baum (essay date 1977)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Carroll's Alices: The Semiotics of Paradox," in American Imago, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1977, pp. 86-108.

[In the following essay, Baum explores the linguistic and philosophical complexities of the Alice books.]

When the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was buried, in 1898, Lewis Carroll was set free behind the Looking Glass to continue his interminable game of chess with Alice, the heroine of his first two fairy tales, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. During the century since their game began, the Alice books have played to a larger reading audience than most traditional folktales. Even...

(The entire section is 8285 words.)

Anne K. Mellor (essay date 1980

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fear and Trembling: From Lewis Carroll to Existentialism," in English Romantic Irony, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 165-84.

[In the following excerpt, Mellor addresses the philosophical implications of Alice's world, and compares and contrasts Carroll's "romantic irony" with Seren Kierkegaard's Existentialism. ]

[Like other romantic ironists] . . . , Lewis Carroll conceived the ontological universe as uncontrolled flux. But unlike the others, this Victorian don was frightened by this vision. Lewis Carroll shared his upper-class contemporaries' anxiety that change was change for the worse, not the better. The Reform Bill of 1832 had...

(The entire section is 8468 words.)

Margaret Boe Birns (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Solving the Mad Hatter's Riddle," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXV, No. 3, Autumn, 1984, pp. 457-68.

[In the essay below, Birns explores the theme of eating and cannibalism in Alice.]

Even a cursory glance at Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland will reveal one of its obsessive themes, namely, eating, or more darkly, cannibalism. Most of the creatures in Wonderland are relentless carnivores, and they eat creatures who, save for some outer physical differences, are very like themselves, united, in fact, by a common "humanity." The very first poem found in the text establishes the motif of eating and being eaten:


(The entire section is 4311 words.)

William A. Madden (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Framing the Alices," in PMLA, Vol. 101, No. 3, May, 1986, pp. 362-73.

[In the following essay, Madden addresses the genesis and function of the three poems that "frame" Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.]

Over the past thirty years Lewis Carroll studies have both altered and generally enhanced the reputation of Carroll's two Alices. Yet from early on in this reevaluation process one feature of these famous stories has posed a persistent critical problem. I refer to the three poems, one prefacing each of the Alice books and the third concluding Looking-Glass, that, together...

(The entire section is 7406 words.)

Ronald R. Thomas (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dreams of Power in Alice in Wonderland," in Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious, Cornell, 1990, pp. 55-61.

[In the following excerpt, Thomas explores the themes of power and linguistic mastery in Alice's dreamworld.]

I do hope it's my dream and not the Red King's! I don't like belonging to another person's dream.


Lewis Carroll's dream-child Alice dreams of the adult world as a chaotic, crazy realm, but also as a territory she wishes to enter and possess as her own. Dickens's Scrooge turns that dream wish around. He dreams of his childhood...

(The entire section is 2769 words.)

Mark Conroy (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Tale of Two Alices in Wonderland," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, 1991, pp. 29-44.

[In the following essay, which focuses on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Conroy discusses the connections between Alice's identity as a middle-class Victorian child and her dream experiences,.]

Thanks to the Freudian moment in modern literary criticism, it has been for years quite permissible to view the dream world presented to the reader in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland as if it in fact bore some relation to actual dream structures and significances. While some have traced such structures rather hastily to the author's own...

(The entire section is 5298 words.)

Donald Rackin (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Alice Books and Lewis Carroll's World," in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: Nonsense, Sense, and Meaning, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 3-12.

[Rackin is known as an authority on Lewis Carroll. In the following essay, he places the Alice books in their Victorian social context.]

This study rests on the premise that appreciating Lewis Carroll's Alice books (1862-72) does not require extensive knowledge of their historical setting. Their continuous popularity among large and varied audiences for the past 120 years shows how accessible they are: lay readers seeking to experience and understand their power need...

(The entire section is 3129 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Fordyce, Rachel. Lewis Carroll: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1988, 160 p.

An annotated critical bibliography of general and scholarly commentary on Carroll's life and works, including editions, biographies, criticism, reminiscences, and unpublished dissertations.

Guiliano, Edward. "Lewis Carroll: A Sesquicentennial Guide to Research." In Dickens Studies Annual 10 (1982): 263-310.

Described by Guiliano as the "first prose guide to publications on Lewis Carroll"; includes sections on editions, stage and screen adaptations, psychoanalytic...

(The entire section is 914 words.)