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.
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.
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.
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.