Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Essays and Criticism
by Lewis Carroll

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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Lewis Carroll's masterpiece of children's nonsense fiction, has enjoyed a life rivaled by few books from the nineteenth century, or indeed any earlier period. Alice has inspired several screen adaptations, from Disney's wellknown 1951 animated feature to more "adult" versions by contemporary Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer and Playboy. It has been adapted for the stage several times, has served as the basis for countless spin-offs in the realm of fiction, and has inspired at least one well-known pop song (Jefferson Airplane's 1967 hit "White Rabbit"). Episodes from Alice and its companion piece, Through the Looking Glass (1872), have also frequently been used to illustrate problems in contemporary physics and ethics. On one level, perhaps, the reason for Alice's popularity needs no explanation: its sheer imaginative force, coupled with its blend of humor, unsentimental sweetness, and a sense of wonder, make the book unique, and likely to endure for some time. As Sir Richard Burton puts it in the "Terminal Essay" to his famous translation of The Thousand and One Nights (1886), "Every man at some turn or term of his life has longed for … a glimpse of Wonderland."

Lewis Carroll was the pen name of the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a professor of mathematics at Christ Church, one of the colleges of Oxford University. Politically, he was conservative, "awed by lords and ladies and inclined to be snobbish toward inferiors," according to Martin Gardner in The Annotated Alice. He was also a skillful photographer (when photography was a new technology), a patron of the theater (a pastime generally discouraged by church officials at the time), and a fan of games and magic. And if "he was so shy that he could sit for hours at a social gathering and contribute nothing to the conversation, … his shyness and stammering 'softly and suddenly vanished away' when he was alone with a child," notes Gardner.

This fondness for children, specifically young girls (he intensely disliked boys), has led to much speculation about Carroll's psychological makeup. There is little to no evidence, however, that his numerous relationships with girls were anything other than purely platonic. These relationships tended to break off after the girls passed through adolescence. A principal exception was his relationship with Alice Liddell, daughter of Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church. Alice in Wonderland was written at her request, and represents a record (expanded and polished) of a tale he told her one afternoon in July 1862. On this "golden afternoon" of the verse prologue, the two went rowing on the Thames River with Dodgson's friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth and Alice's two sisters.

Much of the nonsense in Alice, as well as many incidental details, are based on things from mid-nineteenth century English life. The majority of the songs in the book are burlesques of poems and songs popular at the time, and familiar to Carroll's child audience. The last of Alice's adventures, the trial, is based on a then-familiar nursery rhyme. Another device Carroll used was creating incident out of common sayings. The character of the Cheshire Cat, for example, is based on the then-common phrase, "Grin like a Cheshire cat," while the episode of "The Mad Tea-Party" is based on two common expressions, "mad as a hatter" and "mad as a March hare." (the "madness" by which hatters were frequently afflicted was caused by prolonged exposure to mercury, used in the curing of felt, while March in England was the mating season of the hare.)

Certain more "exotic" details attest to the successful ventures of the British Empire: the flamingos, for example, pointed to missionary and colonial expansion in Africa. The hookah-smoking Caterpillar was evidence of a very profitable and still encouraged trade in opium with China; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, for example, was addicted to opium.

Alice's Adventures in...

(The entire section is 5,411 words.)