Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1327
Lewis Carroll’s first great contribution to children’s literature is that he freed it from the heavy didacticism of previous children’s books. The second is his legitimating of nonsense in children’s literature, though in this claim he is preceded by fellow Victorian Edward Lear, whose A Book of Nonsense (1846) preceded...
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- Critical Essays
Lewis Carroll’s first great contribution to children’s literature is that he freed it from the heavy didacticism of previous children’s books. The second is his legitimating of nonsense in children’s literature, though in this claim he is preceded by fellow Victorian Edward Lear, whose A Book of Nonsense (1846) preceded the Alice books by two decades. It is perhaps in his nonsense that one can see the connection between Reverend Dodgson, the mathematician, and Lewis Carroll, the writer. Nonsense is self-referential; that is, it lacks “sense,” if sense means a relationship to the world outside the work of nonsense. It is thus like certain mathematical systems or logic games. Carroll’s works are in fact games, which is one of the reasons for their appeal to children.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll’s first novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, successfully creates and maintains a dream consciousness. Its dreamlike quality is revealed not merely in its conventional ending, with Alice waking up to discover her adventures in Wonderland were “all a dream”; its episodic movements are dreamlike in that one episode melts into the other and has no necessarily logical connection to the previous. Identities constantly shift: A baby turns into a pig; the Cheshire Cat fades away into a grin. Because the logic of dreams, like the logic of Wonderland, is closed, internal, and self-referential, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland resists interpretations that attempt to “explain” the novel by connecting its elements to structures outside it, such as biographical, historical, psychoanalytic, or political interpretations.
The story begins with Alice drowsing while her sister reads a boring book. Alice’s attention is arrested by a white rabbit, which she follows, only to fall down a rabbit hole, where she finds a world where nothing is like the world she left. When she eats and drinks the Wonderland foods, she changes drastically in size, becoming small as a mouse, then large as a house. When small, she finds her way into a garden, where she meets a caterpillar, rescues a baby from a mean duchess, attends a mad tea party, plays croquet with the Queen of Hearts, listens to a mock turtle’s life story, and attends the trial of the Knave of Hearts. When the angry subjects of the Queen rush at Alice, she awakens to find them to be only, in the real world, falling leaves.
The novel is narrated in the third person, but with limited omniscience, allowing the reader to view Wonderland from Alice’s perspective. The creation of the Alice character (though it must be remembered that she is modeled on a real girl of the author’s acquaintance) is one of Carroll’s most stunning achievements. It is seen immediately in the opening paragraph, which presents her thoughts as she peers into a book her sister is reading; the book bores her because it has no pictures or conversations. This is clearly a child’s perspective. Even Alice’s precipitous changes in size reflect the point of view of children who are given contradictory messages: that they are too big for some things and too little for others. Alice is the most fully realized of the characters in the book, all others being functionally flat. The flatness of the characters is essential to the humor of the book, particularly the slapstick elements, for the whimsy of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare dunking the Dormouse in a teapot is lost if we sympathize with the Dormouse as a real character with feelings.
Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There
Carroll’s second novel is a sequel to the first, with the same main character. This time the “wonderland” is the looking-glass world, the world one sees when one looks in a mirror, a reverse image of the real world. As a photographer who needed to visualize finished photographs from their negative images, Carroll had an intuitive understanding of the implications of a “reverse” world. The consciousness of his “abnormality” of being a left-handed boy may also have played into the creation of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.
In the novel’s opening chapter, Alice passes through a mirror to find a house precisely the reverse of her own. She goes out into the garden, where she meets the Red Queen, then to the surrounding country, where she encounters strange insects, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the White Queen, Humpty Dumpty, the lion and the unicorn, and the White Knight. In chapter 9, Alice becomes queen, and she upsets the board of chess pieces in a transition from dream to waking precisely like that of the first Alice book. The transition is handled in two truncated chapters, one of fifty-nine words, in which Alice shakes the Red Queen, and one of only six words, in which the Red Queen turns out to be Alice’s kitten, and she is awake. The final chapter is an epilogue, in which Alice poses an unanswered question on the relation of dream to reality.
Sylvie and Bruno
Carroll’s last two novels were not as successful commercially as the Alice books, and, according to their earliest critics, they were unsuccessful artistically as well. Carroll continues to play with dreams and reality in the Sylvie and Bruno books, but this time waking and dream realities are interlaced in alternating chapters. In place of Wonderland or the looking-glass world, Sylvie and Bruno puts forth “the eerie state,” in which one becomes aware of fairies.
Thus, Sylvie and Bruno has two parallel plots: In the waking world, which Carroll’s introduction calls “the ordinary state,” there is a love triangle. The noble and selfless Dr. Arthur Forester loves Lady Muriel Orme but believes that she loves her cousin, Captain Eric Linden. The cousins, in fact, become engaged, but there is a grave religious impediment: Eric is not a Christian. The novel ends with Arthur accepting a medical post in India so as not to stand in Eric’s way. Simultaneously in the fairy or “eerie” realm parallel to the human one of Arthur, Eric, and Muriel, Sylvie and Bruno are innocent fairy children of the Warden of Outland. This plot is a version of the ancient myth and fairy-tale motif of the disguised god or king. The Warden temporarily abandons his rule in order to travel the kingdom disguised as a beggar. In his absence, his wicked brother Sibimet conspires with his wife and selfish son Uggug to take over Outland.
Sylvie and Bruno Concluded
In the sequel to Sylvie and Bruno, the interactions between the fairy realm of Outland and the human realm of Arthur and Muriel are more causally connected, as Sylvie and Bruno work “behind the scenes” to bring the true lovers together. Sylvie, in fact, appears to be the fairyland identity of Muriel. Through the invisible ministry of Sylvie and Bruno, Arthur and Muriel are married, but shortly after the wedding Arthur must go off to combat a plague in a nearby town. Muriel reads a false account of the death of Arthur from the plague, and Arthur, ironically, is rescued by Eric, who has come to accept the Christian faith and sees his assistance to a would-be rival as divinely directed. Meanwhile, the Warden (Arthur’s counterpart) returns to Outland, thwarts Sibimet (Eric’s counterpart), who repents, and regains his kingdom.
Perhaps it is no surprise that the human characters in both Sylvie and Bruno books are the least believable. They are the hackneyed stock characters of sentimental romance, though no worse than others of the same genre. As in the Alice books, the title characters, Sylvie and Bruno, are the more remarkable creations, though readers may have difficulty with the cloying baby talk of the fairies and the effusive affection they lavish on one another. Sylvie and Bruno are emblems of childlike innocence, which Carroll also tried to capture in the Alice books and in his photography.