Lewis Carroll World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2049

In his serious poetry, collected in Phantasmagoria and Three Sunsets, and Other Poems , Carroll reveals some of his heartfelt emotions of grief, anxiety, and love, but not without maintaining a firm control over those emotions. By writing in conventional poetic forms, alluding to established poets such as Samuel Taylor...

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In his serious poetry, collected in Phantasmagoria and Three Sunsets, and Other Poems, Carroll reveals some of his heartfelt emotions of grief, anxiety, and love, but not without maintaining a firm control over those emotions. By writing in conventional poetic forms, alluding to established poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and modeling his poems upon theirs, and by adopting an accepted sentimental tone, Carroll carefully modulated and refined the raw emotions that threatened his sense of order and psychological integrity, making them socially agreeable to his audience and to himself. He was especially attracted to and influenced by such poems as Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans merci” (1820), and Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) and “Mariana” (1830), all of which dwell upon such disturbing themes as guilt, depression, or sexual temptation. In short, Carroll attempted to shape his anxieties within a poetic tradition and to guard them against the riotous swirl of fear, chaos, and despair.

Carroll’s nonsense verse, on the other hand, is much more complex and paradoxical than his serious poetry. Much as he relaxed and allowed his imagination to blossom in the presence of his young girlfriends, Carroll ignored and even challenged some of the conventional literary constraints in writing his comic poetry. The poetry in the two Alice books, such as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat,” “Speak Roughly to Your Little Boy,” “Beautiful Soup,” “Jabberwocky,” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” are rebellious in the way that children are. These poems are visceral, instinctive, and free in their confrontation of authority and convention. While they assume the poetic forms and meters of traditional English poetry, they undermine that tradition by their comic tone, bizarre logic, and unsettling assumptions. Carroll’s nonsense verse embodies his primal feelings about the possible meaninglessness of life, his repressed violence and sexuality, and his growing awareness that order and meaning within the context of a poem do not necessarily reflect a corresponding order in the terrifying void of cosmic reality.

Carroll’s long poem The Hunting of the Snark is his comic defense against the unthinkable idea of the meaninglessness of life and his fear of annihilation after death. Under the leadership of the Bellman, a madcap crew sets forth to hunt the Snark. The hero of this mock epic is the Baker, who has been warned that he will be annihilated if the Snark is a Boojum. As the center of authority and truth, the Bellman constantly rings his bell (which is depicted in every illustration), reminding the crew of the passage of time and of their mortality. He defines truth by announcing at the outset that whatever he repeats three times is true. Carroll’s questers, therefore, design their own world, for that is all they have. The mythical Snark is actually a booby trap, and the Baker vanishes away forever, thus destroying all order, hope, and meaning.

Carroll’s strong Christian faith, however, would never allow him consciously to think along these lines. There was a God, a clear purpose in life, and an afterlife awaiting the righteous. Yet even as the Snark hunters manufactured some form of order as a buffer against madness, Carroll created a comic ballad with the bravado of an English adventurer in order to contain his greatest fear.

Carroll’s sense of the absurd anticipates the work of the existentialists and Surrealists. The trial of the Knave of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for example, points to Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937). The decapitating Queen calls for the Knave of Hearts to be sentenced before the jury submits its verdict. The only evidence brought against him for stealing the tarts is a nonsense poem that is impervious to interpretation. In The Hunting of the Snark, Carroll presents another absurd trial in which a pig is sentenced to transportation for life for leaving its pen. By the time the sentence is handed down, it is discovered that the pig has long been dead. The blank map that the Snark hunters use in their quest for the Snark also anticipates the existentialist view of the human will seen in Jean-Paul Sartre’s counsel to leap before you look. Finally, given the fluidity of time and the dreamlike atmosphere of Wonderland, it is not surprising that Salvador Dalí chose to illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and that other surrealists find Carroll’s own illustrations and prose a fertile ground for their own productions.

The great humor of the two Alice books, however, is what gives them their energy and immortality. It is a humor that transcends parody, satire, social wit, and slapstick—though to be sure those elements are all there—in order to fight the terrifying and incomprehensible issues of time, space, injustice, violence, self-identity, death, and the cosmic void. Rather than face these Medusa-like issues directly, Carroll circles and jabs at them with his comedy. His Christian faith gives a structure and meaning to his conscious life, and his humor protects that meaning from the threatening fears and uncertainties of his unconscious.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

First published: 1865

Type of work: Novella

After falling down a rabbit hole, Alice experiences a series of bizarre adventures that threaten to undermine her sense of order and control.

Although Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland explicitly to entertain children, it has become a treasure to philosophers, literary critics, biographers, clergy, psychoanalysts, and linguists, not to mention mathematicians, theologians, and logicians. There appears to be something in this work for everyone, and there are almost as many interpretations of it as there are commentators.

Alice’s dream becomes her nightmare. A novelty at first, Wonderland becomes increasingly oppressive to Alice as she is faced with its fundamental disorder. Everything there, including her own body size, is in a state of flux. She is treated rudely, is bullied, is asked questions with no answers, and is denied answers to asked questions. Her recitations of poems turn into parodies, a baby turns into a pig, and a cat turns into a grin. The essence of time and space is called into question, and her romantic notion of an idyllic garden of life becomes a paper wasteland. Whether Alice, as some critics argue, is an alien who invades and contaminates Wonderland or is an innocent contaminated by it, one important fact remains the same: She has a vision that shows the world to be chaotic, meaningless, and a terrifying void. In order to escape that oppressive and disorienting vision, she denies it with her outcry that “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” and happily regains the morally intelligible and emotionally comfortable world of her sister, who sits next to her on the green banks of a civilized Victorian countryside.

The assaults upon Alice’s sense of order, stability, and proper manners wrought by such characters as the Hatter, Cheshire Cat, and March Hare make it clear that Wonderland is not the promised land, a place of sleepy fulfillment. Rather, Wonderland stimulates the senses and the mind. It is a monde fatale, so to speak, one that seduces Alice into seeking new sights, new conversations, new ideas, but it never satisfies her. Conventional meaning, understanding, and the fulfillment that comes with illumination are constantly denied her. That is the secret of Wonderland: Its disorienting and compelling attractions make it a “Wanderland” and Alice herself an addicted wanderer, free of the intellectual and moral burden of ordering her experiences into some meaningful whole. She is never bored because she is never satisfied.

Significantly, she is presented with a stimulating, alluring vision early in her adventures. Alice finds a tiny golden key that opens a door that leads into a small passage. As she kneels down and looks along the passage, she sees a beautiful garden with bright flowers and cool fountains. She is too large, however, to fit through the door in order to enter the attractive garden. Alice’s dream garden corresponds to a longing for lost innocence, for the Garden of Eden. Her desire invests the place with imagined significance. Later, when she actually enters the garden, it loses its romantic aspect. In fact, it proves to be a parodic Garden of Life, for the roses are painted, the people are playing cards, and the death-cry “Off with her head!” echoes throughout the croquet grounds.

Alice’s dream garden is an excellent example of Carroll’s paradoxical duality. Like Alice, he is possessed by a romantic vision of an Edenic childhood more desirable than his own fallen world, but it is a vision that he knows is inevitably corrupted by adult sin and sexuality. He thus allows Alice’s dream of the garden to fill her with hope and joy for a time but later tramples that pastoral vision with the hatred and fury of the beheading Queen and the artificiality of the flowers and inhabitants.

Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There

First published: 1871

Type of work: Novella

After passing through a looking-glass, Alice is manipulated by the rules of a chess game until she becomes a queen.

Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There abandons the fluidity and chaos of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for artifice and strict determinism. In the first book, the emphasis is upon Alice’s adventures and what happens to her on the experiential level. In the sequel, the reader accepts Alice and with detachment examines nature transformed in Looking-Glass Land’s chessboard landscape. The voyage has shifted from the Kingdom of Chaos, with its riotous motion and verbal whirlpool, to the land of stasis, where the landscape is geometrical and the chess pieces are carefully manipulated by the rules of a precise game. In Wonderland every character says and does whatever comes into his or her head, but in the Looking-Glass world life is completely determined and without choice. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Lion and the Unicorn, the Red Knight and the White Knight must fight at regular intervals, whether they want to or not. They are trapped within the linguistic web of the poems that give them life, and their recurrent actions are forever predestined.

Whereas Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland undermines Alice’s sense of time, space, and commonsense logic, Through the Looking-Glass questions her very reality. Tweedledum and Tweedledee express the view developed by George Berkeley that all material objects, including Alice herself, are only “sorts of things” in the mind of the sleeping Red King (God). If the Red King were to awaken from his dreaming, they warn Alice, she would expire as quickly as a candle. Alice, it would seem, is a mere fiction shaped by a dreaming mind that threatens her with annihilation.

The ultimate question of what is real and what is a dream, however, is never resolved in the book. In fact, the story ends with the perplexing question of who dreamed it all—Alice or the Red King? Presumably, Alice dreamed of the King, who is dreaming of Alice, who is dreaming of the King, and the process continues. The question of dream versus reality is appropriately set forth in terms of an infinite regression through mirror facing mirror. The apprehension of reality is indefinitely deferred, and the only reality may be one’s thoughts and their well-ordered expression. Were Alice to wake the Red King she would share the Baker’s fate in The Hunting of the Snark. The cool geometry of Looking-Glass Land offers only a temporary oasis in a mutable, biological, and moral wasteland. Carroll recognized that the machinery of conventions and customs, mathematics and logic, and reality and dreams helped to define, and momentarily sustain and comfort, the frightened, imperfect, and comic adventurer.

In the final chapter, Alice rebels against the constraints of her chessboard existence. Having become Queen, she asserts her human authority against the controlling powers of the chessboard and brings both the intricate game and the story to an end. In chess terms, Alice has captured the Red Queen and checkmates the sleeping Red King. In human terms, she has matured and entered that fated condition of puberty, at which point Carroll dismisses his dreamchild once and for all from his remarkable fiction.

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