Other literary forms

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Lewis Carroll is remembered for his long fiction, the children’s classics Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). Immediate popular and critical successes, they are now among the world’s most quoted and translated books, enjoyed by children and adults alike, and their...

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Lewis Carroll is remembered for his long fiction, the children’s classics Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). Immediate popular and critical successes, they are now among the world’s most quoted and translated books, enjoyed by children and adults alike, and their characters are part of the world’s folklore. His sentimental and tendentious Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893) were far less successful.

Carroll’s prose fiction is best classified as anatomy, which, unlike the novel, is about ideas rather than people and engages the mind rather than represents life realistically. The characters of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There are personifications of philosophical or linguistic problems and function, much as counters in a game whose rules change according to Carroll’s fancy. The books have rudimentary characteristics of the bildungsroman—Alice’s changes in size or status suggesting puberty and development—but Alice herself is static. Like Gulliver or Candide, she is the “straight man” in the comedy, less important as a character than as a stabilizing perspective—that of the “normal” child in a mad world. The anatomy’s distinguishing formal characteristic is, paradoxically, its refusal to take any one form—its protean, adaptive quality. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, the dream-narrative dissolves into a structure of dialectic or symposium that is almost infinitely transformable—into poetry, parody, literary criticism, riddles, or verbal games for the sake of the play.

The tendency of Carroll’s work to turn into wordplay is not confined to his fiction and poetry. He published more than three hundred separate works, consisting of formal mathematical and logical treatises, essays on cranky subjects, satires on Oxford’s academic politics, numerous acrostics, puzzles, and trivia. In addition, he wrote faithfully in his diaries, now published, and composed delightful letters, also published. His work in formal mathematics is sober, systematic, and unoriginal. His contribution in logic was made indirectly and intuitively by way of his “nonsense,” which dramatized in paradoxes and wordplay concepts later taken up by linguistic philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. In general, Carroll wrote best when least serious and when working in a hybrid form somewhere between linguistic analysis and literature. In his best art, in works such as A Tangled Tale (1885), a cross between narrative and mathematics, or the philosophical dialogue “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,” the logician and poet combine forces.

Achievements

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Lewis Carroll created a new kind of children’s literature that was sheer fun in the most serious sense; its combination of fantasy, humor, and wordplay stimulated the mind and the imagination. In rejecting the rational, moralistic approach of the children’s literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Carroll turned the trend toward lesson-free imaginative literature in the twentieth.

Now that Alice is known to children largely through the popular media, Carroll’s books have become the territory of adults—adults from a considerable range of intellectual disciplines. Physicists, psychologists, philosophers, linguists, and computer scientists, as well as mathematicians and literary critics, have written about or in response to his work. In the twentieth century, his view of the world as a fascinating if unsolvable puzzle continued to grow on readers, presenting a difficulty in classifying his literary influence. Theoretically, “nonsense” is humor’s equivalent of Symbolist poetry or abstract painting in its concern with the play of verbal surfaces and textures rather than function or content. As nonsense’s purest and best practitioner, Carroll is a forerunner of Surrealism, Dadaism, and similar schools. Certainly, Carroll has made connections, directly or indirectly, with the most important of the modernists and postmodernists. T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens, Jorge Luis Borges, and Vladimir Nabokov all owe something to the nonsense perspective: alinear structure, the play of intellectual wit, the view of literature as a game of language, and the concept of autonomous art.

Carroll contributed the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, and the Jabberwock to the world’s folklore; provided an abundance of popular quotations; and added several new words to the English language. While other, more ambitious works of the era have become dated, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, and The Hunting of the Snark survive and seem inexhaustible. This is because Carroll’s gift was a language that opened minds to the infinity of worlds within words.

Other literary forms

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Before and after writing his novels for children, Lewis Carroll published volumes in his primary vocation, mathematics: A Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry (1860), An Elementary Treatise on Determinants (1867), Curiosa Mathematica, Part I: A New Theory of Parallels (1888), Curiosa Mathematica, Part II: Pillow Problems Thought During Wakeful Hours (1893), and Symbolic Logic, Part I: Elementary (1896). His gift for light verse, demonstrated in his novels, also led to four books of poems, with some duplication of content: Phantasmagoria, and Other Poems (1869), The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits (1876), Rhyme? and Reason? (1883), and the posthumous Three Sunsets and Other Poems (1898). His literary and mathematical sides were fused in A Tangled Tale (1885), a series of mathematical word problems in the form of short stories, and Euclid and His Modern Rivals (1879), a closet drama in which Euclid is defended by various scholars and spirits.

Achievements

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In 1898, a few months after Lewis Carroll’s death, the Pall Mall Gazette published a survey of the popularity of children’s books, and the overwhelming front-runner was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Queen Victoria enjoyed Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland so much that she asked Carroll to dedicate his next book to her (ironically, his next book, An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, proved to be nothing like the whimsical adventure the queen had admired).

Carroll encouraged the stage versions of the Alice books that appeared in his lifetime, though he was dismayed at his lack of legal control over adaptations. The Alice books have been translated into dozens of languages and are quoted more often than any English work, after that of William Shakespeare. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is noteworthy for more than its popularity, however; it was the first work of literature for children that did not have an overtly didactic or moralistic nature. In fact, Carroll parodied didactic children’s works in verse, such as “You Are Old, Father William” in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, and through characters such as the Duchess in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Writers as abstruse and complex as British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and Irish novelist James Joyce were drawn to the deeper implications of Carroll’s work, especially the lighthearted sense of play and the role of nonsense in human thought. The absurdist writers of the twentieth century saw Carroll as their prophet, and a few of his nonsense words, such as “Boojum,” “Jabberwocky,” and “chortle,” have become seemingly permanent parts of the English language. His term for a particular method of coining compound words, “portmanteau,” has since become a standard linguistic name for the process.

Discussion Topics

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Discuss the statement that Lewis Carroll directed his Alice books more to adults than to children.

Discuss the proposition that the Alice books are generally suitable for children.

Does Carroll’s obsession with the girl child detract from the satisfactoriness of the Alice books?

Show how traditional syntax underlies and enhances the nonsense vocabulary in “Jabberwocky.”

Consider whether one, or both, of these statements is true: The Alice books poke fun at logic themselves, and the Alice books poke fun at people’s attempts to employ logic effectively.

Explain why Through the Looking Glass should not be understood as a mere attempt to recapture the achievement of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Bibliography

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Ackerman, Sherry L. Behind the Looking Glass. Newcastle, England: Cambridge Scholars, 2008. Ackerman analyzes the works of Carroll and discusses his life.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views on Lewis Carroll. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Part of a standard series of literary essays, the selections are good but contain specialized studies that may not help the beginner. Bloom’s brief introduction is a good starting point in critically assessing Carroll.

Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated “Hunting of the Snark”: The Full Text of Lewis Carroll’s Great Nonsense Epic “The Hunting of the Snark.” Edited with a preface and notes by Martin Gardner. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. Contains numerous notes on the work and descriptions of Carroll’s world and life.

Cohen, Morton N. Lewis Carroll: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1995. Cohen has devoted more than three decades to Carroll scholarship. Using Carroll’s letters and diaries, he has provided what many regard as a definitive biography. Illustrated with more than one hundred of Carroll’s photographs and drawings.

Fordyce, Rachel, ed. Lewis Carroll: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. An exhaustive annotated bibliography of primary and secondary material on Carroll.

Gray, Donald J., ed. Alice in Wonderland. New York: Norton, 1992. This Norton critical edition is an ideal starting point for the beginner, not only because of the nearly two hundred pages of background and critical essays, but also because of the helpful annotations on the two Alice novels. Many of the best essays from other collections are reprinted here, making it a reference work of first resort.

Jones, Jo Elwyn, and J. Francis Gladstone. The Alice Companion: A Guide to Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books. New York: New York University Press, 1998. Full of information, a commentary on the people and places that make up Carroll’s and Alice Liddell’s world in mid-nineteenth century Oxford, and a sourcebook to the extensive existing literature on this period in Carroll’s life.

_______. The Red King’s Dream: Or, Lewis Carroll in Wonderland. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995. A look at Carroll in his life and times, including his literary milieu, friends, and influences. Bibliographical references, index.

Leach, Karoline. In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: A New Understanding of Lewis Carroll. Chester Springs, Pa.: Peter Owen, 1999. Leach uses new research to argue that the long-standing image of Lewis Carroll, his exclusively child-centered and unworldly life, his legendary obsession with Alice Liddell, and his supposedly unnatural sexuality, are nothing more than myths.

Thomas, Donald. Lewis Carroll: A Portrait with Background. London: John Murray, 1996. Thomas surmises the formative influences on Carroll’s personality and intellect as he describes Victorian England. An invaluable guide for readers who want to understand how manners and ideas changed during Carroll’s lifetime.

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