Other literary forms
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.
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...
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