Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1993
Article abstract: Lewis Carroll wrote stories and poems that fundamentally changed and enlivened children’s literature. He also pioneered children’s photography and published books that advanced the fields of logic and mathematics.
Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who was born in Daresbury, Cheshire, England, on January 27, 1832. His father, Charles Dodgson, had given up his fellowship and lectureship in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford University, to marry Frances Jane Lutwidge in 1827. Carroll was the first son of their eleven children. The family lived in Daresbury, where Carroll’s father was parish curate, until 1843. Carroll showed an early talent for mathematics, cultivated by his father, and comic verse. Growing up in a close-knit upper-middle-class family, living in a secluded village, and deeply influenced by a stern but doting father, Carroll found childhood a time of innocent exploration and wonder, a view that colored his later literary works.
In 1844 Carroll attended a grammar school in Yorkshire, and in 1846 he went on to Rugby, one of England’s leading private schools. Instructors at both schools helped him develop his mathematical and literary talents, but he disliked boarding away from his family. At Rugby the often harsh discipline administered by older students especially repelled him. For the rest of his life he disliked boys. At home on vacations, he helped his father teach in the local school, was a leader in games (many of which he invented), and wrote poetry and stories for magazines that he issued to amuse family and friends. These early poems were usually parodies of moralistic verse common in the early nineteenth century, and he explored several themes that appeared in his mature writing: violence, dreams and nightmares, family relationships, and the child’s view of a bewildering adult world.
Carroll was a brilliant student. He won a scholarship to Christ Church, his father’s alma mater. Like his father, he won a first in mathematics, the highest scholastic distinction for an undergraduate, and was awarded a fellowship even before he earned his bachelor of arts degree in 1854. The fellowship provided him a yearly stipend and rooms at Christ Church for life. He was appointed a lecturer in mathematics in 1855 and took vows as an Anglican deacon in 1861, becoming the Reverend C. L. Dodgson. From then on he dressed in black clerical clothes almost exclusively. A stammer made him shy of public speaking, and his clean-shaven boyish features, thick dark hair, and retiring manner made him seem ethereal to some contemporaries.
Using his birth name, Dodgson began to attract attention as a comic poet soon after earning his degree by publishing in newspapers and magazines some of the poems that he later incorporated into his children’s books. In 1856 he published his first work under the name Lewis Carroll, an anagram of the latinized form of his first two names. The same year, he met Alice Pleasance Liddell, the daughter of Christ Church’s dean, and took up photography. These interests—literature, photography, and Alice—blended to produce the most creative period of his life during the next twenty years.
Carroll remained a fellow at Christ Church for the rest of his life. He never married; in fact, the terms of his fellowship forbade it. He devoted himself to tutoring, lecturing, and performing religious and administrative duties at the college, but such work could not use up his creative energy, and he also pursued social and cultural interests outside his academic work.
Carroll was fastidious and almost obsessive with details, and he loved gadgets. Photography was ideally suited to him. At the time he took it up in 1856, it was a cumbersome art with bulky equipment. The photographer had to smear a glass plate with a colloid and dip it into silver nitrate, insert the plate into the camera, expose it for as much as a minute, and then develop the plate in a darkroom. During the exposure the subject had to stay perfectly still. Carroll soon mastered the techniques and tested his skill on architectural subjects and celebrities. Among those he photographed were the poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson; the poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti; and Queen Victoria’s youngest son, Prince Leopold.
Photography was a means for Carroll to enter intellectual society and make friends. He soon ingratiated himself with parents by photographing their children. Although he occasionally photographed boys, he preferred girls. He believed that girls of about ten to fourteen years of age epitomized innocent beauty. Carroll told the girls stories or posed riddles of his own invention to put them at ease, dressed them in romantic costumes, and carefully posed them. Sometimes he photographed them nude. In all cases he first obtained the mother’s permission and arranged for chaperonage. As well as photographing girls, he regularly sought their company, taking them to plays and museums and entertaining them at dinner parties. Deeply religious, conservative, and rigidly correct in his Victorian-era manners, he behaved with propriety; nonetheless, modern literary critics have speculated that Carroll’s interest in girls came from suppressed pedophilia.
His favorite was Alice Liddell. On July 4, 1862, Carroll and his friend Robinson Duckworth took Alice and two of her sisters on a boating trip up the Thames River for a picnic. To entertain them on the return journey, he told them a tale, making it up as he rowed the boat. This became the nucleus of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), which became an international best-seller. In the story, the fictional Alice falls asleep and dreams of a bewildering array of eccentric characters in the form of animals such as the White Rabbit and March Hare, people such as the Mad Hatter, and playing cards. The blending of fantasy, puns, games, nonsense poetry, and adventure story appealed to both children and adults. Even if comically presented, its themes—violence and punishment, growth, obedience, education and games, correct behavior, and the development of identity—nevertheless addressed the world from a child’s point of view.
The sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, followed in 1871. Again, Alice falls asleep. This time she dreams of crawling through a mirror and becoming a pawn in a mammoth chess game. As she advances across the chessboard countryside to be crowned a queen, she meets some of Carroll’s most beloved characters, such as the twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum and the White Knight, and hears more nonsense verse, including his most celebrated poem, “Jabberwocky.” Many of the same themes appear, and the narrative emphasizes logical absurdities as the basis of humor as well as word play and bizarre behavior. Though not as successful as the first book, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There still sold well and brought praise from reviewers.
In 1876 Carroll published The Hunting of the Snark, his last masterpiece of nonsense literature. The puns of the subtitle—An Agony in Eight Fits (a struggle in eight chapters)—hint that it parodies epic poetry. Indeed, the story’s quest for a mythical beast, the snark, by a brave band is a typical epic plot, but little else in the poem makes rational sense. Narrative jumps, eerie illogic, and the tension of supernatural peril give it a nightmarish quality. The poem attracted dedicated fans, especially among intellectuals, but it was not a popular success.
Carroll wrote other books of poetry, short stories, and games, including Phantasmagoria (1869), Rhyme? and Reason? (1883), A Tangled Tale (1885), and Three Sunsets and Other Poems (published posthumously in 1898). His last book-length prose tale for children came out in two parts: Silvie and Bruno (1889) and Silvie and Bruno Concluded (1893). It contains some of his best comic verse, but the story is convoluted and at times sermonizing. It had few admirers. Additionally, Carroll wrote articles and pamphlets on social problems and university affairs and left behind more than 92,000 letters.
As Dodgson, he earned a modest reputation during his lifetime as a mathematician. He was best known for clarifying the works of the classical Greek geometer Euclid in Euclid and his Modern Rivals (1879) and Curiosa Mathematica, Part I (1888) and for expositions of logical analysis such as The Game of Logic (1887) and Symbolic Logic, (1896). He also published writings on number theory, and his work on voting theory was pioneering.
Carroll died of complications from a bronchial infection on January 14, 1898, while staying at his sisters’ house in Guildford, Surrey. Because his health had always been excellent, the sudden death surprised and saddened his readers, colleagues, and friends. Although Carroll could be prickly and prudish, he was famous for his kindness, having supported his sisters and helped friends through financial straits.
Lewis Carroll’s biographers claim that he is second only to William Shakespeare as the most quoted English author. Certainly, the Alice books were widely popular, supporting almost continuous republication in many media. A musical called Alice in Wonderland, based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was staged in 1886 with Carroll’s help, and the first of sixteen motion picture versions appeared in 1903. The story has been told in cartoons, coloring books, pop-up books, audio cassettes, and audio-visual teaching guides. It was translated into at least seventy languages.
Before the Alice books, children’s literature aimed to teach correct behavior and practical knowledge rather than entertain. Carroll mocked the moralism of this style to the delight of his young readers and gave them a character who embodied their point of view. His approach was revolutionary, and it inspired many imitators. Moreover, Carroll was among the first children’s authors make a girl the main character.
Almost immediately, intellectuals and artists began adapting the skewed logic and naïveté in his stories, poems, and photographs for purposes that spanned the variety of modern culture. For example, scientists employed his logic to explain the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, surrealist painters borrowed his images, politicians quoted him, songwriters echoed his phrasing, psychoanalysts found archetypes and pathology in his characters, and philosophers pondered his elusive remarks on existence and reality. Many features of the Alice stories entered popular culture as well and became familiar even to people who never read the books, including the image of Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, such coinages as “chortle” and “galumphing,” and such phrases as “off with his head!” and “curiouser and curiouser.”
Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice. Introduction and notes by Martin Gardner. New York: Bramhall House, 1960.
Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Snark. Introduction and notes by Martin Gardner. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962. These two books have abundant marginal notes that explain references in the Alice tales and The Hunting of the Snark to Carroll’s life, events and controversies in Victorian England, and mathematics. They also reproduce the original illustrations.
Cohen, Morton N. Lewis Carroll: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995. Cohen argues that Carroll rigidly conformed to Victorian Christian morality but that beneath his conservatism raged a painful incompleteness in his life, which he palliated through chaste friendships with girls and young women. His attempts to amuse them inspired his most beloved books. Carroll’s photographs and drawings accompany the text.
Collingwood, Stuart Dodgson. The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll. New York: Century, 1899. As Carroll’s nephew, Collingwood had firsthand knowledge of his uncle’s life. The biography is accordingly full of anecdotes. The letters quoted in the text often exemplify Carroll’s dexterity with humor.
Guiliano, Edward. Lewis Carroll Observed. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1976. This handsome, large-format book contains many drawings and photographs by Carroll, illustrations of his tales, and clips from early films. The text comprises fifteen essays about the children’s books, photography, Carroll’s style of humor and reputation, logic, and film versions of the Alice stories.
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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