Alice in Wonderland
Delving Deeper Into The Rabbit Hole: Death in a Children’s Book
Lewis Carroll’s classic story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, tells the enchanting tale of a young Alice and the exciting journey she embarks on after falling down the rabbit hole. While on the surface it may appear as a pleasant children’s book filled with vibrant and humorous characters, if one delves below the surface Wonderland holds much more than the reader may think at a first glance. Through the reoccurring theme of death in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll draws a stark contrast between the various characters’ view of death, suggesting that some people choose to avoid the topic entirely, while children such as Alice are often inherently curious about it, and are often unable to recognize potentially fatal dangers. Through the inclusion of this concept, Carroll emphasizes the inquisitive and innately curious nature of children, but also implies that adults and the animals in this story often have different methods of avoidance to escape from delving deeply into unpleasant topics such as this, as to avoid thinking about something so dark.
Almost as soon as Alice falls down the rabbit hole, the theme of death becomes apparent. There are subtle references throughout her slow tumble down the rabbit hole on her way to Wonderland, with Alice grabbing a jar or marmalade off of the wall, then deciding “she did not like to drop the jar, for fear of killing someone underneath” (Carroll, 10). Although Alice is a young girl, she is conscious of the concept of death, yet she looks upon it in a seemingly nonchalantly way. On such a long fall, she never once appears concerned for her safety, and does not even entertain the idea that she may be in a dangerous situation. Her nonchalant view of death and apparent unawareness of potential danger can be seen again when she exclaims, “After such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down-stairs! How brave they’ll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!” (Carroll, 10). At a first glance, this may appear as a simple statement made by a child. However, Carroll is implying that if she were to truly fall off of her house, of course she would be unable to say anything about it because she would be dead. By including subtle and often morbid allusions to death from Alice throughout the story, Carroll emphasizes that children, while aware of death, are often unable to recognize or grasp some of the potential fatal dangers around them. Alice is no exception to this, and represents a typical child with the innocent remarks that they say that actually can portray something deeper.
While the character of Alice serves as a symbol of a child’s naïve and innocent nature, she also is representative of children and their relationship with rules and their sense of safety. Quite often, children are raised to believe that following rules will keep them safe and away from all harm. This is especially true for Alice, and when looking at the table at the bottom of the rabbit hole, “she found a little bottle on it, and tied round the neck of the bottle was a paper label, with the words “DRINK ME”… No, I’ll look first, she said, and see whether its marked ‘poison’ or not” (Carroll, 13). The mention of poison is a reinforcement of the theme of death present throughout the novel, with this scene again emphasizing the naïve nature of Alice and as an extension, children. While she does have the knowledge to check whether or not the bottle was labeled as something dangerous and even deadly, she still goes through with drinking it anyway, as Alice believes that it must be okay if it is not marked explicitly as poison. This raises the idea of rule following to keep a child safe and how they view rules as something that will always be a protection barrier, although adults know this is not always the case. Alice goes on to speak about things she has learned, and mentions how “she had read several nice little stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts, and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them” (Carroll, 12). Carroll implies that simply following the rules and doing as one is told is not nearly enough to keep an individual safe and away from death; by including this scene Carroll is simultaneously able to highlight the naïve nature of children, while at the same time maintain the theme of death. Due to Alice being a child, she has a unique outlook on death, along with a unique way of handling the concept. This particular view of hers is drastically different from others, as she is soon to learn as she spends more time in Wonderland.
One of the first characters Alice encounters in Wonderland is a Mouse while swimming around in the pool of her own tears. She attempts to strike up a conversation with the Mouse, and tries to catch his attention by speaking a phrase in French that happens to mention the word ‘cat,’ and greatly startles the mouse. Alice does not quite understand this cue, and goes on to say, “I wish I could show you our cat Dinah. I think you’d take a fancy to cats, if only you could see her…she is such a nice soft thing to nurse – and she’s such a capital one for catching mice” (Carroll, 21). She is seemingly unaware of this allusion of death that she is making in regards to the mouse. She is aware that mice dislike cats, yet says she wishes Dinah was there to catch the mouse so he may finish his story. This comment greatly reinforces the sense of innocence that Alice and many other children possess in terms of death, and the almost casual lens that they view it through. While Alice may have no issue pondering the subject of death and may not have an imminent fear about it, not all of the characters she encounters feel the same way. The mouse for example exclaims, “As if I would talk on such a subject! Our family has always hated cats: nasty, low, vulgar things! Don’t let me hear the name again!” (Carroll, 22). Contrasting with Alice, the mouse would much rather avoid the subject and spend no time at all pondering the idea. The idea of death is a very real fear for him, and many other characters as well. He requests to never hear the name of a cat again, suggesting death is a much more sensitive and real concept to him as compared to Alice. While Alice may not see death as something so serious, the Mouse knows that it is a very real possibility for him to face death at the paws of a cat, and would prefer to simply ignore and avoid the subject. Offended by Alice, “the Mouse was swimming away from her as hard as it could go, and making quite a commotion in the pool as it went” (Carroll, 22). Not only does the Mouse verbally express his dislike for the conversation and tells Alice to cease speaking about it, but he physically removes himself from the situation, as that is his way of avoiding facing the concept of death. Not every character has the same mentality as Alice in this regard; something she continuously learns as she meets more and more creatures. A bit further on into her travels through Wonderland, Alice comes across the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon. Alice, being as curious as she is, asks to hear the Turtles story. She then goes on to question what a Mock Turtle actually is, and learns that, “It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from” (Carroll, 81). The Mock Turtle is not truly a turtle, but is depicted as part cow, and is intended for food nonetheless, which is where his permanent state of sadness comes from. The character of the Mock Turtle implies yet another death reference, and on the surface it may appear innocent, yet the song the Mock Turtle sings to Alice is about making a delicious turtle soup. These subtle allusions to death that Carroll makes are present throughout the entire story, and this interaction is no exception. As the meeting progresses, the Gryphon requests that Alice recite a poem, with a rather morbid ending. The Mock Turtle is extremely distressed by this, cutting Alice off by crying out, “What is the use of repeating all that stuff? The Mock Turtle interrupted” (Carroll, 93). This outburst from the Mock Turtle comes just after Alice was about to recite the ending of the poem about the panther and the owl. This ending distresses the Mock Turtle, as the owl ends up as food and is eaten, just as the Mock Turtle is intended as to be. Carroll includes this slightly morbid poem to highlight how the different characters handle death. Where as the Mouse physically swam away from Alice and her, the Mock Turtle directly interrupted her and cut her off before she was able to speak on the topic. This scene again emphasizes the fear of death the Wonderland’s inhabitants posses, while at the same time continuing to display the stark contrast between their feelings on the matter and Alice’s.
Yet another character with a strong, slightly indirect relationship to death is the Queen of Hearts. A character that inspires fear in others, the concept of death is not a very real one for her. As the most powerful force in Wonderland, she does not have the same relationship with death as the other characters do. She is not directly threatened by it, yet frequently threatens others with death, suggesting a sense of control and knowledge of how to use that fear of death to her advantage. At the slightest inconvenience, “The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, began screaming, ‘Off with her head!’” (Carroll, 72). Carroll includes the Queen as a character to emphasize the range of different feelings about death within the Wonderland. It is noted that, “The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with his head!’ she said without even looking around” (Carroll, 75). Once again, the Queen herself is not threatened by death as she has the control, but threatens others with it as a means of control. She never actually has anyone executed, but as seen with previous characters such as the Mouse and the Mock Turtle, the creatures in Wonderland seem frightened of the thought of death. The Queen knows this, and plays on their fear to gain a sense of control, thinking of death in a drastically different way than both Alice and the creatures due to her high position.
Although the concept of death in a story about a young child may appear to be a strange one, Carroll includes allusions to death throughout Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland to place an emphasis on the variety of views on the topic within Wonderland. By examining the different views, one can see the many differences between a child’s view of death due to their naïve nature, and that of a more experience and mature adult. At a first glance, one may not notice these subtle mentions and references, but after a closer examination one can discover the additional layer of depth and complexity they add to an already exceptionally curious Wonderland.
The Quest for Self in Alice in Wonderland
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll tells the story of a young girl’s journey through a world of fantasy, imagination, and inner transformation. Alice begins as a seven-year-old girl who falls down a rabbit-hole and finds herself in a place called Wonderland. However. while Alice is supposed to be a child, the reader can easily follow her seamless development into adolescence from the upward trajectory of her thoughts, her actions, and her reactions from other characters. Ultimately, as Alice vacillates between child and adolescent in her quest for identity, the reader witnesses the inner journey of a child who intuitively knows that there is more to life than others may expect her to understand, and her curiosity takes her on a journey through the mind, heart and soul that leads her to a place of poignant understanding and sublime wonderment.
Alice’s quest for identity and understanding is shown through the characters she engages with and the different phases in life that they represent. While the science-based functionality of developmental theory may initially appear to be incongruous with the examination of a fictitious character, Carroll demonstrates his “professional familiarity with his child protagonist through the logic and consistency of his depiction of Alice” (Karlsson 1). Alice’s movement from child to adolescent help readers to understand the process that occurs as a child is on a quest for identity and moves into adolescence sometimes sooner than is expected due to the nature of her questions and the interactions she is exposed to. As she searches for her identity on her quest for purpose and meaning, we see the multifaceted nature of Alice’s personality, “as her childlike qualities of curiosity and sciolism are contrasted with adolescent cognitive abilities” (Karlsson 13). For example, she does not regard adults in too high regards, She does not have high regards of adults, considering how “unreliable, unfair and judgmental the adult characters are who she meets” (Karlsson 2). Her childlike nature appears strongly here.
As Alice moves through her quest for identity, we see that not only does she face the obstacle of age, but of gender as well. Her experiences show how children can experience frustration when “asserting agency in a world in which girls are constrained and destined to enter a circumscribed domestic realm” (Flynn 84). The process from childhood to maturity is largely psychological and oftentimes spiritual, “to the point at which the main character recognizes his or her place and role in the world” (Karlsson 1). The word little carries with it a diminutive meaning, which emphasizes her childlike nature. For example, as Alice sleeps in her older sister’s lap, the sister thinks to herself how “little Alice” will one day grow up to have children of her own (Carroll 109). Another example is when the Queen of Hearts wants to punish Alice for speaking to her so “loudly and decidedly” (Carroll 68). However, Alice survives because the King tells the Queen, “Consider, my dear: she is only a child” (Carroll 69). If Alice were not a child, she would have suffered a very different fate and had immediately been subject to capital punishment. Here we see that the child in Alice is still frustrated by how she must be subject to the rules of adults around her, which emphasizes her childlike nature.
The book is a powerful emotional and intellectual tool that can help both children and adults to “test various real-life roles and engage in critical and imaginative examination of themselves” (Flynn 83). As Alice examines and explores herself and the world, we, too, are able to do the same, and to experience the quest from child to adult. As a child, she engages in processes that are amplified during adolescence, including “introspection, self-consciousness and intellectualization” (Karlsson 7). Like an adolescent, Alice is able to observe herself from a higher perspective, saying to the Gryphon “it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then” (Carroll 88). More examples of her highly developed inquisitive nature include when she experienced drastic changes in size by eating and rinking. She meets the White Rabbit and asks herself, “I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” (Carroll 11). Questions like this lend the reader to explore the deeper meaning within seemingly superficial situations such as these, and to ask the same questions about one’s own place in the world and the fixed-or-fluid nature of growth and identity.
After following Alice “through her identity mayhem,” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ends with Alice waking up in her older sister’s lap and the reader realizing that Wonderland was just a dream (Karlsson 13). The bigger question, however, arises as to whether Alice will continue to live in the reality she came from with her older sister, or the reality that she just left in Wonderland. She will continue to live through the “simple sorrows” and “simple joys,” which signals that even though it was a dream, her awareness and consciousness was forever changed during her quest (Carroll 110). Overall, we see that Carroll understood the nature of development within young people, and sought to depict the color and fluidity of such a quest for self within the context of a young, unknowing seeker of the truth.
Archetypes of Englishness in The Hobbit and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are children’s novels which share a number of key similarities. Both are ‘quest’ narratives, whose main protagonists (Bilbo and Alice) begin their journeys in tranquil pastoral idylls: Bilbo in his quiet home at Bag End, and Alice reading with her sister by a riverbank. Both main characters are portrayed as inquisitive, honest, unfailing, polite, trustworthy and innocent – qualities which distinguish them in key ways from other characters they encounter on their journeys. In other words, both protagonists embody similar cultural attributes that are placed in juxtaposition to the peoples and environments they meet on their journeys. Therefore, a key aspect of both texts is the didacticism of this clash between the cultural tropes embodied in each protagonist and the differing natural environments they encounter. My main argument is that the protagonists’ similarities are rooted in similar idealized (archetypal) constructions of ‘Englishness’ and that both novels comment upon these cultural attributes by contrasting them with radically different natural worlds operating under quite different logics. This ‘Englishness’ is not to be understood in an essentialized sense, rather it can be read as reflecting both authors’ attempts at critically commenting upon what is being lost – and at what cost – as England transitions from a largely pre-industrial, pre-imperial past, to a radically different future.
The commentary which emerges from this reading of both texts is that they are essentially Romantic in their ideals and thereby hostile to these radical socio-economic transformations occurring throughout nineteenth and early twentieth century England – a nation wracked by war and imperial expansion, and the social dislocations and environmental devastations of industrialization, and urbanization. The Romantic movement in English literature began in the late eighteenth century and was inspired by the same revolutionary thought which brought down the ancient regime of Bourbon France, in 1789. The movement is multifaceted, but can be rather crudely reduced to a few basic concepts and ideals. First, the Romantics asserted the importance of perception as an active creative act, shaping the worlds we inhabit (Clubbe and Ernest, 1983: 2). This conception of perceiving the world as an active form of creative agency also had an ethical component, namely a belief in the redemptive capacity of a humanity tainted by sin and the power of literature to aid in that redemption (Clubbe and Ernest, 1983: 7). Another aspect of Romanticism is its pastoral quality – essentially embodied in a veneration of nature in juxtaposition to the perceived corruption of urban life. The ethical component of the creative/perceptive act is to be found in simple communion with nature – like Wordsworth at Tinturn Abbey (Clubbe and Ernest, 1983: 36). More importantly, English Romanticism played a vital role in shaping the evolution of English culture in the nineteenth century as it embraced a conception of the creative act ideally suited to critically commenting on the social inequities and corruptions of the period (Johnson, 2008: 50-51).
While it might seem incredulous to argue that two children’s books have such lofty aims as to embody Romantic ideals, such literature has a long history of important social commentary and should not be dismissed a priori (Brockman, 1982: 4). The Romantic ideal as expressed above is arguably evident in both The Hobbit and Alice in Wonderland. Both novels begin in tranquil idylls in which both protagonists exist in some measure of communion. The world of Bilbo is set “long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green…” (Tolkien, 4). The world Carroll describes is hot and sleepy, with Alice and her older sister lounging by a creek and with boredom being Alice’s only overriding concern (2005: 1). These are essentially pastoral settings – quiet and green, and perhaps somewhat boring for both protagonists interested in adventure. Moreover, both locales reflect lifeways which are in the process of being lost; Tolkien’s work in particular draws heavily upon the English distant past in its construction of Bilbo, his ‘Englishness’ and the nature of his journey (Kuusela, 2014: 27).
What is also immediately apparent is the cultural constructions at work in both texts; Alice is fastidiously polite and insatiably curious, qualities echoed in the construction of Bilbo. Both characters exist in ‘static’ environments – locales where hierarchy and order prevail, the natural world is uncorrupted by human (and Hobbit) agency, and nothing much ever changes through time. The onset of both their journeys, therefore, echoes the onset of modernity in that both characters perceptions of reality are challenged by the new natural environments they encounter – where their beliefs in self and other were once solid, they now become revealed as frighteningly contingent. There are other possible ways of perceiving the world, and a key challenge of the narrative for both protagonists is how they negotiate their personal senses of propriety and decency in relation to peoples and places hostile to those beliefs. The particular constructions of Bilbo and Alice can therefore be read as embodying specific idealized archetypal conceptions of Englishness.
Reflecting the Romantic aspects of both novels, these constructions of Englishness are pastoral in nature and are confounded and challenged by the agency manifested by both characters in relation to their new environments. Daniel Bivona argues that Alice’s journey is a ‘game’ constructed by Carroll to illustrate what might happen when a representative of English culture is placed in an unfamiliar, foreign land (144). This reading is apt, given that Alice’s precise English, politeness and knowledge is of little use to her in her travels – indeed it actively works against her. For example, Alice’s experiences in Wonderland overturn her understandings of logic, reason and social propriety. Alice finds herself incapable of remembering basic facts ‘correctly’ and her attempts to impose her ‘will’ in this new world are completely futile (Carroll, 19). Moreover, Alice’s fastidious politeness and eagerness to share her opinions – reflecting a rather haughty sense of privilege echoing the British imperial mindset – to the various denizens of Wonderland invariably lead to her own confusion, frustration and isolation (Carroll, 41). When Alice expresses her wish that she had taken her cat Dinah with her on her journey so that she can retrieve the Mouse, she explains to the various animals that her cat is wonderful and would “eat a little bird as soon as look at it!” (Carroll, 39). Alice is oblivious to the possibility that her immediate audience may find her opinions frightening (given that many of them are birds). This further indicates the degree to which Alice’s cultural beliefs are ill-suited to this new foreign environment. Similarly, Biblo’s honesty and bravery are instrumental in leading Thorin Oakenshield’s band of dwarves to Smaug’s layer and the seizure of his treasure (Tolkien, 242), but are of little use in preventing the arrogance and acquisitiveness of the dwarves, elves and orcs leading to the battle of the five armies (Tolkien, 321). Thus despite his best intentions, Bilbo’s journey in different lands only validates his preconceptions of the good life he enjoyed in the Shire – life without weapons, intrigue, fortresses, dragons and the violence that comes with insatiable greed and lust for power and wealth. Bilbo explains as he watches the horror of the climactic battle unfold that “… it is enough to make one weep, after all one has gone through … I have always understood that defeat may be glorious … I wish I was well out of it” (Tolkien, 327). The lesson it seems is that the values of these new peoples lead only to destruction, power-lust and violence; Bilbo – and his pastoral Englishness are both morally superior but practically powerless in this new natural context.
While both novels are separated by almost a century, they were both written during the British imperial era in which that nation was the most urbanized and industrialized in the world. In Carroll’s time, Britain had just finished the brutal Crimean War against Tsarist Russia and had barely maintained its control over its Indian possession in the 1857 Sepoy mutiny (a mutiny caused by the British army obliviously insisting that Muslim troops grease their muskets with pork fat). Moreover, Tolkien’s Hobbit was published during the Great Depression as the political situation in Europe and Asia inched ever closer to another total war. While both novels can be read as reactionary in defending what is being lost culturally and environmentally for England by its commitment to industry and empire, they both also indicate in subtle ways that there are unforeseen dangers in coveting change for its own sake (to alleviate boredom) or as a means to enhance one’s wealth and power, regardless of the consequences.
This essay has argued that J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland each have narratives centered upon protagonists embodying a similar pastoral archetype of ‘Englishness’. It has also argued that both texts are essentially Romantic in their ideals and thereby hostile to these radical socio-economic transformations occurring throughout nineteenth and early twentieth century England – a nation wracked by war and imperial expansion, and the social dislocations and environmental devastations of industrialization, and urbanization. The journeys of Alice and Bilbo function as cautionary tales against the consequences of imperialism an industrialization. In this sense, the relationship between culture and nature in both novels is one which privileges a pre-industrial, parochial mindset in which the particular conceptions of archetypical ‘Englishness’ – honesty, generosity, politeness and closeness to an unspoilt landscape, reflect a more ethical way of living. Furthermore, both novels indicate the limitations of this ‘Englishness’ when placed in differing environments – indicating that the preferred relation between culture and nature can be lost through particular forms of human agency. This last point further emphasizes the Romantic aspects of both novels as the vicarious experience of perceiving the world through Bilbo’s and Alice’s experiences offers readers a chance at redemption, validating the ideal of creative perception as the highest form of ethical agency.
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Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. San Diego: Icon Group International, Inc. 2005. Print.
Clubbe, John and Lovell, Ernest J. English Romanticism: The Grounds of Belief. London: Macmillan Press, Ltd. 1983. Print.
Johnson, Matthew. H. “Making a Home: Archaeologies of the Medieval English Village.” Evaluating Multiple Narratives: Beyond Nationalist, Colonialist, Imperialist Archaeologies. Eds.
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Kuusela, Tommy. “In Search of a National Epic: The Use of Old Norse Myths in Tolkien’s Vision of Middle-Earth.” Approaching Religion, 4.1 (2014): 25-36. Print.
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Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.
Alice Coming Into Her Own: The Importance of Societal Rules in Her Identity and the Identities of Carroll’s Readers
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland purposefully highlights the confusion of identity, including the distinction between adults and children, and poses important questions about childhood and growth. As the child reader explores this novel, they also explore the depths of their identity and as the adult reader explores, they rediscover a nostalgia for childhood. Through mid-19th century-normative social mannerisms, Carroll shows two Alices: the Alice that is being preened for coming up in society and the Alice that is a fully formed person outside the demands of the external world. Carroll’s maneuvers between England and Wonderland are subtle, cheeky, and poignant, causing the reader to question what it means to be a child in a society where they are groomed to be proper. In Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice’s identity, as well as that of the reader, is questioned and challenged in various nonsensical and reasonable social settings.
Mid-nineteenth century England fills the mind with many pictures of a world post-Industrial Revolution and full of tumultuous changes for society. In the midst of these changes, people still held close to the formalities of social behavior, impending them on the next generation with the expectation that they grow up to be proper ladies and gentlemen. Didactic education was still very much a popular method, encouraging rote memorization of facts, formulas, and poetry; in Alice’s Adventures, Alice struggles with this kind of memorization because of a lack of context. Her rhythm and syntax may match what she is taught, but, because context and meaning are not necessarily important for her to learn, she fails to understand. Especially when she is placed out of the context of school in England, Alice’s knowledge is pointless. After incorrectly reciting “How doth the little busy bee,” she proclaims, “I’m sure those are not the right words” (38). However, the rules in her society state that she must continue with her lessons no matter how much she may misunderstand. Failure to follow rules in Alice’s society can be thought to be madness; when Alice is warned by the Cheshire Cat that the March Hare is mad, she is anxious and worried about her visit. “Suppose it should be raving mad after all!” she says, “I almost wish I’d gone to see the Hatter instead!” (91). This fear of strangeness is promoted by adults and consumed by children in modern society, too; children worry about monsters under their beds and adults warn them not to talk to strangers. The idea of breaking the rules of social normativity is terrifying for Alice because of the possibly strict grooming of her childhood; the properness and politeness with which she is expected to align herself take over most of her personality in England. In forms of childhood when autonomy is not fully given, rules become a definite factor of moral identity. In Wonderland, the same rules do not apply.
Alice makes many attempts to remember her own societal rules, and in this way her faux moral identity, in Wonderland. From the moment she falls down the rabbit-hole she begins to think about her lessons, discussing geography and math, which Carroll plays up due to his mathematical background (27-28). In childhood, when school is the most significant event, it is understandable that she obsesses over these details, especially considering the rigid kind of schooling to which she may have been subject. Alice even attempts a curtsy while falling, which Carroll uses to emphasize the ridiculousness of this act: “fancy, curtseying as you’re falling through the air!” (28). As Alice falls, her behavior does as well. She is unable to remember many of her lessons and begins to even question her identity. “I must have been changed for Mabel!” she exclaims when she considers her sudden confusion with her lessons (38). Without her knowledge of earthly things, it seems, she loses what she thinks is a large piece of her identity and, with it, some superiority she may have felt over other characters, like her classmate, Mabel. Alice begins to cry after this realization and, it seems, every instance in which she becomes conscious of the strangeness of Wonderland, displaying her highly volatile nature and need for stability, like any child, which her English society provides but Wonderland does not.
Although change is a constant phenomenon in Wonderland, it is seen as shocking and disruptive to the norms to which Alice is accustomed throughout the novel. For example, when Alice grows and shrinks rapidly, she creates a pool of tears from her nine-foot self (36). Later, however, she looks for a way to alter her size and treats it as an everyday occurrence (73). This normalizes the experience of change, creating the impression that the only time to be afraid is the first. This is a teaching moment for child readers. For children, the amazement, horror, and wonder at growth and change is new and understandable; as Alice realizes these new experiences, child readers may also find that things become “curiouser and curiouser” (35), in interest, strangeness, and relatedness. While children are continuously growing and learning, they are still as human as adults are, and their growth often happens subconsciously. When Alice picks up the Rabbit’s fan, she does not realize it is causing her to shrink until it is nearly too late (38). Adults, however, must work to change consciously, and perhaps can draw more out of this novel as inspirers of change. Parents are traditionally seen as having the job of raising their children and adults in this role must consciously determine what kinds of rules and decisions their children might benefit from most. These created rules may come from an identity crisis of their own; parents may try to recreate the ideal person they would like to be, something theoretically easier to do on someone who is not one’s self. In reading Alice’s Adventures, parental adults may understand guiding figures like the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat and renegotiate their own restrictions for their children. The guiding figures in the novel inspire Alice’s change on her own, the Caterpillar leaving her to pick the end of the mushroom she chooses herself (43) and the Cheshire Cat ambiguously inspiring Alice to choose her own direction (89-90). While Alice comes from a society of rules, Wonderland gives her room to consider these constructs and develop her person around them and independent of them. Alice’s adaptation to and want to explore Wonderland releases her from some of the harsh rules her English culture presents.
Alice struggles at first to overthrow the regime of adult-like stuffiness from her mind. First she creates a second Alice with which she discusses matters concerning decisions, Wonderland, and herself. This is a way in which Alice can both dissociate herself from the improper decisions she might make as well as convince herself to make the correct decisions. It is likely that Alice uses this method as a creative outlet to explore herself and combat loneliness in the same way that many children create imaginary friends for companionship. Alice usually talks to her cat, Dinah, and, because Dinah does not accompany Alice to Wonderland, Alice’s second personality seems to encompass what Dinah would otherwise do for her. One side of Alice seems to show reason, while the other is more whimsical and nonsensical. The tension she feels in the need to follow rules and break them is shown clearly in these starkly split personalities. “‘Come, there’s no use in crying like that!’ said Alice to herself, rather sharply. ‘I advise you to leave off this minute!’ She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it) […]” (32). Superficially, Alice attempts to give herself “very good advice,” the way a good girl in mid-nineteenth century ought to do, but the less reasonable, more emotional side of her tends to prevail, giving way to irrational and perhaps nonsensical behavior.
Alice relies on herself to make sense of the things around her, but she also falls under the influence of her surroundings often. She comes into Wonderland because of her curiosity of the White Rabbit, who follows proper social protocol in the most nonsensical way possible: he is a non-human being with entirely realistic human traits and very adult-like behavior, like worrying about the time. “[…] Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and, burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it […]” (26). Alice’s curiosity about this creature gradually brings her into the nonsense of Wonderland in an instinctual, childly way; Alice does not consider the consequences of her actions in following the Rabbit. The Rabbit is, in many ways, like the person she is being brought up to become: he is free, playful, and wild by nature like a child but, under the jurisdiction of the Queen and the society that she creates, much like the adults in Alice’s world, he is constrained by time, pesky clothing like the gloves he loses, and worry. This is an easy way for Alice to enter the world of Wonderland as a place parallel, yet opposite, of her own England.
As Alice encounters more characters, her interactions become more personal and less connected with her English society. Firstly, on a superficial level, the Mouse and the rest of the animals involved in the Caucus Race relate strongly to Alice’s dry schooling and poke fun at it through their winded history lesson and insistence on social law (46). After Alice delves deeper into Wonderland, however, she discovers more about herself and, as the child reader follows along, they also question their identity. The caterpillar inquires into Alice’s person and probes her identity, less connected to her superficial and societal self and more connected to her actual being. He connects with her as he asks the same questions she has about herself and forces her to contemplate them. When he seems confused about who she is, Alice replies, “I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly, […] for I can’t understand it myself, to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing” (67-68). The Caterpillar’s interaction with Alice may be the most important in setting her up to discover her identity with the many questions he poses, left unanswered. These unanswered questions may cause frustration in the child reader but also hold a certain truth, as childhood identity is subject to change and cannot be answered in a simple statement. On a still deeper level, Alice’s identity is challenged when she encounters the Duchess nursing her baby. Her true moral character is put to the test, determining whether she will accept the societal norms of this strange culture or rescue the baby against the system. She rescues the baby, but it turns into a pig, displaying how social constructs are in place for reasons, like preventing the child from becoming a pig, though often these reasons are senseless, as the boy makes a better pig than a child (87). Child readers may find the bending of social constructs in this way fascinating as they discover what is proper and what is not in their own world; the idea that these rules may be flexible or created by people is a realization that gives the child reader a great deal of autonomy in dealing with their own life. As Alice comes into her own with her identity and society at large, so does the child reader.
Alice begins to come full-circle after the scene with the pig in her relationship with social constructs by beginning to come to terms with new rules and even creating her own. The tea party is demonstrative of chaos organized by rules and Alice attempts to break down this chaos by creating more rules, something that is not productive in this case. She contradicts her company often and offends easily. “‘I’ve had nothing yet,’ Alice replied, in an offended tone: ‘so I can’t take more’” (101). Sassy, quipped remarks like these from Alice show a blatant disrespect at the rules apparent in this scene and show her as eager to display her own ideas about social organization. Her attempts, failure at securing stability, and frustration are all relatable to children, who learn from failed attempts most and are forced to try over and over again with different methods. Finally, Alice is definitively set in her authority on societal matters in her dealings with the Queen. She interrupts the Queen halfway through Her Majesty’s demand to decapitate Alice. “‘Nonsense!’ said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent” (109). This outspoken stance against authority resonates with the growing child reader as they take into consideration the constructs in place and their reasons for being there. Not only does Alice attempt to speak up in this scene, but also she manages to successfully take control of the situation, at least temporarily, displaying contempt for an unjust social order and the potential for applying this kind of rational to any other situation.
Alice does eventually realize the importance of rules in some sense, as long as they have a clear purpose. When dealing with children, this is a very common element to their demands; they must understand why something is being done. Alice attempts to go along with the Queen’s strange croquet rules for a while, for she realizes that no one will benefit from her upsetting them. Eventually, though, Alice comes to the conclusion that rules are often made to benefit some people over others. “‘I don’t think they play at all fairly,’ Alice began, in rather a complaining tone, ‘and they all quarrel so dreadfully one can’t hear oneself speak – and they don’t seem to have any rules in particular: at least, if there are, nobody attends to them – and you’ve no idea how confusing it is […]’” (113). This question of fairness is also often apparent in child’s play and young readers may relate further to Alice through her analysis of this unequal footing. Alice’s frustration with the unjust nature of Wonderland and societal rules brings her to think more autonomously about the nature of regulations. “‘I won’t have any pepper in my kitchen at all. Soup does very well without – Maybe it’s always pepper that makes people hot-tempered,’ she went on, very much pleased at having found out a new kind of rule” (119). Her desire to find new order in life brings her back to the understanding that rules must stem from the need to keep fairness and order and to end cruelty, not to restrict freedom or trample fun. Alice ends her story with a definitive court trial in which she has a strong personality and definitive answers for every question posed. Thus, Alice is brought back into an orderly society with a very different and much-needed perspective on it from the events and characters she encounters in Wonderland.
Alice needs Wonderland to understand her society the same way many children and adults may want or need an alternate world, not as a form of escape, but as a form of discovery for the self and philosophical topics. Discontent and longing in reference to social order in Alice’s English world are apparent from beginning to end of this novel, though they are mostly over by the end with the satisfaction of Alice’s return from Wonderland. In fact, the novel opens with a blatant statement of discontent and longing:
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” So she was considering, in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a white rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. (25)
The opening two paragraphs tell us much about the story to come. Firstly, it clues in the reader to Alice’s background in school and learning. She is frustrated with traditional academia and considers finding something more fulfilling to fit her whimsy. Just as she attempts to muster up the motivation to pursue this desire, a new, better version of a supplement appears before her. Thus, Wonderland is entirely created out of need and desire for Alice, by Alice. She is too lazy or exhausted to execute her idea of picking daisies, so the easier option is to sleep and imagine a different place to entertain and satisfy her. This speaks to Wonderland’s lack of didacticism for Alice; the style is created to fit her own needs. This makes Wonderland accessible for all; the ease with which she obtains her state of delirious enchantment is simple and merely imaginative. While Wonderland can be understood and enjoyed by all, child and adult readers may understand it differently through the lens of the respective societies of peers in which they live. The different experiences of Wonderland for a child and adult can be seen through Alice’s sister’s version of the world at the end of the book. Alice’s sister “[…] sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality [..]” (163). The reader can sense the sadness in the sister’s experience; she only “half believes” in Wonderland, an experience far estranged from Alice’s very real discovery and exploration of it in her lively imagination. Alice’s sister’s perceptions of reality and the social constructs that bind her to it are so strong that she is unable to entirely separate herself from it to enter Wonderland. Alice’s child-ness, however, gives way to more possibilities for her future and more time for her to discover what she has not yet learned about reality, allowing for full immersion in this fantastical, whimsical world. Alice’s sister is more grounded and timid to explore her identity than Alice, who is eager to delve into the rabbit-hole.
By the near end of the novel, Alice is more sure of herself than she was before; other characters’ prodding and confusing remarks do not move her in her steadfast decision to know herself and explore her identity on her own terms. Alice disregards the Duchess’s comment, “[…] ‘Be what you would seem to be’ – or, if you’d like it put more simply – ‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise’” (122), which she would not have been as likely to do at the beginning of the novel. Alice’s careful consideration of the “who,” “what,” and “why” of societal etiquette bring her to the ability to be nearly fully autonomous in her decisions. Because she understands the way society is constructed she is able to question authority when it is unjust and submit to petty rules that may have no significance other than keeping a bit of order. Carroll takes his readers on a journey through a Wonderland of jumbled rules that ends in the same society in which it began, yet the reader feels different. Carroll’s intricate posing of deep inquisitions and topsy-turvy situations may not leave the reader with a definite understanding of their identity, but it does at least leave the reader considering the question: “Who am I?”
Carroll, Lewis, Martin Gardner, and John Tenniel. The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass. New York: C.N. Potter, 1960. Print.
The Symbolic Nature of Food in Literature: Reflecting Upon Personal Experience
Eating is not only fundamental for survival; it also offers a setting for social gatherings, where eating habits and rituals create a noticeable distinction between social classes. In literature, food often symbolizes more than pure nourishment. Food presents a contrast between order and chaos; etiquette and taboo behaviour; and social classes. The presentation of food in literature can also mirror the personal experiences of the author, reinforcing the “write what you know” trope. Lewis Carroll, Paul Delarue and the Grimm Brothers have endured poverty firsthand, allowing them to draw on personal experience in their works. Although it is unclear whether Joseph Jacobs ever struggled financially, he clearly depicts the struggle of the lower class in his work as well. While food symbolizes larger themes of poverty, cannibalism, deception, and overcoming adversity within the texts, it also provides the authors with an opportunity to parallel their own societies, commenting and reflecting upon the struggles they personally face. The following texts demonstrate these themes and ideas: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; The Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel”; Paul Delarue’s “The Story of Grandmother”; and Joseph Jacob’s “Jack and the Beanstalk”.
In Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and the Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel”, food symbolizes poverty and deception. Just as the Grimm Brothers experienced an impoverished childhood, so do Hansel and Gretel as the children of “a poor woodcutter” where “there was never much to eat in the house, and once, in time of famine, there wasn’t even enough bread to go around” (Grimm 142). The lack of food is a physical manifestation of the poverty this family faces, causing the woodcutter to abandon his children in the woods otherwise “all four of [them] will starve” (Grimm 142). Ironically, Hansel leaves a trail of breadcrumbs to find his way home, even though the family barely has enough food to go around. Food, particularly bread, adopts a secondary meaning for the children; it is the reason their parents leave them for dead, but it is also their means to returning home. The absence of food is also apparent in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when she falls down the rabbit-hole and grabs a jar “labeled ‘ORANGE MARMALADE,’* but to her great disappointment it [is] empty” (Carroll 10). In a time of utter confusion and chaos as she falls down the hole, she grasps for food only to discover it is empty. This suggests that food creates a sense of comfort in times of chaos and despair. This parallels the Victorian starvation, which was a reality for Carroll, where food was scarce and death was expected. Through the Looking Glass exemplifies this when Alice observes a Bread-and-butter-fly and she asks what it lives on. The highly specific dietary needs of the fly – weak tea with cream in it – causes Alice to assume it would be difficult for the fly to find food. The Gnat confirms her concerns, stating, “‘Then it would die, of course.’” (Carroll 154). This is not only commonplace in Alice’s fantasy world, but Carroll’s reality as well, where hunger is universal and inevitable.
Food not only represents poverty and “it is not simply an object utilized by social subjects”, but food also creates a platform for madness and chaos as well in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at the mad tea party (Lee 490). “To the modern reader, the tea party comes across as madcap chaos, with everyone arguing and changing places”, but it symbolizes even more than pure chaos (Ardagh). The March Hare tells Alice to enjoy some wine, but when she looks around the table, there “[is] nothing but tea” (Carroll 61). When she states that she does not see any wine, the March Hare replies, “‘There isn’t any’” (Carroll 61). Alice notices the conflict between what he suggests and what is actually possible. The March Hare is aware they do not have any wine for Alice, but still suggests she enjoy some. This, again, relates to the poverty that Carroll and his Victorian society faced. The March Hare represents the natural preoccupation with food and drink in Victorian society, where a host would typically offer a guest wine and food, but would later realize they do not have any to offer due to their impoverished situation. The March Hare later suggests that Alice “‘Take some more tea,’” while Alice has “‘had nothing yet’” (Carroll 65). This perpetuates the standard for social functions in Victorian society, where there would typically be an endless supply of tea and food for guests to enjoy. This exchange between Alice and the March Hare parallels the Victorian hunger in Carroll’s reality, where Alice represents the society suffering from hunger and malnourishment. The madness present at the tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland mirrors the chaos present in Victorian society. Food also proves to be fraught with danger, deception and cannibalism in various fairy tales. In Jacob’s “Jack and the Beanstalk”, Jack’s family realizes their dire position when “one morning Milky-white gave no milk, and they [did not] know what to do” (156). Faced with the probable struggle of poverty and hunger, Jack sets out to rectify the situation with a handful of magic beans. When Jack sells the family cow, he eliminates the only source of income and nourishment the family has. Furthermore, the cow represents an investment, which provides milk and meat, while beans are cheap and limited to a single meal. Initially, Jack fulfills the ‘gullible child’ reputation for even buying the beans, but his trusting nature provides him with more than he ever expected. At the top of beanstalk, Jack encounters an ogre who likes nothing more than “boys broiled on toast” (Jacobs 158). While the ogre’s wife opens up her home to Jack, providing him with food and safety, the ogre views him as one of his many meals. In comparison to “Hansel and Gretel”, Jack also seeks food to cure his hunger, but becomes a possible meal for someone else. Even though Jack initially looks for food when he climbs the beanstalk, he discovers that stealing the ogre’s gold will provide his family with the means to survive. In contrast to “Hansel and Gretel”, the child is the source of deception; Jack repeatedly steals gold from the ogre, including his golden hen. The golden hen that lays golden eggs proves to be ironic as hens typically provide food, while this hen provides an inedible egg. The golden eggs do not directly supply Jack and his family with food; they provide them with the financial means to purchase food elsewhere. Food does not simply represent survival in “Jack and the Beanstalk”, it represents the struggle for survival and the deception and danger resulting.
Although cannibalism is not common in present day, it surfaces in literature for moralistic value. In the Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel,”, when Hansel and Gretel discover the house made of bread, with a roof made of cake and “windows of sparkling sugar”, they incorrectly assume their hunger has been remedied (145). When the feeble old woman invites them inside the house and feeds them “a fine meal of milk and pancakes, sugar, apples, and nuts”, the children do not expect this seemingly harmless woman to view them as “tasty morsels” (Grimm 145-6). The juxtaposition of the parents and the witch allows the reader to compare the repeated deception of the children in the homes they enter, but to also contrast the different ways in which food affects the children. They are abandoned for lack of food in one setting, and then viewed as food in another. Even though children are typically viewed as gullible and innocent, Hansel proves to dupe the adults repeatedly, first finding his way home with pebbles, then tricking the witch with a bone. The shared deception in the Grimm Brothers’ tale provides a fault in the commonly anticipated attributes of children. This tale provides the universal moral ‘do not talk to strangers’. Viewing food as a universal experience allows for the moral and themes of the Grimm Brothers’ tales to be considered universal as well. Similarly to “Hansel and Gretel”, in Delarue’s “The Story of Grandmother” the reader is presented with a family sharing bread, as most families do in times of poverty and struggle. The unnamed little girl ventures to her grandmother’s house with the bread; when the bzou learns of her plans, it arrives at her grandmother’s first and kills her. In contrast to many of the “Red Riding Hood” versions published, Delarue has the little girl participate in a cannibalistic act. The bzou, disguised as the little girl’s grandmother, tells her to put the bread and milk in the pantry, then “‘eat the meat that’s in it and drink a bottle of wine’” (Delarue 32). It is only after the cat informs her that she is a “slut” for “[eating] the flesh and [drinking] the blood of her grandmother!” that she realizes she has been tricked into cannibalism (Delarue 32). By calling the little girl a “slut”, the cat insinuates a sexual interaction between the bzou and the girl. The little girl defies the rules of etiquette, consuming the contents of an unlabelled container and participating in a sexual interaction with a male figure. Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass also participates in taboo acts, defying the Victorian rules of etiquette that Carroll repeatedly mocks. In fact, in 1855, Carroll published ‘Hints for Etiquette; Or, Dining Out Made Easy’, “a comic parody of the strict, often absurd, rules of refined Victorian dining etiquette” (Lewis Carroll Juvenilia). He points to the absurdity of the overtly strict rules in Victorian society; he mocks etiquette in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. It is taboo to consume the contents of an unidentified substance, but Alice drinks the little bottle labelled ‘DRINK ME’ and eats the small cake marked with ‘EAT ME’ anyways (Carroll 13, 15). The minor consequences – shrinking and growing larger than before – desensitize Alice to the dangers of consuming mysterious substances. She later finds another little bottle, which is not labeled ‘DRINK ME’, “but nevertheless she [uncorks] it and [puts] it to her lips” (Carroll 32). She is curious as to what will happen; she does not consider that it could be poisonous, just that something interesting will happen. What most would consider dangerous and taboo, Alice views as a guessing game where she will “just see what this bottle does” (Carroll 32). She begins to crave the mystery of the unmarked substances, claiming she is growing quite “‘tired of being such a tiny little thing!’” (Carroll 32). She hopes that the liquid will fulfill her desire to grow larger, but she is unaware of the implications until she actually consumes it. Alice exemplifies the common curiosity of children; she shutters at the thought of always having lessons to learn (Carroll 33). Alice must participate in these taboo behaviors in order to learn the necessary lessons.
While the texts exhibit themes paralleling the person experiences of the authors, the content and moralistic goals of the works create a contrast between authors. Even though poverty is a common theme between all of the works discussed, the fairy tales present cannibalism and deception more frequently, while Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass concentrates on insufficiency and chaos. While the fairy tales convey a lesson for children about trusting strangers and the struggles of poverty, Carroll focuses on placing a mirror in front his own Victorian society with the backwards world that Alice enters. The importance placed on food in these works reinforces the significance of food in general; individuals not only require food for survival, but society also requires food for social gatherings and defining social classes. Food is a necessity in society and, therefore, in literature.
References Ardagh, Philip. “Eating and Drinking in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” British Library Board. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Trapped in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll’s Adventures in Wonderland provides a physical removal from reality by creating a fantastical world and adventure in the mind of a young girl. In this separation, Carroll is able to bend the rules of the temporal world. Although this is self-evident in Alice’s physical transfigurations, language and conventions provide additional means to test if a world can defy the rules which are didactically fed to children and become second nature to adults. Perhaps it might be an inescapable outcome given that Carroll has been educated in a world that operates within structured seta of rules, but the “wonderful dream” seems to be peculiarly similar to the “dull reality” which Carroll attempts to escape (98). Fantasies seem to be forever bounded by what reality allows the mind to imagine.
The opening scene provides a possible metaphor for Carroll’s artistic endeavor in the face of these constraints:
Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hole: she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of the dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not get her head through the doorway (10).
Alice seems quite capable of seeing that a more beautiful world exists beyond the confines of her environment. By making a distinction that it is her head, the physical location of the mind, which prevents her from proceeding, Carroll suggests that the mind provides the barrier to entering the Eden-like grounds of pure beauty. Alice’s subsequent struggle to physically transform herself to squeeze within these boundaries mirrors Carroll’s endeavor to gain entry into the unbounded imagination. Adult consciousness becomes comparable to the “rat-hole” in which Alice finds herself trapped. By grounding the narrative in the eyes and imagination of Alice, who is just beginning to be inculcated with lessons and physically removing her from the temporal world, Carroll adjusts the conditions of his adult world to explore if childhood presents the only opportunity or the “key” to the access the imagination. Yet even as he changes the parameters of the world and the eyes of the beholder, his endeavor appears doomed to failure; when Alice finally locates the garden, she finds that her conception of perfection is tainted. As the gardeners paint the red rose-tree white, Carroll’s vision of beauty becomes subject to the same forces that dominate reality.
Alice’s youth creates the possibility of viewing an alternate world through eyes not completely corrupted by the social conventions of reality, but her efforts to retain Victorian manners when her new environment creates no pressures to do so, suggest how deeply the rules of the world are impressed upon the mind during childhood. Alice’s language is steeped in the artificiality of her world. Her stilted words, “You sh’n’t be beheaded,” reflect that the training of her schooling is not even abandoned in a moment of apparent crisis (65). In many instances, Alice even tries to transfer her conception of proper manners to this new environment. She finds it “decidedly uncivil” that the Footman looks up at the sky all the time he is speaking (46). She seems to be almost willing to forgive his rudeness if only he could answer her question, “But what am I to do?” (46). Alice’s rejection of the Footman’s response, “Anything you like,” represents Alice’s willingness to exchange one set of behaviors for another under the condition that she is told how to behave and act, indicating that it is not the actual manners that she values but the freedom from deciding what to do (46). It is at this moment that Alice seems to be rejecting the opportunity for freedom of the imagination and instead opting for the safer boundaries created by the dictates of reality.
Although Carroll succeeds in altering the content of Alice’s new education, her systematic attempt to recall her schooling further indicates that her mind has become so conditioned to being told how to act and respond to situations, that it is unable to break out of this trap, even when the possibility presents itself. Just after Alice recalls, “When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that this kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one! There ought to be a book written about me,” she realizes that “there’s no room to grow up any more here” and concludes that this means that will always “have lessons to learn” (29). The transition of Alice’s thought from fantastic stories directly to lessons and books suggests that her imagination is never able to escape the confines of a instruction; she believes that as a child it is her duty to be concerned with schooling (29). She even self-imposes lessons as she “cross[es] her hands on her lap as if she were saying lessons and began to repeat it.” (16). Perhaps Alice will achieve grown-up status when she has been so conditioned that the mantras of the educational systems become immediate responses. It is almost as if in projecting his conception of a nonsensical world, that the child, simply by being a product of what Carroll despises, namely a world of socially constructed regulations, forms an obstacle to escaping reality.
Carroll faces a difficulty in allowing his own imagination to escape reality. He creates a mocking parody of the lessons of Alice’s reality in the Mock Turtle’s informative speech of the educational material of the Wonderland, but never is able to transcend the idea that a world must be ruled by instruction. Carroll’s new world might study “Reeling and Writhing” or “Arithmetic-Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision,” instead of the traditional subjects, but inhabitants of Wonderland are still trapped by the process of rote which removes free thought from the educational experience (76). The rules, as the lessons, are certainly different in this imaginary place, but only to be replaced by an entire set of new ones. The croquet game epitomizes how Carroll can only create an alternative reality by constructing a world based upon oppositions to that in which he lives. For instance, in normal croquet there are distinct rules, whereas, in Wonderland “they don’t seem to have any rules in particular: at least, if there are, nobody attends to them” (67). The new rules consist of disobeying the old ones. Perhaps fantasy can never escape man’s tendency to use his own experience as a starting point to craft change. In this case, an author’s imagination as well as those of his characters will be forever grounded by reality. In order to examine what a world look like without rules, one must first understand what a world looks like with rules. Alice’s preoccupation with rules materializes in her comment “that’s not a regular rule: you [the King] invented it just now” (93). Thus, even if Carroll changes the rules, Alice remains trapped in her desire to define them, creating a further obstacle to exploring how an unlegislated land would operate.
All of the characters which Alice encounters simply seem to be replacements of the adults that Alice encounters in reality, and it is these figure who serve as the teachers of these new lessons and rules. The characters continually change the rules and use language as a weapon which Alice seems to be continually trying to understand. The Duchess is contradictory, condescending, and hopelessly pedagogical. As the Mock Turtle stands on the ledge of a rock to tell his story while Alice sits in front of him, the environment mirrors that of Alice’s classroom in which a teacher positions himself in front to deliver lessosn. Tuttle even adopts a schoolmasterish tone of voices as he tells Alice, “Really you are very dull.” (75). Leach suggests that “[t]hey behave to her as adults behave to a child-they are peremptory and patronizing” (Leach 92). In creating these characters, Carroll is unable to escape the notion that children require instruction and need adult-like figures to enforce rules. Carroll’s criticizes the tradition educational system by using Wonderland to parody its flaws, suggesting that even in his mind he finds issues of the imagination and reality inseparable.
The sardonic tone which accompanies Alice’s observation of Wonderland’s inhabitants and customs, reflects that Carroll is only too aware of the fact that his dreamland is only a distorted version of reality. Peter Coveney suggests that the “dream takes on a quality of horror because Carroll “is painfully awake in his own dream” (Coveney 334). Although Carroll attempts to veil his dissatisfaction with reality in Alice’s innocence, he almost seems to be testing Alice’s consciousness of his suffering:
It was all very well to say, “drink me,” but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. “No, I’ll look first,” she said, “and see whether it’s marked ‘poison’ or not”; for she had read several nice little stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten by wild beasts, and other unpleasant things, all because the would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them: such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds; and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked “poison,” It is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later. (11).
The insinuation of both suicide and self-inflicted pain seems an incongruous reflection for a seven-year-old; Alice becomes a vehicle through which Carroll reveals his preoccupation with such tortuous thoughts. As Alice proceeds to drink the bottle that is mysteriously labeled “drink me,” Carroll toys with a distorted version of attempted suicide (11). He is able to guise his attempt in Alice’s innocence, revealed in her childlike recollections of poisoning, which leaves her unaware of the gravity of the consequences of drinking bottle that might contain poison. It seems quite morbid that Carroll chooses to place Alice in a situation which would cause her to even contemplate such violent images. Rackin suggests that Carroll’s particular genius “depends heavily on his uncanny ability to enter fully the mind of childhood, to become the child who dreams our adult dreams” (Rackin 113). Even if Alice can not fully comprehend the suggestions that Carroll plants in her head, the author appears fully conscious of the consequences of poisoning.
While the incident with the mysterious bottle marks Alice’s initiation to Wonderland, Carroll’s decision to culminate his tale of Wonderland in a legal courtroom creates a fitting environment to for his final attempt to use youthful imagination to escape reality. The narrative even admits “very few girls of her [Alice’s] age knew the meaning of it all,” and by placing Alice in the pinnacle of worldly law, he implies that she too, even in her imagination, is answerable to the rules of reality (86). The courtroom scene seems more of a trial of the imagination rather than an investigation of the identity of the tart thief. The Queen’s directive, “Sentence first-verdict afterwards,” (96) reveals Carroll’s own feelings of entrapment. He has been sentenced to growing older and living within the rules of society only to acknowledge that the verdict has always been against the imagination; his construction of “stuff and nonsense” appears to be precluded by a societal conditioning against the imagination (97). It seems odd that Alice awakes to declare this as a “wonderful dream,” when moments earlier she is overcome with anger about the injustice of the Queen and King’s tyrannical court, potentially creating a serious indictment of the reality she awakes to. A second possibility is that it is Carroll voice pronouncing the word “wonderful,” wishing just like Alice that he could respond to society’s dictates, “Hold your tongue!”-” I won’t” (97) just as Alice had done minutes earlier.
Alice’s continued determination to persevere in this world of nonsense, and more specifically, her willingness to point out its weaknesses might help to explain why Carroll undertakes what he consciously seems to believe to be an impossible mission- to escape reality. From the outset, Alice is characterized as believably human- she is rude, impatient, and repeatedly naÔve in her observations. Yet it is her flaws that allow us to identify with her as a representative of our own entrapment in reality. Her youth presents an opportunity for the audience and Carroll to revisit the naÔve belief that there is an escape to our everyday experience and furthermore, that with a methodical, logical approach it is possible to understand our environment. Although Alice is frustrated by the new reality that she encounters and its resistance to her systematic way to comprehend it, in spite of all of her difficulties she optimistically continues her pursuit of the garden. On her second attempt, she confidently asserts with the little golden key in hand, “Now, I’ll manage better this time” (61). In her search for escape and understanding, she becomes “the naÔve champion of the doomed human quest for meaning and lost Edenic order” (Rackin 96).
Perhaps Carroll is suggesting that in the face of an earthly surface peppered with disappointment, anger, and frustration, adults must retain the resiliency and unaffected consciousness of Alice. Her ability to awake and immediately go to tea, “thinking while she ran, as well she might what a wonderful dream it had been” provides a demonstration of this survival mechanism in operation (98). There seems to be no distinction between her dreamlike world and her living world; her imagination neatly blends into reality, suggesting that we too must follow Alice’s example of how to deal with nonsense as we transition from Alice’s world to our own reality. Alice’s inability to reflect upon Wonderland is what allows her to energetically proceed to her next encounter. Her retort, “Who cares for you?”Ö”You’re nothing but a pack of cards!,” functions as an immediate dismissal of unfairness and injustice and brings the issues to a close (97).
If there was indeed a moral of Alice in Wonderland, believing that Carroll is only trying to tell us that we must all retain our naive innocence in the face of reality, would be to collapse the interpretation of his work into one of the maxims espoused by the Duchess. Carroll appears to recognize the impossibility of such a quest and interestingly enough it is one of the Duchess’ statements that provides complications to this hypothesized moral:
‘Be what you would seem to be’-or, if you’d like it put it more simply-‘Never imagine yourself otherwise that what is might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise’ (72).
The use of the world “imagine” recalls the difficulty of avoiding the reality that childhood cannot be an eternal state, and despite our attempt to escape the experiences of reality, they will always prevent us from recreating a state of innocence. The reality is the force that requires us to be true to ourselves; we cannot pretend to be children and Carroll’s suicidal frustrations create consequence enough to avoid this disillusion.
Carroll makes a futile attempt to model Alice’s optimistic behavior. Although it is Alice’s sister who undertakes the effort to enter Wonderland, Carroll’s narrative voice appears to pervade her thoughts. Carroll acknowledges that an adult realizes that the dream is based in reality. It is in this way that he creates the relationship between childhood and the imagination. As discussed earlier, like an adult, a child is unable to imagine life much different than his current reality, but the difference is the consciousness of these restraints. Unlike Alice, her elder sister, Lorena, can only “half believe herself in Wonderland,” and quickly identifies all of the elements and sounds of Wonderland as ones originating in her own world (98-99). Alice’s Wonderland contains these same elements, but she is able to explore them without the awareness that each illusion has a mundane real life parallel; she is unable to see that the Queen’s shrill cries is really the voice of the shepherd-boy. It is with a mixture of nostalgia and bitterness that Carroll guarantees that Alice will someday find herself removed from these fantasies: “she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days” (99). This is the only passage that Carroll truly believes it is possible to imagine anything removed from his immediate environment, and ironically, this vision serves as an attack on imagination because it projects the inevitable end of Alice’s dreamlike fantasies. As Lorena falters in her attempt, it appears that childhood presents the opportunity to believe that one has the freedom to imagine before it becomes evident that the only illusion is that which the child possesses: the belief the imagination is separate from reality.
Coveney, Peter. “Escape” The Image of Childhood. London. 1967.
Leach, Elsie. “Alice in Wonderland in Perspective” Victorian Newsletter. 1964
Rackin, Donald. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: Nonsense, Sense, and Meaning. New York: Twaine. 1991.