The Distinction of Children and Adults as Characters and Readers
Lewis Carroll’s depiction of a fantasy world in the novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) captures the attention of the reader via the incorporation of talking animals, “curiouser and curiouser” (Carroll 2012 , p.12) events and the mischievous child protagonist, Alice. Despite the fact the novel was initially created simply as a means of entertainment, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland contains complicated humor, philosophical messages, menippean satire and twisted logic, all of which may elude the average child reader. The various reading levels of this novel successfully reaffirm the distinction between child and adult, a concept which is eradicated throughout the narration of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Seven year old Alice finds herself in a distorted Wonderland inhabited by ‘adults’, each of whom do not promote realistic expectations. Despite their age, the adult characters are completely disconnected from reality and do not provide any logic, sanity or remedy to any of young Alice’s problems. The rational distinction between child and adult is blurred throughout due to the removal of what society would expect from adults – responsibility, sense and logic. This essay argues, however, that the ability to read the novel on two levels – differentiated by child reader and adult reader – provides for the reaffirmation of the distinction between child and adult.
Before delving into Wonderland, the novel opens with Alice and her elder sister. Carroll immediately creates a distinction between the ages of the pair by contrasting their choice of literature. Whilst observing her sisters choice of book, Alice ponders “the use of a book without pictures or conversations” (Carroll 2012 , p.1). As a result, Carroll arguably proposes what a novel should possess to entice a child as young as Alice and also argues for a distinction between the child reader and the adult reader. Humorously, Carroll incorporates 42 illustrations and plenty of conversation, thus, suggesting the book brings forth “a use” for the reader. In doing so, however, the implied reader suggests that the book was purely for the child. Nevertheless, when speaking of his works, Lewis Carroll stated, “A whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means.” which is what this essay suggests to be true of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Cohen, 2015)
The distinction between child and adult exists only briefly in the opening pages. Whilst feeling “very sleepy” (Carroll 2012 , p.1) Alice witnesses the White Rabbit and ensues an adventure with a naivety that is evident in young children. Upon seeing the White Rabbit, “burning with curiosity” (Carroll 2012 , p.5) she chased the animal into unknown territory, a careless act which reflects her age. As Alice’s curiosity becomes her, without thinking, again highlighting her innocence and naivety, she follows the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole “never once considering how in the world she was to get out again (Carroll 2012 , p.5). When Alice reaches the bottom of the rabbit hole, much of her reality becomes distorted and the distinction between child and adult is eradicated.
The ambiguity surrounding age and maturity of characters within the novel allows for the quick identification of Alice’s mental maturation. As mentioned, Alice initially appears to be naïve and immature, however, as the novel progresses and the child is faced with more obstacles, she can be seen to mature greatly. In the Chapter ‘Pig and Pepper’, despite being in the midst of two adults, it is Alice who selflessly takes guardianship of a baby for she believes the adults will “kill it in a day or two” (Carroll 2012 , p.56). At this stage, the original innocence of the child is disappearing as she ponders serious matters such as murder, wondering “wouldn’t it be murder to leave it behind?” (Carroll 2012 , p.56).
Alice’s physical growth can also be identified, however, unlike her mental progression, this transformation is at her disposal and is non-linear. On several occasions Alice chooses to grow or shrink, which again reminds the reader that age does not matter in this world. Indeed, Alice’s ability to grow at a rate which in reality is only achievable through time begs the question of whether or not the concept of time exists in Wonderland. To answer this, the concept of time and its passage is represented in the portrayal of the White Rabbit who is constantly panicking about time passing too quickly. The White Rabbit appears to be the only adult in Wonderland with any real responsibility in an otherwise careless world. Coincidentally, he is also depicted as the most stressed and panicked, suggestive of adulthood and the responsibilities that come with it. To Alice, and perhaps the child reader, the White Rabbit acts as an adventure worth chasing and a curiosity worth fulfilling. However, on another level, the White Rabbit is also symbolic of the relationship between the passage of time and the unsavory elements of adulthood, something perhaps only an adult reader could sympathize with.
A popular theory expressed by many surrounding Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the speculated incorporation of the theme of drugs and alcohol. Indeed, chapter five ‘Advice from a Caterpillar’ depicts an insect smoking a hookah whilst addressing Alice “in a languid, sleepy voice” (Carroll 2012 , p.38) before offering her a piece of ‘magic mushroom’ which allows her to alter her size. This, alongside the incorporation of a disappearing and reappearing Cat has added to speculation that the novel can be read as if it were depicting the effects of drugs and/or incorporates the theme of drugs itself. This theory is so widely believed that the term ‘Alice’ has become synonymous with the drug, LSD (Parker). During the time of publication however, the Industrial Revolution brought forth an unprecedented level of drug trade and the substance Opium was used freely in four out of five Victorian families, often as an infant silencer. Wohl, stated that the effects of this drug often left children looking like “shrivelled up old men” (Wohl, 1983). As a result, critics of the novel have linked the baby-turned-pig character in chapter 6 with this theory, suggesting that the portrayal of this character reflects the use of Opium on children and highlights the effects. Unlikely as it is that Carroll would have written the novel either intoxicated with drugs or with that effect in mind, the very fact that some readers have suggested this level of reading reaffirms the idea that many aspects of the book can be read on an adult level. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is indeed a novel which arguably acts as an escape from reality due to its polar differences to the reader’s actuality.
Nevertheless, Carroll incorporates philosophical truths which may elude the child reader whilst prompting the adult reader to think about their own reality. The Cheshire Cat acts as the omniscient character of the novel, capable of appearing and reappearing all over Wonderland. Indeed, it is the Cat who gives Alice advice and in the midst of his answers can we find some actual logic. Whilst fretting about her sanity, the Cheshire Cat retorts ‘Oh, you can’t help that, we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’ (Carroll 2012 , p.58). For the child reader, this remark may not provoke much thought, for the adult reader, however, this does beg questions about human nature and invites us to include ourselves in the margin of ‘we are’. The Cheshire Cat’s remark here is arguably applicable to society, dependent on the reader’s point of view. The enjoyment of the talking, disappearing and reappearing cat would provide joy for all ages of readers, the questions the Cat proposes however, would most likely only be noticed by the adult reader. This in turn is an example of a distinction between the child and adult reader which is otherwise eradicated within the novel. The Cheshire Cat is also the character in which we can learn from, not only does he offer logical answers to Alice’s questions, he also foretells the context of the next chapter. The only way Alice can go is in the direction of the March Hare or the Mad Hatter whom the Cheshire Cat warns are “both mad”. (Carroll 2012 , p.58). True to his word, the Cheshire Cat correctly hints towards what Alice can find if she goes towards the March Hare and the Mad Hatter.
The following chapter incorporates the pair together and the madness ensues. The Mad Hatter’s tea party is a scene which to a young reader may be read simply as a celebratory engagement, again with fairy-tale like characters and a fun spin on the normal tea party. For the adult reader, however, the breakdown of conversation at the ‘party’ is not as fun as it may appear on the first read. The March Hare and the Mad Hatter can both be seen as a representation of Victorian society. Carroll can be seen to mock the norms of Victorian society by depicting an illogical and nonsensical tea party where nothing makes sense. Despite there being plenty of room for Alice at the table, the pair exclaim ‘No room! No room!’ (Carroll 2012 , p.61) just as there would have been ‘no room’ for certain classes to attend tea parties at the time. The quiet sleeping Dormouse can be seen as a reflection of the silenced lower class. The seemingly intellectual riddle proposed by the Mad Hatter – ‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’ (Carroll 2012 , p.63) comes with no answer. Alice, despite her young age is the only one to question any of the conversations had by the adults, again, blurring the distinction between adult and child. ‘The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English’ (Carroll 2012 , p.64), this humorous remark by Alice can also be seen as a way of poking fun at English morals. Despite the unambiguous title of ‘A Mad Tea-Party’ this chapter provides for another level of reading in which we can find the satire of both English morals and Victorian society.
Within the novel, one of Alice’s main objectives is to get into “the loveliest garden you ever saw” (Carroll 2012 , p.9). The cliché line, ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ fittingly summarizes Alice’s determination to replace the grassy banks at the beginning of the novel with the garden in Wonderland. Indeed, when Alice finally arrives in the garden, all is not what it seems. The chapter ‘The Queen’s Croquet-Ground’ sees the projection of pathetic fallacy onto playing cards and depicts real life animals such as flamingos and hedgehogs as playing objects, thus, portraying the garden as a fairy-tale world for the younger reader. The garden is inhabited by the King and Queen of Hearts and their empire is depicted as both nonsensical and illogical. The reading of this chapter can be seen on one level to depict a fairy-tale garden for the entertainment of the child reader, however, on another level can the adult reader find a menippean satire of the monarchy and the judicial system.
It is said by Baldick that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a novel known for the best examples of menippean satire in which Carroll projects a less aggressive form of satire on important subjects and the parody of the King and Queen successfully projects this. The monarchy of Wonderland is depicted through the characters of the King and Queen of Hearts. In fitting with the majority of adult characters within the book, both the King and Queen withhold the mental capacity of a child with no actual logic despite upholding serious power. Nevertheless, the Queen is feared by those in the garden and Alice too finds herself threatened by her power until she realises “they’re only a pack of cards” (Carroll 2012 , p.76). The novels critique of the judicial system can be understood during the court case in which The King requests an impossible task – “don’t be nervous, or ill have you executed on the spot” and foolishly remarks, “He denies it, leave out that part”. The Queen in turn also makes illogical demands during this chapter, summarizing the logic of the law by determining the rules as “Sentence first – verdict after” (Carroll 2012 , p.122). When Alice questions the Queen’s logic and authority she is dramatically sentenced to death “Off with her head”. Even Alice, a mere seven year old, knows that there is no sense or logic in anything that is being said by the adults – “I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it” (Carroll 2012 , p.121) – and as such, she calls all of the adults out on their idiocy. Almost immediately after confronting the adults, Alice finds herself back on the banks of the river with her sister where the story began and the distinction between child and adult returns.
The success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland could perhaps be attributed to the very fact that within the novel there is no distinction between child or adult, allowing the reader to identify with all of the characters and place themselves within the novel without the implication of age. Despite this blurred distinction in the narration, the novel itself can be read on a multitude of levels which reaffirms the distinction between child and adult reader. Virginia Woolf proposes that both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass “are not books for children; they are the only books in which we become children”(Woolf, 1939). Whatever the purpose, the novel in itself allows for the inclusion of both the child and adult reader to add their own imagination into the meaning of Wonderland.
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