The Picaresque of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its Role in Lewis Carroll’s Social Commentary
As a popular and widely loved novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and, Through the looking Glass and What Alice Found There has been translated to well over a hundred languages and is a household tale that most people have enjoyed in their childhood. With a seemingly lighthearted storyline full of imagination and adventure, the novel also intended to have depth and share the author Lewis Carroll’s thoughts on the Victorian society. Carroll uses the picaresque aspect of Alice’s narrative to produce effective social commentary on the Victorian lifestyle through playful use of words, rhyme, and even the characters themselves; these elements aid in Carroll’s criticism of the victorian way of life and 19th century England’s politics. The characters that Alice meets on her adventure along the way show different parts of the Victorian lifestyle that allow for those defective features to be emphasized and highlighted. A picaresque novel is one that is usually a first-person narrative, relating the adventures of a rogue or lowborn adventurer as he or she drifts from place to place and from one social environment to another in an effort to survive.
Though Alice is obviously not from a low class family due to her somewhat educated responses, once Alice is in the rabbit hole her social background become irrelevant. Carroll uses Alice’s education to contribute to the perception of Victorian England. Throughout the novel Alice refers to her lessons and education, usually proud of the knowledge she’s gathered during them. However, when Alice applies this knowledge it is either useless or wrong. For example, She can remember the how many miles to the center of the earth, but she mistakenly thinks that everything will be upside down when she passes through to the other side.Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end? “I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?” she said aloud. “I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think —” (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the school-room, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) — yes, that’s about the right distance — but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I’ve got to?” (Alice had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say.)(Carrol 10-11).
Carroll also mocks tales that Victorian children were forced to read for educational purposes. He criticizes these tales repetitive morals of consequences for foolish actions. . . . 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: such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; and that, 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. (Carroll 13) This also alludes to the fact that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and it’s accompanying “densely woven masterpieces” do not follow the same path as the other children’s books of that Victorian era (Hunt, 49). Carroll conveys “ the challenge of realizing that understanding how different readers read (even two very generalized groups labelled “adults” and “children”) is not to bring them to the same understanding but to appreciate (and value) their different understandings” (Hunt, 41). This ultimately underlines a flaw in his society.
Another social comment that Carroll makes is on the importance of class in Victorian society through the Garden of Live Flowers in Through the Looking-Glass. Alice encounters these flowers that attempt to represent the plants as different levels within the British social class structure. In this miniature garden world that Carroll creates, the finer and rarer specimens (i.e. the tiger-lily, and the rose) are in a higher class than the more common and simpler daisies. The characteristics of each type of flower alludes to its rank and class in the garden.
And here they [the daisies] all began shouting together, till the air seemed quite full of little shrill voices. “Silence, everyone of you!” cried the Tiger-lily, waving itself passionately from side to side, and trembling with excitement. “They know I can’t get at them!” it panted bending its quivering head towards Alice, “or they wouldn’t dare to do it!””Never mind!” Alice said in a soothing tone and , stooping down to the daisies, who were just beginning again, she whispered “If you don’t hold your tongues, I’ll pick you!”There was silence in a moment, and several of the pink daisies turned white.”That’s right!” said the Tiger-Lily “The daisies are the worst of all. When one speaks, they all begin together, and its enough to make one wither to hear the way they go on!” (Carroll, 137)
When Alice first enters the garden, she sees and speaks to the tiger-lily first, while the daisies interrupt and chatter away until threatened to stop by Alice. The rose assumes some sort of authority over Alice as it criticizes her from the very beginning of the conversation even showing traces of racism with reference to Alice’s color. As this relates to the issue of class structure and how power is divided among the classes,it also shows the stupidity of it. Normally in British society, power is divided unequally with the higher classes getting most of the share. In the Garden of Live Flowers there seems to be existing class levels, but because all of them are planted into the ground and none can reach another no flower can in fact assume more power than another. This makes the tiger-lilly delusional to think its ‘kind’ is better that the others and highlights the same issue in Victorian society. Capitalism is an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state. This was well practiced in the victorian era which enriched the pockets of the elite while impoverishing the already less fortunate of England.
In capitalism, as in Through the Looking Glass, this practice translates into both relentless pursuit of the unattainable and a lack of appreciation for the attained.The image portrayed here by Carroll of someone reaching for a desired object, obtaining it but continually seeing something else apparently even more desirable just beyond the horizon of availability, represents the heart and soul of the capitalism which thrived in Victorian England as it does in the world today.”The prettiest are always further!” she said at last, with a sigh at the obstinacy of the rushes in growing so far off, as, with flushed cheeks and dripping hair and hands, she scrambled back into her place, and began to arrange her newfound treasures.What mattered it to her just then that the rushes had begun to fade, and to lose all their scent and beauty, from the very moment that she picked them? Even real scented rushes, you know, last only a very little while- and these, being dream-rushes, melted away almost alike snow, as they lay in heaps at her feet-but Alice hardly noticed this, there were so many other curious things to think about (Carroll 178) Use of superlatives such as the “prettiest “are the object of this unquenchable desire and are capitalistic desires as it is impossible to obtaining anything superlative. For Alice this fact translates into a physical distance (“further”) that can’t be crossed. For the Victorian capitalist money translates into the distance between different levels of material wealth. Just as Alice does not care that her “new found treasures…melted away almost alike snow”, the true materialist never appreciates what they have because they are caught up in the quest for “other curious things to think about.” Carroll uses Alice’s innocence to show how this capitalist was of thinking in unknowingly embedded in the Victorian mind.
Overall, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There was more than just a nonsense tale but rather one of “complexity, ambiguity, and flexibility”(Hunt, 49). Carroll uses the picaresque aspects of the novel to emphasize flaws in the Victorian society as well as their effect on the members of the society. Carroll effectively conveyed his message without breaking the amusement of the children’s novel. As a great artwork, it is unsurprising that this novel remains a cherished tale.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking- Glass and What Alice Found There. Edited by Hugh Haughton, Penguin Classics, 2009.Print.
Hunt, Peter. “The Fundamentals of Children’s Literature Criticism: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.” The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature, Edited by Julia L Mickenberg and Lynne Vallone, 29 Nov. 2012, pp. 35–51.Print.
“The Social and Political Contexts of the Alice Books.” Literature, History & Culture in the age of Victoria. victorianweb. 28 May 2005. Web. Feb 12,2018
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