Lewis Carroll’s Revolt against “Reality”

Tenniel, "Alice in Wonderland"

Tenniel, “Alice in Wonderland”

I’m currently teaching Alice in Wonderland in my British Fantasy class and am using today’s post to sort out some of the ways that Carroll protests life in Victorian England. But first an update on how my literary weather forecasting is faring.

A couple of weeks ago I reported that my British Fantasy reading list was predicting the weather. When we were reading about Lyra’s arctic adventures in The Golden Compass, it snowed. The following week, a tornado touched down in our county at the exact moment that we were discussing The Tempest. As in the play, no one was hurt.

Noticing the pattern, I predicted that the following week would be bitter cold (on the basis of The Eve of St. Agnes) and that the week after would be garden party warm (Alice in Wonderland). So last week temperatures dropped into the teens (which is bitter cold for Maryland) while yesterday temperatures soared to 73.

What’s ahead? We have spring break next week but the week after we’ll be reading Goblin Market. Expect “summer weather,” “fair eves,” and the cries of sexually charged goblin men.

Now to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Alice is like the Gulliver of Book I insofar as she is an innocent observer wandering through a fantastical world that points to significant problems in our own. Like Gulliver, Alice herself doesn’t judge—in fact, she’s a good girl who believes what she is taught and does what people tell her to do—so it is up to us as readers to apply judgment.

And what do we find problematic? Here’s a partial list:

–the new 19th century obsession with time (the White Rabbit, the Mad Tea Party);
–boring history teachers (such as the Mouse, who helps all the animals get dry by telling them the driest story he can think of);
–utilitarian fact-based education (satirized by Alice’s wonderful distortions);
–censorious adults who order children around, making them recite poetry and follow rigid rules (the Caterpillar, the Duchess, the Mock Turtle, the Queen of Hearts);
–boring adults who pontificate (Robert Southey’s Old Father William, parodied by Carroll);
–dogmatic poetry which must be memorized for the sake of a child’s salvation (“How Doth the Little Busy Bee”);
–dominating women and timid men (the Queen and King of Hearts);
–obnoxious little boys (who are much preferable as pigs);
–the loss of childhood innocence.

Child though she may be, however, Alice is also subversive. Time and again she finds ways to strike back, although always in spite of her best intentions, which allows her to retain her innocence. For instance:

–she unintentionally offends the disagreeable Mouse, who has fallen into the pool with her, by talking about her cat’s hunting habits;
–she unintentionally exposes heavy-handed religious instruction for children by revising “How Doth the Little Busy Bee”–with its appalling line “For Satan finds some mischief still/For idle hands to do”–into a poem about a seemingly kindly but actually voracious crocodile, who “welcomes little fishes [children?] in with gently smiling jaws”;
–forced to recite poetry for the authoritarian caterpillar, she unintentionally ridicules both teachers and those students who take them seriously by transforming Southey’s stodgy Father William into a man who turns back somersaults in at the door and balances eels on the end of his nose;
–she exposes the Queen and King of Hearts as uttering nonsense in the trial.

Unlike her previous rebellions, however, this last act is not unintentional or innocent. She is no longer “a little girl” (as she describes herself to the pigeon) or “only a child” (the King of Hearts’ excuse for her) but suddenly “almost two miles high” (the Queen of Hearts). When she stands up to authority as if on equal terms, she is leaving childhood innocence and the fantasy life that accompanies it.

I used to find the card attack on Alice to be terrifying, perhaps because it echoed what I thought would happen to me if I stood up to adults. Alice has called out grown-ups for their absurdities and they react with fury.

But even more frightening to Carroll may be the fact that little Alice is growing up. He invested his imaginary world in her, and the danger of dull and stifling adult reality winning out is a dark theme running through both Alice books, especially the second. The world of imagination is in danger when little girls grow tall and claim that the world of the imagination is “nothing but a pack of cards.” Or when they change from pawns into queens and realize that their kittens are nothing more than kittens.

In a sense, Carroll is using his dream of Alice’s childhood innocence to keep his own imagination alive. Her growing up puts everything at risk. The nurturing shelter of nonsense, to which we retreat as the hot sun of adult common sense beats down upon us, threatens to collapse like a house of cards.

Or as Wordsworth puts it, “Shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy.”

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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