“Alice” Shaped Joyce Carol Oates

Tenniel, "Alice in Wonderland"

Think of Oates as Alice in this Tenniel illustration

It’s always great to hear a shout out to Alice in Wonderland, which Joyce Carol Oates does in the recent issue of AARP (June/July 2014). According to the novelist, it’s “the book that changed my life—that made me yearn to be a writer as well as inspired me to ‘write.'”

Joyce reports that,

Like any child enraptured with a favorite book, I wanted to be Alice. It must have occurred to me that Alice was unlike any girl of my acquaintance; she seemed to belong to a foreign, upper-class environment with custom (teatime, crumpets, queens, kings, footmen) utterly alien to the farming society of Millersport, New York. I think that I learned from Alice to be just slightly bolder than I might have been, to question authority—that is adults—and to look upon life as a possibility for adventures.

Oates continues,

If I’d taken Alice for a model, I was prepared to recognize fear, even terror, without succumbing to it. There are scenes of nightmare illogic in the Alice books—dramatizations of the anxiety of being eaten, for instance—yet Alice never becomes panicked or loses her common sense and dignity.

Joyce adds that she was also aware that Alice wasn’t telling her own story—that someone called “Lewis Carroll” was—and this realization opened up the possibility that she could become a storyteller as well. (Maybe it helped that they sort of share a name.) She therefore spent hours as a child, on lined tablet paper, creating a fantasy world, “not of adults or even children but of cats and chickens.”

Joyce concludes,

Out of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have sprung not only much of my enthusiasm for writing but my sense of the world as an indecipherable, essentially absurd but fascinating spectacle.

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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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