Broadly speaking, children’s literature has two major modes: fantasy and realism. (Some authors mix these modes very successfully, but that’s another story.) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Links to an external site.) by Lewis Carroll, published in 1865, was the first fantasy novel for children. You can see how the anthropomorphic characters, including talking animals, sudden transformations, and suggestions of magic borrowed from traditional folk tale motifs. In fact, George MacDonald (a friend and mentor to Carroll) was writing wonderful new fairy tales for children at the same time – one of his best known works is The Princess and the Goblin (Links to an external site.) (1872). What makes Carroll’s fantasy different is that it doesn’t follow the traditional form of a folk tale and the organizing principle of Wonderland is, simply, nonsense.
In Wonderland, Alice wanders from one unexpected experience to another. There’s no clear direction to her exploration. She wonders if she’ll ever get home, but she’s not on a quest to find her way home (unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz). Early on, she wants to find a way to get into the garden she can see through the “little door” (halfway through the first chapter), but with all her changes in size she loses track of that goal until she finds herself in the garden almost by accident (at the end of Chapter 7). Alice is a well-educated child who has studied her lessons and learned didactic poems and stories, but they come out scrambled in Wonderland. Every poem Alice recites is a parody of a didactic poem. For example, “How doth the little crocodile” (Ch. 2) parodies Isaac Watt’s 1715 poem “How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour, / And gather honey all the day / From every opening flower!” This novel, in contrast, is emphatically not a didactic story. Carroll seems to resist any opportunity for a moral lesson for child readers, insisting instead on confusion and playfulness.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is also amazingly dense in word play and puns (Ch. 9, “The Mock Turtle’s Story” is especially remarkable – or egregious, depending on your point of view). Carroll also plays with ideas about mathematics and science. “Lewis Carroll” was the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who taught math and logic at Christ Church College, Oxford University. He was close to the Liddell family (Henry George Liddell was the college dean), and the story that became Alice came from the stories he told the three sisters Lorina, Alice, and Edith (see the poem at the start of the novel). Dodgson was charmed by the innocence and sweetness of young girls in Victorian England, and the character Alice’s many changes in size may reflect the transience of childhood.
However, even though Alice depends on nonsense and refuses to send a clear message, don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s meaningless. In fact, much of its fascination for readers – demonstrated through the hundreds of adaptations and re-imaginings – comes from the complex layering of multiple meanings. The novel has the form of a dream vision, where the protagonist falls asleep and enters a fantastical world. You can explore Wonderland along with Alice – but keep your eyes open for the meaning behind riddles and nonsense
Discussion assignment 1
Please write about 200 words reflecting on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” What do you think is interesting or surprising or puzzling? If you’ve read it before, what feels the same or different this time? If you’ve seen a film version, what’s different? Then, respond to one of your classmates’ posts. Your response should be at least 4 sentences long and should add interesting thoughts or ideas to the conversation.
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