Alice in Wonderland is one of the most cherished children’s books of all time. Written by Lewis Carroll in 1865 it stands out as a brilliant example of literature that appeals to children, and is in many ways totally different from the mainstream literature for children during the Victorian age.
Literature for children was for a long time discredited by critics and writers; it was not seen as proper and serious literary art. Children’s literature of the Victorian age presented children as small adults, who were supposed to be good role models with adult values and morals. But this kind of literature was, not surprisingly, discarded by the children, and most of it is forgotten today.
But one writer at the time seemed to crack the code of what it takes for literature to appeal to children: Lewis Carrol. His major works Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) were ground-breaking in the genre and have become timeless classics of children’s literature.
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When Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) decided to have his stories printed and published he did so under the penname Lewis Carrol. Charles had a happy childhood which he thought of as “the happiest time of his life”. He had a talent for games and storytelling and loved to entertain his ten younger siblings.
Charles loved children, particularly young girls. There have been speculations about his possible paedophile inclinations, but let us leave that to the historians and biographers. There was one girl in particular that Charles was fond of, Alice – one of the three Liddell sisters. He loved to tell them stories and invent games and puzzles for them, and he also took them on outings. One of these outings (4 July 1862) became legendary. In his personal notes Charles wrote: “I made an expedition up the river to Godstowe with the three Liddells, we had tea on the bank there, and did not reach Christ Church till half past eight (…) on which occasion I told them the fairy tale of Alice’s Adventures Underground, which I undertook to write out for Alice.” This was the birth of one of the most beloved books in English literature, and at the same time an odd masterpiece of Victorian writing.
The Alice books are an attempt to see the authoritarian and rigid Victorian world through the eyes of a child. In both books Alice encounters strict and bossy adults in the form of mythological figures, chess pieces, strange animals, and so on. These characters represent the absurdity of the adult world, like it would seem for a child. Alice also goes through bizarre changes after eating a magic mushroom or drinking a strange brew from a bottle that said “Drink me”. There is a constant fear of death by eating, making it look like a scary nightmare. Alice is not a naughty child, but she is curious and unafraid as she stands her ground against the stupid characters she meets on the way. She is self-confident and never helpless or sweetly innocent; which makes her different from the traditional moralist approach that was typical of Victorian literature, both for children and adults. The books are richly illustrated by Sir John Tenniel who was a famous cartoonist and book illustrator. His imaginative illustrations complement the story in a brilliant way, and are as legendary as the text itself.
From Alice in Wonderland
The story begins, just like the river bank outing, with young Alice sitting next to her sister on a river bank. Her sister is reading a book, and Alice is bored and sleepy, but she suddenly sees a white rabbit run by who says: “Oh dear, oh dear, I shall be too late”, looking all the time at his pocket watch. Alice is not at all surprised and follows the rabbit to its hole; she goes after him, and falls down and down, and ends up in Wonderland. After many strange encounters she ends up in a garden where she spots a small house:
For a minute or two she stood looking at the house wondering what to do next, when suddenly a footman in livery came running out of the wood – (she considered him to be a footman because he was in livery; otherwise, judging by his face only, she would have called him a fish) – and rapped loudly at the door with his knuckles. It was opened by another footman in livery, with a round face, and large eyes like a frog; and both footmen, Alice noticed, had powdered hair that curled all over their heads. She felt very curious what it was all about, and crept a little way out of the wood to listen.
The Fish-Footman began by producing from under his arm a great letter, nearly as large as himself, and this he handed over to the other, saying in a solemn tone: “For the Duchess. An invitation from the Queen to play croquet.” The Frog-Footman repeated in the same solemn tone, only changing the order of the words a little, “From the Queen. An invitation for the Duchess to play croquet.”
Then they both bowed and the curls got entangled together.
Alice laughed so much at this, that she had to run back into the wood for fear of their hearing her; and, when she next peeped out, the Fish-Footman was gone, and the other was sitting on the ground near the door, staring stupidly up into the sky.
Alice went timidly up to the door, and knocked.
“There’s no sort of use in knocking,” said the Footman, “and that for two reasons. First because I’m on the same side of the door as you are; secondly, because they’re making such a noise inside, no one could possibly hear you.” And certainly there was a most extraordinary noise going on within – a constant howling and sneezing, and every now and then a great crash, as if a dish or a kettle had been broken to pieces.
“Please, then,” said Alice, “how am I to get in?”
“There might be some sense in your knocking,” the Footman went on, without attending to her, “if we had the door between us. For instance, if you were inside, you might knock, and I would let you out, you know.” He was looking up into the sky all the time he was speaking, and this Alice thought decidedly uncivil. “But perhaps he can’t help it,” she said to herself; “his eyes are so very nearly at the top of his head. But at any rate he might answer questions. “How am I to get in?” she repeated, aloud.
As she did not receive any answers from the Frog-Footman, Alice just walks into the house.
Tasks and Activities
- What are the main elements that make Alice in Wonderland appeal to children?
- Alice thought her sister’s book was boring because “it was a book without pictures or conversations”. Does that indicate something? (This can be called a “meta-comment” – what does that mean?)
- Does the rabbit in some way represent adult values as they were / are seen by children?
- In what way do the Footmen reflect the Victorian class system?
- The two Footmen are both in the shape of animals. What point does Carrol try to make by that?
- How is Alice regarded by the Footman?
- What could be an interpretation of the fact that the Footman’s eyes are at the top of his head?
- One of the creatures Alice meets is the Caterpillar, who (rudely) asks her: “Who are you?” In what way is this question an indication of the theme of the story?
- Why do you think Alice in Wonderland is enjoyed by so many adult readers as well as children?
- Alice in Wonderland has been filmed many times, both as a cartoon and as a regular feature film. Search the net for clips from the film(s) and compare the versions.
- Study the famous illustrations of the many strange characters from Alice in Wonderland; which is your favourite? Give reasons for your answer.
- Follow these links and read the poems Jabberwocky and The Walrus and the Carpenter from Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carrol.
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