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Type of work: Imaginative tale

Author: Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1832-1898)

Type of plot: Fantasy

Time of plot: Victorian England

Locale: The dream world of an imaginative child

First published: 1865

Carroll's classic fantasy can be read on many levels and appreciated by diverse audiences: it is at once a biting social and political satire sufficiently complex to satisfy the most sophisticated adult, and a delightfully whimsical fairy tale to capture the fancy of the imaginative child.

Principal Characters

Alice, a curious, imaginative strong-willed, and honest young English girl. She falls asleep by the side of a stream in a meadow and dreams that she follows a White Rabbit down his hole. She has many adventures in a Wonderland peopled by all kinds of strange characters and animals.

The White Rabbit, anxious, aristocratic, dandified. Alice follows him down his hole, which leads to an enchanted house and garden. The White Rabbit is a Prime Minister of sorts in this Wonderland, for he has close contact with the royalty there and carries out their orders, although he does not institute policy.

The Queen of Hearts, the ill-tempered Queen of Wonderland. She constantly demands that everyone who crosses her to be beheaded. Fond of croquet, she orders Alice to take part in a game in which flamingos are used for mallets and hedgehogs for balls. She issues an order for Alice's execution at the end of the book, but this order is never carried out because Alice accuses the Queen and all her company of being only a pack of cards, an assertion that turns out to be true.

The King of Hearts, a timid, kindly man. Although he is completely under his wife's power because of her temper, he manages to pardon all her victims surreptitiously.

The Duchess, another member of royalty in Wonderland, a platitude-quoting, moralizing, ugly old woman who lives in a chaotic house. Deathly afraid of the Queen, she is ordered to be beheaded, but the sentence is never carried out.

The Cook, the Duchess' servant. She flavors everything with pepper, insults her mistress, and throws cooking pans at her.

The Cheshire Cat, the Duchess' grinning cat. Continually vanishing and reappearing, he is a great conversationalist, and he tells Alice much of the gossip in Wonderland.

The Duchess' Baby, a strange, howling, little infant. The baby turns into a pig when the Duchess entrusts it to Alice's care.

The Knave of Hearts, a timid, poetry-writing fellow accused of stealing some tarts that the Queen has made.

The March Hare, the rude host of a mad tea party to which Alice invites herself and then wishes that she had not.

The Mad Hatter, a riddle-making, blunt, outspoken guest at the tea party. He is a good friend of the March Hare, and at the party the two try to prove to Alice that she is stupid.

The Dormouse, another guest at the tea party. He is a sleepy creature, aroused long enough to recite for Alice and then pushed headfirst into the teapot.

The Gryphon, a mythical creature, half bird, half animal, who escorts Alice to the home of the Mock Turtle so that she may hear the recital of the Turtle's life story.

The Mock Turtle, an ever-sobbing animal. He recites his life's story to Alice and everyone else within earshot.

The Caterpillar, a hookah-smoking insect who perches on the top of a magic mushroom. Officious and easily offended, he tests Alice's intelligence with a series of ridiculous riddles.

Bill, The Lizard, an unfortunate fellow picked by the other animals to go down the chimney of the White Rabbit's house and try to force out Alice, who has assumed gigantic proportions after drinking a magic potion she found on the table.

The Mouse, who greets Alice in the pool of tears which she had made by crying while she was of gigantic size. Now of minute proportions, she is almost overwhelmed by the Mouse, a creature easily offended.

The Lorry, The Duck, The Dodo, The Eaglet, The Crab, and The Baby Crab, all creatures whom Alice meets in the pool of her tears and who swim around with her.

Father William and His Son, characters in a poem that Alice recites. The old man, a former athlete, can still balance an eel on his nose, much to the amazement of his curious and impertinent son. The poem is a parody of Robert Southey's "The Old Man's Comforts."

The Pigeon, a bird Alice meets after she has made herself tall by eating part of the Caterpillar's mushroom.

The Fish Footman, the bearer of a note from the Queen inviting the Duchess to play croquet.

The Frog Footman, the impolite servant of the Duchess; his wig becomes entangled with that of the Fish Footman when the two bow in greeting each other.

The Puppy, a playful animal Alice meets while she is in her small state.

The Flamingo, the bird Alice uses for a croquet mallet in the game with the Queen.

The Hedgehog, the animal that acts as the ball in the croquet game.

Five, Two, and Seven, three quarrelsome gardeners of the Queen. When Alice meets them, they ate painting red all the white roses in the garden to obliterate the mistake someone had made in ordering white ones.

Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie, three sisters in the Dormouse's story. They live at the bottom of a well and exist solely on treacle.

Dinah, Alice's pet cat in real life.

Alice's Sister, the wise older sister who is charmed by Alice's tales of her adventures in Wonderland.

The Story

Alice was quietly reading over her sister's shoulder when she saw a White Rabbit dash across the lawn and disappear into its hole. She jumped up to rush after him and found herself falling down the rabbit hole. At the bottom, she saw the White Rabbit hurrying along a corridor ahead of her and murmuring that he would be late. He disappeared around a comer, leaving Alice standing in front of several locked doors.

On a glass table, she found a tiny golden key that unlocked a little door hidden behind a curtain. The door opened upon a lovely miniature garden, but she could not get through the doorway because it was too small. She sadly replaced the key on the table. A little bottle mysteriously appeared. Alice drank the contents and immediately began to grow smaller, so much so that she could no longer reach the key on the table. Next, she ate a piece of cake she found nearby, and soon she began to grow to such enormous size that she could only squint through the door. In despair, she began to weep tears as big as raindrops. As she sat crying, the White Rabbit appeared, bewailing the fact that the Duchess would be angry if he kept her waiting.

The White Rabbit dropped his fan and gloves. Alice picked them up, and as she did so, she began to grow smaller. Again she rushed to the garden door, but she found it shut and the golden key once more on the table out of reach.

Then she fell into a pond of her own tears. Splashing along, she encountered a mouse who had stumbled into the pool. Alice tactlessly began a conversation about her cat Dinah, and the mouse became speechless with terror. Soon the pool of tears was filled with living creatures--birds and animals of all kinds. An old Dodo suggested that they run a Caucus Race to get dry. Having asked what a Caucus Race was, Alice was told that the best way to explain it was to do it, whereupon the animals ran themselves quite breathless and finally became dry.

Afterward, the mouse told a "Tail" to match its own appendage. Alice was asked to tell something, but the only thing she could think of was her cat Dinah. Frightened, the other creatures went away, and Alice was left alone.

The White Rabbit appeared once more, this time hunting for his gloves and fan. Catching sight of Alice, he sent her to his home to get him a fresh pair of gloves and another fan. In the Rabbit's house, she found the fan and gloves and also took a drink from a bottle. Instantly, she grew to be a giant size and was forced to put her leg up the chimney and her elbow out of the window in order to keep from being squeezed to death.

She managed to eat a little cake and shrink herself again. As soon as she was small enough to get through the door, she tan into a nearby wood where she found a caterpillar sitting on a mushroom. The caterpillar was very rude to Alice, and he scornfully asked her to prove her worth by reciting "You Are Old, Father William." Alice did so, but the words sounded very strange. Disgusted, he left her after giving her some valuable information about increasing or decreasing her size. She broke off pieces of the mushroom and found to her delight that by eating from the piece in her left hand she could become taller, and from the piece in her right hand, smaller.

She came to a little house among the trees. There a footman, who looked very much like a fish, presented to another footman, who closely resembled a frog, an invitation for the Duchess to play croquet with the Queen. The two amphibians bowed to each other with great formality, tangling their wigs together. Alice opened the door and found herself in the chaotic house of the Duchess. The cook was stirring a large pot of soup and pouring plenty of pepper into the mixture. Everyone was sneezing except the cook and a Cheshire cat, which sat on the hearth grinning. The Duchess herself held a sneezing, squalling baby and sang a blaring lullaby to it. Alice, in sympathy with the poor child, picked it up and carried it out into the fresh ah', whereupon the baby turned slowly into a pig, squirmed out of her arms, and waddled into the forest.

Standing in bewilderment, Alice saw the grinning Cheshire cat sitting in a tree. He was able to appear and disappear at will, and after exercising his talents, he advised Alice to go to a tea party given by the Mad Hatter. The cat vanished, all but the grin. Finally, that, too, disappeared, and Alice left for the party.

There, Alice found she had to deal with the strangest people she had ever seen--a March Hare, a Mad Hatter, and a sleepy Dormouse. All were too lazy to set the table properly; dirty dishes were everywhere. The Dormouse fell asleep in its teacup; the Mad Hatter told Alice her hair needed cutting; the March Hare offered her wine and then told her there was none. They asked her foolish riddles that had no answers. Then, worse, they ignored her completely and carried on a ridiculous conversation among themselves. She escaped after the Dormouse fell asleep in the middle of a story he was telling.

Next, she found herself in a garden of talking flowers. Justas the conversation was beginning, some gardeners appeared with paintbrushes and began to splash red paint on a rosebush. Alice learned that the Queen had ordered a red bush to be placed in that spot, and the gardeners had made a mistake and planted a white one. Now they were busily and fearfully trying to cover their error before the Queen arrived. The poor gardeners, however, were not swift enough. The Queen caught them in the act, and the wretched gardeners were led off to be decapitated. Alice saved them by shoving them down into a large flowerpot, out of sight of the dreadful Queen.

A croquet game began. The mallets were live flamingos, and the balls were hedgehogs which thought nothing of uncurling themselves and running rapidly over the field. The Duchess cornered Alice and led her away to the seaside to introduce her to the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon.

While engaged in a Lobster Quadrille, they heard the news of a trial. A thief had stolen some tarts. Rushing to the courtroom where a trial by jury was already in session, Alice was called upon to act as a witness before the King and Queen of Hearts, but the excited child upset the jury box and spilled out all of its occupants. After replacing all the animals in the box, Alice said she knew nothing of the matter. Her speech infuriated the Queen, who ordered that Alice's head be cut off. The whole court rushed at her, and Alice defiantly called them nothing but a pack of cards. She awoke from her dream as her sister brushed away some dead leaves blowing over her face.

Critical Evaluation

One summer afternoon in 1862, the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an Oxford friend, and three little girls set out on a boat trip. Somewhere along the way, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was born. Although it was not the first story that Dodgson had told the girls, children of Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church, Oxford, it was one that immediately captured Alice Liddell, the prototype for the fictional seven-year-old heroine. Her later requests for Dodgson to "write it down" were to turn him into one of the world's favorite authors, with his work translated into many languages and part of the heritage of most literate people.

Dodgson, who transposed his first two names into the pen name Lewis Carroll, was on the surface a shy but seemingly conventional Oxford mathematician. Today, however, his outwardly harmless affinity for little girls is viewed as the sign of a serious neurosis, an inability to grow up, which also revealed itself in his writings. Alice was only one of many young girls who would provide Carroll with the only love--innocent and sexless as it seemed--to which he could respond. As she matured, each child was replaced in Carroll's affections by another young lady who shared the secret world of childhood in which he spent much of his adult life.

Expressing itself in many ways, this attraction to fantasy gave rise to Carroll's love of whimsical letters, gadgets, theatricals, toys, and, of course, to the Alice stories. First prepared in a handwritten manuscript book for Alice Liddell (then called Alice's Adventures Under Ground), the book was published in its present form in 1865 and was almost immediately popular. Adding to its originality were the famous illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, who did not use the real Alice for his model. (She, unlike the pictured child, had short dark hair and bangs.)

Followed in 1871 by the even more brilliant sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, the book has always been enjoyed on several levels. Initially, it is a very special children's story, but it is also a book teeming with fascination for certain specialists--mathematicians, linguists, logicians, Freudians, and even those who envision the book as an example of a drug trip. Yet, perhaps its philosophical suggestions give the work most of its never-ending appeal for adults.

If readers examine the book as children's literature, readers see that it offered its young audience a charming new outlook, dispensing with the moralistic viewpoint then prevalent in almost all tales for youngsters. Alice is neither continuously nice nor thoroughly naughty, for she is simply a curious child whose queries lead her into strange situations, and in the end, she is neither punished nor rewarded. A moral, proposing that she do this or that, is absent. Departing even further from the saccharine stories praising standard virtues, Carroll pokes fun at many of the ideas with which Alice, a well-bred English child, has been imbued. The Mock Turtle, for example, chides the sacred subject of learning by terming the branches of arithmetic Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision. Children who read the book are permitted to see adults quite unlike the perfect beings usually portrayed. It is the story's adults rather than Alice who are rude, demanding, and ridiculous.

As a work for the specialist, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland touches on many puzzles more thoroughly presented in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Its playfulness with language, for example, involves puns, parodies, and clever phrasing, but it does not deal as fully with the basic nature of language as does its sequel. Even in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, however, Carroll's casual amusement with words often has deeper meaning. When he parodies the well-known poems and songs of his day, he is again questioning their supercilious platitudes. When he makes a pun (the Gryphon tells the reader that boots and shoes under the sea are "done" with whiting rather than blacking and are, of course, made of soles and eels), Carroll is asserting the total logic of illogic. When he designs a Cheshire cat, he is taking a common but unclear phrase of his time ("Grin like a Cheshire cat" referred either to inn signs in the county of Cheshire depicting a grinning lion or to Cheshire cheeses modeled in the shape of a smiling cat) and turning it into a concrete reality. Logicians also find a multitude of tidbits. The Cheshire cat "proves" it is not mad by adopting the premise that if a dog is not mad, anyone who reacts in ways opposite to a dog must be. The March Hare offers a nice exercise in logic and language with his discussion of taking "more" versus taking "less" and his challenge as to whether "I mean what I say" is the same as "I say what I mean."

For Freudians, the book is also a mass of complicated mysteries. Freudians see significance in most of the characters and incidents, but the fall down the rabbit hole, the changes in size, the great interest in eating and drinking, the obnoxious mature females, and Alice's continual anxiety are some of the most revealing topics, all of them suggesting Carroll's neuroses about women and sex.

The larger philosophical questions raised by Alice center on the order of life as readers know it. Set in the context of the dream vision, a journey different from a conscious quest, the book asks whether there is indeed any pattern or meaning to life. Alice is the curious innocent who compares so favorably with the jaded and even wicked grown-ups. Always sensible and open to experience, she would seem the ideal messenger to bring readers a true concept, yet her adventures hint that all readers may know is the ridiculousness of logic and what readers imagine to be reality and the logic of nonsense. Readers see that Wonderland is no more incomprehensible than Victorian England, that the Mad Duchess lives next door, that as the Cheshire cat says, "We're all mad here."

Alice brings to Wonderland a strong belief in order and certain concepts, and she must continually refuse to accept the chaos that she finds there. When Wonderland turns her views askew, she can withstand the strain for only so long. Then she must rebel. The trial, which is the last refuge of justice in man's world, is the key factor in Alice's rejection of Wonderland, for it is a trial of Wonderland itself, with many of the earlier encountered creatures reassembled to assert forcefully, once more, that expectations and rules are meaningless. Like the child of the world that she is, Alice (and Carroll) must deny the truth that there is no truth. She must shout "Nonsense" to it all. As one critic has pointed out, she rejects "mad sanity in favor of the sane madness of the ordinary existence." Facing the same confusion and frightened by what it hints, the reader also rebels, laughing and turning to more serious considerations.
COPYRIGHT 1991 COPYRIGHT 1989 Frank N. Magill
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Masterpieces of World Literature
Article Type:Work Overview
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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