Dodgson's dark conceit: evoking the allegorical lineage of Alice.
Wandring I walk'd alone, for still methought To some strange End so strange a Path was wrought
The Flower and the Leaf (Dryden trans.)
It's very rarely that progress in these cases is visible at all.
Kafka, The Trial
IF pressed to substantiate T. S. Eliot's claim that past literary works are transformed by subsequent ones, one could hardly do better than call to witness Lewis Carroll s Alice books. Upon first peering into Wonderland, Victorian readers almost unanimously maintained that, in the words of Margaret Gatty, we "must not look to Alice's Adventures for knowledge in disguise," and that, as remarked a reviewer in Charlotte Yonge's Hints on Reading, "it is one long dream of sheer nonsense" (qtd. in Avery 131). Some scholars continue to argue that the Alice books are "innocent" or "frivolous" or "without any ostensible moral purpose" (Zipes, Victorian Fairy Tales xxii). In his "Introduction" to Sylvie and Bruno, Martin Gardner reaffirmed his position that "the Alice volumes were pure fun, Carrollian nonsense without morals" (vi).
Critical geography, however, is as susceptible to change as landmarks beyond the Looking-glass, and beginning around the mid-1960s the Alice books underwent a rather rapid interpretive reversal. Gazing with post-Enlightenment eyes, readers were startled to discover in Wonderland striking anticipations of present-day moral and intellectual uprootedness. In the wake of such surrealistic--even "psychedelic"--writers as Kafka, Joyce, Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, Borges, Pynchon, and Nabokov (who translated Alice into Russian in 1923), the impetus to trace the lineage of postmodernism back to Queen Alice seems to many as inevitable as the White Queen's sticking her finger with her brooch. Alice was a prophet, many now contend, and while admired in her own country, her prophecies were incomprehensible until, in our own fractured age, they were fulfilled. (1)
Broadly considered, there can be little doubt that the Alice books do represent a new departure in allegorical quest literature. While exhibiting, as we shall see, a telltale abundance of the essential, distinguishing features of their earlier allegorical forebears (in form, conventions, ideological concerns) they have nonetheless presented us with a contorted and eccentric likeness to hang in the portrait hall. It is possible to detect faint presages of these less traditional features (mainly thematically speaking) in eighteenth-century allegorical works like Candide, Rasselas, and Gulliver's Travels. Or one might look even further back to the enigmatic Roman de la Rose by Jean de Meun, whom medieval scholar Gaston Paris dubbed "le Voltaire du moyen age" (qtd. in Arden 90), or to Chaucer's "anti-oracula" dream allegory "The Hous of Fame" which concludes abruptly and enigmatically the moment "a man of gret auctorite" appears, presumably to explicate the dream (Spearing 11). Regarding allegorical works in general, Bainard Cowan has argued that their "obscurity, fragmentariness, and arbitrariness ... all signify the absence of a fulfilling event," while "this absence, in turn, serves to invoke that event with a greater urgency and a desperate faith" (118). Such deconstruction-oriented generalizations, however, seem more appropriate to post-Alice quests than pre-Alice ones like, say, Piers Plowman, The Divine Comedy, or The Pilgrim's Progress. In actuality there is no smooth, natural progression to Carroll's works, and for this reason attempts to make the Alice books conform too precisely to earlier allegorical models (whether orthodox or somewhat less so) are unsatisfying. An equal dissatisfaction, however, arises from trying to establish Alice's consanguinity along too distinctly modern/postmodern lines--a more widespread practice because it is seemingly more plausible to trace the forward line of Alice's literary offspring than the elliptical line backward to her progenitors.
The Alice books, however, belong unreservedly to neither of these diametric filiations, but, as we shall see, mediate (though somewhat irresolutely) between both traditional and innovative forms of allegory: that is, between affirmative, conclusive quests, on the one hand, and equivocal, inconclusive quests on the other. Precisely because they explore this indeterminate borderland where uninhibited wondering gives way to uncertain wandering, they are prone to overly determined readings and mis-readings in either direction. While there is, I believe, good reason to argue that the innovative, inconclusive allegorical qualities of the Alice books to a large extent overtake the more traditional and affirmative ones, the path to this conclusion lies not in ignoring the traditional, nor in over-stressing the innovative, but in pinpointing exactly where and how Carroll first evokes the generic traditions and conventions of the allegorical quest, then unexpectedly and mischievously departs from them.
AMONG modern scholars who see the Alice books as allegories of epistemological and religious indeterminacy, ideological relativism, and iconoclasm, one often finds (strangely enough, perhaps) a tendency to minute allegoresis not unlike the detailed--and now generally scorned--readings put forth by Abraham Ettleson, whose paragraph by paragraph "decoding" of Through the Looking Glass sought to uncover an allegory of Judaism, or those of Shane Leslie and Alexander Taylor who saw in the books complex, traditional-style, essentially faith-affirming allegories of the Oxford Movement. The arguments of Alexander Taylor--who marshals a wealth of extra-textual historical and biographical data to support the (mostly conjectural) assertions of his predecessor, Shane Leslie--are ingenious and at times uncannily correlated. (2) Yet they fail to convince fully, primarily because there is so little text-based warrant for this type of topical allegoresis. The handful of hints that might actually lead us in this direction are to be found, not in the written text, but in Tenniel's illustrations, a few of which are said to resemble caricatures of then-prominent political figures such as Gladstone and Disraeli (Hancher 26-39).
This now largely defunct allegorical Scylla, however, has given way to a similarly unsatisfactory postmodern allegorical Charybdis: the growing number of "chaotic" or "subversive" readings of Alice. Such interpretations, while relying much more heavily on explicit allegorical markers within the text, threaten also to capsize the narrative by placing on it stresses that it was not designed to bear. Proponents of this view argue that the Alice books are radical dystopias which function to subvert widespread, conventional notions of stability and certainty, to "expose adult, aboveground ordering structures as vicious lies" (Kincaid 9). Words like "chaos," "void," "incoherent," "meaningless," and "subversive," are applied to individual scenes and events rather recklessly at times. Anyone dipping into this growing quantity of commentary cannot help but acknowledge the speculative depth often found there. Yet the knack of this sort of reading is not, apparently, too difficult to master; and quite often one feels that Carroll's postmodernist "scripture" is falling prey to the same overzealous allegoresis that typically overtakes highly esteemed foundational texts.
In "Alice's Journey to the End of Night," one of the first essays to offer a thorough "chaotic" reading of Alice, Donald Rackin rightly draws our attention to certain pessimistic tendencies which earlier readers tended to overlook in Alice. But there is a tendency toward overstatement:
Above all else, [Alice] embodies a comic horror-vision of the chaotic land beneath the man-made groundwork of Western thought and convention.... Merely to list the reverses Alice encounters in Wonderland is to survey at a glance an almost total destruction of the fabric of our so-called logical, orderly, and coherent approach to the world. (392-3) (3)
As a result, whenever Wonderland contains a physical, moral, or intellectual law which differs from that of conventional reality, Rackin sees this as "subverting" the latter. When Alice changes sizes this is seen as subverting the normal conceptions of orderly growth; because animals can talk and give orders this subverts the normal hierarchy of man and animal; because two meanings of the word "dry" are confused, linguistic order is subverted; because the Cheshire Cat can grin while the rest of his body has disappeared, the traditional notion of subject and attribute is undermined; because the Mad Hatter claims that time is malleable, time is subverted. "Inverted," or some less ideologically-slanted term, would certainly be more appropriate here, for much of Carroll's nonsense (though by no means all) is not the sort that makes a rigorous, problematic, "subversive" critique of logical, metaphysical, or even moral systems. It does not follow that because an author creates an inverted world of nonsense that mutatis mutandis he has reduced the real world to nonsense as well. Carroll's talking animals simply do not embody the sustained "subversive" intent that, for example, Swift's Yahoos obviously do.
In the tradition of Rackin, Anne Mellor sees Carroll as a somewhat reluctant participant in an art form derived from the chaos theories of Friedrich Schlegel. Lewis Carroll, she argues, "conceived the ontological universe as uncontrolled flux," and Alice "embodies Carroll's recognition that the apparently well-ordered and meaningful reality we take for granted is not absolute and that all linguistic and moral systems are but arbitrary games" (165, 173). As with Rackin, one wonders about the accuracy of claiming that the Alice books actively subvert or relativize all linguistic, moral, and intellectual systems. To argue, for example, that "the White Knight's song reduces the old leech-gatherer to a blathering fool and all moral or religious systems to absurdity" (177) puts a rather unwarranted allegorical strain upon the passage: how does the parody of one Wordsworthian "blathering old fool" call into question all moral and religious systems? Or again, are we really justified in saying that "genuine feelings of compassion and love are reduced to mere sentimentality in the Mock Turtle's love song to 'Beau-ootiful Soo-oop'" (170)? Could it not equally be the case that foolish, mis-directed feelings of compassion and sentimentality are being mocked? Could it not also be said that Carroll's mild satire actually serves to reinforce the very distinctions between "genuine" and "false" feelings of compassion, as Mellor's comment inadvertently demonstrates? As we shall see, Carroll's works do raise important moral and metaphysical questions, but they do not really belong to that type of satiric, iconoclastic allegory (a rare thing really) concerned with actively attacking, subverting, or relativizing specific moral codes. As with Kafka's, Carroll's quests are more broadly structured around the difficulties of a hero in search of a moral or metaphysical significatio (among other things) but not quite discovering it. On the whole, this makes for a quite different thing than iconoclastic allegorical satire.
BEFORE exploring this more "legitimate" darker side of Alice, however, we need to spend a few more moments in the light, or at least the grayness that could portend dawn as well as night. The "wonder" in the title of Carroll's first book might, at first glance, be easily mistaken for a mere childish gush word along the same lines as "enchanting," "delightful," or "precious." Yet, when placed in historical context, a much richer set of associations emerges, closer perhaps to neo-Platonic notions of "wise ignorance" or "divine folly" Just a few decades before Alice in Wonderland was published, Carlyle, fearful that science and mechanistic philosophies were eating away at humankind's mystical capacities, had practically made a religion out of "wonder." And the parallels in this regard between Thomas Carlyle's intermittently allegorical Sartor Resartus and the Alice books are rather striking. Space does not permit a detailed comparison, but we note the similar concerns with the "wonder-numbing" effect produced by habitual notions of time, space, and naming, all of which allow us to "live at ease in the midst of Wonders and Terrors" (I. viii, p. 56). Carlyle queries: "have any deepest scientific individuals yet dived down to the foundations of the Universe, and gauged everything there?" (HI. viii, p. 256). Alice makes such a descent into the "Nether Chaotic Deep" of the mind, though, as Carlyle ironically predicts, she can hardly "gauge everything there." Or again: "in every wisest Soul lies a whole world of internal Madness, an authentic Demon-Empire; out of which indeed his world of Wisdom has been creatively built together, and now rests there, as on its dark foundations does a habitable flowery Earthrind" (III. viii, p. 260). Here we see grounds for both the wonder and the terror that often seem so closely intertwined in the Alice books: the awe so near-allied to madness, and which comfortable, routine common-sense struggles to cloak and contain. Alice wonders, "'who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle" (37), and later wonders if she is merely a dream in the mind of the Red King. Teufelsdrokh asks, "Who am I; what is this Me? A Voice, a Motion, an Appearance;--some embodied, visualized Idea in the Eternal mind?" (I, viii, p. 53). "This Dreaming, this Somnambulism," writes Carlyle, "is what we on Earth call Life; wherein the most indeed undoubtedly wander, as if they knew right hand from left; yet they only are wise who know that they know nothing" (I, viii, p. 54). Though softened by humor, a similar sentiment pervades the Alice books, even to the looking-glass jumbling up of secure conceptions like left and right. Finally, we might note that the willful acts of defiance concluding both Alice books are not unlike Teufelsdrockh's defiance of chaos and determinism in "The Everlasting No" (Higbie). As we shall see, however, it is much less certain that Alice's "Everlasting No" is prelude to an ontologically-affirmative "Everlasting Yea."
G. K. Chesterton in his "Defence of Nonsense" argues, with regard to the Alice books, that "a thing cannot be completely wonderful so long as it remains sensible" (69); and there is reason to believe that Carroll, like Bishop Wilberforce, may have been reacting in his own way to the Rationalist Movement with its "daring claim for the unassisted human intellect to be able to measure and explain all things" (qtd. in Taylor 34). In such places as his essay "Vivisection as a Sign of the Times" and "Natural Science at Oxford" (Collingwood 167-171, 187-191) as well as his poem "Fame's Penny Trumpet," Carroll expressed his doubts about a new generation of calculating scientists who had little regard for sympathy, imagination, and wonder, in contrast to the great scientists who "made the science, not the science them" (Collingwood 190). In his "The New Method of Evaluation as Applied to Pi" Carroll parodied the Essays and Reviews as "possessing length and breadth, but no depth" (Diversions and Digressions 50). Depth is literally and figuratively what Alice does possess--perhaps even the wondrous, morosophic depth of foolish awe (such as envelopes Browning's risen Lazarus) as opposed to the superficial Gradgrindian realism stunting the minds of certain rationalists who, like Alice, could stand a little practice (as the White Queen tells her) "believing impossible things" (Gardner, Annotated Alice 251).
The prism of cultural-historical context, then, suggests a less thoroughly malicious and iconoclastic Alice than some are inclined to see as they search for more contemporary reflections in Carroll's looking-glass. Yet the Alice books seem uncannily prescient, looking forward as well as back. James Tate, Headmaster of the Richmond Grammar School where Carroll studied, accurately described Carroll, when a boy, as one who "will not rest satisfied without a most exact solution of whatever appears to him obscure" (Collingwood 25). Such a temperament--bent on certainty and exactness--would, it seems, if it did not opt for dogmatism, be likely to move in one of two directions as the limitations of the human intellect became increasingly apparent: astonished wonder at a world where "very few things indeed were really impossible" (as Alice senses) or bewildered disillusionment, perhaps bordering on downright despair. In Dodgson/Carroll's case we find suggestions of both. Like Tweedledee and Tweedledum, though, the two are closely related and can easily be confused. And it is these very similarities that Carroll plays on throughout the Alice books: that with only a slight turn laughter may alter from jolly to mad, dreams from visionary to nightmarish, journeys from fulfilling to fruitless, and absurdity from nonsense to "no sense." Carroll walks the indistinct line between the two sets so expertly that we are frequently unable to determine if Wonderland is stretching our minds to new intellectual heights, or shrinking our outlook to the inescapable confines of the neurotic self.
Our grounds for feeling on edge, however, are more than merely subjective, and these become particularly apparent when the larger pattern of Alice's quest, with its numerous deviations from traditional affirmative quest allegories, is laid bare. To follow Alice on this heretofore unexplored wandering path is, indeed, to be taken beyond simple wonder or harmless nonsense into more perilous realms of indecision and dread.
SETTING minute and obsessive allegoriesis aside, there are nonetheless many good reasons for regarding the Alice books as quest allegories. We see in them the familiar, generic pattern of a naive hero journeying through a foreign, other-worldly, non-mimetic fantasy land toward a specific goal and encountering along the way a diverse range of characters who discuss, and at times symbolize, an encyclopedic array of philosophic issues. In Carroll's works, in fact, we note an intensifying of the gauntlet-like atmosphere common to most quest allegories: an uncomfortable heightening of the sense that the hero is traversing a landscape (probably subconsciously self-generated) which seems to exist solely for his/her own sake: a landscape in which all the other characters form part of an interconnected system or cosmic game, and wherein the hero, the only apparently "free" agent, finds herself a baffled, but avid, participant.
That the general style and format of the Alice books are preeminently suited to allegory is further evidenced by the many imitation Alice books, such as H. H. Munro's Westminster Alice (1902), Charles Geake & F. Carruthers Gould's John Bull's Adventures in the Fiscal Wonderland (1904), and John Bang's Alice in Blunderland, An Iridescent Dream (1907), that co-opt Carroll's imaginary land for topical, political allegories of the sort Alexander Taylor imagined Carroll himself to be writing. (4) Specific, generic allegorical devices are also employed by Carroll, such as the dreamframe, psychomachia, personification, metamorphosis, and the chessboard imagery) While such generic overlap is insufficient to settle the question "are the Alice books allegories?", it should at least alert us to the fact that the Alice books are irresistibly--even, we might say, treacherously--close to one of the strongest and most ubiquitous literary traditions in Western history. And it is primarily due to the many ways that Carroll first evokes, and then upsets, our normal expectations with regards to quest allegory that the works gain what we tend to see as their terrible, illustrative power of our generally "post-" existence: post-Platonic, post-Christian, post-Romantic, post-everything in fact that gave rise to the allegorical genre in the first place.
As Kathryn Lynch has argued, the traditional dream allegory, such as we find in Boethius, Alain de Lille, Jean de Meun, Gower, and so forth, frequently revolves around the unstable relationship between imagination (with its power to generate fantastic dream images) and the abstracting, ordering capacities of reason. Specifically, these works mapped out a psychological path, the goal of which was reason's (often with a capital "R") eventual control and subordination of imagination (Lynch 69). A "dream physician," as Lynch shows--"a figure of reason, provides remedies that lead to a reordering of the mind"--prepares the dreamer, that is, for the reception of a higher, abstract truth by giving "shape to those prerational, 'seminal' images" generated by the unbridled imagination (69-70, 72). Insofar, however, as the Alice books tend rather to resist reason, order, and system on a broad--especially metaphysical--scale, they often allow imagination--sometimes in the form of free play and wonder, but seemingly more often, and more inimically, in the form of random, nonsensical, and non-paradigmatic imagery--to get the upper hand. This reversal or problematizing of the dream allegory's customary resolution, then, becomes one potential underlying source for the unsettling deviations Alice's quest takes from the customary prescribed dream-quest pattern.
It is worth remembering, though, that for a medieval author the term "reason" usually encompassed broader, more various means of mental apprehension than we typically assign to it. It would be a mistake not to recognize, therefore, that non-"rational" or quasi-"rational" resolutions are frequently indispensable in dream allegories (both in earlier works like those mentioned above, but increasingly so in some modern allegories); and a thoroughgoing "rational" solution to a dreamer's quest--unaided by faith, or wisdom, or some sort of visionary synthesis--is seldom the norm. In Alice's case, however, as we shall see, not only does she find no satisfying rational or philosophical means to organize the welter of phantasmagoric imagery generated by her subconscious, neither is she capable of sustaining the "next best thing": that is, an authentic, intuitive, mystical initiation into the realms of divine folly or wonder. Both elements (rational, mystical) that would in varying degrees have synthesized for the medieval dreamer into a coherent psychological and cosmographic system are either denied to, or rejected by, Alice. Inevitably, as a result, she wanders into uncertainty, apathy, and pessimism, on the one hand, and bewildered stupefaction, on the other. And we are left asking the irresolvable question: Has she been offered a wondrous insight and rejected it? Or was the insight ever really there in the first place?
In isolating more specific aberrations of Alice's quest(s) from the widespread, generally stable configurations of past allegories--or from then-contemporary allegories of conclusive affirmation by authors such as Charles Kingsley (The Water Babies) and George MacDonald (Lilith)--what is most striking is the total absence (or distorted metamorphosis) of many common elements usually regarded as essential for a successful triumphant journey. Alice's lament, "I ca'n't explain myself" (Gardner, Annotated 67) has been the cry of countless allegorical pilgrims, and once uttered, a host of beings who are "in-the-know" normally appear to guide and instruct the wanderer. Their eventual expounding of the answer to this basic existential and metaphysical difficulty is typically the basis for the entire allegory that then follows. As Michael Means, in his study of the medieval allegorical consolatio, has argued, these guides usually "possess at least a part of the divine numen" and "their words take on a character of divine, unchanging authority and timeless significance" (11). In more recent, traditional-style allegories it is the same. In The Water Babies, Tom is assisted by a host of numinous and near-omniscient beings--the fairies, the Irish woman, Mother Carey, Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, and so on. Kingsley's narrator is also a guide of sorts to the reader, for he helps to establish unambiguously the moral and cosmographic rules according to which the quest will proceed.
ALICE, in contrast, is entirely on her own. Even though in Wonderland she was "never so ordered about before (Gardner 125), all Alice encounters are parodies of the guides (both subjective and objective) which are available to the more conventional allegoric hero. Some, such as the Caterpillar or the Cheshire Cat, provide a modicum of practical advice; but on the whole they simply add to Alice's confusion concerning more fundamental questions regarding her identity, purpose, and goal. Her "Advice From a Caterpillar" (ch. V), a seemingly auspicious mentor--meditative and telepathic--consists (aside from the ironically "important" admonishment "keep your temper") of a circular dialogue which begins and ends by reiterating Alice's lack of an absolute means to gauge her identity: with the question "Who are you?" (67, 68). Her identity has, of course, already--in her own mind, at least--been radically called into question by her many metamorphoses. By having her attempt to recite "You are old, Father William," the Caterpillar only assists in further undermining memory as the most plausible candidate for such a fixed gauge (one frequently resorted to in earlier dream literature). If, as Claude Levi-Strauss suggests, the unified personal ego is the "spoilt brat of philosophy," the Caterpillar takes pains to ensure that Alice's identity is not so spoiled--or rather that it is "spoiled." Nor is that all, for before the interview has concluded he raises yet another "puzzling question," the ontological and moral "why?" (68), to which he provides no answer. Like Dante in the Paradiso, Alice's mind is "from thought to thought / Tangling itself into a knotted band." She too is "anxious for aid and panting till it's brought" (Sayers trans., VII. ll. 52-54). But where is her Virgil or Beatrice?
As readers, we too feel equally bewildered. The narrator in Alice, however, (unlike that in Kingsley's allegory, for example) is everywhere shadowy, enigmatically detached, and non-committal. He reiterates for us the obvious fact that Alice is indeed confused, but never pretends to "omniscience" in the larger sense. Barbara Nolen observes that in the traditional medieval quest readers must be "aware simultaneously of two visions":
They are expected to see both the visionary world as it is seen by the stumbling narrator [or pilgrim] and the same world in its universal or spiritual significance. They, together with the poet and often with a guide or guides, observe with ironic detachment and amusement (and sometimes sympathy) the disparity between the two visions. (141)
It is, of course, this "second perspective" that is so elusive in Alice. There is no ironic vantage point from which to dismiss Alice's quest as abortive due to her own limited vision. We have no means (except extra-textual) of lifting ourselves out of the apparent mania of Wonderland; no second vision to set in contrast against it. Our perspective is that of participant, and as participant we must acknowledge ourselves just as bewildered, just as lacking in reliable guides and transcendent vantage points as Alice herself.
Alice begins with a definite goal in mind--to get to the garden--yet she has "not the smallest idea how to set about it" (64) and no one seems very willing to help her. Alice asks the Footman of the Duchess, "What am I to do?" He throws her back upon her own subjectivism: "Anything you like" (81-82). The Duchess, herself, only reminds Alice of her ignorance: "You don't know much, and that's a fact" (83). By the time Alice encounters the Cheshire cat her own will to complete the quest seems to be lapsing:
"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to" said the Cat. "I don't much care where--"said Alice. "Then it doesn't much matter which way you go," said the Cat. "--so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation. "Oh, you're sure to do that" said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough." (88)
The Cheshire Cat is about the closest Alice comes to finding a benevolent guide in Wonderland, but in a traditional allegory like The Pilgrim's Progress such counsel as he gives here would more likely be put into the mouth of an enemy as an invitation to the hero to despair. At this point, Alice is indeed simply wandering. "Where we going?" asks Benny Profane in Pynchon's V.; "The way we're heading," replies Pig Bodine (8).
Likewise upsetting to customary expectations, the series of "obstacles" Alice encounters on her symbolic journey are not really occasions for progress or regress. Alice does not complete any essential tasks, acquire any knowledge (expect perhaps doubt), or defeat any enemies in her wanderings. There is no graduated series of advancements toward her goal, and furthermore there is no means of telling what might be the terms on which such progress is possible. Critics have tried to devise a variety of basic moral dualisms for Wonderland: as, for example, a struggle between reason and religion, or reason and imagination, or a more deliberately psychomachic struggle (Alice, it will be remembered is fond of pretending to be more than one person ) between madness and sanity, subconscious and consciousness, primitive instinct and civilized behavior, or simply child and emerging adult. But while conflict between such ideologies and psychological forces is clearly at work, none really rise to a cosmographic level to become the means by which Alice's progress can be comprehensively measured. Carroll's songs parody a few choice moralities, such as the prudential thrift of the puritan work ethic and the maudlin, sentimental romanticism of some (especially children's) poetry. The disturbing aspect of Wonderland, however, is not that these already-crumbling sentiments should be toppled, but that nothing more solid, unequivocal, or "progressive" is established in their place.
Carroll took pride in the fact that most of his tales were not rigidly moralistic (see Sylvie and Bruno 382; "Preface" to Hunting of the Snark 17) as was the case with much Victorian children's literature. His attitude toward the allegorical reading of his works was similar to the reader-response position of George MacDonald, who blithely predicted concerning his own fairy tales: "everyone ... who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning into it, another will another" (Orts 316). Carroll likewise comments: "words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means. So whatever good meanings are in the book [The Snark], I'm glad to accept as the meaning of the book" (qtd. in Gardner, "Introduction" 6). In MacDonald's case, the strong moral purpose which he explicitly built into most of his allegorical tales probably accounts for his confidence in giving the reader such interpretive latitude. In Wonderland, however, it is nearly impossible (except arbitrarily) to assign normative values to incidents and characters, for no such inherent custos morum can be found. Such adiaphorism may be relatively insignificant in a pure, escapist adventure or fantasy story; but in an allegorical quest such an absence--especially one that insists on raising fundamental ontologic and teleologic questions--has far-reaching implications. In the absence of any moral or transcendent heuristics, the dominant cosmographic picture that emerges is one of chance wandering and baffled teleology. In Alice's own words, "It's exactly like a riddle with no answer!" (324). Or, in the subjective allegoresis of the Duchess: "everything's got a moral, if only you can find it" (120). In one sense this is the "moral" of Alice in Wonderland; and as Jonathan Culler argues of allegory in general, it "flaunts the gap we must leap to produce meaning, and thus displays the activity of interpretation in all its conventionality" (229).
WHEN, after a series a digressive delays Alice finally does, by pure chance, reach the nominal goal of her quest, Carroll wastes not a moment in undercutting it. Viewed through the tiny door, Alice's garden appears as an ideal symbol that might have functioned as the "world-wide dream of the happy garden" (Lewis, Allegory 119-120). Alice's garden was "the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains" (30). Carroll was no stranger to German Romantic sehnsucht or various other "spots of time,"--those "pleasure[s] very near to sadness, bringing tears to one's eyes like a beautiful picture or poem" ("An Easter Greeting" 23) and which comprise, in their various forms, important alternatives to purely rational modes of thought in many allegorical works. At the aesthetic and spiritual climax of Sylvie and Bruno, Concluded, for instance, the narrator, hearing Sylvie sing, experiences a "sudden sharp pang that seemed to pierce through one's very heart." At this "perfect beauty," he is overcome with a "sense of awe that was almost terror--some such feeling as Moses must have had when he heard the words 'Put off thy shoes from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground'" (ch. XIX, p. 306).
If the garden Alice sees functions initially as such a numinous symbol--a glimpse of her true heart's desire--it is clearly not so when she enters it. Near the close of Le Roman de la Rose the allegorical figure, Genius, describes, in contrast to the corrupt earthly "Garden of Diversion," a heavenly garden possessing "all things that are delightful, true and eternal" (de Meun 334). Alice's garden, it must be conceded, is never described in such moral/theological terms, and so we are perhaps less justified in being shocked when we find frustrating games, painted flowers, and the constant threat of death as opposed to what is "delightful, true, and eternal." The deflection of traditional expectations, however, is hard simply to ignore. Instead of the hortus conclusus (Robertson 31), a secluded paradise where, as Paul Piehler has said of the typical allegoric garden, "reason and intuition are harmonized" (78), the Queen's garden is merely an extension of Wonderland's amoral, riddling uncertainty, whose inhabitants are all anarchically "doing what they like" and "don't seem to have any rules in particular" (113). The croquet game "typifies the games of Wonderland," as Kathleen Blake writes, and "frustrates Alice because of the maddening absence of fixity in rules or terms" (Play 124). As with her quest in general, Alice finds it impossible to strike the ball home. Instead of an exalted, majestic Godhead (the sight of which, however brief, consummates Dante's, Bunyan's, Kingsley's, and MacDonald's quests, among many others) in whose presence all uncertainties and doubts are consumed by a fearful reverence, Alice finds, to her relief, but also perhaps to her frustration and devotional disappointment, that the King, Queen, and royal hosts of Wonderland are "only a pack of cards, after all" and she "needn't be afraid of them" (108). Alice gains a great deal of "courage," insight, and freedom to make her own rules from this realization (so much so that the others will now begin currying her favor, appealing to her to solve questions of difficulty). But along with this comes also a bitter sense of detachment and isolation: "'And who are these?' said the Queen, pointing to the three gardeners.... 'How should I know?' said Alice, surprised at her own courage. 'It's no business of mine'" (108-9). Later, when told the jurors are writing their names so as not to forget them, she exclaims in a "loud and indignant voice ... 'Stupid things!'" (145). Alice has now shed her previous attitude of wonder (not, for her, a very strong or spontaneous one to begin with) and in its place has emerged what was until now only an incipient possibility: a rather "Byronic," skeptical, homeless--though still intermittently baffled and frightened--wanderer.
By even the first few chapters of Alice readers will have sampled enough of Wonderland to see that it is singularly populated with "daemonic agents," to use Angus Fletcher's phrase for the type of fixated, constricted fragments that symbolize the various ideas or states of mind usually comprising the larger psyche of an allegory's central hero (ch. 1). In Wonderland, however, the characters are almost all fixated on trivial or nonsensical concerns, and, as has been suggested, refuse to line up and take sides in a recognizable holy, or even intellectual, war. Likewise, Carroll's bees, spiders, flies, and other beasts decline to take on their customary allegorical or sacramental roles as assigned by the Bestiaries and Emblem books, and Carroll deliberately parodies their use as such by earlier authors. The reader of traditional allegories is used to encountering all kinds of "mad" or terrifying creatures in these fluid dream-realms. Even morally good allegorical characters can, because of their strange fixations, appear mad; as when, for example, Penance in de Deguileville's Pelerinage is thought "out of hyr wyt" by some because she carries around a broom in her mouth (l. 4023, p. 106). Wonderland makes us uneasy, however, precisely because its inhabitants are "mad" for no discernible reason, good or evil. Its angels and demons refuse to take on a recognizable shape. Are they everywhere or nowhere? Real or imagined?
Once in the garden, Alice, finding no superior "daemonic" guides or divinities, begins in essence to assume the "godship" of her Wonderland and starts, as we have seen, in a tentative way to assign the moral roles herself in preparation for the final exorcism and apocalypse. She wills a certain degree of moral significance onto her daemonic agents by mocking, labeling, or defying them; but in the end it is not enough to convince us (or her) that it is anything more than an arbitrary and half-hearted attempt at ontologic sleight-of-hand. And it is a pretense she will not consistently and confidently keep up. It may sound perverse to wish that Alice had someone recognizably evil to fight, but in reality this is what allegorical battlegrounds were originally designed for.
The trial which concludes Alice's adventures is more absurd than it is parodic, for it doesn't really undercut or attack fundamental notions of justice or ethics. Possibly it is a mock form of the last judgment, but we need not be that specific to see that again it is definitely not the sort of epiphany or affirmation of basic truths typical of orthodox quest allegory. The King asks Alice,
"What do you know about this?' "Nothing," said Alice. "Nothing whatever?" persisted the King. "Nothing whatever," said Alice. (155)
The interpretative skills which the King of Hearts brings to bear on the "They told me you had been to her" poem (like his unsuccessful appeal to the "rule book," a final valiant effort on his part to contain the disorder that is imminent) are an interesting example of a reader trying to make out a "good meaning" of a literary work, as Carroll would have it. At first the King appears as though he may be content with the poem's ambiguity: "If there's no meaning in it, that saves a world of trouble" (159). Alice herself believes we should not waste time on riddles that have no answer (97). She has by now largely given up trying to make sense of her Wonderland experience, and "doesn't believe there's an atom of meaning in it." But the King finds that he simply cannot resist an allegorical reading. If Carroll merely intended this as a warning to would-be allegorizers of his fantasy, in the context of Wonderland it is hard not to see it as yet another symbol of Alice's futile quest for unambiguous meaning--the inability of her, or anyone else, except through blatant coercion, to make her quest fit the traditional allegorical pattern where blame ("who stole the tarts") can be definitely assigned, and judgment ("off with his head") can be confidently and non-arbitrarily delivered.
WHEN Alice finally does reject Wonderland as "nothing put a back of cards, this could possibly be seen as a philosophical "get thou behind me Satan," an existentialist rejection of a meaningless Wonderland and a first step toward faith or certainty of some sort. But as a final allegorical climax it is equivocal to say the least. And we are still, of course, left with the question, What is she rejecting it in favor of: the "dull reality" (163) of her sister's world? No dreamer in the history of allegorical quest literature--Alice included--was ever especially glad to awaken from their dream and find themselves back here. When Alice awakes she runs off thinking "what a wonderful dream it had been" (162) and calls her Looking-glass dream "such a nice dream!" (341). Even a nightmarish Wonderland, it would seem, is preferable to this region of "thoght, pyne [pain], and aduersitee [adversity]" (James I 44). Preferable to both, presumably, would be a vision of a true, paradisiacal "Wonderland." But again this is precisely what Alice is denied. "Allace, allace, I thocht me than in pane," exclaims the dreamer in Gavin Douglas's allegory The Palice of Honour, when at the end of his quest he awakes to find himself in the world. And he "langeit [longed] for to have swemit [to dream] agane" (Douglas ll. 2096-7, p. 129). The reason is that he has been to paradise and beheld where "enthronit sat ane God Omnipotent" (l. 1921, p. 119). Alice, in contrast, beholds enthroned only a foolish, if kindly, King, who cannot even un-jumble a short poem, let alone her destiny.
The dream allegory is a genre whose formal beginnings are usually traced back to Cicero's Somnium Scipionis. (6) While, as stated earlier, it seems unlikely that Carroll had parodies of specific allegorical works in mind, it is revealing, and will serve as a sort of summary of the arguments presented thus far, to note the basic elements of this tradition as they are established in Cicero's model and from which Carroll's work veers. In Cicero's dream, Scipio the Younger is transported upward into the non corruptible spheres of the heavens. He is then instructed by his sainted father and grandfather, who give him a glimpse of the "ninth" or divine sphere, which stands in direct contrast to the sublunary earth where souls become "intoxicated" and forgetful as they descend into the world of matter (Macrobius 135). The structure of the cosmos--both physical and moral--is laid out before Scipio, and his future life is even outlined. He is also reassured that the material form of his body does not impinge upon the essential nature of his eternal mind and free will.
In his commentary on the dream (also highly influential on medieval allegorical tradition), Macrobius distinguishes between several different types of dreams. One, the "nightmare" type,
arises from some condition or circumstance that irritates a man during the day and consequently disturbs him when he falls asleep, they flee when he awakes and vanish into thin air.... they are noteworthy only during their course and afterwards have no importance or meaning. (Macrobius 89)
(Alice's adventure, it will be remembered, is based upon external happenings which become mixed up with the events of her dream.) Another dream type according to Macrobius, the "enigmatic" (of which the Somnium is claimed to be an example), "conceals with strange shapes and veils with ambiguity the true meaning of the information being offered, and requires an interpretation for its understanding" (90). In such terms, Alice in Wonderland, it could be said, is an enigmatic dream the "meaning" of which is a "nightmare." It is a dream about the impenetrability of dreams, both sleeping and waking. In contrast to Scipio, Alice falls to the very center of the sublunary world, where all the creatures are supremely "intoxicated." Her forgetfulness becomes so acute that her very identity fragments and no recourse to Platonic anamnesis such as reciting songs, etc. will restore it to her. There is no elder saint to guide her, to reveal to her the principles which govern the cosmos, to assure her that her identity is stable and independent of her bodily form, and no vision of a fixed unchanging heaven where, by following the rules, one may attain to a "blessed existence forever" (Macrobius 71). In looking for clues as to why Alice in Wonderland has so captured the modem imagination, this point-by-point reversal of a fundamental, archetypal, centuries-old Western paradigm seems a promising place to start.
When, over a decade later, he came to write his Sylvie and Bruno books, Carroll remarked:
I took courage to introduce what I had entirely avoided in the two "Alice" books--some reference to subjects which are, after all, the only subjects of real interest in life, subjects which are so intimately bound up with every topic of human interest that it needs more effort to avoid them than to touch on them. (qtd. in Coilingwood 308-9)
If Carroll thought he had successfully avoided introducing spiritual or metaphysical topics into the Alice books, he at least, as the above quote shows, recognized the inherent tendency in humans to compulsively seek answers to such questions. Carroll was also, of course, not unaware of the major assaults that were being leveled against the religious certainties of his day. He knew of the "skeptical thoughts" that could assail the reclining head and "which seem for the moment to uproot the firmest faith" (qtd. in Collingwood 322). But his conscious, customary response was not so much dogmatic withdrawal (which he slipped into on rare occasions) as to adopt a Socratic sense of humility and wonder in the face of the complexity and inscrutability of the universe. As the Earl in Sylvie and Bruno, Concluded remarks: "Many of our religious difficulties are merely deductions from unwarranted assumptions. The wisest answer to most of them, is, I think, 'behold we know not anything"' (297).
THE image of the frustrated, unfulfilled, or tautological quest, however, is constantly reasserting itself in Carroll's works, threatening the fragile foundations of innocent wonder and "foolish" awe. In the Alice books this larger pattern is reinforced by numerous smaller images: the pointless caucus race, the revolving tea party, running merely to stand still, the loveliest rushes which are always out of Alice's reach, the kitten chasing its tail, the endless battle of the Lion and the Unicorn, the shelves whose shifting contents elude pursuit and turn Alice into a spinning teetotum, the searching for "a way to multiply by ten, and always in the answer get the question back again" (part of the original version of the White Knight's song), and the little hands which make "vain pretence our wandering to guide" (Gardner, Annotated 307) Throughout his life Carroll was fascinated by mazes, though, in spite of their complexity, his early ones did include a way out (Fisher 19-20). In his long nonsense poem Phantasmagoria, a ghostly pilgrim, lost in a "syllogistic maze," eventually sights his goal, mounts a summit, and there receives "a buffet in the face" that sends him tumbling down the hill again (Collected Verse 85-86). To Margaret Cunnynghame, Carroll writes: "To wander in an empty cave / Is fruitless work, 'tis said: / What must it be for one like me / To wander in his head?" (Selected Letters 51). And regardless of how one might allegorize the specifics of The Hunting of the Snark, the same basic pattern is present: the Narrenschiff ("ship of fools") guided by a blank map, engaged in a compulsive search for an elusive, uncertain and perhaps even imaginary creature, and meeting, finally, an equally inscrutable destiny.
The universe, wrote Carlyle, is "a mighty maze, yet, as faith whispers, not without a plan" (I.viii, p.52). Whether such a faith--a "wondrous" faith, perhaps--whispers through the labyrinths of Wonderland is yet another unresolved question for which we have some hints, but no very substantial grounds for an answer. In the desert, as the saying runs, the voices of God and the Devil are scarcely distinguishable. Elizabeth Sewell suggests, "perhaps there is no truth to find out, any more than there would be in a nightmare or a game of chess, the notion being out of place" (41). Perhaps. Yet there persists in the buried, covert places of the mind an instinct that compels us, possibly against our better judgment, to scan the cards for clues to our fate, to see in dreams the hieroglyphics of divinity, and to look to games (chess or otherwise) as allegorical mirrors of the cosmos. Like Columbus, Carroll too may have been unaware of the real country he hit upon. Intentionally or by chance, however, he opened a passage to a new allegorical dark continent that writers have been exploring, colonizing, and in some cases, demonizing, ever since.
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(1) Even a partial bibliography of critical discussions of this sort will give an idea of the extensiveness of this trend: Beverly Lyon Clark, The Mirror Worlds of Carroll, Nabokor, and Pynchon (New York: Peter Lang, 1985); A. E. Dyson, "Kafka and Lewis Carroll: Trial by Enigma," Twentieth Century 160 (July 1956): 49-64; Elizabeth Sewell compares Carroll with Kafka in "Law-Courts and Dreams" in The Logic of Personal Knowledge, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961, 179-188; James Joyce, "Lolita in Humberland," Studies in the Novel 6:3 (Fall 1974): 339-348; Elizabeth Prioleau, "Humbert Humbert Through the Looking Glass," Twentieth Century Literature 21: 4 (Dec. 1975): 428-437; Piara Beaslai, "Was Joyce Inspired by Lewis Carroll?" Irish Digest 78:1 (1963): 35-38; Ann McGarritty Buki, "Lewis Carroll in Finnegan's Wake" & Roger B. Henkle, "Carroll's Narratives Underground: 'Modernism' and Form" both in Lewis Carroll: A Celebration, ed. Edward Guiliano, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1982, 154-166 & 89-100; Terry Otten, "Steppenwolf and Alice--In and Out of Wonderland," Studies in the Humanities 4:1 (Mar. 1974): 28-34; Caroline Gordon & Jeanne Richardson, "Flies in Their Eyes? A Note on Joseph Heller's Catch-22," Southern Review 3 (1967): 96-105; Patrick Morrow, "Yossarian in Wonderland: Bureaucracy, the Alice books and Catch-22," North Dakota Quarterly 43:2 (Spring 1972): 50-57; Virginia Scott, "Doris Lessing's Modern Alice in Wonderland: The Good Tenorist and Fantasy," International Fiction Review 16:2 (Summer 1989): 123-7; Jennifer Stafford Brown, "Surrealists in Wonderland: Aspects of the Appropriation of Lewis Carroll," Canadian Review of Comparative Literature (March-June 2000): 128-143; Nina Demerova, "Vladimir Nabokov, Translator of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland," in Nabokov at Cornell, ed. Gavriel Shapiro, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003, 182-191; Alan Lopez, "Deleuze with Carroll: Schizophrenia and Simulacrum and the Philosophy of Lewis Carroll's Nonsense," Angelaki 9:3 (Dec. 2004): 101-120; Leila S. May, "Wittgenstein's Reflection in Lewis Carroll's Looking Glass," Philosophy and Literature 31 : 1 (Apr. 2007): 79-94. Broadly speaking, ontologically oriented analyses of the Alice books appear to have declined somewhat in recent years, in part, perhaps, as a consequence of the stalemate between opposing "nonsensical" and "nightmarish" readings of the texts.
(2) Those who unequivocally reject the historical allegorizing of critics like Taylor should not overlook the fact that Carroll was very fond of precisely this sort of political "dark conceit." Many of his minor works--for example, "The New Method of Evaluation as Applied to Pi," "The Blank Cheque: A Fable," and most of the other essays reprinted in Notes By an Oxford Chiel (1874), as well The Elections of the Hebdomadal Council (1866), Euclid and His Modem Rivals (1879), and other miscellaneous pieces such as his "morality play" on science in an 1877 letter to The Pall Mall Gazette (on which, see Taylor, 167)--exhibit a strong tendency to treat allegorically the topical squabbles of his day. Also, as Taylor rightly asserts, Carroll "did not make his nonsense out of nothing but used whatever lay nearest," which, in the Alice books, meant the basing of many scenes on real-life incidents.
(3) See also Rackin's "Blessed Rage: Lewis Carroll and the Modern Quest for Order," in Guiliano, ed., Lewis Carroll: A Celebration, 15-25. Kathleen Blake offers a fairly comprehensive overview of recent critical positions ("Three Alices, Three Carrolls" in Guliano ed. Soaring with the Dodo, Essays on Carroll's Life and Art, 131-138).
(4) See also Richard Field, "Alice's Adventures in Atomland in the Plastic Age," South Duxbury, MA: Faulkner & Field, 1949; Ernest La Prade, Alice in Musicland, London: Bodley Head, 1952; Peter E Sloss, Alice's Adventures in Jurisprudencia. Belvedere, CA: Borogrove P, 1982. Nadine Amadio, The New Adventures of Alice in Rainforest Land, Surry Hills, Australia: Watermark P, 1988. See also: Carolyn Sigler, ed., Alternative Alices: Visions and Revisions of Lewis Carroll's Alice Books: An Anthology, U of KYP, 1997.
(5) Detailed medieval uses of the chess allegory can be found in Lydgate's chess game of love in Reson and Sensuallyte, which is itself closely modeled after the Old French Les Echecs Amoureux; and in the Court of Sapience where the hero, on the "bord eschekker of [his] mind" plays (and loses) a game with Dame Fortune (The Court of Sapience, ed. E. Ruth Harvey 5-7). See also Chaucer's Boke of the Duchesse (ll. 618-64), Deguilleville's Pelerinage (Lydgate trans. ll. 17268-17320) Stephen Hawes' The Example of Vertu (II, ll. 652-3), Le Roman de la Rose (ll. 6631-99) and Middleton's A Game at Chess.
(6) Cicero is himself emulating the after-death vision which concludes Plato's Republic. Cicero's work, however, and the commentary by Macrobius which often accompanied it, formed the basic paradigm for most medieval allegorical dream visions and is, for example, referred to specifically as a model in the beginnings of the Roman de la Rose and Chaucer's "Parlement of Foules" and "The Boke of the Duchesse." Its influence is discussed by C. S. Lewis in The Discarded Image, 23-28.
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|Title Annotation:||Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll|
|Author:||Wheat, Andrew R.|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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