Great Novel No. 18: “Alice In Wonderland”

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland

Through The Looking-Glass, And What Alice Found There

by Lewis Carroll

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Alice's Adventures In WonderlandForgive the inaccurate title; there is, of course, no classic novel called “Alice In Wonderland”. But for decades now it has been a traditional way of referring to the pair of books written by Charles Dodgson under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, and since this entry in the 100 Great Novels list cheats a bit to conflate both of them I thought it at least acceptable if not wholly desirable.

Why cheat and put two books in one? For the simple reason that they’re almost never thought of separately. Indeed I’ve yet to see a current edition that even publishes them separately. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass are so often mixed together (especially by film adaptations) that, again, I decided it was acceptable. So here we are, considering two books at once — but not completely thinking of two books as one.

Though written for children, and for one child especially, the Alice books aren’t much read by children today. Of all tastes, that of children’s fiction probably changes the most frequently and wildly. What Victorian children read with glee, our children read with puzzlement. And when it comes to Wonderland, terror can be thrown into the emotional mix apparently; I’ve heard friends complain that John Tenniel’s original illustrations frightened them as kids. Children are so malleable and mouldable that it’s little wonder how much the fashion for them changes over time.

Change is at the heart of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Alice’s location changes so rapidly that sometimes all it takes is for her to blink before she’s in a completely different space than she was a moment ago. The people she meets are so widely varied: the White Rabbit, the Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter and March Hare. And of course her size is the most malleable thing of all, whether because of eating a cake or a mushroom. The amount of fluid absurdity has caused some people to speculate if Lewis Carroll was a drug addict, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s only the amazing elasticity of the dream world that Alice has slipped into without even realizing it; she wakes at the end, but the beginning has no indication of her nodding off. The result clearly delighted Alice Liddell, Carroll’s seven-year-old friend, and delighted most young English children in the Victorian era.

Through The Looking-Glass, published six years later, seems in a way more ‘mature’ than the first. Instead of the wild abandon of the first book, there’s a stronger sense of structure to the plot. The entire story represents a chess game in which Alice takes the place of the White Queen’s pawn and proceeds down her row until she comes to the eighth square, where like all pawns she is then crowned Queen. Mirror imagery and reflection abounds, as one would expect in Looking-Glass World (and just like the previous novel on the list), adding to the more grown-up subtlety. And Alice comes up against some real metaphysical puzzles, like the famous example of the Red King’s dream — and the tale ends with her still wondering just who is dreaming about who.

But also by the end there is a growing sense of melancholy. The real Alice Liddell was growing up and was far from being the wide-eyed innocent child the first book was based on and written for. Change, after all, ultimately leads a child out of youth and into adulthood. One can sense Lewis Carroll (who much preferred the company of children to adults) in a sense saying goodbye to his friend who is growing up into a young woman, rather like a pawn that grows to be a queen after reaching a certain goal. Its incredible, structured creativity makes the second Alice book my favourite of the two.

Through The Looking-GlassEven if children don’t quite take to Lewis Carroll, it’s easy to see why adults do: his sense of humour. However odd it may be, there’s a kind of nonsense logic common in both Wonderland and Looking-Glass World whereby characters take puns and wordplay literally. They give everyday idioms their face value, so you’d better say what you mean (instead of meaning what you say) or others will call you a fool. In-jokes between Carroll and his friends are also common, as are references to the society of the time, and since those can be harder to appreciate I highly recommend getting yourself a copy of The Annotated Alice with some really insightful and informative notes by Martin Gardner.

With the enormous influence of these books on literature (both mainstream and genre) and British culture, it was easy to choose them for this project. Rediscovering them has been a pleasure.

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