Alice in Wonderland at 150: still a literary wonder

A children's literature specialist pays homage to Lewis Carroll.
Susan Reibel Moore | Aug 28 2015 | comment  

Illustration by John Tenniell via Wikimedia Commons


It is 150 years since Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published and in that time Alice has become one of the world’s most loved children’s characters. The book “is more than a literary classic; it is part of our collective cultural imagination,” notes one of the many web pages dedicated to the anniversary. “Its illustrations, originally conceived by Carroll, realized by John Tenniel, and reinterpreted by hundreds of artists, are instantly recognizable; its nonsense songs and memorable lines are frequently quoted and repurposed by countless admirers.” Here, children’s literature specialist Dr Susan Reibel Moore takes us down the rabbit hole for a nostalgia walk through Wonderland.

As many avid readers will recall from childhood, at the start of Alice in Wonderland Alice chases a white rabbit down a rabbit hole that strongly resembles a deep well. In the musical version of the book, the rabbit sings that he is late for a very important date; but like Carroll’s protagonist, the audience has no idea what he means.

Straight away in the first of the two celebrated volumes in this series, nonsensical events in the underground occur one after another.   Glimpsing a little bottle standing near a looking glass in the rabbit’s house,  Alice  drinks the liquid in it, which makes her grow nine feet tall.  A threatening pool of water created by her tears, strange noises, the names of apparent servants imperiously summoned by the rabbit, the unexplained appearance of a mouse and an enormous puppy, the threatened arrival of Dinah the cat, pebbles which turn into little cakes, and a caterpillar sitting on a big mushroom greet her in rapid succession.  In response to a command from the caterpillar, Alice recites a long narrative poem about youth and age.  Soon afterwards, nibbling at the mushroom, she shrinks to nine inches in height.

Since all of these unnerving occurrences, with celebrated accompanying drawings by Sir John Tenniell, greet us in under 70 pages in the coveted Penguin first edition of the book, readers young and old cannot help being glued.  Of the startling happenings that immediately follow, the most celebrated introduces the tea party shenanigans of a Mad Hatter, a March Hare, and a Dormouse that ends up in the teapot.  In the middle of language games punctuated by the recital of an eccentric version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” which encourages somebody or other to “fly like a tea-tray in the sky”, a woman called a Black Queen appears in a pack of cards, accuses the Dormouse of murdering Time, and then shrieks, “OFF WITH HIS HEAD!”

At a summer camp for disadvantaged NY city boys and girls where I worked for two summers in the late 1950s, my younger sister played this Queen in a short musical production that temporarily scared children as old as ten!  Today, over a half-century later, that four-word phrase rings in my own head and, probably, the heads of many other devotees of Lewis Carroll.   Even though this classic writer’s linguistic brilliance cannot be fully appreciated by the young, or readily cited from memory by adults without strong literary training, its outstanding elements continue to compel admiring bravos and howls of laughter.


Illustration by George Dunlop Leslie via Wikimedia Commons

What does Lewis Carroll do with language?  He defines ordinary words in ways that are “curiouser and curiouser”.  Hence “mustard” is called “not a bird” but either a mineral or a vegetable, and love that makes the world go round is posited as identical to everybody’s minding their own business.  A sound education is said to begin with “reeling and writhing”, and to introduce the foundational branches of arithmetic, namely, Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.  Art lessons focus on drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils.  

Even more surreal, perhaps: A little baby turns into a pig.   In a royal procession  Alice  considers lying down on her face like three gardeners she has witnessed.  Arguments, which take place frequently, are settled by passionate screams. Living on treacle is defined as perfectly reasonable. The balls in a cricket match are live hedgehogs.  The words “Come on!” are indistinguishable from horrible orders to perform impossible feats.   And the Master in a sea school is called a Tortoise because, says a Mock Turtle who was once Real, “he taught us.” 

In  Through the Looking Glass  preposterousness again abounds.  Nobody knows the extent to which a real child in Carroll’s life, Alice Liddell, inspired his vivid imaginings.  But what is known is how popular this sequel to his first volume has been with children and adults fortunate enough to be introduced to it despite the waning influence of literary classics in an emerging Age of Technology.  In 1865, and then again in 1872, working with the same brilliant illustrator, the shy man who trained to be a clergyman but hardly ever delivered homilies, published what was initially a story relayed to the daughters of the rector who employed him. 

Talking insects and animals and celebrated figures of fantasy assume centre stage in both of Lewis Carroll’s celebrated classics.  After the famous poem “Jabberwocky” appears in full—beginning “Twas brillig and the sli/thy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe”—Alice enters a garden of live flowers, where she converses happily with a Tiger Lily, a Rose, and other creatures moving about on a chess board.   As a Pawn, Lewis Carroll’s heroine then has numerous startling, unnervingly violent, adventures.

The first famous adventure, which follows enjoyable brushes with the Red and White Kings and Queens, introduces  Alice  to two little fat men, the brothers Tweedledum and Tweedledee.  After reciting in its entirety the amusing narrative poem about gluttonously eating oysters, which contains the celebrated lines, “‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, ‘to talk of many things: Of shoes -and ships - and sealing wax – Of cabbages – and kings’,” Tweedledee sees Alice crying in a dark wood to try to establish her own reality.   By implication, her creator knew intimately the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  

Soon after she finds herself in a scary forest, in the wake of brief encounters with a talkative sheep and crabs who set her mind at rest, Alice converses with Humpty Dumpty, the memorable character who says that he can make a word mean whatever he wants it to mean. As if he were living now, representing everyone who believes that words whose meaning has been the same for centuries can be re-defined at will, the egg-shaped creature insists that being a powerful “master” is all.   Like every original thinker, Lewis Carroll was ahead of his time, prefiguring the linguistic hubris prominent a century later.  Of course, he knew that meanings understood for centuries have remained in essence unchanged, despite intriguing permutations consistent with altered cultural norms. 

At bottom, what makes the Alice books so endearing to children and adults is the main character herself.  At once agreeably curious in a manner inseparable from a thirst for knowledge, and unfailingly courteous to everyone she happens to meet, Alice has a calm, firm, cool-headed matter-of-factness seamlessly linked with imaginative depth and breadth.  Whether she suddenly encounters a talking animal, like the Cheshire Cat, or a freakishly controlling flibberty gibbet like the Black Queen, she is intelligently open to a conversational journey that arrives somewhere interesting.  She doesn’t simply meander, leaving readers up in the air about meaning and value. 

What is revealed in virtually every one of Alice’s encounters is the power of verbal flights of fancy and the linked, abiding influence of probity.  Linguistic games, in Carroll’s hands, are enlightening.  They increase our vocabularies and our alertness to virtue, encouraging us to vary our own phrases and sentences spontaneously so that our understanding of the reaches of language grows as engagingly as  Alice’s does.  We want to know, as surely as she does, how a little crocodile improves its shining tail.  For the sake of future discoveries, we are keen to make use of new, strangely exciting items like a suddenly discovered bottle of ink.  And, like her, we suffer feelings of indignation if our intellectual reach is underestimated.

At an obvious level it is always impossible to account for lasting literary power, since it is lodged in mystery.  When words have a life of their own, rising to the clouds in joyful verve, we cannot help ourselves from travelling with them.  Unlike any other children’s writer in English who can be readily named, the gentleman whose real name was Charles Dodgson, and whose formative training at Dr Arnold’s school and then Oxford led him to realms of gold, he repays multiple re-readings, even in the same week.  Even Oliver Twist and David Copperfield languish for some time after we have read or re-read them.   But they are not a mere 100 pages long. 

Because Lewis Carroll  understood that worthy people of every age dislike the staid and the stodgy, he was able to invent creatures and places precious to everybody who warms at once to Alice’s tender-hearted fawn and mischievous kitten.   Since there are many people now living in Australia who were not treated to Wonderland in childhood, it is worth stating explicitly that it is virtually impossible to think of any other writer whose appeal so transcends age, ethnicity, and regional loyalties. 

Riddles that cannot be answered, songs that cannot be quickly sung, and poems that cannot be read aloud on a single page cry out to be explored again.  Gently smiling jaws that welcome little fishes in become taken-for-granted elements in our own mental and emotional landscapes.  Rebukes for rudeness— “You CANNOT say, ‘Your hair it too long!’”--appear with amusing regularity.  And, best of all, cheering guinea pigs whose shouts cannot be drowned out by officers of any court carry the day. 

Dr Susan Reibel Moore is a widely published literary critic who is particularly devoted to books for the young—not least, because of her two most recent grandchildren in Christchurch and her current work on the 4th edition of her Aussie first, What Should My Child Read?

To see the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland, click here

This article is published by Susan Reibel Moore and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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