An Analysis of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The following text is a small part of a project from:
Jerry Maatta, HII, Katedralskolan, Uppsala, Sweden; March 1997. (Former source of this article)
Reproduced with permission from the author.
Interpretations and opinions
It is important to bear in mind that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, however special it may seem and however many different interpretations one thinks one can find, is, after all, but a story written to entertain Charles Dodgson’s favourite child-friends.
It is very obvious in the story that it was written for the three Liddell girls, of whom Alice was the closest to Dodgson. In the introductory poem to the tale, there are clear indications to the three, there named Prima, Secunda and Tertia — Latin for first, second and third respectively in feminized forms. The part considering rowing on happy summer days was derived directly from reality. It is said that he used to row out on picnics with the Liddell girls and tell them stories. On one of these excursions it started raining heavily and they all became soaked. This, it is said, was the inspiration to the second chapter of the book, The Pool of Tears. The ever-occurring number of three points out Dodgson always having in mind the three girls he tells the story to. It could, of course, having in mind the fact that he was a cleric, be the Christian Trinity or something completely different.
Many people have seen Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a prime example of the limit-breaking book from the old tradition illuminating the new one. They also consider it being a tale of the “variations on the debate of gender” and that it’s “continually astonishing us with its modernity”. From the looks of it, the story about Alice falling through a rabbit-hole and finding herself in a silly and nonsense world, is fairly guileless as a tale. The underlying story, the one about a girl maturing away from home in what seems to be a world ruled by chaos and nonsense, is quite a frightening one. All the time, Alice finds herself confronted in different situations involving various different and curious animals being all alone. She hasn’t got any help at all from home or the world outside of Wonderland. Lewis Carroll describes the fall into the rabbit-hole as very long and he mentions bookshelves on the sides of the hole. Perhaps it is an escape into literature he hints at. Carroll is an expert at puns and irony. The part with the mad tea-party is one of the best examples of this. There’s a lot of humour in the first Alice book, but in the second the mood gets a bit darker and more melancholic. The theme with Alice growing and shrinking into different sizes could reflect the ups and downs of adolescence with young people sometimes feeling adult and sometimes quite the opposite. The hesitation so typical of adolescent girls is reflected in Alice’s thoughts: “She generally gave herself good advice (though she very seldom followed it).” Many short comments point to teenage recklessness, restlessness and anxiety in all its different forms.
One other example of maturing is Alice getting used to the new sizes she grows. She talks to her feet and learns some of the new ways her body works in. Her feelings are very shaken from her adventures and she cries quite often when it’s impossible to obey the rules of the Wonderland — or is it adulthood? “Everything is so out-of-the-way down here”, as Alice often repeats to herself. Alice doesn’t like the animals in Wonderland who treat her as a child, but sometimes she gets daunted by the responsibility she has to take. The quote “Everyone in Wonderland is mad, otherwise they wouldn’t be down here” told by the Cheshire Cat can be given an existential meaning. Is it that everyone alive is mad being alive, or everyone dreaming him- or herself away is mad due to the escape from reality? Time is a very central theme in the story. The Hatter’s watch shows days because “it’s always six o’ clock and tea-time”. Time matters in growing up, I guess, but further interpretations are left unsaid. The poem in chapter 12 hints at forbidden love, and it is entirely possible that it is about his platonic love for children, or Mrs. Liddell, for that matter. Considering the fact, that the first manuscript was called Alice’s Adventures Underground, and that some — at least the Swedish — translation of the title is a bit ambiguous, it becomes more apparent, that the world Alice enters isn’t just any childrens’ playground, but a somewhat frightening and dangerous place for maturing. The “underground” part of the old title undeniably suggests drawing parallells to the direction of Dante or the Holy Bible.
Continuing in this direction, the wonderful garden, into which Alice wants to get, can be a symbol of the Garden of Eden. It can be assumed that Dodgson, being a cleric and a strictly religious man, had read and was very familiar with the biblical myths aswell as Milton’s Paradise Lost. It becomes more interesting when Alice finally gets into the garden and finds a pack of cards ruling it, with a very evil queen at its head. It appears to be a way of saying that even The Garden of Eden can be in chaos, or that the garden isn’t really what it appears to be. Or, having in mind his Victorian irony in the tale, a way of saying that our lives on Earth are, in fact, the closest we can get to a paradise, and that it is ruled my a malignous queen with little respect for human lives. These theories are, of course, merely speculations and it would be quite rude to suggest even madder parallells, which isn’t at all difficult with a childrens’ story of this kind.
Some people have gone very far in their claims that Lewis Carroll wrote the stories while influenced by opium. They say the fifth chapter with the smoking Blue Caterpillar is about drugs. These claims have no real evidence or facts to point at, and it seems that they’re just mad rumours made up by people who want to see more than there is in a fairy tale. It is fairly obvious that the visions of the stories derive from the genious of a man, and not from drug influence. If the worlds in the books are somewhat surreal it surely comes from Dodgson having a vivid imagination and an ability to make nonsense worlds alive. He definitely had his share of problems, but drugs don’t seem to have been one of them. At a closer look, there seems to be a whole lot of anguish in the story. This becomes even more apparent in the sequel, Through the Looking Glass, and its introductory poem, where the following can be found: “I have not seen thy sunny face, / Nor heard thy silver laughter; / No thought of me shall find a place / In thy young life’s hereafter—”. The part surely expresses Dodgson’s feelings for missing the young girl Alice used to be before growing up.
Perhaps the first story is more like a description of a young friend growing up and disappearing out of one’s life by becoming an adult, and as such, out of Dodgson’s reach. Dodgson lost contact with Alice Liddell in 1868, a few years before the publishing of the sequel. It seems that the first book is a tribute to a friend who, in time, will be lost to Dodgson, and that the sequel is, considering its tone, an epitaph. This is clearly seen in the last lines (actually, it’s just one long sentence) of the first story when Alice’s sister thinks of Alice:
“Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman ; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long-ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child- life, and the happy summer days.”
It appears to be Dodgson’s own thoughts about the girl growing up expressed through one of Alice’s sisters. Another quote that expresses Dodgson’s feelings for getting old found in the same introduction mentioned above: “We are but older children, dear, / Who fret to find our bedtime near.” This melancholy tone of Dodgson’s can be found in various parts of the sequel, which expresses his grief of losing the close friend he once had before she grew up and vanished. The very last poem in the sequel begins its lines with letters that make up “Alice Pleasance Liddell” — her complete name. Charles Dodgson’s academic education shows in his books. The exotic fantasy creatures who inhabit the worlds of his imagination all have very peculiar names made up from real words in English, French and Latin. For example, the Dormouse is a sleeping mouse. Dormire in Latin means to sleep, while there’s no need to explain the rest of the word.
It is very difficult to decide on or write a conclusion to a project concerning so intricate subjects as this. I’ve tried to show some different interpretations and keep the whole project as objective as possible. The subject is vast and there could probably be years spent on it without reaching a definitive answer, and therefore I suggest people use their own imagination, common sense and logic when discussing the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One of the few certain things are that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson really loved children and dedicated his works for them. Whether this love of his was sexual or platonic is almost impossible to decide with the few indications he left after him.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland presents a world in which everything, including Alice’s own body size, is in a state of flux. She is treated rudely, bullied, asked questions that have no answers, and denied answers to her own questions. Her recitations of poems turn into parodies, a baby turns into a pig, and a cat turns into a grin. The essence of time and space is called into question, and her romantic notion of an idyllic garden of life turns out to be a paper wasteland. In order to escape that oppressive and disorienting vision, she finally denies it with her outcry, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!,” and happily reenters the morally intelligible and emotionally comfortable world of her sister, who sits next to her on the green banks of a river in a civilized Victorian countryside.
The assaults on Alice’s senses of order, stability, and proper manners wrought by such characters as the Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, and the March Hare make it clear that Wonderland is not the promised land, a place of sleepy fulfillment. Rather, Wonderland stimulates the senses and the mind. It is a monde fatale, one that seduces Alice (and the reader) to seek new sights, new conversations, and new ideas, but it never satisfies her. Conventional meaning, understanding, and the fulfillment that comes with illumination are constantly denied her. That is the secret of Wonderland: Its disorienting and compelling attractions make it a Wanderland and Alice herself an addicted, unfulfilled wanderer.
Significantly, she is presented with a stimulating, alluring vision early in her adventures. Alice finds a tiny golden key that opens a door that leads to a small passage. As she kneels and looks along the passage, she sees a beautiful garden with bright flowers and cool fountains. She is too large, however, to fit through the door and enter the attractive garden. Alice’s dream garden suggests an adult’s longing for lost innocence and youth, and her desire to enter it invests the place with imagined significance. Later, when she goes into the garden, it loses its romantic aspect. In fact, it turns out to be a parodic Garden of Life, for the roses are painted, the people are playing-cards, and the death-cry “Off with her head!” echoes throughout the croquet grounds.
Alice’s dream garden is an excellent example of Carroll’s paradoxical duality. Like Alice, he is possessed by a romantic vision of an Edenic childhood more desirable than his own fallen world, but it is a vision that he knows is corrupted inevitably by adult sin and sex-uality. He thus allows Alice’s romantic dream of the garden to fill her with hope and joy for a time, but he later tramples that pastoral vision with the fury of the beheading Queen and the artificiality of the flowers and inhabitants.
Through the Looking-Glass abandons the fluidity and chaos of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for artifice and strict determinism. In the first book, the emphasis is on Alice’s adventures and what happens to her on the experiential level. In the sequel, Alice’s movements are controlled strictly by the precise rules of a chess game. The giddy freedom she enjoyed in Wonderland is exchanged for a ruthless determinism, as she and the other chess pieces are manipulated by some unseen hand.
Whereas Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland undermines Alice’s sense of time, space, and commonsensical logic, Through the Looking-Glass questions her very reality. Tweedledum and Tweedledee express the Berkele-ian view that all material objects, including Alice herself, are only “sorts of things” in the mind of the sleeping Red King (God). If the Red King were to wake from his dreaming, they warn Alice, she would disappear. Alice, it would seem, is a mere fiction shaped by a dreaming mind that threatens her with annihilation.
The ultimate question of what is real and what is dream, however, is never resolved in the book. In fact, the story ends with the perplexing question of who dreamed it all—Alice or the Red King? Presumably, Alice dreamed of the King, who is dreaming of Alice, who is dreaming of the King, and so on. The question of dream versus reality is appropriately set forth in terms of an infinite regression through mirror facing mirror. The apprehension of reality is indefinitely deferred, and the only reality may be one’s thoughts and their well-ordered expression.
In the final chapter, Alice, having become Queen, asserts her human authority against the controlling powers of the chessboard and brings both the intricate game and the story to an end. In chess terms, Alice has captured the Red Queen and checkmates the sleeping Red King. In human terms, she has grown up and entered that fated condition of puberty, at which point Carroll dismisses his dream child once and for all from his remarkable fiction.