Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
In his introduction to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Morton Cohen writes: “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was Lewis Carroll’s first book for children and some think the greatest children’s book ever written.” Whether one agrees with that statement or not, one must acknowledge that the book has become a classic, one read by both children and adults. It is known all over the world, has been translated into many languages, and has been shown in various movie and television versions. The question often asked by readers is why, and it deserves an answer.
Even more curious are the facts surrounding its publication, specifically those concerning its author, its characters, and its publication. For instance, one would not guess that the author would be a graduate of Rugby and Oxford. One critic has explained this seeming contradiction the following way: “The Reverend Dodgson was a reserved, fussy bachelor. Lewis Carroll [the pseudonym Dodgson assumed] was a delightful, lovable companion to the children for whom he created his nonsense stories and poems. Biographers and historians have long been confused that one man could have two completely different sides.”
These two sides should have been obvious to a close observer from the very beginning. Dodgson was born in 1832, one of eleven children, the son of a cleric of the Church of England. As mentioned above, he attended both Rugby and Oxford, from which he graduated in 1854. In 1855 he became a lecturer in mathematics at Oxford, a position he held until 1881. He was made a Deacon in 1861. He died in 1898. This describes one side of Carroll, the mathematician and Deacon.
There was the other side, however, the one that most influenced the author of the Alice books. It is known that he stammered, and some critics have maintained that he parodied himself as the Dodo in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It is said also that he “was adept at mimicry and storytelling, and was reputedly quite good at charades.” We also know that as a youngster he wrote both stories and poetry and contributed to Mischmasch, a magazine put together by the family.
In fact, Lewis Carroll was always interested in various aspects of art and literature. He attended the theater frequently and, perhaps most importantly, was captivated by photography. This last interest was the greatest contribution to his famous books. As one biographer has written, “After taking up photography in 1856, he soon found that his favorite subjects were children and famous people.” In 1856 he coined the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. It was done, in typical Carrollian fashion, by translating his first and middle names into Latin, reversing their order, then translating them back into English.
His love of photography and children were the main aspects of Carroll’s “artistic” side and both contributed to his success with the Alice books. The sequence of events that led to the publication of the first Alice book is interesting. In 1856 Carroll met the Liddell family; Mr. Liddell was the head of Christ College. Carroll became a close friend of Liddell’s wife, Lorina, and the Liddell children, Lorina, Edith, and Alice. One of the activities Carroll and the children enjoyed were “rowing trips,” and it was on one they took on July the fourth in 1862 that Carroll began to put together the Alice story. According to what is now the accepted version of events, Carroll recited the story to Alice Liddell and she begged him to write it down. After much pleading and encouragement from friends who urged him to publish the story, he showed the rough manuscript to the publisher Macmillan, and it was published in 1865 as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Again the question arises: why is the book the greatest children’s book ever written? Once more Morton Cohen provides one possible answer. The author, Cohen tells us, had a “remarkable knowledge of the child’s inner nature.” In addition, he elaborates, “He took the child seriously, and he fed the child’s mind and imagination with highly inventive words and images, not just saccharine rhymes and limp, outworn narratives.”
Carroll, in other words, treats Alice as an equal, and her adventures reveal this gift. The best example, perhaps, is the scene with Alice, the Gryphon, and the Mock Turtle regarding school. Alice asks the Mock Turtle what he had to learn in school and the following interchange takes place:
“Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with …and then the different branches of Arithmetic – Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.”
“What else had you to learn?” Alice asks.
The Mock Turtle replies: “Well, there was Mystery, ancient and modern, with Seagraphy: then Drawling –the Drawling master was an old conger-eel, that used to come once a week: he taught us Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils.”
When the Gryphon tells Alice that he went to the Classical master instead of the Drawling master, the Mock Turtle interjects, “I never went to him. He taught Laughing and Grief, they used to say.”
“And how many hours a day did you do lessons?” said Alice.
“Ten hours the first day,” said the Mock Turtle: “nine the next, and so on.”
“What a curious plan!” exclaimed Alice.
“That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” the Gryphon remarked: “because they lessen from day to day.”
This scene captures the essence of Carroll’s magic: the word play, the tone of the passage, and the logic behind the humor; this is what school means to a child explains Carroll; it is all a part of growing up.
The same sense is found in the scenes when Alice keeps getting bigger and smaller. This is, again, a wonderful description of what a child feels when when growing up. As one young person who read Alice put it: “He makes fun of the adult world. [Alice] is caught in the contradictory condition of growing up and still being small.”
The same theme is found in the conclusion of the book. Carroll never lets go of the essential thrust of his basic idea – i.e., simple joys of childhood. Her dream at the conclusion of the book reinforces the theme:
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 her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood. … 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.
Michael Timko is Professor Emeritus (City University of New York). His major
interests are 19th-cetury literature and drama. He has published and lectured
widely on both scholarly and popular subjects and is currently one of the editors
of Dickens Studies Annual . He has published many articles on various subjects in
The World & I over the past years.