The OF Blog: Leatherbound Classics: Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Friday, February 18, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

There seemed to be no use in waiting by the little door, so she went back to the table, half hoping she might find another key on it, or at any rate a book of rules for shutting people up like telescopes:  this time she found a little bottle on it, ("which certainly was not here before," said Alice,) and tied round the neck of the bottle was a paper label with the words "DRINK ME" beautifully printed on it in large letters.

It was all very well to say "Drink me," but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry:  "no, I'll look first," she said, "and see whether it's marked 'poison' or not":  for she had read several nice little stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts, and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends ha taught them, such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; and that if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds; and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked "poison," it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later. (pp. 12-13)

Originally published in 1865, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has delighted generations of readers, children and former children alike.  Lines such as "Off with her head!," or "curiouser and curiouser" have taken their place in the pantheon of literary quotes which have transcended their origins and have become expressions divorced from their literary milieu.  We know that if the Cheshire Cat grins, it will be the final thing we see of it.  Sizes change, as one can be small enough to look a mouse in the eye and tall enough that a large house cannot contain you.  Hatters and march hares gather together for tea and dormice are barely bothered by their mad chatter.  It truly is a wonderland, full of places to explore and oddities to encounter.

It would be easy to dismiss Carroll's work as being mere whimsy, suitable only for those children who still color their skies green and their grass purple.  However, this attitude would be akin to the reader putting on blinders.  What makes Carroll's story so memorable isn't necessarily so much the zany characters and situations that Alice encounters, but rather how Alice herself appears in this novel.  She is no one special.  She does not hold the power to change the tides of history or to alter the course of events for the inhabitants of Wonderland.  She is a very ordinary girl in a very extraordinary place and it is through her mundane eyes that we encounter the weirdness of her adventures in Wonderland.

Childhood can be a terrifying experience.  Each year, sometimes in as short of a span as a single month, we grow inches.  Our faces fatten and then lengthen and thin out somewhat.  Our legs seem too big for our bodies, or is it merely our heads are so huge when we are young?  Games that seem to be so much fun one day become silly "childish" games a scant few months later.  We barely knew what to make of it all and damn if some of our imagined worlds became full of our insecurities!  In re-reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland I found myself reflecting back on my own faintly-remembered youth; some things I had considered best forgotten with the passage of time.  Yet reading this story recently brought back memories, both of those fond dreams of discovery and the terrible waking nightmares that what I might discover might harm me irreparably.

Carroll here does not talk down to children.  He does not dismiss those flights of fancy, but rather uses them to connect with them.  Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, was anything but a social charmer in his adulthood.  Timid and yet brilliant when it came to mathematics, he found himself more comfortable being around children; Alice's Adventures in Wonderland began as a story told to amuse a little girl.  One of the many strengths of this novel, besides of course its vivid imagination, is how "natural" Alice feels.  In a day and age where children were expected to mind their P's and Q's and to be seen and not heard, Alice is presented in a sympathetic light, one that shows her being (mostly) level-headed even when bedlam was breaking out around her.  Carroll never "talks down" to her or to any of his characters.  If anything, this novel feels more like Carroll is a co-conspirator in the daily romps than a fusty old adult looming over a child, expecting them to mind their business and to emulate the serious adults around them.

Some modern readers have complained that there is little rhyme nor reason to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  They cite the lack of a coherent plot and the absence of well-developed, dynamic characters.  These criticisms would have a point if this novel were anything but what it actually is.  Structured around a dream, Alice's adventures aren't meant to solve anything as much as to let the reader's mind wander and wonder along meandering paths until a certain creative sense is achieved.  Alice is memorable not for what she says or does, but for the fact that she stands in place of us, allowing us to dream of talking white rabbits in waistcoats, pulling out pocket watches and tisking over lost time, or of psychotic queens of spades ordering executions left and right.  Dreaming is one of the most enjoyable parts of being human and even when the dreams turn to nightmares, we recharge our creative energies from indulging in these.  Alice's Adventures in Wonderland simply reminds us that some qualities of child-like thought should never be lost.  Highly recommended.

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