Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is one of the
pillars of western literature. The book began as an extemporaneous
tale Charles Lutwidge Dodgson told to his young friend Alice Liddell
and her friends on July 4th, 1862, while on a boating trip up the
Thames. Three years later, after considerable re-writing and the
addition of illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, the book was published
(under Dodgson's pen name, Lewis Carroll) and became an instant
The book is more than a fantasy tale for children or even serious
reading for adults. It is a part of western culture. Phrases from or
about the book litter our everyday conversation and writing: the
phrase "down the rabbit hole" returns more than twelve thousand pages
in a Google search, "cheshire cat" turns up more than 74,000 times.
From Jefferson Airplane's song White Rabbit to the white rabbit in the
Star Trek episode titled Shore Leave, Alice
references turn up everywhere. You can even buy a "Mad Hatter's Tea Party Kit" for your kids (see http://www.megabrands.com/teaparty/index.html).
Also, it's now vogue to make the obvious comparisons between
Alice and The Matrix: Neo follows the "white rabbit"
"down the rabbit hole" to find the "real world". (see
Dodgson was, by all accounts, a very reserved, shy, quiet-spoken
fellow. He wasn't particularly social, except in the company of young
girls. He loved to entertain them with puzzles and word games. He
also photographed them - even nude - but only with the consent of their
parents (photography was a new thing and there was a bit of a trend
to photographing nude children). At the age of 18 he entered Oxford
College, Christ Church and spent the rest of his life there after
becoming a lecturer in mathematics. While none of his mathematical
work became as famous as his children's books, he did solid work in
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (and its sequel Through
the Looking Glass) can be read at many levels. For children, it
can be read as a nonsense tale, much like the work of that other
famous children's writer, Dr Seuss. Adults, on the other hand, can
appreciate the clever word-play, the puns and the twists of logic that
surround Alice on her journey. Beneath the surface, there is a rich
symbolism that has supported generations of English theses.
The work is clearly a coming of age novel. Alice grows in the
course of the book and passes through many experiences. The
underlying lesson seems to be that growing up means leaving behind the
carefree anarchy of childhood to reach an adult world that has strict
rules and conventions. Following the rules too closely, however, can
be as bad as having no rules at all. This level of symbolism seems
pretty obvious and easy to follow: Alice physically grows when she
eats of the mushroom; she passes through many doors; the Queen is
clearly abusive of the rules; and so on. Garden variety symbolism
such as this is the fodder of every high school English teacher.
From here, however, the deep thinkers of ivory tower literature go
much farther. Some see sexual symbols everywhere: Alice falls into a
tunnel and tunnels are all vaginas; Alice has to put a key into a lock
to open a door (the big doors are Dodgson's female grownups, the small
one represents a girl) and all keys are phallic; Alice's neck
stretches, making her shape more phallic; it's all a bit distasteful,
really. Other, more extreme academics (and these people must have a
lot of time on their hands), see symbolism almost too deep to
fathom; such as the chap who thinks that the tears that Alice cried -
and ends up swimming in - represent the physical manifestation of her
consciousness (I am not making this up: "The tears of Alice make
possible the appearance to her in tangible shape of her own traits and
characteristics when she descends into the consciousness she has
created as she fans herself." see http://www.sabian.org/alice2mj.htm)
In the end, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has stood the
test of time because it's just plain fun to read. Dodgson's nonsense
twists you and turns you until you are thoroughly engrossed in the
words. Tenniel's illustrations are charming (and you should read
Alice at least once in an edition with his illustrations), but
many others have illustrated the book as well.
Here are some choice bits from the book:
"Curiouser and curiouser!" cried Alice (she was so much surprised,
that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English); "now
I'm opening out like the largest telescope that ever was! Good-bye
The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in
silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and
addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.
"Who are you?" said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice
replied, rather shyly, "I--I hardly know, Sir, just at present--at
least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must
have been changed several times since then."
"What do you mean by that?" said the Caterpillar, sternly. "Explain
"I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, Sir," said Alice, "because
I'm not myself, you see."
"I don't see," said the Caterpillar.
"I'm afraid I ca'n't put it more clearly," Alice replied, very
politely, "for I ca'n't understand it myself, to begin with; and being
so many different sizes in a day is very confusing."
"It isn't," said the Caterpillar.
"Well, perhaps you haven't found it so yet," said Alice; "but when
you have to turn into a chrysalis--you will some day, you know--and
then after that into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel it a
little queer, wo'n't you?"
"Not a bit," said the Caterpillar.
"Well, perhaps your feelings may be different," said Alice: "all I
know is, it would feel very queer to me."
"You!" said the Caterpillar contemptuously." Who are you?"
The Hatter was the first to break the silence. "What day of the
month is it?" he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of
his pocket, and was looking at it uneasily, shaking it every now and
then, and holding it to his ear.
Alice considered a little, and then said "The fourth."
"Two days wrong!" sighed the Hatter. "I told you butter wouldn't
suit the works!" he added looking angrily at the March Hare .
"It was the best butter," the March Hare meekly replied.
"I couldn't afford to learn it." said the Mock Turtle with a
sigh. "I only took the regular course."
"What was that?" inquired Alice.
"Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with," the Mock Turtle
replied; "and then the different branches of Arithmetic --Ambition,
Distraction, Uglification , and Derision."
"Well, there was Mystery," the Mock Turtle replied, counting off
the subjects on his flappers, "--Mystery, ancient and modern, with
Seaography: 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."
At this moment the King, who had been for some time busily writing
in his note-book, cackled out "Silence!" and read out from his book,
"Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the
Everybody looked at Alice.
"I'm not a mile high," said Alice.
"You are," said the King.
"Nearly two miles high," added the Queen.
"Read them," said the King.
The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. "Where shall I begin,
please your Majesty?" he asked.
"Begin at the beginning," the King said gravely, "and go on till you
come to the end: then stop."
Alice Liddell grew up. Her family felt a little weird at all the
attention paid her by Dodgson, so they limited contact between the two
as she got older. She was rumored to have had a romantic entanglement
with Prince Leopold who was at Oxford at the time, but nothing came of
it (and he wouldn't have been permitted to marry a commoner anyway). In 1880, she married Reginald Hargreaves and had three sons:
Alan, Leopold (called Rex at home and you sure have to wonder about
all that) and Caryl. Her husband died 46 years later, in 1926, and
Alice was forced to sell her manuscript of Alice's Adventures Under
Ground (the original title) for the large sum of £15,400 in order to stay afloat financially.
On the 100th anniversary of Dodgson's birth, Alice was invited to
the United States to get an honorary degree from Columbia University.
There was intense press interest and Alice had to undergo many
interviews and parades. On her return, she wrote to Caryl that she
was, "tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sound ungrateful? It
is - only I do get tired!" She died in 1934 at the age of
Dodgson's diary pages concerning certain periods with Alice were
ripped out after his death and Alice's mother destroyed the letters he
wrote to Alice. We'll probably never really understand their
relationship. (see http://www.aliceinoxford.net/Alice.htm and http://www.student.kun.nl/l.derooy/alice1e.html for more about Alice Liddell)
The Noded Alice