By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
There is a famous anecdote about Lewis Carroll and Queen Victoria: Victoria enjoyed Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) so much that she requested a first edition of Carroll’s next book. Carroll duly sent her a copy of the next book he published – a mathematical work with the exciting title An Elementary Treatise on Determinants.
Unfortunately, like most good anecdotes, this one isn’t true, but such a story does highlight the oddness of Carroll’s double life. Carroll, despite the radical nature of his nonsense fiction, was a conservative mathematician and don at the University of Oxford, real name Charles Dodgson.
But what does this novel, one of the most popular Victorian books for children, mean? Before we analyse Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it might be worth recapping the novel’s plot.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: summary
The novel begins with a young girl named Alice, who is bored with a book she is reading outside, following a smartly-dressed rabbit down a rabbit hole. She falls a long way until she finds herself in a room full of locked doors. However, she finds a key, but it’s for a door that’s too small for her.
However, there is a bottle labelled ‘DRINK ME’ on a table, so she drinks down its contents and promptly shrinks. But now she’s too small to reach the key on the table! She eats a cake labelled ‘EAT ME’, and she now grows to be too big – much bigger than her usual size. She begins to cry.
After shrinking back to her usual size, Alice starts to swim on the tide of her own tears, meeting a range of other animals including a mouse and a dodo. The latter declares there should be a Caucus-Race: everyone runs around in a circle but nobody wins. When Alice starts to talk about her cat back home, she inadvertently frightens all of the animals away.
The White Rabbit orders Alice to go into the house and find the gloves belonging to a duchess. Alice finds another potion in the house, which makes her grow large again when she drinks it. When animals hurl stones at her, these turn into cakes and she eats them, returning to her normal size.
Alice meets a blue caterpillar sitting on a mushroom and smoking a hookah pipe. The caterpillar tells Alice that one side of the mushroom will make her taller, while the other side will make her shorter. She breaks off two pieces from the mushroom and eats them. Sure enough, one side shrinks her again, while the other side makes me grow into a giant.
Alice sees a fish, working as a footman, delivering an invitation for the Duchess who lives at the house; he hands the letter to a frog who is working as the Duchess’ footman. Alice goes inside the house again. The Cheshire Cat appears in a tree, directing her to the March Hare’s house. He disappears but his grin remains when the rest of him has gone.
Alice attends the Mad Hatter’s tea party, along with the Marsh Hare and Dormouse. They throw lots of riddles at her until she becomes fed up with them and leaves. She finds herself in a garden in which playing cards are busy painting flowers. Alice meets the King and Queen, the latter of whom orders her to play a game of croquet in which live flamingos are used instead of croquet mallets (and hedgehogs are deployed as balls!).
The Duchess, who owns the Cheshire Cat, turns up just as the Queen is trying to have the Cheshire Cat beheaded. A Gryphon takes Alice to meet the Mock Turtle, who tells Alice he used to be a real turtle and is now sad because he was mocked when young. The Mock Turtle and the Gryphon then dance to the Lobster Quadrille.
The Queen of Hearts demands Alice’s head be removed: ‘Off with her head!’ But when Alice stands up to her, the Queen falls silent. Alice attends a trial at which the Knave of Hearts is accused of stealing the Queen’s tarts. Alice realises she is starting to grow bigger. She is summoned as a witness at the trial, but she has grown so big now that she accidentally knocks over the jury box containing the animals on the jury.
The Queen accuses Alice of stealing the tarts and once more demands her head. Alice stands up to them, and as the playing cards advance on her, she is wakened from her dream, and finds her sister shaking her: the playing cards have become leaves that have fallen on her. She is back in the real world.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: analysis
‘Lewis Carroll’ was really a man named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematician at Christ Church, Oxford. As such, he led something of a double life: to the readers of his Alice books he was Lewis Carroll, while to the world of mathematics and to his colleagues at the University of Oxford he was (Reverend) Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a man who formed his pen name by reversing his first two names (‘Charles Lutwidge’ became ‘Lewis Carroll’).
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland began life on 4 July 1862, when Charles Dodgson accompanied the Liddell children – one of whom was named Alice – on a boat journey, and told them the story that formed the basis of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which appeared three years later. Although its working title was Alice’s Adventures Underground, it was published with the more enchanting title which captures the magic, illogic, and nonsense which characterise the world ‘down the rabbit-hole’ in which Alice finds herself.
Carroll’s was by no means the first portal fantasy novel of this kind: two years earlier, in 1863, Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies had appeared. The book tells the story of the boy chimney-sweep, Tom, who goes beneath the water and becomes a ‘water-baby’.
In many ways the tale of a child slipping underwater into an alternate world of fantasy, where the Victorian world is curiously inverted, foreshadows Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, although Carroll came up with his story independently, before Kingsley’s novel was published. (Curiously, the phrases ‘mad as a March-hare’ and ‘grinning like a Cheshire cat’, by the by, both appear in The Water-Babies.)
But for all of their passing similarities, the chief difference between Carroll’s novel and Kingsley’s – and, indeed, between Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and 99% of the children’s fiction produced at the time – is that Carroll refused to use his story to offer his young readers a moral. You can see the moral message of a Victorian children’s story coming a mile off, but Carroll not only avoids such heavy-handed moralising, but actively criticises the very idea:
She had quite forgotten the Duchess by this time, and was a little startled when she heard her voice close to her ear. ‘You’re thinking about something, my dear, and that makes you forget to talk. I can’t tell you just now what the moral of that is, but I shall remember it in a bit.’
‘Perhaps it hasn’t one,’ Alice ventured to remark.
‘Tut, tut, child!’ said the Duchess. ‘Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.’ And she squeezed herself up closer to Alice’s side as she spoke.
This exchange, from ‘The Mock Turtle’s Story’ (Chapter 9), pit the mainstream Victorian attitude held by adults against the rebellious innocence of the child, with the censorious morality of the adult (‘Tut, tut, child!’) immediately closing down the child’s instinct to speculate, question, and retain an open mind (‘Perhaps it hasn’t one’).
So much for the moral meaning of Carroll’s novel. But does that mean that the glorious nonsense of the book, the subversion and inversion of the reality of the world, the fantastical creatures and episodes, are just that: ‘nonsense’, not meant to mean anything beyond themselves?
Critics have been tempted to analyse the novel through a Freudian or psychoanalytic lens: the novel is about a child’s awareness of itself in the world, discovering its own body and its place in that world. In finding herself in a completely mad world – full of tyrannical queens and mad hatters – Alice must learn to assert herself (something she does decisively at the end, when confronting the Queen of Hearts) and also, quite literally, keep her head about her while all about her are losing theirs (and often blaming it on her).
Or, even if we drop the Freudian label, we might view the novel as an exploration of a child’s journey through the world, making sense of everything and realising that sometimes grown-ups – those authority figures the child is told to obey because they are older and wiser than she is – are the stupidest people in the room.
For all that, should we analyse Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a scathing satire on radical new ideas in nineteenth-century mathematics, ideas for which Carroll/Dodgson had little time? Melanie Bayley thinks so, and published an article in the New Scientist in 2009 in which she set out her thesis. You can read Bayley’s article here.
If you enjoyed this analysis of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, you might also like our summary and analysis of the book’s sequel, Through the Looking-Glass.