Published using the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Charles Dodgson’s stories Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have amused both children and adults ever since they first hit the shelves. Some controversies have popped up, such as the supposed use of drug imagery or sexual tones, but most readers believe that his works are still, “classics of pure, innocent child literature” (Woolf, 2010). Rave reviews for them commonly include descriptors such as fun, hilarious, and entertaining at the least. But while accusation of deviancy have mostly bee put to the side by modern arguments, this is not to say that there is no subtext at all in Alice. In addition to Carroll working in political satire for the published version, “it was written during the Victorian Age, a time when children books had a didactical purpose” (Lambert, 2014). Thus, it is completely rational for people to find themes in the stories that Carroll may or may not have intended to include. The difficulty lies in determining what themes are part of the story, and what themes more a part of the reader.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland stories originated as made-up tales he told to the daughters of friends of his, one of whom was named Alice. Fittingly, one of the recurrent themes in the two stories deals with growing up, and the differences between children and adults. Alice is a young girl who falls into a world where she doesn’t understand the rules, and has to make her way through while interacting with characters that seem to speak non-sense. Carroll likely intended this to mirror the way a child would feel surrounded by adults, whose emphasis on oddities like manners and proper grammar seem very confusing.
Throughout the stories Alice metaphorically and literally grows to eventually become a queen at the end of Through the Looking Glass, figuring some of Wonderland’s rules, only to finally end up where she started—arguably Carroll’s commentary on the dangers of growing up too fast.
Still, changes in size and power are constant in the books, and are often upsetting to young Alice, representing the dangerous waters of puberty, where people are neither one nor the other. We first see this when Alice has fallen through the rabbit hole, and sees “the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to go out of that dark hall, and wander among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head through the doorway” (Carroll p6). She drinks from a bottle and folds herself up like a telescope, only to find that she is now too small to reach the key to the door.
She tries to remedy this by eating a cake, thinking it will either return her to her original size or make her small enough to slip under the door, only to end up several times her original size instead. Adolescence offer similar problems, with a mix of childish and grown-up expectations and desires that can keep someone from knowing what they really want, or why.
When she has shrunk, Alice suffers several cases of mistaken identity that may remind an astute reader of the way adolescents have problems figuring out who they are. One of them is external, when the White Rabbit confuses her for his maid and sends her to fetch a pair of gloves from his house. The other is more upsetting; Alice at one point feels as though she no longer is who she was, and tries to prove otherwise by reciting her lessons, only to find that she can’t get them quite right. It is very distressing to her to feel that she “must be Mabel after all…No, I’ve made up my mind about it; if I’m Mabel, I’ll stay down here! …I shal only look up and say, ‘Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up” (Carroll 10). Adult readers might find this passage reminiscent of their own growing up, particularly occasions where the lessons of their youth—share your toys, stay together, don’t fight—couldn’t be applied to real life the way one felt they should.
Alice ends up changing sizes several times throughout the first book, with each occasion causing more trouble for her, but overall it is growing that gives her the most difficulty. On one occasion she grows extraordinarily tall so that her neck is like a giraffe’s, and finds herself attacked by a mother bird who mistakes her for a snake. On another she grows while inside a house, to find herself dangerously cramped as the creatures outside discuss how to deal with her. Finally, in the Queen of Hearts’s court, she finds herself reverting to her original size during the trial of the Knave of Hearts, and the king attempts to banish her, “Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court” (Carroll 82), because she has outgrown them, the same way a young adult may find themselves outgrowing certain enjoyable aspects of youth.
Youth, growth, and adulthood are not the only themes one can find in Alice. It is a diverse story that stretches across many subjects through its subtext, although one should remember when it was written when reading it. Carroll wrote these stories in a very different era, before many standards and phobias prominent today appeared. This is most noticeable with the sexual imagery that many scholars find in the stories. Commonly cited examples include Alice falling down the long, deep rabbit hole in the beginning and the fight between the lion and the unicorn, both of which neglect to mention that Alice was published before any of Freud’s theories. Similarly, many of today’s fears about taking advantage of children make normal relationships of the Victorian era seem threatening.
Julia Woolf cites one particular example of this in her article when she observes, “When some of Dodgson’s photographs—he was an accomplished portraitist—were exhibited in 1999, a New York Times reviewer quoted Vladimir Nabokov (who had translated Alice into Russian) as saying there was “a pathetic affinity” between the photographer and the pedophilic narrator of Nabokov’s novel Lolita”. Nabokov neglects to realize, however, that at the time the portraits were taken photography was a new and exciting art-form. Photographic pornography and exploitation of children, for all intents and purposes, did not exist at this time. Furthermore, his portraits were all taken with the parents’ full knowledge and approval. “Although the camera was still a relatively new technology, he had been an early enthusiast, starting in 1856, and he found no shortage of friends who wanted him to make likenesses of them or their children” (Woolf, 2010).
Drug imagery also tends to be found in the Alice books. This is more understandable, as the nonsensical events in the story seem very resemble dreams or a drug-like hallucination. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, as one reader remarks: “You don’t know the end, you’re unsure of the beginning, and the middle is a crazy ass head trip. I love it” (Mariel, 2010). One character in the first book, the caterpillar, is heavily involved in what is certainly drug use. When Alice first encounters him, “She stretched herself up on tiptoe, and peeped over the edge of the mushroom, and her eyes immediately met those of a huge blue caterpillar, that was sitting on the top with its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah” (Carroll 31). A hookah is an instrument similar to a bong, also originating from the middle, commonly used to smoke flavored tobacco.
Similarly, mushrooms are also a common source of hallucinogens, and the caterpillar tells Alice that eating from one side of his seat will make her grow while the other will make her shrink. However, given that the mushroom causes Alice nothing but trouble—first she shrinks so much that her head hits her feet and she nearly disappears, then she grows too tall and is attacked by a mother bird—and given that Dodgson was never known to use drugs himself, it seems unlikely that he was encouraging drug use. But even if he were, things such as tobacco and cocaine were perfectly legal in the Victorian era and many of the health risks were not yet known, so it would not make him, “a man you wouldn’t want your children to meet” (Woolf, 2010).
As was discussed earlier, the books of the Victorian era often served a didactic purpose in educating and entertaining. The largest difference between Alice and other stories of its time was that it focused on entertaining and Carroll slipped in education and satiric commentary in later pre-publication revisions, rather than trying to turn an educational text into something that was also interesting. Games, play, fun, and rules are all themes that can be found in the Alice books, because “While some readers are surprised by the seemingly split personality of Charles Dodgson, the serious mathematician, and Lewis Carroll, the imaginative author of children’s books, it was his love of play and games and his need to establish rules and guidelines that effectively govern play that unite these two seemingly disparate facets of Carroll’s personality” (Susina 419). Playing games and having fun with life were things that enthused Dodgson, and so he worked in many recognizably fun characters, such as Humpty Dumpty and the Tweedledee-Tweedledum twins, which existed in other popular poems of the era. In fact, many of the complicated poems and rhymes Carroll uses are versions of the time’s nursery rhymes that may have undergone slight changes to better fit into Wonderland.
Reading a particular theme into Alice is very difficult because of this; things that we associate with certain symbols or images might not have meant the same thing back then. A good example is an enthusiastic reader who may have looked a little too deeply into “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” a poem found in Through the Looking Glass.
“It colorfully details the sham that is organized religion. The Walrus – with his girth and good-nature – obviously refers to either the Buddha, or – with his tusks – the lovable Hindu elephant god, Lord Ganesha. This takes care of the Eastern religions. The Carpenter is an obvious reference to Jesus Christ, who was purportedly raised the son of a carpenter. He represents the Western religions. And in the poem. what do they do? They dupe all the oysters into followmg them. Then. when the oysters collective guard is down. the Walrus and the Carpenter shuck and devour the helpless creatures, en masse. I don’t know what that says to you, but to me it says that following faiths based on these mythological figures insures the destruction of one’s inner-being.” (Sangyoko, 2009)
To be fair, it is entirely possible that Sangyoko is correct, and Carroll was mocking organized religion. However, not only were Buddhism and Hinduism relatively unknown to Victorian Era England, but “After enrolling at Oxford in 1850, at age 18, Dodgson became a ‘senior student’—the equivalent of a fellow—at the university’s College of Christ Church” (Woolf, 2010). He then spent the rest of his life working as both a mathematics professor and a deacon* of the Anglican Church. He was even known as the Reverend Charles Dodgson, which means it is unlikely he was mocking a cause he willingly devoted a large portion of his life to.
In summary, the two Alice in Wonderland stories are incredibly complex narratives enjoyable for all ages. You can read whatever theme you want into them, and older readers may even amuse themselves by rereading the stories and purposefully looking for evidence for a pre-decided upon theme. Ultimately, though, the best way to enjoy the Alice books may be to treat them as the entertaining adventure for all ages they were undoubtedly intended to be. Finding themes and messages is interesting, but perhaps the real message Carroll wanted to send is simply that reading can be fun. And when reading Alice, it is.
*Please also note that this was long before the hysteria about pedophilic priests began, and should not be used as evidence of Dodgson’s deviancy.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland. Wordsworth Classic, Hertshire UK, 1995. Print.
Lambert, Benoit. “Alice in Wonderland – A Book Review”. HubPages.com, Books, Literature and writing subgroup. Accessed May 21, 2014. http://benoitlambert.hubpages.com/hub/Alice-in-Wonderland-Book-review
Mariel. Review of Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. From goodreads.com. Posted 4 December 2010. <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/83346.Through_the_Looking_Glass_and_What_Alice_Found_There> Accessed 30 May 2014.
Sangyoko, Aribowo. Review of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. From, goodreads.com. Posted 13 July 2009. <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/83346.Through_the_Looking_Glass_and_What_Alice_Found_There> Accessed 28 May 2014.
Susina, Jan. “Playing Around in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books.” American Journal of Play. Spring 2012, p 419.
Woolf, Jenny. “Lewis Carroll’s Shifting Reputation.” Smithsonian magazine. April 2010. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/lewis-carrolls-shifting-reputation-9432378/?no-ist