Next week I am returning to Wonderland once again, this time to introduce the students in my Victorian Literature class to Carroll’s classic. To be honest, I’m not completely sure that I like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) in the same way I like, for instance, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911). I’m truly sorry I will never get the chance to teach Burnett’s classic, as it is not Victorian and we don’t teach children’s Literature. In contrast, though I am happy indeed that I can teach Carroll, I am concerned by the many difficulties this involves.
I own a Penguin Classics edition which also includes Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). Both this text and Alice are accompanied by John Tenniel’s perfect illustrations, which is quite a nice touch considering this is an adult edition. I realize that the most popular image of the girl Alice, with her famous head-band (now known as an Alice band) and her pretty striped tights comes from Looking-Glass, which is a bit confusing. Actually, every time I read the two texts I end up confused about what goes in which, possibly a sign that they work better as a single unit rather than as book and its sequel.
This Penguin edition, I was trying to say, is a proper academic version and, as such, it is accompanied by a multitude of notes. These notes reveal that much of the nonsense of Carroll’s twin texts has to do with his relentless mockery of other texts, mainly poems, both for adults and children. It seems, then, that much of the humour appreciated by original audiences has to do with topical references lost to contemporary readers. I can imagine the glee of many child readers when offered very rude, impolite re-writings of poems and songs they may not have enjoyed at all. Yet, I constantly have the feeling that I am missing much that not even the original texts parodied by Carroll and included in my edition can make up for.
Alice was a text improvised orally by Carroll, as he had improvised many others, in a famous golden afternoon spent in the river with the three Liddell sisters. The author wrote it down accompanied by his own illustrations to offer it as a Christmas present to his beloved Alice Liddell, calling it then Alice’s Adventures Underground. Little by little, he rewrote it as the text universally known today, choosing Tenniel to offer a more professional rendering of his amateurish illustrations. The process, as you can see, starts with an adult improvising a tale for the amusement of three little girls whom he knew very well; the mechanisms on which the humour of the events in the plot depend must, then, connect closely with the narrative strategies that, as he knew, would trigger the girls’ pleasure. If you have a child in your family, or remember your own childhood, you will agree with me that there is nothing more delicious than making them giggle, particularly by appealing to shared, secret jokes. And that is what Alice appears to be in my view: a text intended for restricted consumption by three specific girls full of private jokes that possibly only they could decode.
I am not saying that Alice is unreadable but whenever I read it, I do feel very much as Alice does when the Mad Hatter tells her that his watch tells the year: “I don’t quite understand you. What you said had no sort of meaning in it and yet it was certainly English.” The whole text by Carroll is obviously in English but demands from the reader an ability to not-understand but still enjoy oneself that possibly only children have (or readers or James Joyce…). One thing that puzzles me tremendously is how contemporary cartoons for kids appeal to that kind of pleasure–watching an episode of Gumball, which I love for its very many allusions and clever scripts, I realized that my six-year-old niece could not possibly understand it all, as she granted. Yet, she had chosen it, claiming it was her favourite (it’s ‘The Fridge’). I’m sure, then, that Carroll’s genius consisted of getting absolutely right what would tickle a Victorian child–though, and here’s the root of my problem, there is no secondary level in Alice meant to appeal to an adult as there is in Gumball.
This means, if you follow me, that the ideal teacher and academic critic of both Alice and Through the Looking-glass should be a child. Unfortunately, I am not one, nor are my students, hence my concern. Take any passage from either book and you will see, as you pile different meanings overt and covert on it, that the whole edifice of literary interpretation comes crashing down as… nonsense. It is often said that Carroll plays with logic (he was a logician by training and profession) and that his nonsense is based on perverting its rules. I quite disagree. I think that Alice works because it generates a logic of its own and it has become a universal classic because beyond the actual comprehension of what is going on in the book readers are ensnared by it. I am amazed to see how many bits of Alice resonate in many other texts of all kinds and yet how different the are allusions to, say, the allusions made to Shakespeare’s plays. Why is “off with his head” so funny to quote?
There is something else I am possibly missing, like any other reader. Often, a book blossoms into a favourite among its target readers because it smashes its predecessors. I am not familiar with children’s fiction in the Victorian age but I’m sure that both traditional fairy tales and contemporary stories addressed to children depended too much on teaching morality to their little readers. Alice must have felt like a breath of pure air as, if it has anything to teach at all, this is pleasure–particularly to little girls who, unlike boys, were never offered adventure. Curioser and curioser…
Another way to try to make (adult) sense of Alice and Looking-glass is by recalling that both are dreams and, as such, they are full of incongruous details and happenings. The last part of each book, when the sleeper finally awakes, has Alice realize that noises and other background factors (like a kitten) have been transformed in her dream into strange event triggers and characters. This, I think (sorry Freud!) is how dreams work: their often bizarre plots are nonsense, yet somehow connect with the events of the previous day. Alice was written before Freud became a popular household name and thus Carroll could have no notion that the subconscious of her girl protagonist was shaping her dream. I am here supposing that he told himself ‘this is what a vivacious little girl like Alice Liddell would dream’.
I’ll end by saying that even so, Carroll’s insight into the child’s mind is limited by his condition as an adult–and necessarily so, as Jacqueline Rose and many other specialists in children’s Literature have pointed out. Thinking of the very odd questions my little nice asks me (the last one was ‘do you go to prison if you cross when the red light is on?’) I believe that we would have a very strange view of the world if we could get into a child’s mind only for an instant. Perhaps for them every day is a bizarre adventure in wonderland, hence the popularity of Carroll’s book.
Um, I would give anything right now to be able to re-read the book as a child of 7, Alice’s age… Too late…
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