Through the Looking-Glass
Through the Looking-Glass
In 1869, Lewis Carroll (the pseudonym for Charles Dodgson) began to write the sequel novel to his Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which had been published four years earlier to mixed reviews. Through the Looking-Glass was published at Christmas in 1871 in an edition of nine thousand copies, with illustrations (as with the first book) by Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914). The second novel immediately found a more appreciative audience than its predecessor and has come to be considered a groundbreaking blend of playful (though sophisticated) logic, social satire, and exuberant fantasy that captures the imagination of children and adult readers alike. With its elaborate depictions of a world in which lives are manipulated like chess pieces and in which inverse relations become the norm, Through the Looking-Glass offers readers a chance to engage an imaginative dream world. For readers for whom the age of seven is a distant memory, the novel provides the chance to think about what has passed and, as the closing poem promises, to spend time "Dreaming as the days go by."
The writer who rose to prominence as Lewis Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson on January 27, 1832, at Daresdury in Cheshire,
England. His father was a gifted mathematician (also named Charles) who had turned his back on a promising academic career in order to live his life in obscurity as a country parson. Young Charles was the third child (and eldest son) in a family that would eventually include eleven children. From all accounts, the childhood was a happy one, though young Dodgson suffered from a stammer, a condition that was shared by several of his siblings. He was also deaf in his right ear, which combined with his speech impediment may have stopped him from continuing the family tradition of taking orders in the Church of England.
In 1843, the elder Charles was made rector of Croft, north Yorkshire, a relatively lucrative position that meant moving the family into the local rectory, where they lived for the next twenty-five years. Dodgson's father provided his son a strong background in Latin, mathematics, and theology, which proved a solid foundation from which Dodgson could build when he entered the small Richmond School at the age of twelve. Life was more stressful and less happy when he moved to a larger school, Rugby, in 1845. Although he excelled in his studies, he was undoubtedly pleased to move on to his father's alma mater Christ Church, a college within Oxford University, where he proved himself an above average student in mathematics. He remained at Oxford more than two decades, teaching mathematics and logic.
Always an avid storyteller and aspiring artist, Dodgson was especially drawn in the 1850s to the new art form of photography, which he mastered readily. He became especially well known as a portrait photographer, and a number of celebrities sat for him through the 1860s and 1870s. Among these subjects were: Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark (1808-1863); the writers John Ruskin (1819-1900), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1982); and Lord Salisbury (1830-1903), the prime minister. Although he is notorious for his numerous photographic studies of children, it is significant that of the over three thousand photographs Dodgson took during his career, only about one-third have been recovered. Subjects in these pictures are diverse, ranging from dolls and statues to portraits of scientists and notable scholars.
Although he never married or fathered a child of his own, Dodgson doted on the children he came in contact with as a family friend and local artist. Intent on entertaining this youthful audience, and using the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Dodgson produced an impressive body of writing aimed at children, including Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Through the Looking-Glass (1872), and The Hunting of the Snark (1876), as well as numerous books of word games and puzzles.
Following a colorful career as teacher, writer, and photographer, Dodgson died of pneumonia on January 14, 1898, while at his sister's home in Guildford, England. Despite the fact that he wrote a number of books explicating the principles of Euclidean geometry, he remains into the twenty-first century best known as Lewis Carroll, an important Victorian author of children's books.
Chapter 1: Looking-Glass House
In sharp contrast with the earlier novel, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which opens outdoors on a mild spring afternoon, Through the Looking-Glass opens in a well furnished, Victorian drawing-room on a blustery midwinter day, with seven-and-a-half-year-old Alice sitting in her armchair watching her pet kitten, Kitty, unraveling a ball of string. An imaginative but lonely young girl, Alice takes Kitty into her lap and begins telling her about an imaginary world that exists on the other side of the mirror. The Looking-Glass House, as Alice explains to Kitty, is "just the same as [the] drawing-room, only the things go the other way." It is, in other words, a land in which everything is backward when compared to the world that Alice and Kitty inhabit.
As she wonders aloud to Kitty about what an adventure it would be to find a way to step through the mirror, Alice suddenly finds herself standing on the mantelpiece in front of the mirror. More remarkably, the mirror itself seems "to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist." Alice quickly seizes the moment and steps through the mirror into the Looking-Glass room.
- Although once considered a book that might never be adapted to other media, Through the Looking-Glass has appeared in many media versions. Film adaptations of Through the Looking-Glass have been especially numerous, beginning with a silent movie era version in 1928 followed by many feature-length live action and animated versions. Many film adaptations have blended elements of the two novels with little concern for the subtleties of context, for example, the 1933 release by Paramount Productions, in which W. C. Fields played Humpty Dumpty and Gary Cooper was the White Knight. Disney's treatment of Alice's Adventures in Wonderlands (1951) continued this pattern, incorporating renditions of "Jabberwocky" and "The Walrus and the Carpenter" into the first Alice framework.
- Over the decades, film and video adaptations included a figure-skating version (Fairy Tales on Ice: Alice Through the Looking-Glass, 1996), an anime lesbian adventure parody (Miyuki-chan in Mirrorland, 1995), and a number of very loosely based borrowings, including Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky, 1977. In May 2005, the Lewis Carroll Film Society hosted Animating Alice, a festival of films inspired by Carroll's writing.
- Television also has a longstanding relationship with Carroll's second Alice novel, beginning most notably with the 1966 version that starred Judi Rolin in the role of Alice, Jimmy Durante as Humpty Dumpty, the Smothers Brothers as the Tweedle twins, and Jack Palance as the Jabberwock. Subsequent small-screen adaptations appeared in 1973 (a BBC production), 1985 (with songs by Steve Allen), 1998 (with Kate Beckinsale in the role of Alice), and 1999, in a version heavily enhanced with computerized effects.
- Television cartoon adaptations of the Alice stories include the Walt Disney Productions Thru the Mirror (1936), a classic Mickey Mouse cartoon based on Through the Looking-Glass. Hanna-Barbera Productions added to this body of work with its 1966 Alice in Wonderland, or What's a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, which reconfigured the two novels into a story about a young girl following her dog through a television tube.
What Alice discovers on the other side of the mirror is a room very similar to the one that she had left, but with several dramatic and, to her at least, unexplainable differences. The first difference that Alice notices is that the chess pieces that she had been playing with earlier in the day have come alive and are moving about the room in various pairings. More upsetting to the always helpful Alice is the fact that one of the pieces, a White Pawn, has rolled over and is kicking and protesting loudly. The Pawn, Alice discerns quickly, is named Lily and is the daughter of another chess piece, White Queen. Lifting the Queen in her hand, Alice places mother beside daughter in order that she can comfort the child. Only at this moment does Alice realize that she cannot be seen nor heard by the chess pieces moving about the room.
After a few moments, during which Alice moves other chess pieces, appearing in their world as a kind of mysterious force, her attention is captured by a book lying on a nearby table. An avid reader, she picks it up and discovers in it a strange poem written in a language that can only be read clearly when held up to a mirror. The poem she discovers in the mirror is "Jabberwocky," which leaves her frustrated and confused. Putting the poem aside, she sets off to explore the rest of the house.
Chapter 2: The Garden of Live Flowers
Attempting to go toward the garden, Alice is surprised to find that every time she sets out along the path she ends up back at the front door of the house. Trying to explain her confusion, she wonders aloud how to reach the garden, only to have a Tiger-lily answer her. Astonished at this turn of events, Alice is even more surprised when the other flowers begin insulting Alice. What Alice learns from the flowers is that the Red Queen is nearby, which prompts Alice to set off so that she might meet her. When they meet, the two engage in a conversation during which the Red Queen corrects Alice's etiquette.
The Red Queen also instructs Alice on the geography of the country Alice entered when she stepped through the looking glass. Looking around, Alice sees a landscape that is marked out like a large chessboard. Asking the Queen if she might take a place in the game, Alice is allowed to become a Pawn on the White Queen's side of the board, replacing Lily, who is too young to play. Explaining the rules of the game to Alice, the Red Queen articulates the goal of the adventure that is about to begin: "you're in the Second Square to begin with," the Red Queen states. "When you get to the Eighth Square you'll be a Queen." Suddenly and inexplicably, Alice finds herself running across the board, or at least she thinks she is running; oddly, the faster Alice runs the less she seems to move forward.
Pausing to catch her breath in preparation for her initial movement as part of the global chess game, Alice inexplicably finds herself aboard a train and confronting a Guard who is demanding that she produce a ticket. Looking around the train carriage she discovers that she is sharing her new space with an assortment of interesting characters, including a Goat, a Beetle, and a man dressed in white paper. Each takes a turn chiding Alice about one thing or another, until the train comes to a sudden halt. Reaching out to stop herself from falling over, Alice takes hold of the Goat's beard, only to have it dissolve in her hand as an indication that she has moved suddenly from the train to a wooded area.
Chapter 3: Looking-Glass Insects
Finding herself suddenly relocated from sitting in the train to sitting under a tree in the woods, Alice discovers a new companion, an extraordinarily large Gnat. The Gnat proves to be a knowledgeable though unhappy guide regarding the intricacies of life in the woods. Leaving the Gnat behind as she ventures deeper into the woods, Alice discovers that she has forgotten the names of the familiar things that she sees around her and has forgotten even her own name. Pushing forward into the shady woods, the now forgetful Alice meets a friendly Fawn who shares her memory loss. The short time that she spends with the Fawn is one of the few moments in the novel when Alice feels comfortable and cared for. When both Alice and the Fawn regain their memories, the Fawn remembers that she should be fearful of humans. Realizing that Alice is a human, she darts away and disappears from sight.
Chapter 4: Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Left to her own devices, Alice continues her journey until she meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee, a pair of rotund identical twins. When Alice asks for directions, the twins ignore her questions and choose instead to recite a poem called "The Walrus and the Carpenter." After a brief conversation about the poem, Alice hears an alarming noise nearby. The twins inform her that the noise is the snoring of the Red King, and, more importantly, that she is not really a little girl but is a character that exists only as a part of the King's dream. Initially upset by such an idea, Alice decides instead that the twins are nonsensical characters, an evaluation that seems to be proven out when they spontaneously erupt into an argument over a broken rattle. The argument ends as suddenly as it started when a giant crow appears, sending Tweedledum and Tweedledee running into the woods in fear.
Chapter 5: Wool and Water
Taking full advantage of this opportunity, Alice runs a little way into the woods where she comes across the White Queen, who explains that time moves backwards in the Looking-Glass world. After the Queen points out to Alice some of the liberties and problems associated with living backwards, as well as marking the fact that she used to practice the impossible on a daily basis, the White Queen is suddenly transformed into a Sheep in a shop. This shift leaves Alice disoriented, a feeling that is intensified when she realizes that the "shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things-but the oddest part of it all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold."
The Sheep launches into a series of seemingly random questions, which culminates with an enquiry as to whether Alice can row. Answering that she can, Alice suddenly finds herself in a boat with the Sheep, rowing down a stream. Accidentally hitting herself with the handle of an oar, Alice finds herself back in the store, sitting with the Sheep, and negotiating the purchase of an egg that is sitting on a shelf at the end of the shop.
Chapter 6: Humpty Dumpty
The nearer to the egg that Alice moves the more she realizes that she is leaving the shop and returning to the woods. Next she comes to realize that the small egg has grown into Humpty Dumpty, a rude character who criticizes Alice for not understanding things and who boasts that he can change the meaning of any word at will. Their conversation turns more serious when Alice, confused and frustrated by Humpty Dumpty's arrogance, asks him to explain "Jabberwocky," the mirror poem she read earlier. Dissecting the first stanza of the poem through a series of equally nonsensical definitions, the giant egg ends the exercise abruptly in order that he might recite one of his own poems. He ends his recitation abruptly and bids an annoyed Alice goodbye. As she walks away quietly, the forest is rocked by a resounding crash, and soldiers and horsemen suddenly rush past Alice, presumably to attempt to put the shattered Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Chapter 7: The Lion and the Unicorn
Meeting the White King, who has sent the men on their mission, Alice also meets his messenger, Haigha, who informs them that the Lion and the Unicorn have engaged in the battle in the middle of a nearby town. Heading off into town to watch the contest, Alice joins the King for refreshments during an intermission in the battle. Alice is asked to cut a cake but finds that in the backwards world of the Looking-Glass, she must first pass it around before it can be cut. The cake cutting affair is interrupted suddenly by a loud noise, and the sudden realization that she was all alone again.
Chapter 8: "It's My Own Invention"
Just as suddenly Alice finds herself as the prize in another battle, this time between the Red Knight (who wants to carry her away) and the White Knight (who protects her). As the threatening Red Knight is vanquished, Alice finds herself traveling with the benevolent though eccentric White Knight, who regales her with stories of his numerous inventions while delivering on his promise to bring her safely to the last square of the chessboard world. Crossing the final brook, Alice finds herself in the Eighth Square. Sitting on the bank of the brook, she is amazed when a gold crown appears magically on her lap.
Chapters 9-12: Queen Alice; Shaking; Walking; Which Dreamed It?
Placing the crown gingerly upon her head, Alice is no longer surprised when the Red and White Queens appear and begin to interrogate her about issues ranging from mathematics to the nature of truth itself. Just as suddenly as they have appeared, the two Queens decide to take a nap, and promptly fall asleep amidst a cacophony of snores. Alice inexplicably finds herself standing in front of the doorway of a massive castle. Written over the door are two words: Queen Alice. Knocking and waiting for some time, Alice is finally admitted by a very old Frog, who ushers her to a luxurious banquet set in her honor. Sitting down to enjoy the meal, Alice is forced instead to watch as the party quickly disintegrates into chaos.
Exasperated at the scene, Alice pulls away the tablecloth, sending plates, food, and gathered guests tumbling into a heap on the floor. Grabbing the Red Queen, who Alice sees as the cause of the commotion, Alice awakens gradually to the realization that she is shaking her beloved Kitty. The novel closes with Alice wondering aloud if her adventures were her own dream or, as Tweedledee and Tweedledum suggested, part of the Red King's dreams.
A returning character from Carroll's earlier Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Alice is the seven-and-a-half-year-old female protagonist of the novel. Raised in a wealthy Victorian household, the highly imaginative Alice wants to move out of childhood into young adulthood. As a necessary step in maturation, she determines to see the world as an ordered and controlled place within which her intelligence, decorum, and kindness are valued.
A vivid dream transports Alice to the Looking-Glass world, a random and chaotic world. The usually patient Alice feels frustrated and at times even confrontational as she attempts to make sense of this strange new land. She is lonely and isolated, and she realizes the Looking-Glass characters are unable to show her the true compassion that she wants from the family and community in which she lives.
Searching for companions, Alice confronts trials designed by such characters as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, and the overbearing Red Queen. These tests challenge her worldview and introduce her to what it means to be an autonomous young woman, living in a society that does not fulfill her hopes for kindness.
One of Alice's woodland companions, Fawn is memorable for her beauty and for her propensity to forget names. She is a fearful creature who flees abruptly when she realizes that Alice is a human being.
Frog is the elderly footman at Alice's castle.
One of the gentler characters of the Looking-Glass world and also one of the saddest, Gnat is Alice's helpful guide on the train and through the woods. During the course of their travels, Gnat grows to the size of a chicken. Gnat tells Alice about the potential pitfalls of puns and wordplay in this strange land.
Haigha and Hatta
Haigha and Hatta are recurring characters who make the trip from the antecedent novel, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in which they are known as the March Hare and the Mad Hatter. Whereas their frantic personalities and questionable connections with reality take control of the previous novel, they are very subdued in the Looking-Glass world. This shift is a commentary on the nature of the adventures that Alice embarks on in each of the novels as well as on her maturity in dealing with challenges.
Humpty Dumpty is an egg-shaped character that sits precariously on a narrow ledge and treats Alice with contempt. His attempt to explain the meaning of the nonsense poem "Jabberwocky" is marred both by his arrogance and his willingness to change the meaning of words to fit his interpretation of the poem. Humpty Dumpty undercuts Alice's (and the reader's) understanding of how language works, challenging, for instance, the relationship between her name and the type of person she is. The Humpty Dumpty episode, like those of Tweedledee and Tweedledum and the Lion and the Unicorn, takes its cue from the familiar nursery rhyme of the day.
White Queen's daughter, Lily is replaced by Alice as a white pawn on the chessboard because Lily is too young to play the game. At first a foil to Alice in her journey to reach a new level of maturity and autonomy, Lily is by novel's end a reminder that for every little girl there is an appropriate time to begin the journey toward adulthood.
The Unicorn's opponent in the town battle, the Lion acts in a way that reminds Alice of a nursery rhyme she was taught as a child. The image of the lion dominates the English coat of arms.
Red King, also known as the sleeping King, is first mentioned when Alice meets the twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee, who try to convince her that she exists only as part of the Red King's vivid dream. The twins' argument suggests that the Looking-Glass world is not a construction of Alice's dream at all but is a figment within the imagination of a more powerful dreamer, who might also be responsible for the seemingly random moves and sudden disappearances on the chessboard. The presence of the Red King, in this sense, raises questions about both the nature of reality and about the possibility that God exists as a kind of divine dreamer whose imagination brings the material world into existence.
Red Knight attempts to capture Alice during her time on the chessboard but is thwarted. He is eventually captured by the benevolent White Knight.
A domineering woman who brings Alice into the chess game, the Red Queen is obsessive about manners but unkind about her rules. Like many other Looking-Glass characters, she is often arbitrary and dictatorial. She is, as Alice points out to her, an illogical leader who justifies her management style by citing her rank. Alice's confrontations with the self-righteous Red Queen represents the young girl's growing awareness of the need to deal effectively and politely with people who might abuse their positions of power. In the end, it is the Red Queen who takes control of Alice's coronation feast, signaling the young girl's inability to negotiate the threshold from childhood to young adulthood.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Tweedledum and Tweedledee are identical twins, little heavy-set men dressed up as schoolboys who finish each other's thoughts and seem to be a peaceful duo until their relationship disintegrates during a nonsensical fight over a broken rattle. As mirror images of one another, the twins underscore the theme of inversion, which is further highlighted by Tweedledee's repetition of his favorite expression, "contrariwise," which means to take something that has already been said or done and move it in the opposite direction or toward the opposite side. Their names first appeared in John Byrom's (1692-1793) poem "On the Feuds Between Handel and Bononcini."
A mythical horse-like animal with a long horn extending from its forehead, Unicorn believes that Alice is a monster in the Looking-Glass world. He attempts to negotiate a truce with her, agreeing to believe in her existence if she agrees to believe in his. The episode of the Unicorn and the Lion, like those of Tweedledee and Tweedledum and Humpty Dumpty, takes its cues from a familiar nursery rhyme of the day. Unicorn does battle with the Lion in one of the few episodes of the novel set in a town. The conflict can be interpreted as the political opposition on the Scottish coat of arms that depicts two crowned unicorns supporting a shield dominated by the image of a red lion (the symbol of Britain) on a yellow field. The two heraldic symbols in battle hints about intensifying tensions between England and Scotland.
White King takes words literally. An ambiguous character, he is capable of both decisive actions (sending the horses to Humpty Dumpty after the great fall) as well as moments of fearful paralysis (as in his dealings with the Lion and the Unicorn).
One of the kinder characters of the Looking-Glass world, the curious White Knight is an eccentric inventor with shaggy hair and pale blue eyes. He saves Alice from his counterpoint on the chessboard, the fearsome Red Knight, and leads her to the final square and, ultimately, to victory in the symbolic game of chess. Traditionally, many critics have interpreted the White Knight as a fictionalized representation of Carroll himself, based on the physical similarities between the two, the shared love of inventions (Carroll's puns and nonsense poems, for instance), and the fact that Carroll, like the White Knight, was a guide in the lives of children, forced to step aside as they matured.
In one sense, the mirror image of the orderly Red Queen, the White Queen is disorderly to the point of being chaotic. She explains the Looking-Glass world, its reversal of time, and the need to believe that the impossible is always possible. One of the transformative characters in the novel, she moves backwards in time to become the Sheep, one of the many characters who is rude to Alice in order to test her good manners.
The Nature of Reality
Through the Looking-Glass opens with young Alice imagining a world beyond the looking glass, and it ends with questions about whether Alice's dream might actually be a dream within a dream. In this way, the novel raises questions about the nature of reality. Carroll blurs the distinctions between being asleep and being awake so that it becomes difficult to tell where the conscious world ends and the world of dream begins. Sudden and apparently random movements from place to place may suggest shifts in waking reality or mark shifts in dream states. Alice seems to awaken into a backwards dream world, a place that exists as a kind of parallel universe which reminds readers, as the White Queen points out, that the impossible is available to them in the everyday.
But Carroll's examination of the nature of reality is more thorough than a dream sequence suggests. Alice's dream world seems embedded in the dream world of the Red King, and at the same time her dream world permits her to cross thresholds connecting one realm of reality to another. Her invisibility early in the novel, for instance, suggests an almost godlike power that derives from her ability to imagine the chess world. But when Alice suddenly becomes visible, she becomes a player in a different game, one that she cannot control.
Troubling, too, is the sense that Alice is trapped in a reality that cannot be proven to exist objectively. If she sets out to prove that she exists as a real little girl and not as part of the Red King's dream, Alice is forced to wake up the Red King by way of proving her point, an act which introduces two philosophical problems. If Alice is part of a dream, can her actions in the dream actually change the world outside the dream? In other words, can the dreamed Alice actually awaken the sleeping King who exists in a reality outside the dream? Then, too, what happens if Alice is a figment of the King's imagination? By waking him, Alice will end the dream and, in doing so, end her own existence; in order to prove her own existence, Alice must risk terminating that existence.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Select an episode or character from Through the Looking-Glass that has not been illustrated by John Tenniel and create your own illustration. You might try to imitate Tenniel's original style or come up with something quite different, suggesting what a new edition might look like.
- Compile a collection of children's nonsense poetry by Carroll and Edward Lear. Write a brief introduction to your collection, explaining the importance of the poems and their relevance to a child's world. Provide illustrations for selected poems. Alternatively, do the same project using more familiar nursery rhymes, using your introduction to discuss their history and their place in the myth of childhood.
- Research the history of media adaptations of Carroll's Alice novels, creating a timeline graph or poster that shows the actors who played or gave voices to each of the central characters. Since the earliest adaptations, for instance, what actors have provided the voice of the Jabberwock?
- The chess game plays a prominent role in Carroll's imagining of the world on the other side of the looking glass, suggesting the presence of order amidst chaos and of an intelligent force controlling the moves of each of the individual pieces. Think about what game (board game, sports game, video game) best reflects the complexities of the world you live in. Write an essay in which you discuss a brief history of your selected game and explain the key points that make it relevant to your world.
Carroll leaves unanswered questions about what is real and what is dreamed. He seems to invite readers to think about the question that he poses in the final line of the poem that concludes the novel: "Life, what is it but a dream?"
Childhood and Maturation
Like many Victorian novels, Through the Looking-Glass explores the hidden spaces and imagined worlds of childhood, as Alice steps through the looking glass into a backwards world of her own imagination. Unlike the fall (down the hole and from innocence) that opens the first Alice novel, this stepping through into a dreamscape of talking flowers and moving chess pieces represents a more mature and conscious gesture on Alice's part. It is a movement to escape the lonely drawing room world in search of community with guidance from characters such as the intelligent Gnat and the benevolent White Knight.
As Carroll's novels suggest, growing up was a well-organized affair in the nineteenth century, with guide books, moral conduct books, and didactic novels designed to guide children in their moral and physical development. With such titles as The First Principles of Polite Behaviour (1825), Letters from a Mother to her Daughter (1825), and The Young Lady's Library of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge (1829), these cautionary books included essays on morality, sermons, parables, and an assortment of exemplary tales complete with explanatory notes and commentary. Regardless of tone and content, however, these books shared a common assumption about childhood. It was seen as a vulnerable period in which uninitiated children required moral education and discipline.
Alice's imagined world provides release from this world of control, moving her into a backward, playful, and adventurous world. But the new location does not necessarily guarantee new understanding. In fact, Alice's maturity is realized during the course of the novel. Dreaming of a space in which her mature imagination might escape from the Victorian rules of civility and decorum, Alice finds herself in a world bound by arbitrary rules (chess) and by an implicit desire not to breach traditional boundaries and not to address directly the desire to become, metaphorically and literally, the queen of her own castle. Despite her own best efforts to create a world in which the crown of maturity is within reach, Alice wanders through a world in which solitude and frustration continue to weigh heavily upon her.
Tellingly, Alice seems to mature very little during her time in the Looking-Glass world, and her emotional and intellectual growth remains mostly unchanged. Opening her journey on a note of frustration (with "Jabberwocky," for instance), she ends it similarly, gathering the Red Queen into her fist and shaking her fiercely. But at the same time, Alice's willingness to venture into the other world and to find her way through encounters with rude flowers, combative Tweedle twins, and aggressive chess pieces, marks the beginning of a movement toward autonomy and a growing awareness of one's place in the world.
In Chapter 6 of Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty sets out to explain to Alice the meaning of the poem "Jabberwocky," arguably one of the most widely known nonsense poems in English literature. Perched precariously on a narrow ledge atop a high wall, he is the only character in the novel who speaks at length on the nature of language and meaning. "‘Let's hear it’" says Humpty with the promise that he can "explain all the poems that ever were invented-and a good many that haven't been invented just yet."
Like his physical position, Humpty's critical stance is perilous, indeed, for in attempting to explain "Jabberwocky," he gets lost in a poem that not only emphasizes sound as a condition of meaning but is also loaded with puns, wordplay, and portmanteau (new words that pack together parts of other words and combine connotations as well). Despite the best attempts of Carroll's (un)balanced critic, "Jabberwocky" defies an easy explication and leaves both Alice and the reader a bit confused. The poem captured the interest of readers and scholars worldwide, and it was translated in more than fifty languages, including Latin, French (as "Le Jaseroque"), and German ("Der Jammerwoch").
Despite Humpty's arrogance, it is the seemingly confused Alice who gives the most insightful explanation of the workings of the nonsense poem. "‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it's rather hard to understand! … Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don't exactly know what they are!’" Despite the continuing efforts of scholars to translate the
poem (as well as other instances of Carroll's radical wordplay) into a more comprehensible form, embracing the meaninglessness of the words remains one of the keys to understanding it. Carroll's strange words themselves have no familiar and precise meaning, but they do create a sense of meaning through their sounds. Such a word as "slithy," for instance, reminds a reader of a compound of two familiar words, slimy (covered with or having the semi-liquid consistency of slime) and lithe (flexible and supple). Other words, such a word as "mome," for instance, resists the efforts of scholars to trace lineage.
The nonsense of "Jabberwocky," coupled With Humpty Dumpty's equally nonsensical explication of the poem, points to the tenuous relationship between language and the real world. As Humpty Dumpty is quick to point out, language is a complex tool for negotiating between individuals and groups, necessary in that it establishes some sense of shared reality. Alice and the Gnat agree, for instance, that one's name is generally seen to relate to one's physical presence as well as one's identity. But as Alice also explains during her travels with the chicken-sized insect, the tradition of naming is as much about classifying and organizing reality as it is about the person or thing being named: "‘What's the use of their having names,’ the Gnat said, ‘if [the insects] won't answer to them?’ ‘No use to them,’ said Alice; ‘but it's useful to the people that name them, I suppose. If not, why do things have names at all?’" Humpty Dumpty later returns to the question of naming, when he challenges Alice on the relationship between her name and the shape that her name suggests she should take.
Both "Jabberwocky" and Humpty Dumpty serve to underscore the expectation that language will deliver meaning. As Humpty Dumpty begins to redefine words, he finds himself relying on other words to explain the new definitions that he offers. Humpty Dumpty does not understand that if the words that he uses to redefine words are as unstable, then his exercise in redefinition is futile. If language is as unstable as Humpty Dumpty suggests it is, reality is likely to come crashing down, as he does, and no words will be strong enough to put it back together again.
Through the Looking-Glass compares the world beyond the looking glass and the drawing-room world (the tenor of the metaphor) to a game of chess (the vehicle of the metaphor). The chess match is governed by a rigid set of rules that determine the movement of chess pieces, and Alice is similarly controlled by larger influences, both in the dream world of the chess game and in the waking world of the drawing room. Alice is, as she observes several times in her journey, a pawn in a larger game that she cannot control. She is at the mercy of strangers throughout her imagined journey, some of whom are rude and dismissive (the Talking Flowers and Humpty Dumpty) and some of whom are benevolent and caring (the Gnat, Fawn, and White Knight). In the Victorian world the waking Alice inhabits, she is controlled by social and moral rules.
This metaphoric comparison suggests a philosophic message to readers: free will and choice are illusions that hide the fact that individual lives in the real world are bound, like chess pieces, to predetermined paths. At the same time, though, Alice's successful dream transition from Pawn to Queen hints at the possibility or hope that a person can step beyond the predicted outcomes of their lives and achieve more.
The Expanding Empire
Between 1870 and 1900, the British Empire expanded to occupy an area of four million square miles. The expansion was motivated in part by the profit motive. Great Britain wanted to protect the financial interests of such companies as the British South Africa Company and the East India Company, the second of which became a kind of ruling government in India by the 1860s, when Carroll began writing the Alice novels. With imperial expansion, came new and lucrative markets for British goods, along with increased access to cheap raw materials and even cheaper labor, all of which made defense of these territories of particular importance. Trade improved, too, with technological advancements made during the Industrial Revolution, which included steam engine implementation, development of railway systems, and steam-fueled ships, inventions that facilitated exploration and transportation of goods.
At the same time, new international powers developed, both in Europe and in the antebellum United States, and these challenged British economic and imperial supremacy. Germany and France also developed, intent on competing in world markets with Great Britain. The underdeveloped world became very much a chess board, with territories serving as squares and various European countries as the players trying to occupy them, take control, and exploit natural resources. Even Alice describes the greater world as "a great huge game of chess being played-all over the world."
Alice is in some sense a prototypical imperialist, stepping into a foreign land with her preconceived notions of decorum and behavior only to find herself either at odds with local customs or bewildered when her own way of doing things proves less than useful in a world in which everything is done backwards. Alice's initial lack of knowledge about the Looking-Glass world leaves her feeling isolated and displaced, lodged between clashing cultures and frustrated expectations. As she learns to accept the advice and guidance of such locals as the Gnat and White Knight, however, Alice gradually adjusts to her new location and takes charge of it, however temporarily.
Victorian Crisis of Faith
If the historical context of the Alice novels was shaped, on the one hand, by the ideological confidences associated with imperial expansion, it was shaped on the other by the philosophical uncertainties caused by conflict between ideas promoted by science and religion. As the nineteenth century opened, the debate between the religion (faith) and science (empirical study) seemed oddly at peace. Traditional anxieties had been lessened, it seemed, by such an influential book as William Paley's Natural Theology (1802), which argued that the scientific study of the natural world reveals divine agency and intelligent design. Paley and others argued that evidence of design was wonderfully elastic, capable of being reconfigured to accommodate and explain new information brought forth from current scientific discoveries.
Paley's neutralizing influence lasted until about the 1830s, when a new generation of readers began to see in the new science both a suggestion of the limited scope of a designer's power and a potentially powerful means to radical political and theological ends. Geologists, for instances, were active in these early decades, and their examination of fossil records raised a very real threat to widespread belief in the creation as told in Genesis. Coming in a considerable line of thinkers who wrote and spoke about evolution, Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, bringing the claims of scientific data head to head with the ancient biblical text.
In Through the Looking-Glass, Alice experiences moments that resonate with implications of this conflict, when what she believes about the world is undercut by the reality of a world in which everything seems to be done backwards. She faces moments, as did many Victorians, when her own faith is challenged by her experience. In the Looking-Glass world the impossible is always possible, as the White Queen tells Alice, and what a person believes can appear patently incorrect.
As Richard Kelly summarizes in his Lewis Carroll (1990), the earliest receptions of Through the Looking-Glass were very encouraging. Published in an initial edition of nine thousand copies (bound in red cloth gilt), the book sold so briskly that an additional printing of six thousand copies was ordered. By 1893, according to Kelly, "over sixty thousand copies had been sold." Kelly quotes a review that appeared in the Athenaeum: the reviewer claims that this book has 'the potentiality of [causing] happiness for countless children of all ages."
David L. Russell notes that Carroll's two Alice novels marked the apotheosis of what many critics consider the golden age of fantasy writing in English. "Abandon[ing] all the rules of writing for children," Carroll creates in these novels an "extraordinary fantasy filled with a delightful mixture of satire and nonsense and almost devoid of instructional moralizing." Russell concludes that both novels "completely broke the bonds of didacticism" and have rightfully become "a part of childhood mythology."
Recent publications of Carroll's work attest to its continuing popularity. Gillian Engberg, writing for Booklist in 2005, compliments the 2005 Candlewick edition illustrated by Helen Oxenbury as a "splendid interpretation," noting its slightly different visual characterization of Alice: "Oxenbury's Alice … seems both old-fashioned and modern, and comfortable in worlds on both sides of the mirror." Carolyn Phelan, also in Booklist, remarks positively on a 2006 edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland illustrated by Alison Jay. Phelan commends "Jay's distinctive paintings" and urges that "Libraries with dozens of other Alices on the shelf will still want to make room for this handsome edition." Clearly, Carroll's novels about Alice are masterpieces that remain popular into the twenty-first century.
Dyer holds a Ph.D. in English literature and has published extensively on fiction, poetry, film, and television. He is also a freelance university teacher, writer, and educational consultant. In the following essay, he discusses the feasting scene that closes Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass as a symbol of the failure of Alice to cross the threshold from childhood to young adulthood.
At the end of Alice's journey through the backwards world of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, the youthful protagonist steps through a castle door that bears her name, guided by an old Frog who serves as her footman. Passing over the threshold of the castle door, Alice finds a new place for herself amidst the noisy revelry of a royal feast held in her honor. It is an awkward process that involves acknowledging her inexperience with such occasions and her uncertainties about language and about her place in this world. Is she a Queen or a Pawn? Is she a girl dreaming or a girl being dreamed into existence by the snoring Red King? The final scene of Alice's adventures behind the looking-glass involves her finding her way around the food on the table. The feast that ends the novel comes to represent the final breakdown of the Looking-Glass world and the final failure of Alice's imagined alternate universe to sustain anyone. With one dramatic pull of a tablecloth, Alice ends the dream, exits the world, and, both metaphorically and literally, leaves herself and all her guests hungry, cranky, and lost in chaos. Having reached both the head of the table and the seat of power in the chessboard land, Queen Alice proves herself ultimately unable to rule with the mature hand necessary to establish and maintain order.
When Alice enters the castle that bears her name, she is met with a clamor of "hundreds of voices" joining in chorus to mark that she has arrived late for her own celebration: "To the Looking-Glass world it was Alice that said, / ‘I've a scepter in hand, I've a crown on my head; / Let the Looking-Glass creatures, whatever they might be, / Come and dine with the Red Queen, the White Queen, and me!’" The words of this rhythmic song are important, signifying Alice's table as one of the few places in the Looking-Glass world where all creatures, regardless of what they are and what their political role might be, can come together to share a meal. Alice's table is a symbol of equalizing the power struggles that characterized the chess board land; it brings together Red and White, human and nonhuman, sensible and nonsensical in one chorus. As Alice bursts through the door into a deafening silence, her first thought is to this new order of things: "Alice glanced nervously along the table, as she walked up the large hall, and noticed that there were about fifty guests, of all kinds: some were animals, some birds, and there were even a few flowers among them."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Martin Gardner's The Universe in a Handkerchief: Lewis Carroll's Mathematical Recreations, Games, Puzzles, and Word Play (2003) gives readers an exhilarating tour of Carroll's inventiveness with words, numbers, and logic, ranging from such games as arithmetical croquet to discussions of his speculations in symbolic logic.
- Poet Stephanie Bolster's White Stone: The Alice Poems (1998) takes its cues and images from the Alice novels as well as from Carroll's relationship (both real and imagined) with Alice Liddell.
- "Jabberwocky" has provided fertile ground for writers working in a variety of modes and genres. Frederic Brown's comic mystery novel Night of the Jabberwock (1951) tells the story of Doc Stoeger, editor of a small newspaper and an enthusiastic fan of the Alice novels who discovers that the books are not actually fiction but an elaborately coded report that leads readers into a new looking-glass world.
- For an engaging look at how "Jabberwocky" influenced various threads of art, literature, science, and law, readers may enjoy Joseph Brabant's Some Observations on Jabberwocky (1997).
- Readers interested in children's fantasy literature may enjoy L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), a story popularized by the 1930s color film with Judy Garland.
- Another fantasy children's story is Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908).
Uncomfortable in the silence and even more so with the composition of the gathering before her, she approaches her seat at the head of the table, admitting to herself that she could not have consciously organized such an open and welcoming affair. "‘I'm glad they've come without waiting to be asked,’" she thinks to herself, "‘I should never have known who were the right people to invite!’" When she finally reaches her seat, located between the two other Queens of the chess board, Alice immediately relinquishes control of the whole affair. Instead of stepping forward to welcome her guests, she defers, "longing for some one [else] to speak." As both hostess and as a ruler who might serve as a harmonizing force, Alice misses an opportunity here.
Pointing out how tardy Alice is, the Red Queen steps in, setting the tone for the evening by reprimanding Alice: "At last the Red Queen began. ‘You've missed the soup and fish,’ she said." The silence is broken not with a welcoming speech from the host, as decorum dictates, but with the abrasive criticism of the Red Queen, who speaks for the status quo politics. The speech that breaks Alice's silence does little to ease the discomfort of the moment, for in response to the Red Queen's orders, the waiters place a leg of mutton before the newly arrived Alice. The first task of the new ruler and the hostess of the feast is to divide the food and share it among her welcomed guests, signaling community, equality, and a ruler's grace. The newest Queen fails miserably on all these counts; as "the waiters set a leg of mutton before Alice, [she] looked at it rather anxiously, as she had never had to carve a joint before."
As soon as Alice becomes Queen, she is required to demonstrate a mature understanding of the terms and conditions of the adult world that she hopes to enter. Again, however, it is the Red Queen who steps forward to fill the awkward silence and to explain to Alice the "etiquette" of the situation at hand, which leaves Alice even more confused than ever: "‘You look a little shy’" the Red Queen begins, "‘let me introduce you to that leg of mutton.’" Alice gives herself over to the Red Queen's directions, "not knowing whether to be frightened or amused." In the name of etiquette and good manners, the Red Queen will keep the community and the guest of honor from enjoying this meal.
Despite her usual confusion, Alice does sense that a feast must have food and that her gathered guests must eventually be fed. Not fully understanding "why the Red Queen should be the only one to give orders," Alice asserts her own will on the situation, calling out to the waiters to "[b]ring back the pudding" that the Red Queen has ordered taken away from the table. These words work magic and prove to be the beginning of a new awareness in Alice. Conquering her shyness "by a great effort," Alice cuts "a slice" of the pudding and "hand[s] it to the Red Queen."
What Alice is not prepared for, however, is that the pudding talks back to her, resisting what Alice herself acknowledges is an "experiment" and a "conjuring-trick" in governance. The pudding will not submit quietly to the will of Queen Alice, but uses its one weapon (its own voice) to raise a challenge to her tenuous authority: "‘What impertinence!’ said the Pudding. ‘I wonder how you'd like it, if I were to cut a slice out of you, you creature!’" Alice's inability to respond to such an impudent challenge underscores her social failure, marking her inability to become a true queen or offer a real alternative to the status quo politics of the Red and White Queens who flank her at the head table. Confronted with the "thick, suety sort of voice" of the pudding, Alice is once again speechless: "Alice hadn't a word in reply: she could only sit and look at it and gasp." Even the usually indecorous Red Queen sees the error of Alice's silence, chiding her to "[m]ake a remark" given that it is "ridiculous to leave all the conversation to the pudding!"
When Alice does speak, it is an act of avoidance rather than of leadership; she shifts focus from the challenges of the pudding to another topic totally, namely poetry and fish. Unable and unwilling to address the words of the pudding, Alice falls into the illogical patterns that define the Looking-Glass world. She engages verbal misdirection and non sequitur (irrelevance) in order to avoid settling her conflict with the pudding. In short, Alice becomes like the Queens on either side of her, attempting to rule without listening and to impose order rather than negotiate harmony.
When Alice finally does respond, raising a question about the local fondness for fish, she is cut off by the Red Queen, who retakes control of the table by asking her White counterpart to recite the riddle of the fishes. Unable to control even a rebellious pudding, Alice is silenced again, relegating control of a feast held in her honor and in her home to the Red Queen. Alice as a symbol of change and new order is returned to a role that she is accustomed to playing, the obedient child who believes, incorrectly, that she "can do quite well without" the support and guidance of her elders.
It is not surprising, then, when Alice later rises to give her coronation speech that she is interrupted one final time by the catastrophe of the tabletop. She must hold on for her life as place settings turn to birds, as guests change places with the leftover food on their plates, and as the soup ladle approaches the head table with more than a hint of threat. A coronation dinner that might have marked Alice's awakening into a new world of maturity and control disintegrates into chaos, leaving the new Queen hungry and speechless, exasperated at her own futile efforts to enter young adulthood. As the poem that closes the novel implies, Alice's dream of finding her own way into the world, of moving toward the autonomy of young adulthood remains a dream, lost amidst the scattering dishes and screaming guests of a dinner party spinning out of control.
Source: Klay Dyer, Critical Essay on Through the Looking-Glass, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, Geer discusses the tension between narrative frames (opening and closing) of Through the Looking Glass and the representations of the domestic sphere within the novel. She connects this apparent incongruity to Carroll's interrogation of three familiar Victorian themes: the ideal of femininity, childhood as a paradise of innocence, and the convention of the benevolent storyteller. She concludes that Carroll's ironic treatment of these assumptions allows his novels to be read as satires and renders his tales of escape all the more necessary in a world whose youth are rapidly losing their innocence.
The opening and closing sections of Lewis Carroll's two classic children's novels, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, have posed perennial difficulties for critics. The prefatory poem and final paragraphs of Wonderland, as well as the poems and drawing-room scenes that frame the central narrative in Looking-Glass, are nostalgic, gently teasing, and ostensibly serene-and they stand in sharp contrast to Alice's unsentimental, chaotic, and often violent adventures. Although this dichotomy has been interpreted in several ways, most critics agree that the framing sections give much more conventionally idealized picture of Alice and her dream-journeys than the adventures do. Such idealization is hardly surprising in light of Carroll's legendary devotion to little girls, but in the context of Alice's adventures, the frames do surprise. Their portrayals of her journeys through Wonderland and Looking-glass country bear so little resemblance to the journeys themselves that it is difficult to take the frames quite seriously. The closing paragraph of Wonderland is lovely but absurd as it blithely affirms that the tale of Alice's adventures, in which mothers sing sadistic lullabies, babies turn into pigs, and little girls shout at queens, will lead Alice's older sister into reveries about delightful children and domestic bliss. From a logical perspective, this final scene is as nonsensical as anything in Wonderland. I would like to suggest that the contrast between frames and adventures in the Alice books implies that the frames' idealized visions of Alice are themselves constructed narratives, as fantastic in their own way as the dream-tales they so radically reinterpret.
The Alice frames encourage readers to interpret Alice's adventures as fairy tales, a category that in nineteenth-century usage includes literary and traditional tales, nonsense, and what we would now call fantasy fiction. In mid-Victorian discourse, fairy tales often exert a recognizably domestic influence on their readers or listeners. Contemporary periodical articles and reviews commonly portray the tales' virtues as analogous to an ideal home's: readers young and old will find their sympathies awakened and the corrosive effects of an amoral, competitive, and violent world lessened. Wonderland and Looking-Glass, like many Victorian texts, thus characterize the values inscribed in idealized childhood and its tales as domestic and feminine. The Wonderland frames suggest that the tale of Alice's dream fosters the happy, loving childhood that will enable her development into a good woman and mother, while the Looking-Glass frames anticipate that the tale will create a domestic space powerful enough to keep the stormy world at bay.
In both novels, the contrast between frames and adventures works to undermine such hopes and suggestions by foregrounding potential conflicts between adult and child figures. Adult and child characters in the Alice books, as well as the implied readers, often want rather different things from one another; tale-telling both fulfills and frustrates their desires. In Wonderland and Looking-Glass, Carroll ultimately suggests that both adults and children want power as well as comfort, and that the domestic world of little girls and fairy tales is the unlikely site of power struggles over the comforts of home and childhood. Still, Carroll does not reject the ideals of fairy tales and femininity he so deftly ironizes. He may delight in exposing their illogic, but he remains deeply committed to their emotional power. As Carroll's fellow Oxford don T. B. Strong noted, Wonderland and Looking-Glass draw heavily on mid-Victorian mores, often taking common words or phrases literally and pressing conventional assumptions to their logical conclusions. The books reveal "all sorts of pitfalls and surprises round the ordinary course of conversation" (Strong 306). Paradoxically, "pitfalls and surprises" can make conventional forms all the more alluring; by implying that the idyllic world of little girls and their fairy tales is really a narrative told by adults for self-interested purposes, the Alice books only intensify adult readers' desire for those idealized visions.…
Although Wonderland offers the possibility that its antidomestic tale will foster Alice's development into a model of ideal womanhood, Through the Looking-Glass is far more skeptical about the tale's impact on her future. Much of this skepticism occurs because the later novel draws on rather different views of the relationships between adults, children's literature, and little girls. The Wonderland frames certainly idealize Alice, but their emphasis on the benefits she will reap from remembering the tale and retaining "the simple and loving heart of her childhood" assumes continuity between the child's experience and the woman's. The Looking-Glass frames, however, tend to follow another influential contemporary model of development, which portrays childhood as an innocent, feminized state vastly different from the corrupt, sorrowful adult world. Childhood becomes a sort of secular Eden, a paradise "inviolably, savingly separate from the adult world of anxiety" (Gilead 283). Because this model perceives childhood as separate from and superior to adulthood, it holds that adults do not retain their childlike hearts. Adults can only recapture momentary glimpses of childhood's bliss by interacting with children or by reading, telling, or writing idealized forms of children's literature such as fairy tales. At the same time, childhood becomes the site of a deep sentimental regret that children must lose their innocence as they grow up.
Looking-Glass is thus more determined to idealize the child Alice and more pessimistic about her growth than Wonderland is. Whereas Wonderland's prefatory poem gently teases the children who listen to the tale, its Looking-Glass counterpart does not. The Looking-Glass Alice is an ethereal "Child of the pure unclouded brow" rather than a pair of "little hands" steering the boat with "little skill." The Looking-Glass poem also assumes that Alice will lose her joyous innocence as she grows up. The simple, loving girl will develop all too quickly into a "melancholy maiden" subject to adulthood's "bitter tidings" and "unwelcome bed" of anxiety, sexuality and death. Although the poem's speaker wishes Alice to remember him and her happy girlhood, his sad prediction that "No thought of me shall find a place / In thy young life's hereafter" and his reference to "vanish'd summer glory" suggest that she will forget. These circumstances lessen the tale's value as a potentially formative influence on Alice. Instead, Carroll's speaker maintains that his "fairy-tale" will preserve an idealized, domestic childhood world that exists in comforting opposition to "the blinding snow" outside. The tale also will help delay Alice's departure into adulthood by weaving "magic words" to "hold [her] fast" in "childhood's nest gladness," if only for a moment.
Yet Looking-Glass indicates that this desire to see childhood as a domestic paradise separate from and superior to adulthood is problematic as well as alluring. In particular, the novel explores the conflicted relationships between Victorian ideals of femininity and a model of childhood that contrasts innocent, feminized children with corrupt, implicitly masculine adults. Although recent studies by U.C. Knoepflmacher and Catherine Robson have examined the ways in which idealizations of little girls play into Victorian narratives about middle-class men's development, these idealizations also interact—often in unsettling ways—with contemporary notions of adult womanhood. Robson correctly notes that domestic advice literature often upholds the girl as an "embodiment of the ideal home," whose "powerlessness in some ways makes [her]more ‘feminine’ than the grown woman." But this idealized girl is not merely a prepubescent, more charmingly dependent version of the adult angel in the house. She tends to undercut her adult counterpart; a model of girlhood which assumes that adults are anxious, sinful, and separated from their past implicitly contradicts the domestic ideal of a calm and cheerful woman who retains her childlike heart.
Mid-Victorian writers often try to avoid this contradiction by quietly omitting the figure of the woman; they portray the adult world in exclusively masculine terms and transfer the feminine powers of comfort and moral influences onto the child. Looking-Glass, however, takes the view of innocent child and corrupt adult to its logical conclusion, suggesting that adult womanhood is as competitive, individualistic, and disappointing as manhood. Such a move confirms adults' worst fears about children's growth, since it implies that all children, even girls, will lose their innocence and selfless affection as they mature. By undercutting the figure of the ideal woman, Looking-Glass increases adult readers' desire for an idealized girl who will perform the womanly functions of comfort and inspiration. The notion that childhood is precious yet fleeting also intensifies adults' desire for a tale that portrays the child and works to prolong her brief stay in paradise. Yet even as Carroll fosters these desires, he suggests that they are impossible to satisfy. Although the image of childhood as separate from and superior to adulthood may be inspiring, such a paradise is by definition inaccessible to adults. Furthermore, Looking-Glass indicates that the tale that might give adults a glimpse of childhood's bliss is at least as implicated in questions of power and self-interest as the Wonderland tale. The later novel assumes Alice will grow and indeed is eager to do so, but her eagerness only increases adults' futile wish that she remain young. Precisely because of its sentimentally nostalgic vision of girlhood, Looking-Glass present adults' and children's desire as mutually exclusive. Such conflict, in turn, places enormous strain upon the tale: a story that satisfies adult readers' desire to fix Alice in her blissful childhood will hardly please child readers eager to grow up.
Although the prefatory poem's speaker may wish to fix Alice in an idealized childhood world, her adventures portray her as conspicuously uninterested in any such thing. As Knoepflmacher has pointed out, Alice's desire to play Looking-glass chess signifies her desire to grow up and gain an adult woman's powers ("Balancing" 511). In Looking-glass country, these desires are inseparable from ambition and competition; Alice is willing to enter the game as a Pawn, but she would "‘like to be a Queen, best.’" The speed and relative ease with which she wins the game and becomes a Queen has led Knoepflmacher to argues that Looking-Glass endorses Alice's desire to grow, at least until Carroll abruptly rescinds that endorsement in the final chapters (Ventures 197-200; 216-26). Looking-Glass certainly does depict Alice's progress and implicitly her growth as inevitable: she is a Pawn whose moves are mapped out for her even before she begins to play. But her smoothly overdetermined journey to the Eighth Square does not necessarily indicate acceptance of her growth. The contrast between her success and the coronation feast which literally overturns her triumph only intensifies the sense that maturity is no prize at all, but a profound disappointment. Alice herself, who calmly pretends to mother the black kitten once she returns to her own drawing-room in the final chapter, never quite grasps this implication, but it certainly is available to the adult reader.
Alice initially believes the Red Queen's assurance that "‘in the Eighth Square we shall be Queens together, and it's all feasting and fun!’" Once Alice arrives at the Eighth Square, however, she discovers that her new role is hardly fun. The Red and White Queens are determined not to let her take her place with them as an equal. Instead, they assert their own superior status by treating her like a child, dismissing as ignorance and ill-temper all her attempts to establish her position as Queen. They even go so far as to invite themselves to her coronation dinner, justifying the breach of good manners by accusing Alice of not having "‘had many lessons in manners yet’" The Queens' rudeness and Alice's bewildered resentment cast ironic doubt on adults' to place children in a world of youthful bliss. Alice's relationships with adult figures are no more blissful in Looking- glass country than they were in Wonderland. Her position during and immediately before her coronation feast may be childlike, but it is hardly the "nest of gladness" that the prefatory poem extols.
Alice's uncomfortable position as child-Queen suggests that the combination of a child's heart and a woman's offices might destroy domestic competence rather than create it. She fares no better at her coronation dinner than David Copperfield's "child-wife," Dora, does at housekeeping in Dickens's novel. Her title notwithstanding, Alice lacks the social experience to be an effective hostess, let alone a ruler. At first, she is even a little relieved when she discovers the feast has started without her; she remarks that she "‘should never have known who were the right people to invite!’" All too soon, however, the order that should have characterized a combination of state dinner and Victorian dinner party plunges into chaos in the face of her inexperience. As an untutored girl, Alice has neither a ruler's public authority nor a hostess's social and managerial skills. The polite compliance that an upper-middle-class girl such as Alice would have been taught in nursery and school-room only compounds the social reversals, as she bows to subjects who understand Looking-glass etiquette. And if chess pieces can exercise power over a human Queen at her own coronation dinner, the food and tableware might logically aspire to rule, also. The result is a sort of domestic coup: Alice looks up to find the leg of mutton in the White Queen's chair, the Queen herself in the soup-tureen, and the soup-ladle advancing purposefully toward her own chair, "beckoning to her impatiently to get out of its way."
Admittedly, the combination of a child's character and an adult's position serves Alice well in one respect. She manages to restore order by combining the traits of the mischievous child and the furious, domineering woman. Childishly, Alice demands attention by disrupting the already chaotic feast: "‘I can't stand this any longer!’ she cried, as she jumped up and seized the tablecloth with both hands: one good pull, and plates, dishes, quests, and candles came crashing down together in a heap on the floor." She then abandons the child's role for the furious woman's, asserting her own dominance by "turning fiercely upon the Red Queen, whom she considered as the cause of all the mischief." Since the scene is already a reversal of conventional order, these additional reversals succeed in righting it. The Red Queen begins to turn into the harmless black kitten on the spot, and Alice soon wakes to find herself back in the snug comfort of a drawing-room armchair. With Alice and the Red Queen restored to their respective roles as child and kitten, the adult narrator can re-establish control over the scene and return to a peaceful vision of Alice in her drawing-room.
As it turns out, however, this return to order is even more tenuous than in Wonderland. On the surface, the end of Alice's dream satisfies child and adult readers' impulse to halt the feast's frightening chaos, as well as adult readers' desire that Alice return to a safe, enclosed childhood world. But although Looking-Glass applauds Alice's actions, is also ironizes them. The violence Alice herself does in restoring domestic order suggests that neither the ideal woman nor the ideal girl is fully recoverable: the furious woman underlies the former, while the mischievous child underlies the latter. Thus, even the scenes of Alice in her drawing-room question the figure of the loving, authoritative yet childlike woman more than the closing frame of Wonderland does. Because Alice is pretending to be a mother, these scenes imply that the ideal woman who can combine an adult's competence with a child's simplicity exists only in the imagination. Furthermore, Alice's games retain subtle forms of Looking-glass country's conflicts between child and adult figures. Alice mothers her kittens by imitating adult authority figures' treatment of herself, never quite forgetting that she remains under their control. Thus, when she is playfully telling the black kitten that she will punish it for its faults, she begins to wonder if the same technique could be applied to her: "‘You know I'm saving up all your punishments for Wednesday week-Suppose they had saved up all my punishments? … What would they do at the end of a year?’" The effect is to emphasize the scene's fictionality (readers know they are watching a child pretending to be a mother) and the possibility of conflict even in Alice's supposedly happy family.
Given Looking-Glass's persistent sense of the ways in which adult figures bully child figures, the mischievous or rebellious child is never far from Alice's games, either. Alice may pretend to be a benevolent mother, but she does not pretend to be a compliant child. The narrator mentions that "once she had really frightened her old nurse by shouting suddenly in her ear, ‘Nurse! Do let's pretend that I'm a hungry hyaena, and you're a bone!"’ Even her dream-journey into Looking-glass House begins with Alice perched on the chimney-piece, which she almost certainly is not allowed to climb—especially when there is a fire burning. When Alice takes on a motherly role, she playfully recreates her own rebellious impulses in the figure of the black kitten, who is "‘a little mischievous darling.’" To a large extent, these fantasies are charming to adult readers: they can recognize their own aggression in Alice's but rest assured that she herself is only "a little mischievous darling." On another level, however, Alice's games are slightly worrisome to adult devotees of idealized little girls. Because this dream-child happily pretends to be an adult and to resist adults, her games remind adults of childhood's transience and of potential conflicts between children's desires and their own.
These tensions between child and adult figures severely limit the possibility of creating a narrative that satisfies adults' longing for an idealized childhood paradise while also amusing child readers. The prefatory poem, for instance, suggests that the tale is as difficult to grasp as Alice's dream-rushes, which begin "to lose all their scent and beauty, from the very moment that she picked them." Like the White Queen's jam, the idealized "fairy-tale" of the Looking-Glass poem exists yesterday and tomorrow, but not today. The speaker promises that he will continue "[a] tale begun in other days," but that tale remains an elusive future pleasure. The tale of Looking-glass country as presented in Alice's adventures does not exactly live up to this promise; although it certainly resembles her adventures in Wonderland, it is hardly a vision of "childhood's nest of gladness." Moreover, even the delightfully nostalgic and sentimental tale the poem promises remains a product of adult fiat that may clash with the child's desires. The Looking-Glass poem's overtures may be flattering, but its consistent use of imperative verbs and negative constructions implies that it is as much a command as an invitation, and one Alice might choose not to heed.
Alice's adventures in Looking-glass country also question conventional notions of the benevolent tale-teller, the children who wish to be delighted, and the charming tale. Alice is usually reluctant to listen to Looking-glass poetry and remains skeptical of the creatures' claims that their poems will comfort or amuse her. The creatures' poetry and conversations often have the effect of delaying Alice's progress in the chess game; like the prefatory poem's ideal tale, they work to arrest her symbolic journey toward adulthood. This tendency may satisfy adult readers, but it exasperates Alice, who only wants to advance to the next square and become a Queen. Thus, when Tweedledee asks her if she likes poetry, her response is hardly enthusiastic: "‘Ye-es, pretty well—some poetry … Would you tell me which road leads out of the wood?’" The Tweedle brothers' determination to recite the longest poem they know dismays her still more. The poem they tell Alice, "The Walrus and the Carpenter," reveals that she has good reason to be wary. The Walrus and Carpenter lure the "young Oysters" out for what they claim will be "A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk / Along the briny beach," but the walk ends with their eating the young guests. The poem's nonsense exaggerates conflict between generations. Adult figures' benevolence is nothing more than a hypocritical cloak, and the desire to arrest children's growth is literalized as a desire to kill them. The same themes recur during Alice's encounter with Humpty Dumpty. His response to her remark that "‘one can't help growing older’" reveals ominous undertones behind adults' desire that children not grow, as he takes the premise to its logical conclusion by asserting that "‘One can't, perhaps … but two can. With proper assistance, you might have left off’" growing. Alice, understandably alarmed, hastens to change the subject.
Looking-Glass never comes to a definitive conclusion about the best ways to balance adult and child readers' desires. It simply gives-and undercuts-two possibilities for creating a tale that can amuse children while satisfying adults' wish for a nostalgic escape into a blissful childhood world. Alice's encounter with the White Knight implies that one way to create such a tale is to ask all parties to pretend. During this scene, Alice graciously submits to a deluded but well-meaning adult's determination to tell a tale, feigning interest in order to please him while giving her future adult self an opportunity to redefine the event in nostalgic, escapist terms. The White Knight casts himself as the ideal tale-teller, and according to the narrator, Alice eventually remembers him in such an idealized light. Admittedly, this memory of the Knight's "mild blue eyes and kindly smile … and … the melancholy music of the song" is a doubtful one. In typical Looking-glass fashion, it is a memory which has not yet happened to the Alice of the adventures, and as Knoepflmacher points out, it is by no means an accurate depiction of her experience in the narrative present (Ventures 221-23; "Balancing" 514-15). Although Alice may someday remember herself enjoying the beautiful picture the Knight makes with "the setting sun gleaming through his hair, and shining on his armour in a blaze of light," Carroll gives no indication that she has this reaction while listening to the Knight's song. In the narrative present she is somewhat bored and even critical; she remarks that "‘the tune isn't his own invention’" and works hard at "trying to feel interested" in yet another piece of poetry. Yet even if Alice's fondness for the Knight and his tale is only an illusion created in retrospect, Looking-Glass ultimately presents it as both lovely and fulfilling. Alice's meeting with the Knight suggests that the conflicting desires behind Victorian ideals of girlhood and fairy tales can be well served by a deluded storyteller and a child's polite deception. Because he believes himself wise and benevolent, the Knight is one of the few characters in Wonderland or Looking-glass country who is courteous or helpful to Alice, and for all her impatience, Alice hides it well. Her actions form Looking-Glass's closest approximation to the ideal little girl or to the ideal woman who retains her childlike heart. By exercising an adult's diplomatic tact, Alice manages to fulfill the ideal girl's role of delighting her elders, even if she is only feigning interest.
The closing poem also presents the child and her tales as a lovely yet satisfying illusion. It represents an ingenious, if tenuous, solution to the problem of creating an idealized childhood world. As Wonderland does, this poem validates storytelling-or in this case, poetry-as the best way to satisfy the desires behind mid-Victorian idealizations of childhood. The poem is an acrostic on Alice Pleasance Liddell's name; although the children who listened to the original tale of Wonderland have faded into memory and those who will hear the tale have yet to do so, the ideal child remains inscribed into the poem's present. And although Alice does not become and ideal woman who can delight her own children with her tales, this poem recreates the tale of Wonderland and Looking-glass country in a form that offers continuity across generations. Recurring tales of "a Wonderland," told to successive groups of children, will ensure that the girl and her tales remain present, even though each telling's "[e]choes fade and memories die." The poem thus attempts to fix Carroll, the real Alice Liddell, the fictional Alice, and child-listeners in a perpetually available childhood world.
At the same time, however, the closing poem remains well aware of the irony in its depiction of a childhood paradise. After all, this idealized setting bears little resemblance to the Wonderland (or the Looking-glass country) of Alice's original adventures: the poem's inhabitants certainly do move "under skies / Never seen by waking eyes." Other children are present only as passive listeners, their desires carefully edited to correspond to those of the adult speaker, who creates the poem unilaterally and takes for granted his audience's "[e]ager eye and willing ear." The final stanzas wryly undercut the notion of an eternal tale even as they long for it. The idealized childhood world that tale and poem create may seem to exist in a timeless lyric present, but the double meanings of lines such as "Ever drifting down the stream" reveal that it does not. The final lines encourage readers to dream but remind them that they, too, are drifting steadily toward death and destruction, however they may wish to linger along the way:
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?
Images of idealized childhood and its tales can delight, but they are dreams, illusory and fleeting; furthermore, the adult tale-teller and imaginary child-listeners cannot escape the fact that "summers die." In Looking-Glass, however, the very transience and elusiveness of ideal childhood only increase adults' desire to tell lovely if delusive tales for and about little girls.
Source: Jennifer Geer, "‘All Sorts of Pitfalls and Surprises’: Competing Views of Idealized Girlhood in Lewis Carroll's Alice Books," in Children's Literature, Vol. 31, 2003, pp. 1-2, 12-21.
Carroll, Lewis, Through the Looking-Glass, in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, illustrated by John Tenniel, Penguin, 1997, pp. 144-311.
Engberg, Gillian, Review of Alice through the Looking-Glass, in Booklist, Vol. 102, No. 8, December 15, 2005, p. 46.
Kelly, Richard, Lewis Carroll, Twayne Publishers, 1990, pp. 21, 92.
Phelan, Carolyn, Review of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in Booklist, Vol. 103, No. 5, November 1, 2006, p. 52.
Russell, David R., Literature for Children: A Short Introduction, Longman, 2001, p. 13.
Gardner, Martin, ed., The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, W. W. Norton, 2000.
Updating the earlier edition of this seminal text, this volume includes the complete collections of Tenniel's classic illustrations, recently discovered pencil sketches, as well as Gardner's trademark explanations of the puzzles, jokes, and wordplay that shape the worlds of the novels.
Jones, Jo Elwyn, and J. Francis Gladstone, The Red King's Dream, or Lewis Carroll in Wonderland, Pimlico, 1996.
This book provides an in-depth study of the complexities of Carroll's political attitudes towards empire and colonialism and how they find a place in his writing for children. Full of dates, details, and anecdotal bits of political history, this book provides a rich background for the novel.
This book takes a broad look at Tenniel's life and career, including his most famous work on Carroll's Alice novels. Morris relates in detail the disagreement between Carroll and Tenniel over the illustrations for each of the books, as well as Tenniel's role in the excision of "The Wasp in a Wig" chapter.
Parsons, Marnie, Touch Monkeys: Nonsense Strategies for Reading Twentieth-Century Poetry, University of Toronto Press, 1994.
Determined to reestablish nonsense writing as poetic exploration rather than simply child's play, Parsons presents an original approach to a generally misunderstood genre. Her goal is to re-envision nonsense language as the overlaying of several ways of making meaning within a verbal sense system, paying attention to Carroll's writing generally and "Jabberwocky" in particular.