Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
THE LITERARY WORK
A children’s novel set in a fantasy world; published in 1865.
A young English girl dreams of traveling through a “wonderland” filled with magical creatures and nonsensical events.
Inspired by a boating excursion in 1862, Lewis Carroll’s famous story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was originally intended only to entertain three of his friends, who were children. The author set the oral story down in print so that the children might have it on hand to read for themselves. After showing it to another writer, Carroll was finally persuaded to publish his book. With the help of an illustrator, Sir John Tenniel, the author created his popular novel. Due to its fantasy setting, the only historical references in the work are those which pertain to Carroll’s own times.
Queen Victoria (1819-1901)
Victoria ascended to the British throne in 1837, after her uncle, King William IV, died without leaving a direct heir. At the time of her coronation, the English people had little respect for the monarchy, as it had previously been riddled with irresponsible conduct. Both William IV and Victoria’s father lived openly with their mistresses, Mrs. Jordan (an actress) and Madame St. Laurent, respectively. Victoria’s concern for the welfare of her people, however, soon gained her the respect of the nation. She and her husband Albert were able to restore some of the lustre that had faded from the royal throne. Some argue that “Great Britain might have become a republic [rather than a monarchy] if Victoria and Albert had not regained that respect by the display of their domestic virtues and blameless private life” (Marshall, p. 94). Under the guidance of Victoria and her prime ministers, Britain developed its worldwide colonial empire. During Victoria’s reign, the country increased its population by 50 percent and became, by some estimates, the richest nation in the world.
While Carroll’s novel does not directly refer to England’s reigning monarch, it does feature a prominent queen, the Queen of Hearts. She rules all of Wonderland, and her subjects bow to her wishes for fear of losing their heads. Like Queen Victoria, whose husband Prince Albert assisted her with royal duties, the king of Wonderland takes an active, if subservient, role with his queen. Carroll’s Victorian audience would have been quite familiar and comfortable with this royal hierarchy.
Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell
Lewis Carroll is actually the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a professor of mathematics at Christ Church College in Oxford University. Early in his university life, Carroll began contributing pieces of writing to various humorous journals. As he wanted to keep his two professions separate, he devised a pen name for his creative writings. Translating his first two names into Latin, he came up with “Carolus Lodovicus.” He then anglicized these names and reversed their order, becoming “Lewis Carroll.”
An avid and accomplished photographer, Carroll met Alice Liddell on the afternoon of April 25, 1856, as he attempted to take pictures of the Christ Church Cathedral. Only four years old at the time, Alice was one of three daughters of Reverend Henry George Liddell, the Dean of Christ Church. This meeting initiated a friendship that was to last several years. Carroll delighted in taking pictures of the three girls, and these photographs garnered such acclaim that he was given the title of the most outstanding photographer of children in the nineteenth century. Although he often met with all of the children at once, Carroll’s favorite clearly was Alice. The little girl was “adept at asking challenging and disconcerting questions, [and] enjoyed teasing and … logical argument” (Batey, p. 8). Carroll eventually developed this persona into the title character of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Science vs. religion in Victorian England
The mid-Victorian period (1848-1870) often falls under the title of “The Age of Improvement.” London, by the 1830s, had grown into a polluted, overcrowded metropolis. During Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), the population of this city alone grew from 2 million to 6.5 million inhabitants. Although social change progressed slowly, a series of organizations and acts of the mid-Victorian period worked to regulate industrial growth. For instance, during the late 1860s the Nine Hours League was formed in Newcastle for the purpose of lobbying for a fifty-four-hour work week. The work week had previously gone unregulated.
In 1851 Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition in Hyde Park displayed achievements of modern industry and science. The flourish of science and technology soon ignited a heated debate between the religious camps and the scientific ones. On one side, evolutionists argued under the principles set forth in Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). Darwin suggested that every living creature produces offspring that in some way differs from itself. Certain of these differences give particular offspring a better chance for thriving in their environment, helping the species to survive the tests of “natural selection” imposed by climate, food, and predators. Darwin entitled this ancestral evolution the “survival of the fittest” (Darwin in Lindsay, p. 92). On the other side of the argument, members of the “Oxford movement” (so named for its birth at Oxford University) upheld the biblical concept that God had created the universe and that life did not evolve over time. This theory became known as “creationism.” As a professor at Oxford, Lewis Carroll found himself caught in the middle of these sociological and theoretical debates. In 1860 the university played host to a famous British Association meeting at which the Darwinian scientist Thomas Henry Huxley argued with the creationist Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. Some scholars think that bits of these intellectual discussions surface in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Carroll, word play, and Victorian humor
A mathematician by trade, Lewis Carroll had mixed feelings about words. He believed that their ambiguous nature led to infinite problems. Throughout his life, the author kept an exact copy of every correspondence sent or received. In this manner, he hoped to avoid misunderstandings of what he may or may not have said. This habit reflects a preoccupation and infatuation with words and puns that surface in the novel.
Like the Victorian society for which Carroll wrote, the author found endless humor in punning. The trial scene at the end of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland provides one such instance. When asked if she had ever had any fits, the Queen of Hearts replies, “Never!” (Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p. 100). Her husband, the King, retorts, “Then the words don’t fit you. … It’s a pun!” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p. 101). This type of humor was quite popular in Victorian literature. As critic Donald Gray noted, Victorian “nonsense is full of a delight in the sounds of words, a delight which is also abundantly evident in the countless puns” (Gray, p. 168).
The novel also abounds with humorous references to poems typically taught to Victorian school children. Since education in the nineteenth century centered around endless memorization and recitation, most of the songs and poems in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland would have rung familiar to child readers. Alice’s recitation of “You are old, Father William” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p. 44), for instance, mocks a well-known poem by Robert Southey, England’s poet laureate in 1813. Southey’s poem, called “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them,” begins with these two stanzas:
“You are old, Father William,” the young man cried;
“The few locks which are left you are gray;
You are hale, Father William,—a hearty old man:
Now tell me the reason, I pray.”
“In the days of my youth,” Father William replied,
“I remembered that youth would fly fast,
And abused not my health and my vigor at first,
That I never might need them at last.”
(Southey, p. 171)
Compare these lines with the ones that Alice recalls:
“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”
“In my youth,” Father William replies to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p. 44)
Victorian education for girls
In Victorian England, the educational focus was on the manners a student acquired and the people with whom he or she associated. This emphasis was especially true for female students. A young girl’s education often centered around “accomplishments” such as music, drawing, and other arts that would “make a man’s home a bower of tasteful bliss” (McMurty, p. 189). Girls were usually educated at home by a governess and an assortment of masters on special subjects. Alice Liddell and her sisters, for instance, received drawing instruction under the guidance of John Ruskin. In the novel, Carroll’s Alice remains continually concerned with the propriety of things. She sings and recites with the skill of any good Victorian child, and she even attempts to teach manners to the confused creatures of Wonderland. When affronted at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, Alice remarks, “You shouldn’t make personal remarks … it’s very rude” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p. 59). Although the end of the century saw a trend toward educating women in those subjects taught to men (i.e., Latin, mathematics), this change affected only a small portion of the population, specifically the upper classes.
Lying with her sister on the bank of a country river in England, Alice grows increasingly
bored with having “nothing to do” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p. 7). Suddenly a white rabbit, wearing a waistcoat and talking to himself, startles the little girl out of her reverie. As she follows him down his rabbit hole, Alice has no idea that wild adventures await her in Wonderland.
Told in the third person, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland chronicles the journey of the novel’s title character as she travels through a dreamlike world. At every bend in the road, Alice encounters new and exotic figures, from talking mice to animated playing cards. She even finds that the ingestion of certain foods alters her size. As she journeys, Alice attempts to make sense of a baby that turns into a pig, a caterpillar that speaks in riddles, and a cat that disappears and reappears without warning. Throughout the novel, Alice finds herself lost in this unreal setting, where standard convention does not apply.
The nonsensical adventure culminates with Alice’s introduction to the Queen of Hearts and a trial concerning the theft of cherry tarts. Adhering to no apparent logic, the Queen commands the beheading of her subjects at frequent, whimsical intervals. Clearly, even the court system of Wonderland does not follow any rules or regulations. Alice soon finds herself wishing to return to the normalcy of her home in England. Soon enough the little girl awakens on the river bank she had left, and tells her sister of her curious dream.
Carroll and Darwinism
Lewis Carroll’s interests pulled him simultaneously in the conflicting directions of science and religion. As a scholar, Carroll participated in the arguments about Darwinism that pervaded Oxford University, and he and most other members of the intellectual community attended the famous Huxley-Wilberforce debate.
Some reviewers believe that these dual passions are evident in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The subject of Darwinism, it is argued, can be found in a segment of the tale where, after falling down the white rabbit’s hole, Alice finds herself quite alone. She does not meet other creatures until she cries so much that she creates a pool of tears. Eventually, a mouse, a duck, a Dodo, and several other animals emerge from the pool. Some critics think that this notion of life crawling forth from salt water echoes the Darwinian principles of evolution. Likewise, the Dodo character, according to these critics, refers to Darwin’s studies of natural selection. The Dodo bird had been extinct since 1681, and the last known remains of the animal were preserved at Oxford. Still, while some assert that the book contains several Darwinian allusions, others contend that it does not deal with this scientific movement.
Carroll’s interest in the creationist teachings of the church, meanwhile, were due in part to his family environment. His father, an ordained minister, greatly influenced his son’s vocational aspirations. While growing up, Carroll had planned to seek a career in the church. Although he was ordained a deacon in 1861, for unknown reasons Carroll never took full holy orders. As a result, he could not lead church services. While some critics speculate that the author’s slight stutter gave him an inferiority complex about public speaking, no one really knows why Carroll’s religious career came to a halt. Despite the setback, he maintained a high degree of devotion to his religion.
For this reason, some feel that the “Pool of Tears” chapter comes solely from an autobiographical experience. After a rain shower ruined a boating expedition with his friend Robinson Duckworth and the Liddell children, Carroll was forced to lead the party to the safety of a shoreside home. Some readers say that he later retold this tale in his novel, casting Alice Liddell as Alice, her sisters Lorina and Edith as the Lory and the Eaglet, Duckworth as the Duck, and himself as the stuttering Dodo bird. This reading decidedly counters the Darwinian one. Mirroring the dualism of his own life, Carroll seems to leave the whole incident up to two very different but possible interpretations.
There is an exact genesis of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. On July 4, 1862, Lewis Carroll, along with his friend Robinson Duckworth, took the three small Liddell daughters on a boat trip. As they traveled down the Thames River in England, Carroll entertained the children—Lorina, Alice, and Edith—with fantasy tales. It was at this point that he made Alice the protagonist of his story, using her curious, independent nature as the basis for his own fictional character.
The majority of references in Carroll’s tale come from real-life acquaintances and events. For instance, the “bat” referred to in the Mad Hatter’s rendition of “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p. 62) is Oxford’s Professor Bartholomew Price, a figure known around campus as “the bat.” Price’s interest in astronomy led to Carroll’s substituting his nickname for the word star in the poem.
The “treacle well” that the Dormouse talks of in the story also finds its roots in Oxford lore. Saint Frideswide of Oxford, the founder of Christ Church, was said to have been pursued by a suitor. For his boldness, the suitor was struck blind. Frideswide, however, took pity on the man and called forth a miraculous well of healing waters. It became known as the Treacle Well, and its history was quite familiar to Carroll.
Oxford also attracted a large share of entertainers. In 1860 the Ohio Minstrels visited the campus and sang “Oh Beautiful Star,” among other songs. This tune appears in Carroll’s work as “Oh Beautiful Soup,” sung by the Mock Turtle. Traveling circuses showcased performers such as a ventriloquist who acted out “How doth the little busy bee” and a hypnotist who could make people behave like babies or sneeze violently. Carroll used these performances for inspiration when he had Alice recite “How dothe the little crocodile” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p. 15) and when he wrote his chapter “Pig and Pepper.”
Reception of the novel
Carroll first published his novel in 1865, but due to poor reproductions of Tenniel’s illustrations, the work was immediately recalled. Although this edition never reached store shelves as a bound book, the unbound pages of text were retained by Carroll. In 1866 these sheets were sold to a different publisher and produced as a second issue of the first edition. Due to the printing problems associated with the 1865 publication, first editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland have become treasured collectibles.
Although a review in the highly respected journal Athenaeum complained that the story was stiff and overdone, it met with immediate commercial success. By 1900, 180,000 copies of the book had been sold. Carroll began his sequel, Through the Looking Glass, in 1867. According to an 1898 article in the Pall Mall Gazette, Carroll’s Alice books were often quoted by newspapers and periodicals of the era, so much so that only Shakespeare’s works were quoted with greater frequency.
Batey, Mavis. Alice’s Adventures in Oxford. London: Piktkin Pictorials, 1980.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Edited by Penelope Lively. Rutland, Vt.: Everyman Classic, 1993.
Gray, Donald. “The Uses of Victorian Laughter.” Victorian Studies 10 (October 1966): 1-4.
Lindsay, Donald, and E. S. Washington. A Portrait of Britain between the Exhibitions. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952.
Marshall, Dorothy. The Life and Times of Victoria. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972.
McMurty, Jo. Victorian Life and Victorian Fiction. North Haven, Conn.: Archon, 1979.
Southey, Robert. The Poetical Works of Robert Southey. Vol. 2. Boston: Little, Brown, 1794.