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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

It's the sesquicentennial of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, one of the most marvelous books ever published, and one that almost everyone knows. As Anthony Lane pointed out in his New Yorker article, at one time everyone had read it, and if they had any books in their house, Alice was one of them. Now perhaps people haven't actually read it, or not all of it, but so many aspects of it are embedded in our culture that we think we've read it.

I've read it many times. The blanket title for the two books about Alice that Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) wrote is Alice in Wonderland, but there is no book with that title. The first book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, sprung from a tale he wrote for a young friend, Alice's Adventures Underground. The story goes that he made it up as he and Alice Liddell and her two sisters punted down a river in 1863 (the same week the battle of Gettsyburg was bought). He then published it a book two years later, and three years after that, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, was published.

Today Alice is largely looked at as a children's book, but it has also been analyzed and interpreted in many ways--Freudian, Marxist, what have you. Of course, Carroll's intense fascination, whether sexual or not, with prepubescent girls has also fueled the scholarly discussion. Beyond all that, though, the book is both a simple pleasure and incredibly complex, full of puns, riddles, and poems that delight the senses.

Since there are two books, it may be helpful to delineate what's what. In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, we have Alice going down the rabbit hole (a phrase that has come to mean entering a fantastic or, conversely, an unpleasant world). She meets the White Rabbit, the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, and attends the Mad Tea Party. For the first half of the book, she is constantly adjusting her size, eating and drinking things that make her too large or too small. This could be interpreted as a girl's adjustments to the changes in her body.

What she wants to be is the right size to enter a garden, which could be another metaphor, especially for growing up or, if you want to take it further, sexuality. When she finally enters the garden, she finds the tea party, hears the tale of the Mock Turtle, dances the Lobster Quadrille, and later plays croquet with a pack of playing cards, led by the Queen, who's standard declaration to anything that disturbs her is, "Off with his (or her) head!"

Finally, Alice attends the trial of the knave of hearts for stealing some tarts, a trial that makes much mockery of the legal system. Finally Alice awakes for her dream, as she has fallen asleep on her outing by the river.

The Looking Glass is a better book, I think: It contains The Walrus and the Carpenter, Jabberwocky, Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, and Humpty Dumpty. But I'll restrict this post to the first book, as it is the one I am celebrating.

"Curiouser and curiouser!" Alice says early on. Indeed, the book is a fantastic bit of whimsy and nonsense. She also says, in an early bit of meta, "There ought to be a book written about me." But what is the hold this book has had on us for 150 years? I find it to be full of details that provide stimulation to the senses. To me, the tea party is the central part of the book. It is a dizzying array of puns and circuitous language.

"'Have some wine," the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

"Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. 'I don't see any wine,' she remarked.'

"'There isn't any,' said the March Hare.'"

Later, the Mad Hatter lays down a riddle. "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" (One of my favorite literary phrases of all the time; it might make a perfect epitaph for me). Alice later asks him what the answer is

"'I haven't the slightest idea,' said the Hatter.

"'Nor I,' said the March Hare.

"Alice sighed wearily. 'I think you might do something better with the time,' she said, 'than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers.'" As you may see, there are those who think there are political allegories all through the work.

There are also some wonderful by groan-worthy puns. "'That's the reason they're called lessons,' the Gryphon remarked, 'because they lessen from day to day.' or, "The Mock Turtle said, 'no wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise."' Groan.

The book has had an astounding legacy. It has been made into many films and been part of many others. It had a strong influence on rock music in the 1960s--one of its greatest fans was John Lennon, and many songs, most prevalently Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," were influenced by it. The rock singers of the '60s saw the hallucinogenic quality of it, which Lewis Carroll couldn't have imagined, but a hookah-smoking caterpillar and a bottle that says "Drink Me" were catnip to the LSD generation.

Being as Dodgson was a mathematician, there are also sorts of arithmetical bits in the book, such as during the tea party we get the logical notions about inverse and converse equations.

Lastly I'd like to discuss the illustrations. There have been many editions of Alice, with many different illustrators. But none have improved upon the originals by John Tenniel, which to my mind are a large part of the appeal of the book. None beats the Jabberwock, a monster in a cardigan, but that is in Through the Looking Glass. In this book, perhaps the best illustration is the Duchess, the incredibly ugly woman holding a baby that turns out to be a pig. Tenniel had an influence on the writing. Carroll wrote a section about a wasp in a wig, but Tenniel said he could not draw such a thing, so out it went.

If I were playing Desert Island Books, the Alice books would be part of them, as they can be read an infinite amount of times with the similar enjoyment on each occasion. It's hard to imagine a world without them now.

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