Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
Fiction - Children's - ISBN: 0156044269 - ISBN13: 9780156044264
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Review of "Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll"
I assume most people are familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland but for those who are not I have included a summary at the end of the opinion.I was brought up on Alice stories, not however just read from the book. Like the real Alice I grew up in Oxford and like her was lucky enough to have a storytelling uncle. I was told Alice stories in Christ Church Meadow and Godstow sitting near the same places where she sat and maybe just maybe I heard them as she had done originally. I do know that I also went down the rabbit hole and that I too grew and shrunk as she did and met the horrid duchess and queen.
Eventually, however, and I can’t remember how old I was, I read the book for myself – and I was so disappointed. I remember thinking how silly it was or tedious and some of it I couldn’t understand at all. So what happened?Basically, exactly the same thing that happened to Alice at the end of the story. As soon as Alice points out the reality of the situation – that they are “only a pack of cards”, she is immediately returned to ‘reality’ herself.
I had grown up a bit, I was old enough to read the words but too old to recapture the magic of the stories that I had originally heard. On the other hand distance in time and general lack of education and understanding left me too young to understand it on another level. I was offended by the cruelty and confused by the puns and irony. So as far as I was concerned it was a useless book and I disliked it so much that I didn’t introduce it to my own children at all.Thus it seems to me that Alice in wonderland is a Jekyll and Hyde book and there are at least two distinct sides to it.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was an immensely talented man, naturally creative and artistic he somehow or another ended up as a mathematics teacher. He was born in 1832 the third child of eleven and he first began to compose poems and stories to entertain the family. Snippets of ‘Alice’ were known to others long before the real ‘Alice’ came into his life and thus it was a long time in the making. Alice was by no means the only child who had been told special stories but she was the one who demanded that he write them down.The inspirational stories that gave birth to the book Alice in wonderland were first told to Alice and her two sisters on a boating trip to Godstow on 4th July 1862. That evening as they said goodnight Alice said to him, “Oh, Mr Dodgson, I wish you would write out Alice’s’ adventures for me.” And apparently he sat up most of that night writing down what he could remember but the first draft was not completed for another two years.
Now, surely this in itself tells us something about the nature of this book. If it was indeed intended as a storybook for children alone surely it could have been finished much quicker. Alice was 10 years old when the stories were originally told, she was given the first draft ‘Alice’s Adventures in the Underground’ when she was 12 and finally ‘Alice in wonderland’ was published when she was 13. Alice was 19 when Through the looking Glass was published.Furthermore, if it was really intended for children why did Carroll completely rewrite it as ‘The Nursery Alice’ in 1889 without the puns and irony? In the preface to that book he suggests that this version is for one to five year olds but he also mentions ‘children’ of various other ages who have read it with his tongue obviously firmly in cheek.
Read from a certain point of view and with reasonable insight the book is almost certainly a satire containing subtly anarchic mockery of Victorian hypocrisy, authority and prejudice. Many people suggest that there are references to drugs in the book and that Carroll may have written under the influence. Drug use is most obvious in the hookah smoking caterpillar scene and ‘magic’ mushroom but also more subtly present in the story of the duchess and baby. But it seems to me far more likely that there is implied criticism of the then common opium habits and results of it than any direct use by the author himself.Lewis Carroll, however, has cleverly allowed the criticisms to be voiced by ‘Alice’, who as a seven year old girl knows nothing. Victorians considered children as basically useless and worthless and showed their prejudices to ‘lower’ classes, indigenous peoples and ‘blacks’ by comparing them to children – ‘immature working class’ etc. But in wonderland there is a reversal of this state and the grown ups are shown to be everything that they accuse others of.
Carroll had a perceptive understanding of children and valued their innocent reasoning and ability to be transported so easily into wonderland and I suspect he wanted to create a bridge which would enable other older ‘children’ to share his perspective. In other words, Alice in wonderland is a sort of manual of how to become a child for adults so they too can see the world differently.Even if I am wrong and it was written entirely for children I do not think a child of today can understand much of the story as it stands. The parts of the story which were told to and written for Alice and her sisters had particular relevance to them alone and that is what made them so special. Lewis Carroll had the storyteller’s art of transforming the people and things around into things that were recognisably different to those who knew what he was talking about. Many of the characters in the book can be identified as real people Alice knew. The White Rabbit, for example, is most probably her own father. (Christ Church for whatever reason keeps different time to the rest of the UK. Oxford is 5 minutes west of Greenwich and in theory 9.00 GMT is 9.05 Oxford time. This is the time Christ Church keeps in the cathedral, for dinner and striking its bell Great Tom. So the white rabbit that is always late is quite clearly from Christ Church.)
In one of the most famous stories from Alice the mad hatter’s tea party the dormouse is woken to tell a story. He tells the story of three little girls Elsie, Lacie and Tillie who live at the bottom of a treacle well. This story would seem like complete madness to some people but would have made sense to Alice. The girls are in fact the Liddell sisters and the treacle well is a reference to the healing well (known as the treacle well) at Binsey which they passed on the boating trip and to the Frideswide legend which had been recently immortalised on new stained glass windows in Christ Church Cathedral.Another part of the story which would be obvious to Alice but not necessarily to others is mention of the dodo – which was on exhibition at the very recently opened University museum of natural history. There are many such obscure references in the story and to understand the significance it really is necessary to read an annotated edition.
With knowledge of the background to the stories one can enter again into the spirit of the stories as they were told to the girls on a certain golden afternoon and marvel at the imagination of Lewis Carroll who also wrote the following:I’d give all wealth that years have piled,
the slow result of life’s decay.
To be once more a little child
for one bright summer day.
Summary of the storyThe story begins with Alice sitting with her sister by the river when suddenly she sees a white rabbit hurrying past muttering to himself about being late. Curiosity causes Alice to follow him down a rabbit hole, along passages and in and out of rooms. At one point Alice catches a glimpse of a beautiful garden and wants to enter it but finds she is too big.
Then follows a sequence of events where she first drinks a potion and becomes small then eats cake and becomes big which recurs throughout the story in various ways. When she is too big she bursts into tears of frustration and then when she shrinks again finds herself swimming in a pool of her own tears alongside various other creatures.They eventually swim out of the pool and have to get dry. The mouse tells his ‘driest story’ but that doesn’t work so they decide to have a race which involves running wherever they want randomly. The dodo is in charge and they all have prizes. The mouse starts to tell his tale and no one is interested so he leaves and when Alice starts her story every one else leaves.
The rabbit enters the story again and mistaking Alice for his maid sends her off to his house to fetch his gloves and fan. There she finds another bottle of ‘drink me’ stuff, drinks some and grows to fill the room. Then she shrinks again, gets chased by a puppy and wants to grow again. This is when she conveniently meets the hookah smoking caterpillar that suggests she eats some mushroom.The next scene finds Alice in a house in some woods where she meets fish and frog footmen and in the kitchen the duchess and baby, a grinning cat and the cook. Everyone is sneezing because there is too much pepper about and the baby is howling. The duchess throws the baby to Alice and it changes into a pig and runs away. Then Alice meets the Cheshire cat
The next scene is one of the most famous in Alice – the mad hatter’s tea party. The March hare and mad hatter are having tea and a dormouse is sitting between them fast asleep. There ensues a fascinating discussion on semantics, riddles, philosophy and complete nonsense then the dormouse is woken and tells a story about three little girls who live in a well. Alice gets offended about something and wanders off and finds a tree with a door in it. Eventually after some more growing and shrinking she finds herself able to enter the beautiful garden she saw at the beginning of the story.But the people in the beautiful garden are not very beautiful. Alice sees a rose tree with white roses on which two gardeners are painting red, because they had accidentally planted the wrong sort and if the queen finds out she will cut off their heads. The queen and the rest of the cards arrive and the queen invites Alice to play croquet. The riotous game is played with flamingo mallets and hedgehogs as balls and the queen constantly orders heads off.
After this the mock turtle and gryphon do a dance and finally there is a trial to discover who stole the tarts. Most of the main characters reappear as witnesses and finally Alice is called. By this time she is growing again and is not worried about what she says because they are ‘only a pack of cards’. The whole pack of cards comes flying down upon her – and Alice wakes from her dream.
Product Information : Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
Manufacturer's product descriptionFiction - Children's - ISBN: 0156044269 - ISBN13: 9780156044264
Title: Alice in Wonderland
Author: Lewis Carroll
Listed on Ciao since: 30/06/2000