Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I’ve heard it said by many different people that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was written while the author was on some kind of hallucinogenic drug. I still believe this to be an urban legend, but after finishing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, I can understand why some people might come to that idea. No matter what you’ve seen or read before, nothing can prepare you for the insanity of Lewis Carroll. The films by Disney are significantly more sanitized (pun intended) than this “story”, and I put story in parenthesis because it can only be loosely defined as one. In Alice, all rules go out the window; there is no character development, no conflict, no themes, nothing whatsoever to hold the plot in place. Things happen without any cause and effect relationship (the chapters could be rearranged anyway you please and it would make just as much sense), and the story ends when it ends, for no reason other than Alice wakes up, which, when it happens, is entirely arbitrary. Since it’s all just a dream, anything can and does happen, and unlike fantasy (this isn’t) there are no rules or logic to follow. In fact, if there is a theme in Alice, it may be that conventions are irrelevant, that logic and reason are, in the context of a dream, meaningless. If Carroll does one thing brilliantly, it’s capturing the vague sense of reality you feel while dreaming. In one of the most perplexing and jarring scenes, Alice is having a conversation one moment, and in the next, she is on a train with a bunch of animals. There is no transition whatsoever, and if I hadn’t known better, I might have thought a paragraph or two were missing. All of this nonsense goes to prove a point I have often made, that there are no absolutes in writing. But then the question remains, how did something like this become so popular? Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an enormously successful book, considering the numerous film adaptations and near countless pop culture references made to this day. Before Walt Disney produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, he experimented with a live action adaptation of Alice with cartoon characters drawn directly onto celluloid. Later, the Walt Disney company would make a full length animated feature (1951) and a live action film starring Johnny Depp (2010). Even the Matrix movies make frequent references to Alice, when Neo is told to “follow the White Rabbit” (a girl with a White Rabbit tattoo) and when Morpheus tells Neo, “You must feel like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole.” Like Frankenstein, Alice is so ingrained in our culture that everyone seems to know the story without ever having read the book.

But the book’s popularity endures mostly due its place in history. Written in 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is very much a product of its time. After all, it was intended for children in 19th century Britain. There are references to playing cards, chess, Humpty Dumpty and other nursery rhymes well known to kids of that age, but modern children, having grown up with Super Mario Bros. and Pokemon, may be hard pressed to relate to it. Adults may find ways to appreciate Alice for historical and literary study, but sadly, its intended audience is forever lost. Many classics written hundreds, even thousands of years ago, stand up to time, but Alice, despite its imaginative charms and wonderful plays on the English language, just isn’t one of them. With countless books for children to choose from these days, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland would garner little attention if written today, likely becoming an obscure title.

In my copy of the book, there is an Introduction with some heady philosophical discussion by Tan Lin. Lin writes at length about boredom, children, and the idea of nonsense. He conjectures how children use imagination to overcome the tedium of life and to try and understand the “adult” world, which to them seems nonsensical. Reading through Alice, I sometimes got the same impression, that Carroll was making some allegorical statement, but these moments were quite rare and the story seemed too random for me to consider it much. If there is any philosophical statement to be found here at all, it may be that searching for meaning is meaningless.

     

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