Points to Ponder
Life is But a Dream: Alice shares with many other works of fantasy its framework of a dream. Although it's not clear at the beginning of the story that Alice is asleep, the adventure ends when she "wakes up" on the riverbank beside her sister, yanked out of Wonderland. Of course, we are free to believe what we like about the nature adventure.
The dream is a time-honored way of enclosing a fantastic narrative, as Lewis Carroll knew very well -- it goes back to ancient, religious English texts such as the fourteenth-century "Piers Plowman," or the seventh-century rune poem "The Dream of the Rood." In modern times, dreams are used more as convenient mechanisms for fantastic adventure (though, post-Freud, they're also seen to be loaded with symbolism). In Alice's sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll used the concept of dreams to explore our ideas of reality and imagination, though in Alice he leaves the topic mostly unexplored. What do you make of the idea that Alice's adventure is really a dream? Does the "logic" of Wonderland resemble in any way the way things happen in your own dreams? And do you think we can read symbolism into the story if we think of it as a little girl's dream? (How does that symbolism change, by the way, if we think of it instead as being the fantasy of a middle-aged bachelor who loved to entertain little girls?)
Alice, Victorian Goth?: Among the many unusual facets of Alice is its morbidity -- its frequent references to death. In this respect, Alice is more like one of the classic Grimm or Perrault fairy tales, with all their violence and eventual fatality, than like most other children's books of the Victorian period -- or, in fact, of our own day. The references are nearly constant. Some of them are explicit, like the Red Queen's habit of shouting "Off with his head!" (Actually, in this way she condemns nearly all of the main characters to death at one point or another, including Alice.) There are also other, more subtle references; for instance, the songs which Alice tries to recite or which others sing to her nearly always end with someone about to get executed or eaten -- this is true of the crocodile poem, the Owl and the Panther, the Mouse's tail, and the Lobster Quadrille sung by the Mock-Turtle and Gryphon.
These references are easy to overlook in Alice's atmosphere of illogical humor, but it's worth noticing that the threat of danger or death is seldom far away. As Martin Gardner notes, Lewis Carroll was well aware of children's interest in story elements which can seem illogical or inappropriate to grown-ups -- for instance, their fascination with eating and being eaten, and their morbid interest in violence and death. What do you think of the morbid humor in Alice, and how does it affect the way you react to the characters in the book? Does it seem to you that Alice is aware of this feature of her adventure? And do you think that, in the course of the adventure, Alice is put in any real danger?
The Secret Life of Lewis Carroll: When we read the Alice books, it's hard not to think about their author, Lewis Carroll, and try to read into the story his personal thoughts and emotions. No one is exactly sure what Carroll's relation was to the little girls he loved so much, but his apparently asexual personal life and the amount of artistic energy he poured into entertaining children have led to a flood of speculation.
What we can say, with certainty, is this: Carroll was passionately fond of little girls, and had a number of "child-friends" throughout his life. He wrote them long letters, spent as much time with them as he could, and often told stories to entertain them -- as was the case with the story he eventually wrote down at the request of young Alice Liddell, which eventually became Alice in Wonderland. Carroll also liked to sketch and photograph little girls, sometimes in the nude. He is acknowledged to have been a very good photographer, and some of his surviving pictures -- especially the ones of young Alice Liddell, dressed as a beggar and watching the camera with a heavy-lidded gaze -- are interesting and profoundly disturbing.
However, there's no evidence that Carroll ever had -- or consciously wanted to have -- sexual relations with any young girl. He seems to have considered his feelings toward them to be pure and spiritual, as was appropriate for a clergyman; moreover, he was thoroughly Victorian in his feelings about the spiritual purity of children, an attitude which avoided any sexual considerations. As for those infamous nude photos, he never took them without the child's parent present, and he requested that they all be destroyed after his death to avoid embarrassing the subjects. And his child-friends seem to have only fond memories of him, including Alice herself, who had nothing but praise for him after she grew up. As Martin Gardner puts it, we have no evidence that Carroll wanted to marry or have an erotic relationship with little Alice -- but, nevertheless, "his attitude toward her was the attitude of a man in love."
The final word is that we can't really jump to any conclusions about Carroll. He seems to have lived a happy, academic, asexual life, taking pleasure in indulging his great passions -- logic games, wordplay, and spending lots of time with little girls. As Martin Gardner puts it, Carroll is perhaps unique in literary history in combining "complete sexual innocence with a passion that can only be described as thoroughly heterosexual." The result is his legacy: the Alice books, among the most priceless works of intelligent nonsense ever written in English, his gift of love to Alice Liddell. How does all this affect your thinking about the story? Does it make you view Carroll's treatment of Alice's character differently?
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Points to Ponder
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