Review: Alice in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ah. The classic Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll's insanely outrageous tale. There are so many different ways for this work to be interpreted and rearranged to be whatever freakin' way that you want that its ridiculous and not even worth talking about. Seriously; so let's talk about it. Consider for instance the idea of using Alice as a metaphor for the seemingly innocent ideals that upheld an era of colonization and oppression. Alice comes to a foreign world, a world controlled by animals - in the same way that white indo-europeans considered races of other colors to be inferior creatures - and she percieves that world to be at first intimidating and dangerous, but by the end of her encounter, finds herself coming to dominate that third, other world.
Or what about just seeing the story as a children's tale and nothing more then that? There's still a tremendous amount to be learned about interpersonal relationships from the way that Alice, and the characters in her world, conduct themselves. Here's an essay I turned in today on just that subject, thought I'd share it for those of you who are interested thinking about Alice in Wonderland on a higher level of discourse. Write your own and post it up! We could get a real good discussion going.
3 March 2012
Alice’s Adventures in Interpersonal Discovery
Choose two or three of Alice’s encounters with others in the book, and explore how Lewis Carroll implies a comment or a deeper understanding of human nature, law, laughter and humor, mathematics, psychology, philosophy, politics, logic, and/or the uses of language. Choose one or more of these areas to discuss in your response.
There are so many different ways of interpreting Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland that it could be potentially difficult to select one single viewpoint and to expand on it at length, as any one interpretation would naturally open the way for others. Carroll’s near mythic existence often colors such interpretations, but this essay will focus exclusively on the text, and will not draw conclusions based upon things reputed to or rumored about Carroll. The book was written for children – the three Dodgson girls in particular, one of whom Alice was named after – and much of the imagery centers around how to deal with the alienation one experiences in growing up, especially in adolescence, where experimentation is often a way of finding one’s place in the world, and answering the philosophical interrogation of “Who are you?” The adult world can be a dangerous and confusing place for children, and Carroll’s book hones in on some of those dangers and explores them in a fun, theatrical fashion. He also delights in having his characters misinterpret adult-phrases and ideas in funny ways.
Each encounter with the creatures and people in Carroll’s tale, tell something about how to deal with interpersonal relationships. The first example of this is Alice’s exchange with the mouse, when without thinking, she offends it by saying how her cat is “such a capital one for catching mice” (Ch2-Line161). Later after the “caucus-race” (one of many plays on a foreign, adult world), Alice has to deal with peer pressure when she is called upon to hand out prizes, though she thought the whole thing “very absurd” (Ch3-224), she gives in and tries to look as “solemn as possible.” Alice then offends the mouse again by attempting to help it undo a knot in its tail, and as the mouse walks away in a huff she says, “you’re so easily offended, you know” (ch3-249). This exchange offers two lessons, first to try and be sensitive to others and to respect their things and personal space, and second that by having such a big temper, the mouse alienates itself from the rest of the group that was actually paying attention to its story.
The caterpillar is another character that gives Alice some trouble, only the caterpillar frustrates Alice instead of the other way around. The caterpillar asks her “who are you” and tells her to “explain herself” (Ch5-379). Alice cannot articulate the way she feels, and then she presumes to know that the caterpillar will “feel a little queer” when it turns from a caterpillar into a chrysalis into a butterfly. When the caterpillar says he won’t find it so, Alice says, “all I know is, it would feel very queer to me.” This line is key, because Alice admits that she can have no knowledge about what someone else feels, because it is outside of her own experience. Alice gets frustrated not so much with the caterpillar himself, but more with the line of inquiry he posits, and her own inability to answer. The caterpillar isn’t necessarily contradicting her as she thinks, but really just exposing the contradictions of her own making. An example of this is when Alice says she isn’t particular as to her size, only she “doesn’t like changing so often, you know” (417), and the caterpillar says that he doesn’t know. Alice presumed that the experience of someone else would match up with hers, even though she had no reason to think so. This section is about not being presumptuous, and having patience. Near the end of their conversation Alice waited “patiently until it chose to speak again” (427), and then the caterpillar rewarded her with the knowledge of the mushroom and how to change her size at will.
The mad tea party is another example of characters who challenge Alice to “say what you mean” (ch7-618), and she gets herself into even more trouble by her unwillingness to admit being wrong, such as when she says “I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know” (619), of course, as the tea partygoers point out, it is not the same thing at all, and she was never invited to sit with them in the first place. Then Alice keeps interrupting the Dormouse during his story, until he has to say, “If you can’t be civil, you’d better finish the story for yourself” (690). In this encounter, while the partygoers are certainly rude to Alice, she is also being rude, and thus inviting them to critique her grammar, phrasing, and actions. This scene is reminiscent of a kind of clique dynamic, where the hatter is the obvious leader, and Alice is the newcomer – the newcomer to a clique always faces ridicule and derision from the others. Alice’s behavior toward their bullying seems like an example to follow. She lets a few of the comments slide, but in the end removes herself from the Hatter’s negative attitude when he tells her, “Then you shouldn’t talk” (711). However, there is another way of looking at this, which would mean that Alice takes herself much too seriously. She focuses on being right, on displaying her knowledge, and lets her temper get the best of her when the Hatter and his friends were merely good-naturedly poking fun. This argument has some weight to it, as the Dormouse is also picked on by the March Hare and the Hatter: they pour hot tea on his nose, use him as a pillow, and tell him that breathing and sleeping are both the same for him. Their remarks toward Alice aren’t intended to hurt her feelings, and her behavior shows that she’s not used to others poking fun at her, and had she stayed a bit longer and laughed off some of their remarks, she could very well have gained a few friends.
Using children’s literature as a way of demonstrating how one should behave might have been a novel concept in Lewis Carroll’s time, but now shows like Sesame Street are constructed with the aid of child psychologists in order to ensure that the right message is getting across. The multiplicity of interpretations of Carroll’s work is not just a testament to his genius, but should also be looked at as an example of how literature – regardless of its target audience – can cross over boundaries and establish itself concretely in the public consciousness.
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