Alice was the work of a mathematician and logician who wrote as both a humorist and as a limerist. The story was in no sense intended to be didactic; its only purpose was to entertain. One may look for Freudian or Jungian interpretations if one chooses to do so, but in the final analysis, the story functions as comedy, with dialogue used largely for Carroll to play on words, mixing fantasy with burlesque actions.
The success of Alice (1865) enabled Carroll to forego his activities as a deacon. After the death of his deeply religious father in 1868, Carroll was able to propose a one-third cut in his salary as a mathematical lecturer. His most famous mathematical work, Euclid and His Modern Rivals, had been published the year before, and in 1881, he proposed to resign his academic post so that he could give full time to writing and pursuing mathematical studies. But in 1882, he was made Curator of the Common Room and was persuaded to remain there until 1892. He continued to write on mathematical topics and completed the first volume of his Symbolic Logic. By then, he was independently wealthy as a result of his many successful publications: Phantasmagoria appeared in 1869; in 1871, Through the Looking Glass came out; in 1876, The Hunting of the Snark appeared; and in 1883, Rhyme and Reason was published. Carroll’s university responsibilities broadened in those years and from time to time he even accepted a request for a sermon. Though his authorship of the Alice books was well known, he absolutely shunned all publicity and refused to acknowledge any connection to “Lewis Carroll.”
After leaving Oxford, Carroll settled into his sister’s house in Guildford. And there he died in the afternoon of January 14, 1898. His memory is preserved in a perpetual endowment of a cot in the Children’s Hospital, Great Ormond Street, London. In the long run, his books for children, especially the Alice books, have taken their place as books worthy of serious study of English literature. Thus, almost ironically, the so-called nonsense writer’s achievements are timeless and unchallengeable, and the fame of Alice endures. To fully appreciate Alice, one must keep in mind that the whole is simpler than its parts, and that although it was written originally for children, Alice has become a favorite adult piece of literature, a critical and philosophical work, rich in multiple meanings. More scholars (particularly economists and mathematicians)seem to allude to the Alice books with each passing day. The broad appeal of Alice, then, certainly lends substance to the notion that Alice and the novel are, ultimately, what you make of them. But there is some question as to whether children enjoy the puzzlement found in the story’s episodes more than the story itself. In any case, children do not need critical information to appreciate Alice. The philosophical allusions and psychological implications are for adult tastes.
As a work of fiction, Alice lacks the conventional story line that we normally associate with a coherent, unified tale. Yet reading Alice does not leave us with a sense of incompleteness; Alice is far more than merely a series of disconnected episodes. In fact, Alice is told in the form of a dream; it is the story of Alice’s dream, told in the third person point-of-view. Because Carroll chose a dream as the structure for his story, he was free to make fun of and satirize the multitudes of standard Victorian didactic maxims in children’s literature. Alice lacks a “morally good” heroine and meaning; instead of Carroll’s making an ethical point about each of her adventures (and showing how “good little girls” should behave in a situation just described), Alice parodies the instructive, solemn verse which filled Victorian children’s books, verses which children were made to memorize and recite.
Alice, however, is not intended to instruct children in points of religion, morality, etiquette, and growing up to be mature, reasonable adults. In this novel, conventional “rationality” is replaced by the bizarre, fantastic irrationalities of a dream world. From episode to episode, Alice never progresses to any rational understanding or mental or psychological growth. Her adventures are not ordered; they are disordered. They are shifting and unpredictable, and there is always the menace of Gothic horror laced with the fantasies of Carroll’s fairy tale. Indeed, Alice’s dream sometimes has the aspects of a nightmare.
Wonderland is a world of wonders, a world where fairy or elf-like creatures and humans meet and talk with one another. Wonderland is a world where a baby is transformed into a pig; it is a place where a Cheshire-Cat keeps disappearing and reappearing, until only his grin remains — and even that suddenly disappears! Wonderland is a kingdom in which the Queen and King of Hearts have subjects who are a deck of cards, and where all the animals (except the pig/baby) have the nagging, whining, complaining, and peevish attitudes of adults. It is as though Carroll were trying to frustrate logical communication and trying to turn extraordinary events into what would seem like very ordinary events in Wonderland. The only laws in Alice seem to be the laws of chaos; all is nonsensical. Yet, one of the novel’s key focuses is on the relationship between the development of a child’s language and the physical growth of the child. In Wonderland, illogical and irrational Wonderland, sudden size change has a distorting psychological effect on Alice, and this is made even more mysterious by the verbal nonsense that accompanies it. This dream magic mesmerizes children, and it makes them laugh. Most adults do not. To break a law of logic is serious business to adults; children, however, love the wildly improbable.
In any case, most of the humor in Alice is due to the fact that the reader has the privileged knowledge that Alice is dreaming; thus, she should not assume that anything in Wonderland should function as it does inthe real world. Wonderland is a sort of reverse utopia, a decadent, corrupted one.
Many years ago, Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget demonstrated that children learn in stages and that before a certain mental age, a child will not be able to comprehend certain abstract relationships. Carroll seems to have already grasped this principle and is playing with the notion in this novel. Alice changes in size, but she never matures. The solemn adult creatures whom she meets speak to her, but what they say to her seems like absolute nonsense — that is, Carroll was satirizing the pseudo-intellectuality of adults in the Victorian world he saw all around him. And part of Alice’s problem is that none of the nonsense ever makes sense; she never learns anything, even when she physically grows, or wanders through Wonderland’s garden meeting people and creatures.
She grows nine feet tall after eating a cake in the opening chapter, yet she remains a child. Presumably, Alice would have continued to be baffled forever, so long as she remained in Wonderland. She is trapped in the midst of a vacuous condition, without beginning or end, without resolution.