BOOKS: Lewis Carroll – ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through The Looking-Glass’

“Speak in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing – turn out your toes as you walk – and remember who you are!”

*Minor spoilers*

This had been on my shelf for a good few years and was a book I’d always meant to read because it’s so ingrained in our culture, therefore I naturally wanted to get to know its basis. I strongly believe that there isn’t a day that goes by in which we don’t see or hear some kind of intertextual Alice reference. It is cult, classic and as it turns out, totally readable in a day or two and I’m quite frustrated that I didn’t then read it much sooner.

There’s wide debate over whether this is a children’s book or not; and it’s still not possible now to give a definitive answer. On the one hand, practically everything that is written will completely go over a child’s head because it is literal nonsense. On the other, why then should it be an adult’s book if it is complete nonsense and therefore goes over an adult’s head in the exact same way? Perhaps the only benefit to an adult reader is Alice’s distinctly mature character which is played upon by Carroll for this reason – she is consciously written as a precocious adult-like child, which an adult will recognise, but a child might simply enjoy the character for her wit and wisdom.

Through both stories, it became clear that the Disney cartoon adaptation that I enjoyed in my childhood and the later (wildly disappointing (a wasted opportunity for something much DARKER)) Tim Burton version were based upon both Alice’s Adventures and Through The Looking-Glass. It was interesting to see how they had both been meshed into one, and how the narrative order had been changed, to make the films – obviously both of which strayed far from the simple yet decadent stories Carroll created, Burton’s the most so.

Disney’s cartoon captured so many minor details of the stories arguably in more vivid detail than Carroll gave to them, as he seemingly hurried onwards with the tale and left each quaint event behind with haste, as though they were all unimportant. The fact is that they are. They are all made-up dream sequences in the wild mind of a little girl. Due to this harsh reality, hardly anyone or anything that Alice encounters on her journey seems to reappear later in the book; perhaps the few exceptions being the White Rabbit, the Duchess and the Cheshire Cat. It is implied that the Mad Hatter and March Hare feature again in Through The Looking-Glass, though their names are disguised and their prior identities never fully realised – a bizarre instance, though an unsurprising one in a purposefully baffling book. The key to the reading of this story is that nothing makes sense and, as follows, nothing matters – both refreshing and mildly frustrating realisations, especially for an English student who is taught to make sense of and look for meaning in everything…

Of course, the films are besides the point of analysing the original book, though they deserved a quick comparison due to their enormous effect on how we understand Alice’s Adventures. It is interesting to realign the story you know from the films to the one envisaged by Carroll – for instance, the talking flowers which were a stand-out feature of the Disney adaptation for me came only in Through The Looking-Glass (not that this makes them any less of a true ‘Alice’ moment). The ‘chessboard’ structure that Alice follows through Wonderland in the second story creates a more definitive narrative pathway than the magical mystery ramble of the first. Many forgotten moments of the beloved cartoon were sprung back through reading Alice’s Adventures – most notably for me, the ‘carpenter and the oysters’ tale and song, which had long retreated to the recesses of my memory and were pleasantly brought all the way back.

Carroll’s legacy-affirming story has stood the test of time probably more solidly than he could have ever imagined, having become indelible to British culture. It’s public image and chronology, en masse, has been altered from his original view, though that is to be expected as a result of the majority of adapted works. Wonderland’s message remains the same: it is a celebration of the wild, uninhibited imagination of childhood, naturally bestowed upon every child. Nonsense and whim is combined with sensibility and a burgeoning sense of responsibility within Alice; a stage that every child goes through when they reach a certain age. Despite her mature head, Alice’s creation of Wonderland makes clear that her innocent imagination is still intact and governing over her blooming young adulthood, for the now in which the story ends, and therefore forever.