Part One of Two: Alice in Wonderland
posted by Jen on 10/15/01
Everyone says the book was really written for adults. Fraught with profound symbolism and rich political commentary, Alice in Wonderland is, in the eyes of noted scholars and literary experts, far too complex for a child to appreciate. Child psychologists pontificate that the societal commentary rendered in Alice in Wonderland is much too abstract and potentially damaging for children to read and fully comprehend. The most outrageous critics claim that children should be prohibited from reading a novel that makes such flagrant allusions to pedophilia and drug abuse.
Almost any biography of Lewis Carroll (nee Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) will talk about a man obsessively devoted to little children, to the point of molestation. Carroll was first and foremost a "hermit," incapable of having social interactions with any of his peers. He was apparently an irregularity amongst his Victorian brethren, due to a speech impediment and a propensity for left hand usage (which was considered "a correctable handicap" at the time). While Alice in Wonderland receives much praise and critical acclaim fully a century later, literary critics (who want us to know how skilled they are at reading up on the politics of the Victorian Era) assure us that Alice in Wonderland was targeted for adults.
Yes, I agree that the characters employed in Alice in Wonderland are intentionally distinctive of key political figures of the era. Sure, I admit that Alice's 7 ½ year-old voice comments mightily on some dangerous societal norms of the day. And fine, I concede that drug usage may have come into play in a few select scenes. But the idea that Alice in Wonderland was meant solely for adults, the idea I've heard regarding more than one of my favorite childhood books, irritates me to no end. Because the Lewis Carroll I've grown up with wasn't a demented hermit or a sick, twisted pedophile. He wasn't a weird man trying to cop a feel off little children. Sure, he had some idiosyncratic tendencies. Prone to strange, almost Spartan-like eating habits and minimalist dress, Lewis Carroll's biggest crime was self-denial, undoubtedly reactionary of sub-par living conditions and lack of clothing. Anyone who lived through a devastating famine would be as likely to develop peculiar eating habits and strange rituals to preserve his material possessions. I, on the other hand, would horde Big Stuff Oreos!!1 LOL.
Lewis Carroll surrounded himself with children, not because he had some strange urge to fondle them, but because they were the only ones willing to accept him. This was a man who stuttered and stammered in the presence of adults, but spoke freely and fluently when surrounded by innocent, non-judgmental children. Lewis Carroll was a mathematical and literary genius, whose purpose in life, unlike the purpose of many literary critics today, was not to put on a mad display of his talents. It was not to become famous, as many critics say. (If he wanted to become famous so badly…why didn't he put his real name on his work?) Lewis Carroll simply wanted to instruct children. He wanted them to understand that the world is a cold place, with people trying to defeat you at every turn. Alice in Wonderland called on children to stand up for themselves, take hold of their identities, and walk tall amid the rules and restrictions of adults.
From almost the very beginning, Alice runs into the white rabbit, who wastes all of his dialogue in the book repeating the same lines, "The time, the time! I shall be late! Oh dear, what shall I do if I'm late?" We learn that the rabbit is always late for everything, but only because he keeps procrastinating and running around in circles. As a child, I laughed at the little white rabbit, the rabbit who critics might say symbolized a plebeian rushing to appease the queen, or maybe Lewis Carroll himself, rushing to finish the book. As a child, I didn't pick up any of the deeper imagery or try to guess who the rabbit depicted, but I appreciated the utter lunacy of wasting time by worrying about it passing.
Soon after her run-in with the rabbit, Alice learns the most simple Aristotelian lessons of moderation and self control after she first falls through the hole in the earth, and enters the hall of doors. She is too tall to fit through the only door that opens into the outside. When she first sees the flask that says "Drink Me" on it, Alice inspects the bottle for a poison marking and then proceeds to drink nearly the entire thing. She then shrinks to a size that enables her to fit comfortably through the door, but can no longer reach the key on top of the table, the key she needs to gain entry into the door.
Chugalug, Vanessa. Dr. Huxtable caught you with liquor
When a cake that says "Eat Me" materializes, Alice voraciously devours the entire cake until she grows so large she can barely fit inside the room. Moderation, self control. If only Alice had taken one sip of the drink, then one bite of the cake. Lessons learned during a time of severe famine in Victorian England, and lessons still valuable in society today, as we witness the dichotomy of starving children in Ethiopia, thanks to Sally Struthers, and obesity rates in America almost doubling. Moderation and self control, valuable lessons for all of us, in almost all walks of life. Is this message only for adults?
Of course not.
And it doesn't take a wunderkind to catch onto Carroll's distaste for authoritative figures. We see it first when Alice's mother forbids her to partake in tea with the adults because she is too young. We see it again when the evil Queen of Hearts screams "Off with their heads!" at everyone who disagrees with her. And how does Alice react? She manages to convince her mother in the end that she is indeed tea-worthy, and she tells the Queen and her executioners, "You're nothing but a deck of cards!" How can anyone say this message isn't meant for children? This is clearly an important lesson for little kids everywhere: question and, in some cases, defy authority when appropriate.
In this novel, children learn that not only are authoritative figures fallible, but sometimes people who we perceive as inferior are of utmost value. When Alice encounters one of the lowest life forms on the planet, the worm, she learns a valuable lesson in logic and reasoning…and humility. After achieving intellectual dominance over the highly illogical white rabbit and Bill, the lizard, Alice shamefully boasts a self-important intelligence that she doesn't quite have at the age of 7 ½. She comes across a worm, or a caterpillar, sitting on a giant mushroom. She condescends to him, nibbling off his mushroom and impertinently asking, "Who are you?"
I'm your worst nightmare, little girl.
The worm, guessing that Alice is a bit too big for her britches, casually takes a long toke off his hookah and challenges her to recite the poem, "You are Old Father William" (a poem, fittingly enough, about logic). Alice recites the poem incorrectly, and the worm enlightens her with the correct refrain, and two dear lessons: never condescend to those who you perceive to be inferior, and never underestimate the value of simple logic and reasoning.
After Alice's encounter with the caterpillar, she enters a house where a cook is hurling plates at a wall, and a duchess is kneading her baby all over the counter. It is in this scene when the duchess utters the most telling line; a line that is probably lost on most children, "Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it." This is definitely a little push from Lewis Carroll, urging us to look for the meaning behind each of Alice's encounters in the woods. I didn't interpret this as a sign when I was little, I just thought it made the duchess look like a babbling idiot who liked to hear herself speak…which makes me wonder…perhaps everyone who looks for the hidden meaning and lesson in everything is a bit pointless. Shyeah, I feel sorry for whoever THAT is!
The important part of this chapter is that Alice runs away from the evil duchess and her cook, carries out the duchess's baby, and soon discovers that the baby turned into a pig. Alice wisely drops him and scurries away.
Alice says, "You're a pig!" Slater says, "Oink, oink, baby."
Heady political commentary? Most definitely. If I were writing a paper for college, I would probably try to convince my professor that Carroll is saying that nepotism is pure evil, power should not be inherited… I would probably say that Alice's abrupt disposal of the pig was a wise lesson to all of those old enough to vote, that Parliamentary procedures blah, blah, blah… In reality, I'm betting that Lewis Carroll included this little passage for kids with the following simple lesson in mind: If you're uncomfortable in a situation, get out of it.
Probably my favorite chapter of the book, the Mad Tea Party was allegedly written to illustrate all things wrong with Lewis Carroll's world. A drunken dormouse, a snippety March Hare, and a very Mad Hatter were apparently a microcosm of Victorian society, admonishing the elders who had shunned Lewis Carroll throughout his life, the same villains who were prohibiting Alice from taking part in the tea party. As a child, no, I didn't get this. Literary experts assure us that we cannot really understand the message of the book without first reading up on Lewis Carroll's life and understanding his personal background. But for little kids, this isn't necessary at all. I immediately liked the Cheshire cat when I was little, as he was the one to willingly tell Alice, "We're all mad!" and I appreciated that the other characters were to be laughed at, not horrified by. The fact that the Cheshire cat admitted that they were mad, but the members of the tea party told her they were NOT mad, was a good, simple lesson for a child: things are not always what they seem, and people are sometimes full of shit.
Treacle pudding, best English dessert ever.
Some editions of the novel include the jabberwocky, the dragon who adults recognize as the culmination of Alice's fears and inner demons. Eventually, Alice thwarts his power by saying, "I don't believe in you! You don't scare me!" Adults say the jabberwocky serves as an inspiration to ignore your insecurities and forge ahead with your dreams. When I was a little kid, I really didn't have any insecurities…but I was deathly afraid of the dark. Like most children, I was convinced that when my dad turned out the light in my room, something was lurking in my closet or under my bed and was plotting to "get me" in the middle of the night. As a child, I would never have interpreted the jabberwocky as my "inner fears" that needed conquering. But I would have had an equal appreciation of Alice defeating monsters of any variety. And maybe slept a tiny bit easier at night.
True, each scene, each character, and almost every line uttered in Alice In Wonderland is symbolic of something deeper, something more profound that might only be fully understood by adults. But to say the book is ONLY appropriate for sage adults who can see those deeper meanings is to disrupt the original intent of Lewis Carroll. Lewis Carroll didn't want Alice to be reserved for adults and uppity collegiate-types dissecting Lewis Carroll's psyche for the purpose of graduating with honors.
Lewis Carroll is a deep mysterious man with a penchant for primates. Can I get my A now?
He wanted little children, the audience he cherished the most, to learn the most valuable lessons in life before the message got a chance to be obscured by misguided adults. More than a century after it was written, Alice in Wonderland speaks loudly and clearly to adults and children alike.
However, not all Alice in Wonderland paraphernalia can be characterized this neatly…
Stay tuned for Part 2 of 2. Scott Baio, John Stamos, and Sherman Helmsley await...
Just wanna be your teddy bear