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Alice in Wonderland | Context

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Who Was Alice?

The original Alice was a real girl, Alice Liddell, whose large family lived near Charles Dodgson (the real name of author Lewis Carroll) in Oxford, England. On a July day in 1862, Dodgson took Alice Liddell and two of her sisters rowing along the Isis River. When the three girls asked for a story, he made one up on the spot, about a little girl who had amazing adventures when she jumped down a rabbit hole.

Alice Liddell asked Dodgson to write down the story, and in 1864 he presented her with a handwritten, hand-illustrated manuscript that he called Alice's Adventures Under Ground. In 1865 Macmillan published the story as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with illustrations by John Tenniel. Dodgson used the pen name Lewis Carroll, which he derived from the Latin for his first and middle names: Carolus (the Latin form of the name Charles) and Ludovicus (the Latin form of the name Lutwidge). Though it was not a critical favorite, the book was an immediate popular success, as was its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). These two books have been translated into 174 languages.

Who Was Lewis Carroll?

Dodgson was a complex man. A mathematics lecturer at Christ Church (one of the 38 colleges at the University of Oxford), he was also an Anglican clergyman, a skilled amateur photographer, an inventor, a games creator, and a talented writer who was especially fond of wordplay. He was also a prolific correspondent, writing and receiving almost 100,000 letters.

Trends in Victorian Children's Books

Until the mid-18th century, British books for children tended to be instructive. (One 18th-century picture book contains the edifying verse "The naughty Boy that steals the Pears / Is whipt as well as he that swears.") However, the second half of that century saw huge growth in books meant to entertain, and by the 19th century the children's publishing industry was flourishing.

Part of the entertainment in Alice in Wonderland is in Carroll's strong use of parody. Almost all the verses and songs that Alice recites or that other characters sing are based on actual verses and songs that all readers of the time would have known. But Carroll very deliberately subverts the original texts' meanings, turning the solemn morals into very funny nonsense.

Alice in Wonderland was innovative in many ways:

  • Alice is presented as her own person, rather than as a generic child in need of instruction. She's on her own, without any adults to please. She is not afraid to challenge authority figures, such as the Queen of Hearts.
  • Although Alice is polite to everyone she meets, how well she behaves is not important to the story. She is neither punished for bad behavior nor rewarded for good.
  • Children's education is a topic of fun. Textbooks are parodied, characters give nonsensical explanations for things, and the common lessons taught in the schoolroom are useless to Alice in Wonderland.

Three Real-World Trends That Shaped Wonderland

  1. Nonsense literature became increasingly popular in the 19th century. Some characteristics of this genre:
    • The plot is linear, but the characters and action are bizarre, making it a challenge to discern the author's message (if there is one).
    • Animals often take on human roles.
    • Jokes, riddles, puns, and other wordplay appear often.
    • Logic is inverted; ordinary actions have extraordinary consequences.
  2. There was increasing social awareness about mental illness and a move toward better understanding of the mentally ill.
    • Although Alice's adventures have a hallucinatory quality, she herself is presented as an exceedingly sane and sensible child.
    • The "mad" or "disturbed" creatures in the book (the White Rabbit, the Hatter, the March Hare, and the Cheshire Cat) are described sympathetically. They may say funny things, but the author is not making fun of them.
  3. The 19th century saw tremendous progress in mathematics and the natural sciences.
    • Dodgson, a conservative, found many new mathematical theories silly and may have ridiculed them in the Alice books.
    • The study of natural history by both professionals and amateurs brought new attention to plants and animals.
    • Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, introduced the concept of evolution. Note the pool of tears out of which the Dodo and other animals emerge in Alice in Wonderland.

Some books reflect society; some influence it. Alice in Wonderland did both.

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