I’ve been familiar with the characters and story of Alice in Wonderland for as long as I can remember. I suspect the book was first read to me, and then later I read it on my own. And I know I watched the 1951 Disney version as a kid and loved it. But it has been twenty years or more since I sat and read the book cover to cover.
Rereading childhood favorites can be a risky business. Mainly because what impressed us as magical and vivid and wonderful when we were children, might not be so vibrant on an adult re-read. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe disappointed me quite a bit last year, so did A Wrinkle in Time (although to a lesser extent because Meg Murray is such a marvelous character). I think they are still wonderful books for children, no question about it, but I didn’t feel they held all that much for an adult reader on their own. But I’m happy to say that Alice in Wonderland is just as bizarre and outrageous and silly as I remembered it.
I think the key to Carroll’s book is that it is wholly nonsensical. Alice’s adventures don’t follow any sort of logical order, she isn’t on any real kind of quest and we’re left to wander through the peculiar world of Wonderland just as bemused and surprised as she is. And maybe it’s also important that there isn’t any sort of BIG FAT MORAL LESSON tied up in the story. Yes, Alice’s patience gets tested and her good manners are routinely called to assert themselves, but on the whole the book is an exercise in unbridled imagination. (Although there are many fun allusions to mathematics, languages and real-life friends of Carroll, not to mention that the story was written for a real person – Alice Liddell, and her two sisters.)
There is also quite a lot of wordplay in the book, so as an adult reader I enjoyed admiring Carroll’s clever use of puns and homonyms to invent some of the more funny scenes in the book. One of my favorites is when Alice takes a break from the croquet game with the Queen to hear the Mock Turtle’s story with the Gryphon. First he goes through all the names of the subjects he learned at school – Reeling and Writhing, Drawling and Fainting and Stretching in Coils. And then they talk about a fish, the whiting:
“I can tell you more than that, if you like,” said the Gryphon, “Do you know why it’s called a whiting?”
“I never thought about it,” said Alice. “Why?”
“It does the boots and shoes,” the Gryphon replied.
Alice was thoroughly puzzled. “Does the boots and shoes!” she repeated in a wondering tone.
“Why, what are your shoes done with?” said the Gryphon. “I mean, what makes them so shiny?”
Alice looked down at them, and considered a little before she gave her answer. “They’re done with blacking, I believe.”
“Boots and shoes under the sea,” the Gryphon went on in a deep voice, “are done with whiting. Now you know.”
“And what are they made of?” Alice asked, in a tone of great curiosity.
“Soles and eels, of course,” the Gryphon replied rather impatiently; “any shrimp could have told you that.”
Isn’t that fun?
But it also strikes me that Alice in Wonderland is a book written to both the adult and the child. Because at the end he makes a quite obvious nod to childhood and appreciating a child’s innocence and imagination. He quickly shifts into Alice’s older sister’s perspective, who is old enough to see how Alice came up with her dream and happy to pretend to fall into Wonderland herself. But she is fully aware that it’s all pretend and knows the day will come soon when Alice will understand that as well.