Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.

18 Responses to “Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland”

  1. Logophile

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this, as I hate revisiting beloved childhood books only to be left disappointed (it’s why I’ve never reread the Little House on the Prairie series!). To my embarrassment I’ve never read Alice in Wonderland…maybe knowing it’s enjoyable as an adult too means I’ve rectify this [smile]

  2. Amateur Reader

    Is this the greatest book ever written?

    “Beau–ootiful Soo-oop!
    Beau–ootiful Soo-oop!
    Soo–oop of the e–e–evening,
    Beautiful, beautiful Soup!”

    And why is a raven like a writing desk?

  3. chartroose

    I totally agree, and I love this about it too: “…there isn’t any sort of BIG FAT MORAL LESSON tied up in the story.” Hooray! It’s simply a super fun read.

    The Walrus and the Carpenter makes me sad, though…

  4. ds

    Such fun!! “I’ve often seen a cat without a grin…but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!” And it only becomes curiouser and curiouser…

  5. Susan

    I think it’s one of the greatest books ever written…so curious that he was a reverend, because the universe in Alice is a chaotic one with no benign manager.

  6. tuesday

    This is my favourite line from Alice:

    “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop”.

    Best advice I’ve ever heard!
    And I love the story behind its conception, and the smoking caterpillar, and Tenniel’s original illustrations.

    Thank you so much for this post; I just realised how urgently I need to re-read Alice in Wonderland

  7. Steph

    I’ve never actually read this one before! I did pick up a beautiful hardbound, illustrated copy at the used bookstore a while back, but have yet to crack it open. I feel like it’s a serious gap in my reading history. It’s a shame I didn’t get to experience it as a child, but I suspect I might actually appreciate it more as an adult!

  8. adevotedreader

    I agree you can be disappointed when you re-read childhood favourites, but fortunately not with Alice! I especially like The Walrus and The Carpenter and The Duchess.

  9. Dorothy W.

    I’ve never read this one! Not as a child or as an adult. I should, definitely — not sure why I missed it as a child. It’s very nice that you are enjoying it so much now.

  10. litlove

    Oh my, I read this aged about 8, didn’t understand it really,and have never returned. Although I read a fair bit about Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell one way or another last year, as they seemed to come up in various biographical books I was reading. It’s perhaps a little whimsical for me, but really I should look at it again before making up my mind.

  11. びっくり

    Never read nor watched. 😦 Sounds like a fun one. I think I’ve seen clips from the movie, and have certainly read brief excerpts from the book.

    I didn’t read the Narnia series until I became an adult. I wasn’t disappointed, but they are fairly simple in the end. I did take my friend’s advice and read them in order published.

  12. verbivore

    Logophile – Books like this can be tricky, perhaps one of the reasons I liked it so much was because it was able to reproduce how I felt about it when I was young. I’d be interested to hear how an adult reader would take it, with no previous childhood memory.

    Amateur Reader – Now I need to read Through the Looking Glass as well…

    Chartroose – yes, a very fun read. I should try to watch the cartoon again one of these days. The image of the Queen of Hearts has never left me.

    DS – I love the whole argument about whether beheading a cat without a body is even possible

    Susan – That is a good point, I hadn’t thought of it that way. Although really nothing bad happens to Alice, so the benign part is true enough.

  13. verbivore

    Tuesday – I also enjoyed the caterpillar part. The way he challenges everything she says, so perfect for children who enjoy challenging adults in the same way.

    Steph – I would be curious to hear what you think. As I wrote to Logophile, without a childhood memory to back it up, I wonder whether reading this as an adult might not be quite as fun. Hard to say.

    devoted reader – I love the Duchess’ pointy chin and the fact that Alice doesn’t like standing so close to her because she’s so ugly. It’s such child-like honesty.

    Dorothy – Yes, it was fun. Now I’d like to read Through the Looking Glass.

  14. verbivore

    Litlove – I love the story of Hodgson telling the story as he rowed the three Liddell girls down the river and that it took him something like two years to finally write the story down. Out of that, we’ve gotten this marvelous story.

    Bikkuri – I loved loved love the Narnia stories as a child and was so disappointed to reread The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe last year. Talk about a sexist little book. Lucy does all the work and Edmund gets to be King – that was very sad. I didn’t realized they were published in a different order than we read them today – what was the order?

    Myrthe – Thanks for the link, I’ll click over and read your review now!

  15. びっくり

    You got me thinking with your Edmund-Lucy comment. I thought that each of them did something to achieve the goals and all four became King or Queen. Of course Edmund lying, ridiculing Lucy, betraying everyone, seeking gluttonous gain, … make him out as evil in worldly eyes, but in the end he repents and puts his whole heart into it. Clearly an allegory for how God views all our sins as equal, and embraces any who repent and accept Him. Can you say BIG FAT MORAL LESSON tied up in the story?

    Order of publication:
    1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
    2. Prince Caspian
    3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
    4. The Silver Chair
    5. The Horse and His Boy
    6. The Magician’s Nephew
    7. The Last Battle

    Chronological order of events puts 6 first and 5 third. The remainder fall in the same order, but would be 2, 4, 5, 6, 7. This is the order in my trade paperback, “The Chronicles of Narnia”, from Harper Collins Publishers.

  16. mel

    Ok, who can’t wait to see the New Alice in Wonderland Movie Starring Johnny Depp that is coming out soon?

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