Hello, fellow readers! The topic of this blog is supposed to be “My Favorite Book”, but since it’s been a while since I’ve read mine (The Road by Cormac McCarthy, in case you were wondering) I would instead like to share with you another one of my top picks. Last year, as a first-year high school teacher, I was both surprised and delighted to find Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on the tenth-grade approved reading list for my district and, as it was one of only three books on the list I had actually read at the time, I did not hesitate to add it to my curriculum. Now in my second year of teaching this book I have gained more insight about it than I ever really cared to know, but I can say for certain that I have a far greater appreciation for Alice’s Adventures now than I did when I first read it.
Since its inception, Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book has remained one of the most well-known examples of escapist literature ever written. It has been reimagined time and time again and adapted into various media (film, comics, and video games to name a few) and has maintained such a strong cultural influence that even those unfamiliar with the original source material are likely acquainted with many of its characters and references. While some (including its earliest critics) have viewed Alice’s Adventures as a nonsensically frivolous adventure story meant simply to incite laughter and amusement, the precision of language with which the tale is so artfully told offers much more in the way of thematic depth than may be readily apparent.
Though conceived as entertainment for children (Carroll originally invented the story to entertain his colleague’s three young daughters), Alice’s Adventures has found a considerable fanbase in adults as well. Analytical conjecture has led to a limitless pool of interpretation with regard to Carroll’s original vision. As is the case with the study of any literary work, speculations can neither be entirely proven or disproven as intentional on the part of the author. Some can be said to be more credible than others though; a study of Carroll’s background suggests an undeniable relationship between the book’s thematic content and the fear of growing up (so that’s why it was on a high school reading list!). Even as an adult, Carroll preferred the company of children, seeing them as less judgmental than adults and far more imaginative. This idea can be seen in Alice’s Adventures as well; the opening scene introduces the protagonist as someone with a very childish outlook on things (she is bored by books unless they contain pictures and she follows a talking rabbit underground without considering the consequences) and many of the characters she meets in Wonderland can be seen as parallels for adults as seen through a child’s eyes. For example, early on Alice finds herself soaked in her own tears and a mouse offers to dry her off by telling her a “dry” (get it?) story. On the surface, this may seem to be nothing more than a corny pun, but what kid hasn’t heard a well-intentioned parent tell them something boring in an effort to make them feel better? Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work. #relatable
Despite her initial childish tendencies, Alice is sometimes forced to take up the role of an adult in certain situations (such as her rescue of a baby from its abusive mother in the “Pig and Pepper” chapter) and she ultimately faces her (and Carroll’s) initial reluctance to grow up by waking up and leaving Wonderland behind. Given the author’s background, this acceptance of adulthood might seem like a bitter ending, but the final chapter (which is, interestingly, written from the perspective of Alice’s adult sister) clarifies that the memories of Wonderland (or, more broadly, childhood) will always remain with Alice, who will perhaps use them to share her joy with her own kiddos, thus keeping childhood vicariously alive in a way both children and adults can enjoy. Perhaps not-so-ironically, this is exactly what Carroll himself accomplishes through the publication of this novel.
The world Carroll builds as the book’s setting uniquely synthesizes the fantastic and the realistic in a way that creates a sense of detachment from normalcy while still retaining a level of authenticity in the protagonist’s interactions. What Alice perceives as nonsense (be it the Mad Hatter and the March Hare arguing about fixing a watch with butter or the Queen of Hearts threatening those who don’t play by her rules), the reader is allowed to appreciate in terms of reflectiveness. Real-life conversations may not be as irrational as the one had at the Mad Tea Party, but the fundamental feeling of frustration at illogical argumentation is nonetheless relatable. And while the Queen’s “Off with her head!” line is presented a cartoonish exaggeration of rage, consistent overreaction is something many readers can link to their own lives, perhaps in the form of an overbearing spouse (really hope my girlfriend isn’t reading this) or a tyrannical boss. The light in which Carroll paints these interactions invites readers to laugh at things that might be infuriating in real life, thereby creating a lighthearted catalyst through which to conduct a form of self-therapy.
One factor that sets Alice’s Adventures apart from its fellow placeholders on the “Fiction and Literature” shelf at Barnes & Noble is its use of artwork. Like the text itself, the illustrations play their own part in imbuing meaning within the story. Through their juxtaposition of style and realism, the drawings accompanying the text give the book a decidedly bizarre tone that, while consistent with the writing, evokes a different mood than current, more colorful incarnations (looking at you, Disney). Several special illustrated editions of Alice’s Adventures, ranging from intentionally creepy to Japanese manga style artwork, make the story accessible to different audiences. Each artist manages to convey an entirely different world within the readers’ minds despite being accompanied verbatim by the same story, making it possible to enjoy the story many times from a fresh perspective. Furthermore, the very fact that the text and its imagery have proven timeless enough to be reimagined so frequently and with such variety is a testament not only to their longevity as a fascinating fantasy but also as a relevant social critique.
Through its apparent simplicity, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has taught me that any kind of writing can be meaningful, be it a complex literary masterpiece or something as unbecoming as an illustrated children’s book. My goal as a reader is to seek this meaning at all times and to view writing as a way to understand the perspectives of others and how they apply to the world as a whole. Alice’s lessons about the nature of childhood and adulthood, about letting go and moving on, and about the fleeting nature of enjoyable moments are but a few examples of the many gifts books have to offer.