Lewis Carroll loved wordplay so much that even his pen name was playful. Born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, he created his pseudonym by dropping off his last name, coming up with Latin translations of his first and middle names (“Carolus Lodovicus”), bringing those translations back into English as Carroll Lewis, and reversing their order. If that sounds convoluted, just wait until you read his books!
I first tried reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a little girl, without any guidance from adults. Sometimes that’s a happy thing. In this case, I could have used a little help. With no one to tell me it was supposed to be nonsense, I just thought I somehow wasn’t “getting it” and reluctantly closed the book and put it back on the shelf for many years. I think had my early diet of nonsense been richer, I might have realized more quickly that this story was supposed to be fantastical and funny. A college Victorian literature class taught me to appreciate many of the enjoyable puns and plays on words, but truly, this isn’t a book to encounter initially in a literature class as much as a book that should be read-aloud, preferably with others, some of them young, and enjoyed for its absurdity.
That’s what my family and I recently did, and it proved to be a delightful exercise. After all these years, I finally feel that I “get” Alice, not because of any sudden “a-ha!” moments, but because I just flat out enjoyed it along with my husband and eleven year old daughter.
As a teacher and a parent, I enjoyed being able to introduce my daughter to a classic book that has become such an engrained part of literary and popular culture. The lack of coherent story-line in Alice hasn’t given it the narrative staying power of some classics, but its images and turns of phrase are iconic. Given the fact that the story is an unfolding dream sequence, it’s perhaps not surprising that the images stick with you as they do. Even if you’ve never read the book, you’re likely to have some inkling that it includes a fall down a rabbit hole, the grinning Cheshire cat, Alice swimming in a pool of her own tears, the Queen of Hearts and all the playing cards who attend her, and the Hatter (often referred to as the Mad Hatter) at the tea-party.
Alice was originally published in 1865; it’s been adapted, retold, and illustrated countless times on stage, screen, and page. My best early associations with it were a ballet adaptation I saw in grade school, and the 1951 Disney film. Though John Tenniel’s original illustrations are themselves iconic, my daughter loved the brightly colored, whimsical work of Alison Jay in the 2006 reprint we picked up at the library. They were a big part of her enjoyment.
Alice provides a great introduction to the concept of parody, though many of the poems that Carroll parodies are unknown to modern audiences. That might decrease their humor to one level but the humor is definitely still there, and in the places where the source material is still familiar – such as when he turns “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” into “Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat” – the double pleasure in the nonsense shines through.
As a reader and writer, I appreciated the way Carroll keeps you off balance. I mean that in the most charitable way. We don’t often think of 19th century children’s literature as quickly paced, which makes Alice’s madcap adventures all the more interesting. She moves from one adventure and fantastical encounter to the next with nary a place to breathe, and it’s all the more confusing because her own perspective (hence ours) keeps changing.
Our family had some interesting discussions about how old we thought Alice was supposed to be. In Through the Looking Glass, she claims she’s seven and a half, which surprised us all – though as my daughter pointed out, there’s no reason to assume it’s a sequel; it could just as well be a prequel. I think we all thought, during our reading in Wonderland, that she was a few years older, primarily because her experience of feeling either too small or too big for everything, as she grows and shrinks, captures that “tween” sensibility so perfectly.
The learning resources for such a treasured classic are numerous. You might want to start at the Resources page for the Lewis Carroll Society of North America. There’s so much there, you might not need to look anywhere else.