Contextualizing Alice

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Contextualizing Alice

From Victorian to Postmodern

  • Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), born 1832 (five years before Victoria ascends throne), dies in 1898 at age 65 (three years before the queen)
  • As “model Victorian” (Cohen)
  • July 4, 1862, Dodgson and friend Robinson Duckworth take daughters of Christ Church’s Dean Liddell—Lorina, Alice, and Edith—on a boating trip on the Isis (Thames River, near Oxford). Girls ask Dodgson to tell them a story and, after he creates the Alice story, Alice asks him to write it out. He gives her the story in November of 1864 as a Christmas gift—that text is titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.
  • Encouraged to publish it by those at the deanery; Dodgson adds chapters and works with John Tenniel as the illustrator; changes title to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
  • Published in 1865 by Clarendon Press—Dodgson recalls two thousand copies after Tenniel states reservations about the illustrations; printing is redone. Through the Looking Glass follows in 1871.
  • Issues of biographical context—Dodgson’s relationship to the Liddells, to Alice
  • Ashbourne, M.S. “The Cheshire-Cat: Sign of Signs.” Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Marie
  • C. Toft and Russel Whitaker. Vol. 139. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 79-106. Literature Resource Center. Gale. Florida Institute of Technology. 19. Jan. 2010
  • Cohen, Morton N. “Lewis Carroll and Victorian Morality.” Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Marie C. Toft and Russel Whitaker. Vol. 139. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 3-19. Literature Resource Center. Gale. Florida Institute of Technology. 19. Jan. 2010

Framing Criticism

  • Romantic, Victorian, Modern, Postmodern
  • Formalist (New Criticism)
  • New Historicist
  • Deconstructionist (Poststructuralist)

Defining the Postmodern

  • Arbitrariness
  • (signs signifying)
  • Heteroglossia, polyphony
  • (multiple voices, no authoritative account)
  • Indeterminancies
  • (gaps, ambiguities)
  • Fragmentations
  • (collage rather than unities, cohesion)
  • Decanonizations
  • (high/low culture divide reconfigured)
  • Hybridization
  • (mixing genres, frame-breaking)
  • Metafictions
  • (self-conscious, self-reflexive, fiction about fiction)

“and what is the use of a book… without pictures or conversations?”

  • Didactic literature
  • “Golden Age” of children’s literature
  • Place of fairy tales—Brothers Grimm and Anderson
  • Dominant mode
  • Satire
  • Girls’ development—through reading—notions of girlhood (meta-Alice in original)
  • Authorial crisis: Carroll not the real author (Shakespeare theory); Queen Victoria as author (based on her diaries); Mark Twain as author
  • Religious allegories; psychoanalytic readings; representations of historical contexts (Alice as Queen Elizabeth I)
  • Relation to Romanticism (freedom, independence, nature), critique of Victorian attitudes or substantiates them (court system, educational system [memorizing poems])
  • Modern as well, postmodern: “associative, non-sequential plotting”; self-consciousness (metafiction), if self is a fiction, reality as subjective
  • Clark, Beverly Lyon. “Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books: The Wonder of Wonderland.”
  • Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns. Vol. 108. Detroit: Gale, 2005. 44-52.

“Well! What are you?”

  • “One critic has conclusively proved that Alice was not written by Lewis Carroll and that the real author was Queen Victoria. An earlier writer toys with the notion that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an allegory of the Oxford Movement, another an allegory of Darwinian evolution. Still another tells us that the story of Alice represents Dodgson’s own birth trauma in the isolated Cheshire rectory where he was born. Other psychoanalysts tell us that the book is about a woman in labor, that falling down the rabbit hole is a hidden expression of Dodgson’s secret wish for coitus, that Alice is a phallus (that one, at least, rhymes), or that she’s a fetus. Or, if we prefer, we can take the view that she is a transvestite Christ. A more recent essay claims that Dodgson was the first ‘acidhead,’ while Kenneth Burke tells us that the story is about toilet training and bowel movements. . . .”
  • Cohen, Morton N. “Lewis Carroll and Victorian Morality.” Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Marie C. Toft and Russel Whitaker. Vol. 139. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 3- 19. Literature Resource Center. Gale. Florida Institute of Technology. 19. Jan. 2010

Applied Alice-isms

  • Alice in Wonderland Syndrome:
  • A syndrome of distorted space, time and body image. The patient with the Alice in Wonderland syndrome has a feeling that their entire body or parts of it have been altered in shape and size. The syndrome is usually associated with visual hallucinations. The majority of patients with the syndrome have a family history of migraine headache or have overt migraine themselves. The syndrome was first described in 1955 by the English psychiatrist John Todd (1914-1987). Todd named it, of course, for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Perhaps not coincidentally, Lewis Carroll suffered from severe migraine. Also known as a Lilliputian hallucination.
  • (
  • Alice and Pop Psychology
  • Context of dreams—frame narrative
  • Freud, Jung, Campbell
  • Infantile psyche
  • Pastoral daydream/“escapist fantasy”
  • Children’s literature
  • reassertion of unified self
  • Victorian constructions of gender
  • Alice’s world and her role within it, even within Wonderland
  • Rackin, Donald. “Through the Looking Glass: Alice Becomes an I.” Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns. Vol. 108. Detroit: Gale, 2005. 68-87.

Alice in Crisis

  • Applied rules and logic: mouse, caterpillar, pigeon
  • Language games
  • Identity crisis
  • “Who are you?”; “What are you?”
  • Redefining the self
  • Body reconfiguration
  • “Civilization” and “propriety”

Dividing Alice

  • Characteristics of the Victorian (Victorianisms)
  • Characteristics of the modern/postmodern (modernisms/postmodernisms)
  • Notions of education (memorization, standardized forms)
  • Uses of storytelling (didacticism, metafiction)
  • Identity construction (girl, woman)
  • Language (conventions, language games)
  • Realism, moral didacticism vs. fairy tale (as Victorian conventions)
  • Victorian children’s book—representing “girl angels fated for an early death” or “impossibly virtuous little ladies,” or “naughty girls who eventually reform in response to heavy adult pressure” (qtd. in Kelly 13).
  • Moralizing
  • Duchess’ example
  • Dream vision (form dating back to middle ages) but this is episodic, third person point of view
  • Dream within a dream
  • Garden

Symbolic Patterns

  • Romanticism of the garden—changes
  • Red roses
  • Romanticism in Alice’s emotions
  • Drowning in her tears (uncontrollable emotions)
  • Language games
  • Duchess, baby, pig
  • Instability of identity, forms
  • “Without stable points of reference, reason is helpless to defend one against disorder” (Kelly 27)
  • Cheshire-Cat’s role—question about the baby
  • Relative definitions of madness—Cheshire-Cat’s answer

Deconstructive Turns

  • Curtseying and falling
  • “Curiouser and curiouser” (13)
  • “Oh dear, what nonsense I’m talking” (14)
  • “I wonder if I’ve changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” (15)
  • “However, the Multiplication-Table doesn’t signify!” (16); “I’m sure those are not the right words” (16)
  • “There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought!” (29)
  • “Keep your temper” (36)
  • “It is wrong from beginning to end” (41)
  • “Well! What are you?” said the Pigeon. “I can see you’re trying to invent something” (45).


  • Chapter I: Down the Rabbit Hole
  • (Rabbit, shrinks)
  • Chapter II: The Pool of Tears
  • (grows, Rabbit, fan, shrinks, Mouse)
  • Chapter III: A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale
  • (Dodo, Mouse)
  • Chapter IV: The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill
  • (Rabbit, Mary Ann, grows, house, Lizard Bill, shrinks, puppy)
  • Chapter V: Advice from a Caterpillar
  • (Caterpillar, grows, Pigeon, shrinks)
  • Chapter VI: Pig and Pepper
  • (Fish-Footman, Frog-Footman, Duchess, Cook, baby, pig, Cheshire-Cat)
  • Chapter VII: A Mad Tea-Party
  • (March Hare, Hatter, Dormouse)
  • Chapter VIII: The Queen’s Croquet-Ground
  • (Cards, King and Queen of Hearts, croquet, Cheshire-Cat)
  • Chapter IX: The Mock Turtle’s Story
  • (Duchess, Gryphon, Mock Turtle)


  • Chapter X: The Lobster-Quadrille
  • (Mock Turtle, Gryphon)
  • Chapter XI: Who Stole the Tarts?
  • (King and Queen of Hearts, Knave of Hearts, White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse, guinea-pigs, Duchess’ cook)
  • Chapter XII: Alice’s Evidence
  • (goldfish, Lizard, White Rabbit, Knave, King, Queen, sister)


  • “How doth the little—” (16)
  • Mouse’s tale (25)
  • Book written about Alice (29)
  • “You are old, Father William” (36-40)
  • “Speak roughly” song (48-49)
  • “Twinkle, twinkle little bat” (57)
  • Dormouse’s story of three sisters, Elsie, Lacie, Tillie (58)
  • Mock Turtle’s education (76-77)
  • Chapter X: “Lobster-Quadrille”; “‘Tis the voice of the sluggard”; “Turtle Soup”


  • “The strategy of Wonderland is to defeat different systems of logic, to keep details from culminating into some meaningful order” (Kelly 23).
  • “Carroll thus draws a significant parallel between the strangeness of life and that of fiction. Life mirrors fiction; both are fabrications that create the illusion of purpose and meaning. Alice’s adventures, however, ultimately reveal no such purpose and meaning, and her experiences in Wonderland are fundamentally different from those of children in fairy tales. She achieves no particular goal in her adventures nor does she learn a morally uplifting lesson. Indeed, the reader discovers in her dream the terrifying vision of the void that underlies the comfortable structures of the rational world.” (Kelly 24)
  • Kelly, Richard. Introduction. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. By Lewis Carroll. Broadview: Ontario, Canada, 2000. 9-40.


  • Alice’s education (lobster story)
  • “I mean what I say” (81)
  • “No, no! The adventures first… explanations take such a dreadful time” (82)
  • “it sounds uncommon nonsense” (83)
  • “What is the use of repeating all that stuff. . . If you don’t explain it as you go on?” (84)
  • “Alice had never been in a court of justice before, but she had read about them in books, and she was quite pleased to find that she knew th4e name of nearly everything there” (86); “very few little girls of her age knew the meaning of it all” (86)
  • “this was of very little use, as it left no mark on the slate” (87)
  • “Don’t talk nonsense. . . You know you’re growing too” (88)
  • “I’m glad I’ve seen that done. . . I’ve so often read in the newspapers, at the end of trials, ‘There was some attempt at applause, which was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court,’ and I never understood what it meant till now” (90).


  • “Begin at the beginning. . . And go on till you come to the end: then stop” (92).
  • “Then the words don’t fit you” (96).
  • “Sentence first—verdict afterwards” (96).
  • “Stuff and nonsense” (96)
  • “Who cares for you? . . . You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” (97).
  • “Oh, I’ve had such a curious dream!” (98).
  • “the simple and loving heart of her childhood” (99)


  • Ending
  • Victorian girl/woman
  • Queen/Duchess/sister
  • Dichotomies, tensions
  • Breakdown of distinctions of “public and private, masculine and feminine, child and adult, nonsense rhymes and edifying poems”
  • “The Wonderland frames suggest that the tale of Alice’s dream fosters the happy, loving childhood that will enable her development into a good woman and mother, while the Looking-Glass frames anticipate that the tale will create a domestic space powerful enough to keep the stormy world at bay” (Geer).
  • Victorian child—Wordsworth’s “Imitations” ode, ideas of happiness, innocence, and promise
  • “This image of a serene mother who has never forgotten her childhood affirms the contemporary belief that an ideal woman retains a child’s unselfconscious spontaneity and innocent affection” (Geer).
  • Ideas about reading, influence on development
  • As happy memories—endings of two stories

On Endings

  • Upsets codes and conventions
  • “Domestic order thus disappears in Wonderland: traditionally feminine spaces such as kitchens, croquet grounds, gardens, and tea-tables are infused with the contentious, competitive values that Victorian domestic ideology ostensibly relegates to the public sphere. In such a world, Alice can gain happiness only by being rebellious and calculating” (Geer).
  • Alice as Duchess and Queen of Hearts, shared attributes—not “Self-denying love and service, but individualism and a will to power.” “She does emulate these figures, but the result is conflict rather than harmony” (Geer).
  • At trial, Alice as “Screaming, domineering woman” and “For an instant, Alice assumes a position directly contrary to those prescribed by domestic ideology or ideals of girlhood” (Geer).
  • Queen’s own tensions within role—public position as monarch, private role as wife and mother

To Reconciliation

  • In the final shift and waking from the dream suggests that “Wonderland’s anarchy is less an outright reversal of contemporary idealizations of girlhood and domesticity than an exaggeration of tendencies already present within those ideals” (Geer).
  • Ultimately intensifies desire for idealized vision of childhood and domesticity so that they remain conventional ideals, reconciling tensions within the period
  • Poem at the end of Looking-Glass—validates storytelling as the “best way to satisfy the desires behind mid-Victorian idealizations of childhood” (Geer).
  • Geer, Jennifer. “All Sorts of Pitfalls and Surprises’: Competing Views of Idealized Girlhood in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books.” Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns. Vol. 108. Detroit: Gale, 2005. 1-24.

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