Who doesn’t know at least pieces of the story of Alice in Wonderland? As a kid I saw Disney’s animated version and rode the strange ride at Disneyland a number of times. I also have vague memories of seeing a live action version on some Saturday afternoon at the movies show. I never read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass until now. They are two short books that Lewis Carroll wrote for children based on the stories he told Alice Liddell and her sister on lazy afternoons. In them we meet the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen, Humpty Dumpty, the Mock Turtle, the Cheshire Cat, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum, among others. It is also in Through the Looking-Glass that we read the poem “Jabberwocky” for the first time and where it is also partially explained.
It’s been a long time since I was a kid, but memory tells me that Carroll has perfectly captured childhood imagination and frustrations. In Wonderland Alice never seems to be the right size for what she wants to do or where she wants to go. I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up it always seemed that my parents were telling me I couldn’t do things because I wasn’t big enough and as I grew I suddenly became too big to do other things I used to enjoy. There are days of childhood when, like Alice, you get up in the morning and wonder
“Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been 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 am not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”
Later on Alice meets the Caterpillar who asks her “‘Who are you?’” Alice is taken aback and stammers out an answer which the Caterpillar does not understand and then demands of Alice an explanation. Alice tries to explain but the Caterpillar still doesn’t understand. To which Alice responds:
“I’m afraid I ca’n’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied, very politely, “for I ca’n’t understand it myself, to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”
Poor Alice. And it only gets more confusing for her later when she has to try and play croquet with a flamingo for a mallet and a hedgehog for a ball. Nonsense to be sure. But whose nonsense is it? Is it the nonsense of a child’s logic to adults, or the nonsense of adult rules and logic to a child?
In Through the Looking-Glass Alice finds that the country is laid out like a chessboard. She meets the Red Queen in a garden of talking flowers, and the Queen tells Alice how to move across the chessboard so she too can become a Queen. Alice eagerly sets off. In the Looking-Glass world she seems to have the most difficulty with the names of things and language in general. She has to travel through a wood where there are no names for anything, even she forgets her own name. She travels through the wood with a fawn who does not know that it is a fawn and that Alice is a human child. They travel amicably together until they come out the other side. The fawn remembers it is a fawn and realizes that Alice is human and bounds away in a fright. And poor “Alice stood looking after it, almost ready to cry with vexation at having lost her dear little fellow-traveller so suddenly. ‘However, I know my name now,’ she said, ‘that’s some comfort. Alice–Alice–I won’t forget it again.’”
When Alice meets Humpty Dumpty he asks her what her name means. Alice replies, “‘Must a name mean something?’” To which Humpty Dumpty answers
“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: “my name means the shape I am–and a good handsome shape it is too. with a name like yours, you might be any shape almost.”
Alice then proceeds to offend the egg by mistaking his cravat for a belt. They make up, Humpty tells Alice about un-birthdays and then comes this passage:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master–that’s all.”
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them–particularly verbs, they’re the proudest–adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs–however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”
Alice is nothing but puzzled. To her Humpty Dumpty is impenetrable as are most of the other characters in the story and the poems they recite and to which Alice is made to listen. And so it is for a child who is told to do something by an adult and when she asks why she must do it the adult replies, “because I said so!” Impenetrability!
The Alice books were a fast and delightful read. If you haven’t read them before, I highly recommend them. And, might I suggest if you are going to read them that you take a look at the Barnes and Noble Classics edition? This version includes all of the original illustrations by John Tenniel and they are wonderful!