Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland Study Guide

The Alice books were written during the Victorian era, a time now remembered for its stifling propriety and constrictive morals. Carroll had something of an outsider's perspective on this world; he was painfully shy, and he often stuttered. His fondness for little girls has raised more than a few eyebrows, although it is unknown if Carroll ever acted on this obsession. At any rate, these feelings of his served to accentuate his feelings of isolation.

But his position gave him tremendous perspective on his world. The creatures of wonderland have many arbitrary customs. Their behaviors are all defensible with strange logic, but the customs are still silly or even cruel. There are obvious echoes of the Victorian world, as the animals are opinionated and have strong ideas about what constitutes appropriate behavior. The creatures' preciousness and their arbitrary sensitivities mock the fastidiousness of the Victorian era.

The Alice books also mock the children's literature of the day. In keeping with the character of the time, children's literature was full of simplistic morals and heavy-handed attempts to educate the young. Some of the books supposedly for children were quite dry, and at the least suffered from a lack of imagination.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865, and it was an immediate success. Carroll's sense of the absurd and his amazing gift for games of logic and language have made the Alice books popular with both adults and children, and they have remained some of the best-known children's books written in English. The well-known Disney adaptation draws freely from both books, while retaining the basic structure of the first book and remaining faithful to the flavor and central themes of the story.

The Alice books deal with the sometimes precarious world of children; the reader should keep in mind that at the time of their writing, the advent of industrialization had raised people's consciousness of child labor and exploitation. Carroll sees the world of children as a dangerous place, shadowed by the threat of death and the presence of adults who are powerful but often absurd.

The book is refreshingly complex, refusing to take patronize its young audience with simplistic morals or perspectives. A point of comparison is Antoine de St. Exup?ry's The Little Prince: while the The Little Prince sets up a rather simplistic binary between children (who are good, wise and innocent) and "the big people" (who are mean, shallow, and foolish), the Alice books satirize the absurdities of adults while avoiding pat conclusions about the difference between adults and children. Childhood is seen as a state of danger, and although Carroll has an evident fondness for children he never idealizes them. Alice's challenge is to grow into a strong and compassionate person despite the idiosyncrasies of the creatures she meets (the creatures symbolizing the adult world). She has to learn the rules of each new encounter, but in the end she must also retain a sense of justice and develop a sense of herself. Rather than set childhood and adulthood as simple opposites, valorizing the former and disparaging the latter, Carroll shows the process by which a good child can become a strong adult. Alice is also not without "adult" friends along the way: in the first book, for example, the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat are two enigmatic creatures who seem to understand how Wonderland works. They help Alice at key points.

The books always retain a sense of mystery and a fondness for the sinister; even the characters who aid Alice have a dark edge to them. The hints of mortality and the sense of fear in the books have only contributed to their popularity. The books stand as evidence that children's literature need not talk down to its audience. In fact, it is the depth and sophistication of the Alice books that has won them recognition as some of the best children's literature ever written.