. . If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland
And Through the Looking Glass
While Lewis Carroll’s (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) reputation has suffered a fair amount in recent decades (several films and biographies which, perhaps rightly, have drawn attention to his relationship with the young girls around him), his children’s writings have somehow captured the imaginations of over 100 years of readers. But these, too, have taken something of a beating. It seems that everyone and his sophomore assistant have interpreted Wonderland to be a drug-induced dreamscape, a story of sexual maturation and obsessions, a series of psychological case studies, political satire, religious meditation, or conspiracy-laden occultism. And none of these approach the more mundane topics of Carroll’s mastery in language, mathematics, logic, or religion. What does the story really mean? Or should we just treat it as a story of mere entertainment and leave it alone?
Most of us, however, are more likely familiar with popular culture’s enactments and “hot takes” on the work, from the early Disney (which, of course, is not the original!) to the more recent Tim Burton approach, and some songs by Jefferson Airplane, Panic at the Disco, Jewel, Avril Lavrigne, Aerosmith, and Taylor Swift along the way. Let’s not forget The Matrix and a bevy of other films that date back as early as 1903, some anime, science fiction, and even a Care Bears movie. Each of these, besides offering nightmares, has undoubtedly influenced us and our interpretations. To what degree should we trust the interpretations of others? Is the “original text” the sole source of meaning, or does meaning change across the time? Put another way, does it no longer matter what Lewis Carroll’s intent was, since our social chaos has grabbed a hold of it?
While we investigate the original text (whatever your childhood memory and nostalgia make of it), we will try to address these questions, too.
What Makes a Text Classic Literature?
Our first July meeting outlines some basic questions about AP and literature.
July 8 Class: Author-Reader Contract
Our condensed “power failure” class on July 8
A Close Reading of Alice
Zooming in on the text itself:
A Little History
Some awkward knowledge:
Allusions & Adaptations
July 22 Class: Themes
A Children’s Tale
- While Dodgson (Carroll) wrote the stories for young children, to what degree should we therefore dismiss other messages which may be present?
- As a child reader, what messages does Dodgson send about growing up? about the adult world and its expectations?
- Do your personal memories of the text from childhood impact your thinking about it? In what ways? Should they?
Drugs and Other Allegories
- Be wary of dismissive interpretations which say, “It’s all just a drug trip,” or “It’s just about different psychologies and personality types.” Such approaches tend to over-simplify a text by imposing someone else’s agenda on it.
- This doesn’t mean that some scenes or ideas aren’t allegories (where different characters and elements represent a real social issue). But “popular readings” of a text–especially this one–are never a substitute for what the text actually does.
Math, Logic, and Language
- Whatever readings/interpretations you discover, watch for how Dodgson undermines logic or reason, pulls language past its limits, and twists mathematics into pretzels. Is this all a comment on the ridiculous expectations we give to these fields of thinking? Or is it an argument that we need them to work well in order to hold ourselves together?
- Does the fact that Dodgson was a mathematics teacher at Oxford support or contradict your idea?
Mr. Chisnell wonders aloud whether Alice in Wonderland should represent the ideals of our culture.
How do we make sense of nonsense? This reading just seems so dumb!
Some opening thoughts on how we might read Alice in Wonderland and why that how is so important.
Like the book? Try these supplements to your thinking:
- The Hunting of the Snark, 1876. A classic “nonsense poem” which traces the expedition of a group of adventurers as they hunt an elusive (mythical?) creature. It has been adapted into several plays, musicals, and the like.
- Sylvie and Bruno, 1895 . A two-volume adventure of two fairies and their adventures across rural England and a number of fantasy lands. Along the way it manages to satirize English society and academia.
- Leach, Karoline, In the Shadow of the Dreamchild, 2015. Leach works to deconstruct the myths surrounding Carroll, revealing and reconciling a complex man who largely was innocent of the more perverse charges thrown at him. At first quite controversial, Leach’s work is now gaining traction, and other scholars are expanding upon it.
- Wilson, Robin. Lewis Carroll in Numberland, 2009. Digs more deeply into the math of Carroll, from his obsession with puzzles and brain teasers, to his statistics work in voting patterns and tennis seeding. How does Alice fit into all of this? Easily. . . .
- Cohen, Morton. Lewis Carroll, A Biography, 2015. A more recent “definitive” biography of Carroll, Cohen’s examination leans harder on the accusations against his behavior while allowing for some ambiguity. Lonely bachelor or Christian philosopher? Mathematician or conspiracy-minded dreamer? Yes.
- And, of course, the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.
More References Phrases from Wonderland
- “Down the rabbit hole”
- “Mad as a hatter”
- “Chesire cat grin”
- “Off with their heads!”
- “Curiouser and curiouser”
- “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson:
A Quick Biography
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson made his pen name Lewis Carroll by first writing his first two names in Latin, “Carolus Ludovicus,” and then translating the names back into their modern Anglicized (and Irish) versions, then reversing them. Reversals and puzzles, in fact, were always favorites of his, even as a boy. Later in life he would create a number of games and puzzles, including an early version of Scrabble and the first “word ladder” puzzle.
While we know him mostly as a writer of children’s books, he was quite accomplished as a mathematician, an inventor, a writer of politics, a photographer (but see below), and he was ordained a deacon in the English Church at Oxford where he studied and taught. Alice Liddell, upon whom the Wonderland books were based, was actually the daughter of the college dean. Socially awkward with a bit of a stammer, Dodgson found himself more comfortable in the company of children, and he told them stories.
Of course, everyone wants to know now about the more scandalous parts of his life. Did he like little girls? While more than half of his photographic portfolio is of children, there is little evidence that his interests were perverse. Children in Victorian times were considered “pure” and more commonly used, even nude, in mainstream social letters and images. What, then, of the mysterious missing pages in his diaries? It’s hard to say, but it’s just as likely they were removed after his death. Then why did he refuse to be made a priest? We don’t know, but it is true that he had strong interest in other religions, as well, and he did have some concerns over his own spiritual status. And yes, there is some evidence that he suffered from both migraines and epilepsy, which might have informed some of the odd feelings Alice has through the books.
- Lewis Carroll Society of North America
- Lewis Carroll Society (UK)
- Guardian story tracing the controversies, 2015
- Gamer, a fun romp through some interps and stories, 2018
- Carleton College website on Wonderland interpretations
- Offer 5 thoughtful posts below or on the AP Lit Homepage about your thinking on the reading
- Complete by August 1
- Optional Writing/Video: My Wondering on Wonderland
- If you are interested in formalizing your reading experience, I’m interested in responding (and offering credit!)
- Write a two-page informal response (or 4-5 minute video) about one or more things you have discovered from the reading, from our talks on literature, or about any supplemental reading/viewing you’ve done.
- Most important: Explore the importance/significance of your discovery. What new questions are raised? What challenges do they create? How might they change your approach to reading later? etc.