Through the Looking Glass: How does Lewis Carroll critically examine British society & culture through the lens of a child?

 My final essay for my British Life & Cultures course from my semester abroad in London.

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Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is a classic tale in the lives of most children. Whether we have seen the movie or read the book, people around the world know all about Alice and her travels to Wonderland. Written more than 150 years ago by Lewis Carroll (pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Alice created a golden moment in literature and stands as “the most purely child-centred book ever written” (Jenkyns). Imagine how surprised I was when I came across the following image a few weeks ago:

AliceLionUnicorn

“The King was evidently very uncomfortable at having to sit down between the two great creatures; but there was no other place for him.”— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

This illustration is from Chapter 7 of Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice’s Adventure In Wonderland, published in 1871. At first glance, it marks the scene where Alice presents the White King’s plum cake to a lion and unicorn as a peace offering after their battle. What the average reader does not realize is that this image portrays the royal coat of arms for the United Kingdom. The tamed and chained unicorn symbolizes Scotland while the scholarly lion represents England. “[The illustration] was probably part of a popular song of the time, reflecting the contemporary political situation and is referred to as such by Lewis Carroll in the scene in ‘Through the Looking-Glass’ in which Alice, in the company of the White King, encounters the fabled Beasts” (Harrs Digital Productions). Had I not taken this British Life & Cultures course, I never would have delved deeper into the meaning of this picture and made that connection. This revelation intrigued me to explore more of Carroll’s works and search for hidden clues regarding his views on British culture and society. Perhaps the clever mathematician and holy deacon is communicating his own cultural values between the subtext.

Lewis Carroll lived during the Victorian era and his writing was significantly influenced by that time period. “For the Victorians, caught as they were on the cusp of a new age in which all old certainties were dying, “Lewis Carroll” came to mean a readiness to believe — in wonderland, fairytales, innocence, sainthood, the fast-fading vision of a golden age when it seemed possible for humanity to transcend the human condition. Carroll became a way of affirming that such things really had once been. Even before Dodgson’s death, his assumed name had become the ultimate embodiment of this Victorian aspiration toward otherworldliness” (Ratner). Even though many aspects of the Alice series critiqued Victorian values, Queen Victoria still praised Carroll’s work, quite possibly because he subconsciously promoted the female dominance of Britain’s royal order within Wonderland.

Published in 1960 and revised in 1990, The Annotated Alice is a collection of scholarly theories and research containing in-depth information about Carroll’s life and Alice’s adventures. The author, Martin Gardner suggests that some of the characters in Alice allude to figures and traits of British civilization. He also mentions that John Tenniel’s illustrations heavily contributed to Carroll’s English subtleties. Gardner began analyzing Carroll’s literature in the 1950s because he recognized each piece as the work of a mathematician interested in word play and symbolic logic (Susina). He argues that Alice resonates with people of Britain because it evokes traditional English culture with subtle jokes and references in the form of mannerisms. For instance, Gardner points out a two-finger handshake exchanged between Alice and Humpty Dumpty. Apparently, this gesture was a custom among the upper class to their inferiors in Victorian England, something that no longer holds any meaning currently.

Another example is when the caterpillar that smokes the hookah asks, “Who are you?” At one point in time, Londoners used to directly approach strangers out of amusement and repeat this same phrase (Susina). The White Rabbit is paranoid about lateness because punctuality was an important characteristic to Victorians. The concept of Alice’s constant eating represents the Victorian obsession with over-consumption and simultaneously addressesthe issue of contamination in the food market and water supply. With Carroll’s religious background, this could also be a reference to gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins.

Carroll also makes a point to satirize educational methods of the Victorian age— throughout the series, Alice constantly struggles with the application of things previously learned in her elementary lessons (Brown). Furthermore, Carroll provides insight into how human beings are compelled to adapt to cultural demands and circumstances, showing that conforming to rules and laws is not always the best solution. Alice is “ordered around by nearly every creature she comes in contact with, is dictated by the strange rules of this world, and is made to feel as though she were constantly in the wrong although she has done nothing unusual for a child her age. These unreasonable dictates show the strictness of the Victorian world, particularly towards children” (Gwyenne). At first, Alice seeks rules as a form of guidance when she’s in trouble. However, it is only when Alice takes control of her situation creates new rules that she is able to overcome her challenges and find her way out of Wonderland.

The lack of structure in Wonderland is a direct critique of symbolic order and a nation of children governed by rules and sets of conduct. The way in which Alice interacts with the creatures of Wonderland could be compared to British imperialism and prejudice towards countries that Britain conquered and colonized— “Alice falls into Wonderland, uses its resources and is highly judgmental of the natives. She, at only seven, sets herself far above them and considers them insane and disreputable” (Gwyenne). Alice is socially tolerant until things take a turn towards complete and utter nonsense. “Alice has not been raised to live in an ambiguous world. Her world, England’s Victorian world, is highly structured. Partially because of this over structuring of Victorian society, the feeling of living a double life or of being two people was not abnormal. This idea of an underworld or separate underground society is not uncommon in Victorian literature” (Gwyenne).

Ironically, Carroll acknowledges the royal order and his promotion of female dominance in Wonderland is a reflection of the reign of Queen Victoria.The concept of Alice’s constant eating and feeding of her appetite represents the Victorian society’s obsession with over-consumption and informally addresses the issue of contamination in the food market and water supply. “The plentiful supply of food in Wonderland blatantly contrasts the true situation in the Victorian world at the time. Despite the vast quantity of sustenance in Wonderland, many of the foods that satisfied Alice were unhealthy” (Ratner). With Carroll’s religious background, this could also be a reference to gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins.

As mentioned in the introductory paragraph, the scene displayed in the image with Alice, the lion and the unicorn could also represent a fight between two powerful forces of royalty: King Henry II of England and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. According to this medieval theory, the lion and the unicorn could have been interpreted as symbols of the marriage between Henry II and Eleanor (Tyler). The manner in which Alice encounters the lion and the unicorn reveals a sense of self-contradictory conflict, a direct reflection of the quarrels between Henry II and Eleanor. Originally sketched by Tenniel, the illustration evokes political battles and the tradition between the enemy nations of England and Scotland fighting over the royal crown.

“Traditionally the relationship between the lion and unicorn was antagonistic, and there is reference to this in Chaldean Art as early as 3500 B.C. The well known nursery rhyme reflects this, and is believed to tell the story of the amalgamation of the Royal Arms of Scotland with those of England when James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England… After the Hanoverian succession, the crown was removed. Strife between England and Scotland resumed, and this may well have been the period when the rhyme was invented for its earliest printed record dates from 1709” (Harrs Digital Productions).

In Through the Looking Glass, Alice meets two new characters: Bill the Lizard and the “Man in White Paper.” These figures are supposed to symbolize Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister of Britain from 1874 to 1880. The Man in White Paper is especially relevant to the scene with the fight between the lion and unicorn, as it holds significance to British politics amongst the Conservative and Liberal parties. The Alice seriesis full of riddles, some of which experts have still not been able to solve because Carroll’s true intent remains unknown, erased from history like the missing pages in his diary.

For 19th and 20th century British writers, it appears that children’s literature was less about reading for pleasure and more about teaching a valuable lesson on a range of topics regardless of the child’s awareness. “Previously, most books for children had been either educational or improving; the only purpose of Alice is to give pleasure” (Jenkyns). Carroll had a special bond with children and truly understood them in a way that most adults did not, treating his child friends like equals rather than inferior beings. “Though Victorian society was notoriously straight-laced in its valuation of educational and social conformity, an emergent appreciation of childhood fostered a revolt against the literary dampening of children’s imaginations and individuality” (Brown). Victorians highly valued the period of childhood, viewing it as an innocent “state of grace” in one’s lifetime that should be preserved for as long as possible (Smithsonian).

Carroll blatantly made an effort to maintain the notion of pure innocence within his texts. On the subject of Carroll’s famous fictional female, Victoria Ford Smith, an assistant English professor and specialist on children’s literature said,

“Alice is a collage of many different ideas about childhood, some that we find familiar; some that we find unsettling… Alice is a brat. She’s not an appealing character. It’s not this tale of whimsy and fantasy and imagination. It’s a critique of drawing room education methods for children. It’s a strange example of Victorian book culture. It’s so much more complicated than this hermetically sealed children’s tale” (Best).

Carroll presents a wonderfully cruel world straight from the mindset of a child. “In Lewis Carroll’s presentation of reality from the point of view of a child’s hyperbolic fantasy, adults are cruel, childlike, irresponsible, impulsive, and self-indulgent…Carroll manipulates these prejudices and shows, through Alice’s eyes, how these characteristics also apply to adults, authority figures, and even royalty” (Gywnne). Between the lines of Alice’s constant growth in shape and size, Carroll approaches the real concept of growing up from child to adolescent. “As Alice considers whether having grown in size means that she has “grown up” and become an adult (Carroll 33), so too will the reader ponder the meaning of maturation” (Brown). This ultimately proves that children’s literature is not as simple as it seems on the surface, especially in Carroll’s mind. “Although Alice in Wonderland was written for a child, no children’s book has received so much adult attention” (Jenkyns). Furthermore, “while the adult world was busy making sense of children, children were still having trouble making sense of what must have seemed…to be an increasingly large world” (Brown).

Of course, the 1960s introduced the “psychedelic wing of the countercultural movement” to Carroll’s nature at the time that he wrote Alice (BBC). Carroll attempted to break through the socially constructed boundaries of realism within his post-modern literature. In doing this, he explored the meaning of life, psychology, consciousness, reason and perception.Carroll’s puns, parodies and plays on English idiom are the most difficult of children’s literature to decipher. With adult themes emerging in the text that readers of the past had not noticed before, accusations of Carroll’s plausible pediophilia escalated. ““The popular Victorian image of Lewis Carroll was of a sort of child-loving saint…It is an image which Dodgson himself helped to create, and it suited Victorian attitudes”” (Smithsonian). Gardner believed that Carroll might have desired a romantic relationship with 10-year-old Alice Lidell when she came of age, but the conceivability of that speculation has been taken out of context. “In keeping with the vaguely religious and Christlike undertone of his mythology, Carroll has always, as an imperative, been required to appear chaste. Even now, when widely perceived as a deviant, he is defined absolutely as a non-practising, essentially innocent and virginal deviant (Leach). Will Brooker, author of Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture, said “Lewis Carroll is treated like a man you wouldn’t want your kids to meet yet his stories are still presented as classics of pure, innocent literature.” Perhaps Carroll protected his identity because of these conflicting ideals.

Carroll was a complex man who almost seemed to have a split personality— “the dry mathematician vs. the creative children’s author” (Susina). Other narratives have proposed that the Alice books served as a medium in which he could come to terms with his sense of self and maintain his own morality. “Carroll led a very controlled existence, struggling with self-identity, a recurring theme in the book as Alice regularly expresses uncertainty about who she is after she enters Wonderland” (BBC). He was a man who never sought fame, fortune or commercial gain from his writing or photography– they were his personal, private hobbies. Or perhaps Alice was “a portrait of a Victorian clergyman, shy and prim, and locked to some degree in perpetual childhood” (Leach). Only God knows, and that is probably what Carroll preferred.

Even though the original Alice stories were written for a child, I firmly believe that Lewis Carroll’s purpose behind them is clear: to teach the masses about the society that he lived in from a different angle and to encourage his peers to preserve their childish sense of curiosity and ask questions. “Early Victorian writers, responding to the social changes due to the shift from an agricultural to an industrial society and the decline of traditional religious beliefs, adopted a moral aesthetic and maintained that literature should provide fresh values and an understanding of the newly emerging society. Novelists…examined complications of forming a personal identity in a world in which traditional social structures were breaking down. Social mores were their subject and realism their form of expression” (Nestvold). Others will argue that there is more or less to the stories than that, but Alice truly said it best: “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” Carroll invites the reader to interpret the text as they see fit because at the end of this equation, there are no right or wrong answers.

“Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”— Lewis Carroll

Works Cited

Antonick, Gary. “Martin Gardner’s ‘The Annotated Alice’”. New York Times, Oct 14, 2013.

 

Best, Kenneth. “Children’s Literature Not as Simple as It Seems” UConn Today, Mar 21, 2014.

 

Brady. “The Influence of Lewis Carroll’s Life on His Work”. Omega Brands, 1998.

 

Brown, Maryn. “Making Sense of Nonsense: An Examination of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth as Allegories of Children’s Learning”. The Mentor, The Looking Glass: New Perspective on Children’s Literature, Vol 9, No 1, 2005.

 

Gwynne, E. “The Victorian World and Underworld in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’”. Yahoo! Voices, Jun 5, 2005.

Jenkyns, Richard. “What Alice did”. Prospect Magazine, Sept 21, 2011.

Leach, Karoline. “Lewis Carroll”: A Myth in the Making”. The Victorian Web, 2000.

 

Karlsson, Jenny. “Alice’s Vaccillation between Childhood and Adolescence in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adeventures in Wonderland”. Karlstads Universitet, 2011.

 

Nestvold, Ruth. “Literature at the Turn of the Century (1890-1918)”. 2001.

 

Ratner, Dan. “Victorian Hunger and Malnutrition in Alice in Wonderland”. The Victorian Web, December 1995.

 

Susina, Jan. “Conversation with Martin Gardner, The Annotator of Wonderland”. The Five Owls, Jan/Feb 2000.

 

Tyler, Christopher. “Parallel Alices: Alice through the Looking Glass of Eleanor of Aquitaine”. Diatrope Press, April 2013.

 

Woolf, Jenny. “Lewis Carrol’s Shifting Reputation”. Smithsonian, April 2010.

 

Is Alice in Wonderland really about drugs?“ BBC, Aug 20 2012.

 

Lions and Unicorns and their symbolism”. The Beasts of St. George’s, January 2008.

 

Skomorowska, Amira. “Lewis Carroll and psychoanalysis: Why nothing adds up in Wonderland”. Tumblr, 2011.

 

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