Do you need a little help understanding Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll?
Did you know that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is more than just a simple kid’s book? The Disney movie Alice in Wonderland popularized Lewis Carroll’s book for today’s generation, but the book was far more than the movie portrayed it to be.
Grace had to do some research and writing about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for one of her college classes. I knew a little bit about Lewis Carroll’s works, but after Grace shared some of what she learned, I realized that I really didn’t know the story and meaning behind this famous work at all.
Readers loved it when Grace shared her thoughts about what happens when you discover that you don’t love Jane Austen, so I asked her to share some of what she wrote on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
This is not your average post or book review. It reads more like a college paper, but I hope you enjoy learning more about understanding Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
The Real Wonderland
I believe that many times in the modern world we take literature from the past and enjoy it just for the writing. We do not think and look into the author or why the book was written. One example is Alice in Wonderland.
One might say when looking at Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll that it is just a book created to entertain children reading it, but maybe it is more than that. This book can be seen as showing many lessons that children should be taught: identity, growing up, curiosity, wiliness to learn, and so on. These life lessons, among themselves, are great concepts for children and adults to read about, but there is also a historical reflection found in this book. It is the idea of the reign of Queen Victoria and the allowances of the society of the time. When looking for it, one can see the allegory of the difficulties of children in the era, the government problems of England, and the madness of the Victorian society within the pages of Carroll’s book.
This book may not have just been written for children, but for the adults who were allowing tragedies to happen in the world. When Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is looked at in this light, one can find many ideas, concepts, and even characters that reflect problems in Victorian Society that disturbed Carroll enough to point them out in his book.
The Victorian Period
The first allegory that can be noticed, between Alice and the Victorian Period, is the changing of children’s lives. Alice is a representation of children and the changing world for them during the Victorian Period. The conditions for children during the Romantic era, and some of the Victorian Period, were terrible and often the working conditions were worse like chimney sweeping, coal mining, factory work, and so on according to the site that focuses on the issues of Victorian children, “Victorian Children.” During the Victorian Era, laws such as, discussed by Tuttle, who studies child labor, “Cotton Factories Regulation Act of 1819, minimum working age of nine and more, the Regulation of Child Labor Law of 1833, had inspectors make sure laws were enforced, and the Ten Hours Bill of 1847, limited working hours more,” helped children. These laws allowed the poor and middle-class children to have a chance to live and enjoy childhood for a longer period and a chance at a better education. Carroll himself is just showing according to Murdoch, who is analyzing Carroll’s book, “Victorian childhood overall…transformed dramatically—a process that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland both marked and took in new directions by presenting a fresh example of active, questioning girlhood.” The book does not show the harshness of child’s life in an open way but instead hides it in the wonderful fantasy world of Wonderland where Alice is often ignored and harshly treated by adults. This book is giving the reader a small view into the goings on in children’s lives and the adults around them.
Lewis Carroll writes Alice and her sister, who is seen at the beginning and end of the book, to be somewhat like one of the children of the Victorian Period, who were learning what an enjoyable childhood should be like. Carroll, according to Reynolds a professor of children’s literature, can be seen as “celebrating childhood in texts and images.” Carroll does create a fantasy world, and also a wonderful life for Alice at the beginning and ending of the book where she is innocent and enjoying a day in the sun, yet she lived in the confusion of Wonderland, which shows that she also represents a working child. This is because she does what adults tell her to do, but she does not always want to and finds many of the commands confusing. Her sister may reflect the children that did not work. She imagines Wonderland but does no actually go there with her sister. Thus, she does not understand what her sister went through. Carroll is showing that under Queen Victoria the conditions for children were better, but then also, as seen when Alice is thrown into another world that their life could still improve. Some examples of the still existing problems, according to Professor Evans, a professor of history, were “poor housing conditions, long working hours, the ravages of infectious disease and premature death.” Carroll is also showing how children, who had to go to work at still a young age, were growing up and losing their innocence, like Alice somewhat, lost hers in Wonderland. Another example of what children were treated like is seen in the crying baby of the Duchess turning into a pig in the story and shows how some adults felt about children. Other people, who did push and eventually did change the laws, believed children had a right to not have to mature at as young of an age as many believed, just like how Alice let the baby pig free to roam. Carroll is showing this because some laws had not been allowed to pass yet but where in the works to improve children’s lives. However, some adults were the ones stopping these laws.
The adults in Carroll’s book represent how he believed so many adults in the real world were acting. Lurie in her book about children’s literature writes, “all the adults [in Wonderland]…are foolish, arbitrary, cruel, or mad,” and oftentimes, the adults in the Victorian era were acting the same as the characters in Wonderland. Even though the laws had reformed, many adults still treated children harshly and wanted them for labor instead of letting them have a better childhood and raised to be good adults. This text is also portraying what people often thought of children during this time, and “even when texts appear realistic, they will be underpinned by certain cultural understandings of childhood” (Reynolds). These thoughts did vary some, but in Alice’s world where she is forced to do things that she does not want like switching spots because everyone else at the tea party wanted to. She did not want to move, but the adults at the table believed that they should. Thus, they forced Alice to obey their will causing Alice to be upset and confused at their ridiculous idea that the spot next to them was better. Lewis Carroll does try to reflect the problems and gains of children during the reign of Queen Victoria.
The next connection to Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland is through the government of the time in England. The first example, stated by Anderson, an accomplished writer and author, is in the “shambolic legal system, much like Victorian Britain.” In and of itself, the political system was terrible and needed improvement. Queen Victoria had a tyrannical and oppressive aspect like the Queen of Heart, who wished for everyone to have their heads chopped off, found in Carroll’s story. Carroll portrayed much of these political opinions through his book, according to Milikan, an English major, in “extreme violence assigned the ‘aristocracy’ of Wonderland (the Duchess and the Queen) as well as the ridiculous mangling of justice in the Trial (‘Sentence first, then verdict’…).” He was condemning the Queen of the time through his literature. He showed this not only with the meanness and hate towards the Queen of Hearts, but also the fear everyone has of her: the rabbit scared of being late, the cards worrying about getting in trouble, the Duchess fretting about pleasing the Queen, and so on. He was showing what he saw everyone was doing by allowing Queen Victoria to control the government. He did this because he believed that the reign of tyrants should not be allowed, and this is why Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was aimed to be a political satire (Milikan).
Not only was the Queen mocked but other political figures. One of the examples of others being mocked is when the Caterpillar on the mushroom tells Alice a poem. This poem can either be interpreted as mocking the tight rule of the government of England who had control over many colonies. The poem can also suggest that the Father and Son “are instead archetypes of two different types of politician” (Anderson). They are probably representing the two political parties of the time and one, which was the majority, was very loyal to Queen like the Father, very uppity, but the other was not, like the questioning Son. The political party following Victoria is shown in the figures that follow the Queen of Hearts and allow her to do as she pleases. The satire against them is rather obvious as many characters act silly and unintelligently (Milikan). A prime example is through the cards that follow the Queen of Hearts. They are flimsy and do not stand up for themselves but rather leave themselves to the mercy of a cruel Queen. Similarly, Queen Victoria is quoted to have said “the loyalty of the people at large has been very striking and their indignation at their peace being interfered with by such worthless and wanton men—immense.” To Victoria most were obeying her, but there were some that would not. They were few, but they annoyed her.
Imperialism was another major part of England’s political system during this time. During Victorian age, Britain was the world’s most powerful nation. This was partly because of their naval force, and it was also because of all the land they had control over. In this age, England reigned over Canada, Australia, India, and many other places. This allowed England to have an advantage over many smaller countries, which gave Queen Victoria power to do almost anything she wanted to like the Queen of Hearts. “By the end of Victoria’s reign, the British Empire extended over about one-fifth of the earth’s surface and almost a quarter of the world’s population at least theoretically owed allegiance to the ‘queen empress’” (Evans). There is also a point about the terribleness of imperialism from how it probably affected Carroll himself: “understanding the events and experiences surrounding the composition of the work, especially the life of the author” (Milikan). This imperialism did cause much controversy and can be seen in the Queen of Heart in Alice’s world, where the Queen of Hearts had control over much of the land and had affected many, including the Mad Hatters life, even though they lived a ways from her. Like this Queen Victoria lived a far ways away from India, yet she was the “Empress of India.” This to many people was madness and leads into the next point.
The Real World and Its Problems
The last major thing that seems to show through in Carroll’s story is that “the world is a mad place in which expectations are often frustrated” (Anderson). Of course, this is reflecting what Carroll saw in his time, but also what he believed was going to keep being seen in the world. It would have its ups and downs like Alice’s shrinking and growing, but it would always be confusing and hard to figure out. There are multiple actions that still make the world seem mad, but there were many obvious ones back during the Victorian era. Some include treatment of children, covered earlier, the suppression of women, treatment of the mentally ill, and more. Many of these issues were not believed to be big problems to certain people, but others were concerned (Evans). Carpenter, a man who studied children’s literature, believed that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland were “mockery of God” (68). This would also mean it was an added mockery to society. Many people claimed to be religious at the time, but they were allowing terrible events to happen in society, which led to them to be ridicules to what they said they believed about like caring for other people. Carroll points these things out with characters and places, which seem almost hidden in the fun fantasy world of Wonderland.
Tyson states in her book that “the literary text is itself part of the interplay of discourses, a thread in the dynamic web of social meaning”: the social meaning of the crazy world was different to different people. Carroll himself found a lot of crazy things that he then put in his book. One of them was most likely the suppression of women. His idea of women can be seen in Alice herself: “active, brave, and impatient; she is highly critical of her surroundings and of the adults she meets” (Lurie). Other people say that women and what Carroll thought of women, according to Ciolkowski in her article about Wonderland and women of the 1800s, can be seen in “the excessive violence of the Duchess, the Hatter’s ‘rude’ remarks, the ‘savage’ behavior of the Queen…represent Wonderland as an uncivilized country…in need of the moral guidance and social instruction that can only be provided by a proper English woman.” Also, it shows how many women acted in the Victorian era because Alice often does not act on her own and follows rather ridiculous ideas, like running around to get dry after almost drowning in her own tears. Similarly, Victorian women were doing silly things because they were not willing to act on what they thought not others. They were following what their husbands or what other men believed they should do. All these examples show that Carroll himself was probably against the “proper” Victorian women, but he does not come out to say it in his story.
Another point on the madness of the Victorian World is the mistreatment of the mentally ill. There are so many mentally ill characters in Carroll’s book that it is no surprise that it is one of the problems where he shows the issues but does not give a true solution to the problem through his work. He shows this concern for the mentally ill through “his compassionate treatment of the ‘mad’ characters, the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, and even the Cheshire Cat, Alice can be read as a radical stance for the rights and humane treatment of the insane” (Milikan). Carroll does try to teach that the mentally ill needed to be treated fairly. He may have been trying to teach this because “progress in public health was desperately slow in Victoria’s reign,” and Carroll did not like that it had slowed and even stopped helping the people who thought different (Evans). Carroll seems to have felt sympathy for many and wished to fix it, but his story rather just ridicules. This point, though, like when Alice is polite but rather unsure about the fish-frog messenger, was something he believed needed to be fixed instead of just being harsh to against the ones who mistreat the mentally ill like when the Queen of Hearts is cruel and angry at Mad Hatter. Carroll seemed to be a fair, compassionate man who wished the world to change yet was mad at the world too for having not found solutions to many problems that were so obvious.
Lewis Carroll and His Work
Just through reading Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll seems like he was a man concerned and even angry about the times he lived in. He apparently kept his eye on what was happening during his day and tried to point out what was wrong. He wrote children’s books to show all the problems within the British government, and maybe he even wrote a child’s book for adults to show how childish it was to not fix certain problems in society. His small messages may have helped teach some children, yet it also seems to be written for adults to learn from. His craftiness of adding satire to a child’s book makes him very special since very few have accomplished this task while keeping the book appropriate for children. His work, though, has been overlooked for what it can truly give readers in the past and the present. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland should not be taken for granted because it taught and still does teach so much that is lacking in society even today. Modern times still have similar problems that are created by adults who do not wish to fix them just like when Carroll was alive.
Do you have thoughts or opinions on understanding Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll better? I would love to hear what you think?
Anderson, Hephzibah. “Alice and Wonderlands Hidden Messages”. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20160527-alice-in-wonderlands-hidden-messages.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. New York. MacMillan. 1865.
Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.
Ciolkowski, Laura E. “Visions of Life on the Border: Wonderland Women, Imperial Travelers, and Bourgeois Womanhood in the Nineteenth Century”. Genders 27. 1998. http://www.genders.org/g27/g27_vision.html.
Evans, Professor Eric. “Overview: Victorian Britain, 1837 – 1901”. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/overview_victorians_01.shtml.
Lurie, Alison. Don’t Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children’s Literature. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990.
Milikan, Lauren. “Victorian Interpretations Carleton College”. Historical Criticism. https://www.carleton.edu/departments/ENGL/Alice/CritHist.html.
Murdoch, Lydia. “The Age of Alice: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Nonsense in Victorian England”. https://specialcollections.vassar.edu/exhibit-highlights/2011-2015/age-of-alice/victorian-childhood.html
Reynolds, Kimberley “Perceptions of childhood”. British Library. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/perceptions-of-childhood.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: a user-friendly guide. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Tuttle, Carolyn. “A Revival of the Pessimist View: Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution.” Research in Economic History 18 (1998): 53-82.
Victoria. “Victoria: Queen on the United Kingdom”. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Victoria-queen-of-United-Kingdom
“Victorian Children”. “Victorian Child Labor and the Conditions They Worked In”. https://victorianchildren.org/victorian-child-labor/