Reviewed by Bruce Heydt
By Lewis Carroll
Available in many editions, both soft and hardcover
Within the pages of Lewis Carroll’s signature novel, Alice in Wonderland, the worlds above and below the famous rabbit hole nowhere intersect. Above the hole the reader finds calm and order, bright sunlight and the gently flowing Thames. Down below, the laws of nature and logic have been turned on their heads. Seemingly, never the twain shall meet.
Things are not always as they first appear, however. For a century and more, children have enjoyed the sheer silliness of Wonderland’s residents, but to the initiated they are a wry reflection of Carroll’s Victorian-era England, or at least Victorian England as Carroll himself perceived it.
The reign of Britain’s very own aboveground Queen of Hearts was a time of rapid change, exemplified by advances in science and by the Industrial Revolution—as well as by an increasing subservience to schedules and timetables that created a manic, rabbitlike response to the dread of running late. (The white rabbit is, in fact, a dead-ringer for every railway conductor I’ve ever met.) Even while industrialization transformed Britain, 18th-century social customs—most notably a rigid class structure in which every card had its proper place in the deck—lingered on.
Carroll himself was something of a square peg in Victorian Britain’s round hole, and he viewed the world into which he had fallen, through no fault of his own, as a Wonderland in many ways no more strange than Alice’s. A mathematician himself, Carroll had a keen sense of logic and order. He also had a sense of the absurd, and saw many of the intellectual trends of his day in the latter light. In contrast to the mock intellectualism of adults, Carroll seems to prefer the innocent common sense of children, who therefore became, like Alice, the heroines of most of his stories. Alice’s greatest challenge in Wonderland often seems not to be how to return to the aboveground world, as might be expected, but in remaining uninfected by the dangerous and surreal logic of the “adult” Wonderlanders she encounters—an ultimately futile endeavor, since Alice, along with every other little girl, is on an inevitable progress toward adulthood herself. The journey, however, often proceeds in fits and starts and takes many false turns, as Alice discovers to her ongoing frustration when she alternately shrinks and grows at the mere sip of drink or bite of cake. That alone would be frightening enough even without the possibility—a very real one, as Alice learns—that any child may grow up to become a “pig.”
Despite its unpredictability, Wonder land is seductive and almost preferable to the real (but bland by comparison) contemporary world. Readers can safely give in to its enticements by joining Alice as she tumbles down the rabbit hole. The creatures and situations that visitors to Wonderland will encounter include, famously, a grinning Cheshire cat, a maddeningly absurd tea party, a sagacious caterpillar, a mind-bending croquet match, a thieving knave and a queen with an attitude who seems more than capable of bringing the entire world under her dominion. (Presumably, the real monarch would not have been amused by any suggestion of a simi larity.) So well-known are these creations that Carroll’s imagery is said to be more frequently alluded to than is any other literary source, save only the Bible and Shakespeare.
Today’s readers have an abundance of editions to choose from when settling down with this classic, perhaps with a child or grandchild on their knee. Do select one that contains the original illustrations by John Tenniel, which have become classics in their own right, or perhaps the edgier color images of Arthur Rackham.