What Alice did

A new exhibition reminds us of Alice In Wonderland’s enduring influence on visual art. But its impact extends much further. Why do Lewis Carroll’s books still have such a hold on us?
September 21, 2011

Nyima 438 (2009) by the Swiss artist Annelies Štrba. This Alice in Wonderland-inspired painting will be on show at Tate Liverpool

Charles Dodgson was significant in two quite different ways. By profession he was a mathematician (a don at Christ Church, Oxford), especially interested in the philosophical end of his subject. His playful textbook on symbolic logic is still read, and his contribution to the theory of voting is admired by those who study the topic such as the eminent philosopher Michael Dummett. He was also a pioneer in the art of photography, especially notable for his pictures of children. He would be remembered (just) as one of those curiously versatile minor Victorians but for an odd chance. In July 1862 he went on a boating trip with the daughters of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church. As often, he made up a story to entertain them. A few days later, Alice Liddell began to pester him to write it down. To please her, he agreed, and the rest is history—or rather, fiction. Dodgson became Lewis Carroll, and Wonderland was given to the world.

“Alice has, I understand, become a patron saint of the Surrealists,” William Empson wrote in 1935; now, an exhibition dedicated to Carroll at Tate Liverpool, which opens this November, reminds us, among other things, of the ways in which his work has fascinated visual artists.

From the first, he was clear that illustrations were essential (one among his many effects on children’s literature). “‘What is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?’” Here again, chance played its part. Carroll did his own drawings to accompany the text but, charming though they were, they proved too amateurish for publication. However, they provided a starting-point to John Tenniel, who got the commission. Tenniel’s illustrations have become canonical, but although they are good, they are not unimprovable. In the case of writer-illustrators like Beatrix Potter or Maurice Sendak, the text and the pictures form an indivisible Gesamtkunstwerk, and it is impossible to imagine the one without the other. EH Shepard’s drawings for the Pooh books are so perfect that they are now inseparable from the reading experience. How wise the little girl was who, after seeing one of the Disney cartoons, declared: “It isn’t true. The book is true.” And how odd it is to think that the first Pooh story was given to another artist, who depicted Christopher Robin as a lovable scamp, rather like William Brown; our idea of AA Milne’s world would be very different if Shepard had not taken over. As the Liverpool exhibition shows, Tenniel’s designs do not have Potter or Shepard’s absolute finality: they offer themes on which other artists can play variations.

But it is the words that really matter. Many elements of Alice were not completely new. Talking animals, for instance, go back to Aesop, and although Gulliver does not change size himself, he finds his size altering relative to the people around him. Nor did Carroll invent the story pattern in which a child or children are carried away from reality into a fantasy world (and commonly returned to reality at the end); that honour seems to belong to Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies. But it was Carroll who established it as a motif that would be used again and again in children’s literature: in Peter Pan, Puck of Pook’s Hill, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Narnia books, and Where the Wild Things Are. (In the Harry Potter books and in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the main characters flip back and forth between the real world and wonderland—a sign that the device has coarsened and grown stale.) Carroll’s originality was to give these things a new application.

Previously, most books for children had been either educational or improving; the only purpose of Alice is to give pleasure. We have grown so used to bunnies in blue jackets with brass buttons that it is hard to remember how comparatively recent such things are. There is no trace of children’s literature in antiquity; animal fables were for grown-ups. Perhaps that is not surprising in a world where books were few and expensive, but it is striking that it was so many centuries after the invention of printing that the change occurred. Here again the accidental nature of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was crucial. It was first written, after all, for a readership of one, and that gives it a lack of self-consciousness that was never quite captured again, not even in Through the Looking-Glass. It has no pretensions to be a masterpiece, and that is one of the reasons that it is a masterpiece. Like A Study in Scarlet, The Screwtape Letters and perhaps the Satyricon, it was tossed off lightly by an author who had little idea how much he had achieved. It is probably the most purely child-centred book ever written.

A sign of its spontaneity is that one bad critic of Alice in Wonderland was the older Charles Dodgson himself: “The ‘Why?’” he said, “cannot, and need not, be put into words. Those… who see no divinity in a child’s smile, would read such words in vain.” As for the heroine, she was “loving as a dog… gentle as a fawn… courteous to all… trustful… with all that utter trust that only dreamers know.” It says much for the instinctual nature of his genius that he could misunderstand himself so massively. One of the book’s virtues is that far from trailing clouds of divinity, Alice is a sharp, down-to-earth, and (in Through the Looking-Glass) increasingly bossy little girl. If we turn to a weak imitation of her, Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, we can see how well Carroll got inside the child mind, and how hard that achievement was to follow. People talk about “identifying” with the characters in fiction, but in Alice’s case at least, that is not quite right. When I read the books as a child, I felt with her, but I was very clear that this was a little girl. She has her own vivid and independent existence.


Although Alice in Wonderland was written for a child, no children’s book has received so much adult attention. That is no paradox, because Carroll put the whole of himself into it. A colleague of his perceptively remarked: “It was clear that he was one man not two, and that in his mind the two elements of whimsical imagination and the love of rigid definition and inference were always present.” Indeed, philosophers have always loved Alice. As it happens, nonsense is quite useful to the logician. Carroll gave as an instance of a syllogism: “All cats understand French; some chickens are cats; therefore, some chickens understand French.” That brings out the difference between validity of reasoning and the truth value of propositions very clearly—the syllogism is formally valid but its conclusion is, of course, untrue.

The philosophy in the books is not an awkward adult intrusion into the child’s realm. All children, after all, are intellectuals, insatiably curious; they can spot a dodgy argument (“Alice didn’t think that proved it at all,” is a characteristic sentence) and they puzzle over some of the things that continue to puzzle the wisest of us. Alice shows herself to be a good Cartesian when Tweedledum and Tweedledee suggest that she is part of the Red King’s dream: “If I wasn’t real… I shouldn’t be able to cry.” She explores with Humpty Dumpty the relativity and social context of language: “When I use a word,” he says, “it means just what I choose it to mean,” and she answers, “The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.” It would be going too far to say that their debate anticipates Wittgenstein and the private language argument—but not a long way too far. And yet there is no talking here over the child reader’s head. “I only wish I had such eyes,” the White King remarks. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too!” Any seven-year old can see that this is (as the Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out) a hypostatisation of the null class. Of course, she would not put it quite like that. The Cheshire Cat, meanwhile, purports to argue by syllogism: dogs are not mad; dogs growl when they are angry and wag their tails when they are pleased; cats do the opposite; therefore cats are mad.

Literary academics, too, have delighted in constantly reinterpreting Carroll’s works. To William Empson, 70 years after Alice in Wonderland’s publication, a Freudian interpretation of Alice was so obvious that it was hardly worth mentioning: she enters Wonderland in the foetal position, the pool of tears represents the amniotic fluid, and so on. In 1995 Morton Cohen, author of what is in many ways an excellent biography of Carroll, suggested that the books are a metaphor for the plight of an upper-class child, a criticism of the social shibboleths of the age, and perhaps a form of autobiography, with Alice being the author in disguise. More recently, a Princeton professor has claimed that Alice is at once Dodgson’s dream-child, Dodgson himself, a sex-kitten who teases the male member, and Jesus Christ (“the similarity… seems inescapable”). Curiouser and curiouser. Other people have claimed that Alice is an allegory of Darwinism, or that it is about toilet training or the desire for coitus. The reason why these interpretations are possible at all is the reason why they all ultimately miss the point. The point is that Alice is dreaming. Hierophants from Artemidorus to Freud have claimed to possess the key to unlock the meaning of dreams, but we still understand very little about them. Twentieth-century fiction contains plenty of dreams, but most of them feel contrived, calculated to fit some theory (most often Freudian theory).

Carroll has the advantage of innocence. We all know that dreams jumble our waking lives, and we suppose the jumble to have some significance, but we do not know what it is. In this respect Alice in Wonderland is like a real dream. Alice’s repeated failure to get into the garden is recognisably a frustration dream, and some of the early parts of the book especially are quite scary. It has been suggested that its characters represent Carroll’s acquaintances, Oxford dons and their wives, but while this is not exactly wrong, it is too rational and too literal. True, many of them display some of the snappishness and unpredictability that children experience from grown-ups, but they also recall the ways in which children snap at one another. Alice is a little girl trying to make sense of the adult world around her, but she often seems more mature than the people she meets. That is part of the book’s child-centredness, for children take themselves seriously; unless corrupted by adults, they do not regard themselves as amusingly cute.

Dreams are a solipsist’s kingdom: nothing exists in them except the dreamer. It is appropriate, therefore, that the people and creatures that Alice meets in Wonderland lack roundedness and solidity (you could not imagine yourself being the Caterpillar or the Mad Hatter). The characters are flat—literally so, as Alice finally realises when she is about to wake up: “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” This begins to change in Through the Looking-Glass: although this too is formally a dream, rather little of it has the dreamlike inconsequentiality of Wonderland. Instead, it is one of those works, like Ulysses and Wozzeck, in which an apparently free creativity is actually governed by a rigid system imposed from without: in this case, the rules of chess. It has characters in the conventional style of the 19th-century novel—some of Victorian fiction’s most vivid characters, indeed. Figures like the Red and White Queens and the White Knight come with distinct personalities independent of Alice’s imagining. It makes sense of a kind for there to be speculation in the looking-glass world about whether someone else is dreaming of Alice; to pose that question in Wonderland would be preposterous. Carroll took a risk in trying to follow the freshness of the first book, and he brought it off, but he seems to have known that he could not do it a third time. Years later, when he wrote Sylvie and Bruno, he tried something quite different; he began to use baby talk, and the result is embarrassing.

Many people, of course, have thought that Carroll was not innocent at all. The facts are well known: he befriended little girls throughout his life, and liked to photograph them both clothed and naked. It seems clear that he believed this to be entirely virtuous: his diaries, painfully self-accusing on other matters, show no trace of sexual guilt. Modern knowingness may suppose that his feelings were unconsciously sexual. Perhaps—but perhaps not, for the abidingly important truth is that his feelings for children are at the opposite pole from those of the typical paedophile. The paedophile wants to erase the childishness of the child, to treat her as what she is not, but Carroll enjoys the child’s mind as it truly is. This is one respect, indeed, in which he surpasses other writers for children, even the best.


By common consent Carroll is the Tolstoy of the nursery. His puns, parodies and plays on English idiom make him the hardest children’s author to translate, and yet he is among the most translated English authors. A few externals apart, he has not dated, and the books feel as fresh as when they were written. Do they, nevertheless, depend on the time and place at which they were created? The golden age of children’s literature does seem to belong to a particular historical moment, between intimations of immortality in the romantic age and intimations of immorality after Freud. And for whatever reason, Britain has been the superpower of children’s writing (even as its imperial power was waning), and Oxford has played a disproportionate part—besides Carroll, there are Grahame, Tolkien, Lewis, Pullman. Maybe there is something in the air of the city of dreaming spires and home of lost causes that has stimulated a recherche du temps perdu.

The fortunes of PG Wodehouse may provide a clue to Alice’s lasting appeal. Notoriously, humour goes out of date easily, but Wodehouse still sells in enormous quantity. Teaching in a school in Pakistan, years ago, I was surprised to find that one of my pupils was a devotee: “Best author in the world, sir. Except Shakespeare and Iqbal,” he added anxiously. I wondered what butlers and country houses could mean in the Punjab, but then I reflected that I knew hardly any more about dukes and earls than he did. On the one hand, Wodehouse is intensely English (there is a clear loss of vitality in the stories set in America) in the style of his aristocrats and, more interestingly, in the depiction of the London suburbs of his boyhood, which provide the most atmospheric passages in his works. But, like Homer, he creates his own world, a mixture of reality and artificial construction, and we enter it as equals. In a different but comparable way the Alice books combine the real and the fantastic. Dreams, after all, are an experience that everyone shares equally and where everyone is equally irrational. The Cheshire Cat was right: we’re all mad here.

Perhaps the two styles of fiction that date the least are the two extremes: high realism on the one hand, and fantasy on the other. Jane Austen now seems more modern than the Victorian novelists, because she deals in timeless human situations, and because she creates characters whom we feel that we know as we know our neighbours. Carroll has not dated in part because of the cleanness of his prose, partly because he is concerned with two areas of experience—dreams and early childhood—which culture has little power to control, and partly because he creates his own universe. If we know about his context, we can fancy that we see the author’s donnishness and the refraction of a clerical and high bourgeois society in a child’s unconscious imagination, but we do not need to see these things. By contrast, Carroll’s successors were to delight in the evocation of England: the Thames in The Wind in the Willows, Lakeland in the tales of Beatrix Potter, Ashdown Forest in the Pooh books. They owe some of their quality to a sense of place, but the Alice books are not set anywhere. You could not tell from reading them whether Alice Liddell lived in town or country.

Carroll’s influence has been so great that he has modified the language. Here again the comparison with Wodehouse is telling. Everyone knows that he formed his own idiolect, but who knows how much is his own creation, how much authentic Edwardian slang? (Homer presents the same kind of problem.) And when John Wells and Richard Ingrams gave Denis Thatcher a Woosterish lingo in the “Dear Bill” letters in Private Eye, what was borrowed and what was new invention? What matters is that Wodehouse created a particular tone that has seeped into the larger consciousness. Carroll’s effect has been far wider. In “Jabberwocky” he tried to escape from English into nonsense words, but English caught up with him. Has any poem made so much difference in so few lines? “Frabjous” was picked up by Kipling in his boarding school book Stalky & Co., from where it passed to Billy Bunter and Greyfriars. “Chortle,” “burble” and “galumphing” have become standard; “mimsy” is used from time to time, and “uffish” and “tulgey” too have been used enough to get into the Oxford English Dictionary. Part of the charm may be that these are “portmanteau words,” another term that Carroll has added to the language: they sound as though they ought to jumble two or more existing words into a new meaning. “Take care of the sense,” says the Duchess, “and the sounds will take care of themselves.” But in Carroll’s looking-glass world it turned out the other way round.

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