LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Wonderland: Not Why, but How?

on February 13, 2013 5:23pm

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland tells the tale of a young girl seemingly on the routine path to being taught via the conventional society of the time to transform into an elegant and proper young women.  Although this seems to be a bit like many of the other fairy tales and children’s literature of the time, the protagonist quickly finds herself in Wonderland, where all convention and societal norms are displaced by pure nonsense.  To some, an appropriate question concerning the events that happen thereafter would be, “How?”  How did Wonderland come to be?  How did Alice end up there?  How did the creatures of Wonderland become this seemingly senseless society as governed by our traditional views of what society should be?  However, I believe a better question that we could be asking ourselves as readers to the author is, “Why?”

Why was Wonderland created? I believe that Wonderland in this story represents childhood.  It allows for the prolonging of that sense of purity exhibited by young children before they grow up.  Several scholars such as Rousseau believed that children had an innate sense of goodness that remained untouched until the corrupt society around them shaped them into the “civilized” citizens that they wanted them to become.  In a traditional society, questions have answers.  Animals do not talk.  Court hearings are conducted in a dignified manner.  Croquet is not played with flamingos and hedgehogs.  However, Wonderland represents the beauty of all that is not a traditional society.  It represents a colorful and unlimited imagination, which all children have the ability to possess.

A prime example comes when the Hatter presents Alice with his infamous riddle, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”  Although Lewis Carroll was eventually convinced to provide an answer to his displeased audience, the protagonist originally does not know the answer to the riddle, and when she implores as to what it is, we as readers find that the Hatter is unable to provide one.  This provides an opportunity to delve into one’s own imagination to conjure up the various possibilities concerning the similarities between writing desks and ravens.  A societal staple such as a school system is not there to provide an explanation.  Whereas conventional societies teach children their multiplication tables and scientific facts based on research and the common answers, “Because that’s the way it is” or “Because I told you so,” Wonderland serves the purpose of allowing a child to figure out what they would like the answer to be.  Perhaps two multiplied by two does not have to equal four in Wonderland because there are no educational staples to teach its inhabitants that it is so.

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Artist’s depiction of Alice at the tea party with the Hatter and the March Hare

Wonderland is an escape.  It takes us back to a childhood where we were all on journeys of discovery through the daily occurrences of our lives.  Our imaginations allowed the possibilities of talking caterpillars and mice.  Why would playing cards paint white roses red for the simple pleasure of a Queen?  Well, a child may ask, “Why not?”  This story can take an adult reader back to a time when all things were possible in our minds.  Opening this book and exploring the nonsense that is its contents could equate to an adult reader metaphorically falling down a rabbit hole into their own Wonderland—a place where both nonsense and nostalgia meet.

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One response to “Wonderland: Not Why, but How?

  1. csmith5599 says:

    The idea of wonderland representing childhood and its innocence definitely ties into Carroll’s themes of nonsense and his fantastic imagery. Although childhood is normally associated with a warm, comforting sense of nostalgia, plenty of which exists in Wonderland endangers and threatens Alice, much like how children are privy to danger in the world. Right as she falls down the rabbit hole, she faces her mortality (albeit sarcastically) and expects to die once she hits the bottom of the hole. Although Wonderland’s physical laws defy our expectations, Alice fears for her life on several occasions. When she shifts between growing to the point of barely fitting inside an house to diminishing to the point of near-nonexistence, her life is once again seemingly at risk. Even though Carroll makes a point to ensure Alice never truly faces a life and death situation (accentuated later by the Queen’s empty calls for her execution), these high-risk moments help give the novel not only some suspense but adds a conflicting dimension to the idea that childhood is a carefree, innocent period of our lives. Carroll reminds the reader occasionally that even though life as a child may appear as a colorful, vibrant world waiting to be explored, many dangers potentially await children and can take advantage of their curiosity at the expensive of their life. I fully agree the book captures the positive tenets of childhood, but I also contend that it subtly addresses the dangerous and life-threatening aspects as well.

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