LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Alice and Pop Culture

on February 21, 2013 4:26am

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I have always personally wondered why the appeal of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was so persistent. I didn’t really enjoy Alice until I was an adult literature student and could follow the cleverness of the nonsense. Though most people in my generation are fans of the Disney movie rather than the original text (or at least read the book because they saw the movie first), enough of the elements are the same for the question to stand.

I asked the class why they thought Alice had such a wide appeal for teenagers, and the answers were very insightful. Some mentioned identifying with Alice’s changing body and her uncertain sense of self, while some cited the nonsensical behavior of the adult characters.

The most common line I see quoted from Alice is “We’re all mad here.” Kids on the internet delight in posting pictures of themselves exhaling smoke and quoting this line, or getting it as a tattoo. The line has apparently taken on meaning beyond the Cheshire Cat’s comment. It reminds me, frankly, of kids in middle and high school referring to themselves as ‘crazy’ or ‘random.’ This special-snowflake uniqeness certainly provides one explanation for the popularity of the quote: it could be a reference to living a wild and crazy life. A different group of teens might latch on to this line because they are beginning to see that life does not play out logically or fairly, and madness seems the only explanation. Furthermore, our generation is frequently diagnosed with mental illnesses: ADD, defiance disorders, and depression. In this way, acting outside of the norm is often considered literally crazy.

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I actually wrote that line before I searched for pictures. No kidding.

I actually wrote the line about the smoke before I searched for pictures. No kidding.

However, we ran out of time before I could ask my other question: why has the novel been appropriated by drug culture?  Drug-friendly interpretations of Alice equate the nonsense of Wonderland with a hallucination. The famous song “White Rabbit” was released in 1967 by Jefferson Airplane, and draws inspiration from both Alice books, using mentions of the size-altering food and drink to refer to hallucinogenic drugs. From the band’s website: “Grace Slick [the songwriter] has always said that White Rabbit was intended as a slap toward parents who read their children stories such as Alice in Wonderland (in which Alice uses several drug-like substances in order to change herself) and then wondered why their children grew up to do drugs.” The line “Go Ask Alice” from the song was then used to title Beatrice Sparks’ awful and fictional ‘diary of a real teen drug user’.

I'm pretty sure the Metallica shirt is anachronistic.

I’m pretty sure the Metallica shirt is anachronistic.

Counter-culture is quick to latch on to anything that seems new and different, but the fascination with the seemingly deviant parts of Carroll’s work is misguided. Drug interpretations and other appropriations miss the non-sense aspect of Carroll’s creation: Wonderland isn’t chaos; it is the opposite of logic. Alice was told purely to entertain the Liddell sisters and is only a playful, though clever, nonsense story. Its enduring appeal is probably due to Carroll’s desire only to entertain, and never to instruct. The Cheshire Cat’s madness was not a mention of his rejection of his parent’s generation, nor was it a commentary on his carefree life, nor was it madness in the sense of mental illness — the Cheshire Cat and all the rest of the inhabitants of Wonderland are ‘mad’ because they act and speak nonsense. The nonsense that illuminates the novel is meant to entertain, not to be taken literally; as soon as we take the story out of context and out of nonsense it loses its true content.  And after all, the caterpillar is only smoking tobacco in that hookah.

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