LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Alice in Wonderland: Adult’s Contribution to Canonical Status

on February 21, 2013 12:00pm

Virginia Woolf said of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories that they are, “not books for children; they are only books in which we become children…To become a child is to be very literal; to find everything so strange that nothing is surprising; to be heartless, to be ruthless, yet to be so passionate that a snub or a shadow drapes the world in gloom.  It is so to be Alice in Wonderland.” (Kidd, 74)  After reading Lewis Carroll’s novels The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass I feel as though I have to agree with Woolf’s assertion, that truly the Alice stories, though greatly enjoyed by children, are not necessarily the audience who identifies with the absolute most.  I think it is this quality of the Alice stories that has undeniably contributed to their enduring existence within the literary world and the world of popular culture.  Lewis Carroll did not craft these unique stories and their strong characters to be nonsensical merely for nonsense’s sake, they are, as Roni Natov describes it in her article The Persistence of Alice, Carroll exposing the, “anti-sense, anti-rational underside of our existence.” (Natov, 38) Alice in WonderlandCarroll’s novels have to them so many layers of complexity and identification for so many age groups that, though the Alice stories are categorized as canonical and a longstanding member of the Golden Age of Children’s literature collection, the experience children have when encountering one of these stories is superficial.  They enjoy the nonsense, the rule breaking, the “worlds of reversals and unexpected combinations that children find so funny,” but beyond that, the deeper messages of Carroll’s stories belong to the adults. (Natov, 52) Kenneth B. Kidd describes this awareness of adult appreciation of Carroll’s novels by observing in his article, Freud in Oz, “Carroll’s Alice books…contain no only fantastical creatures but also mathematical puzzles, educational satires, and not a little narratorial joking at Alice’s expense.” (Kidd, 74)  I think adults appreciate not only the elements of the novel suggested by Kidd or Woolf, but also I believe that adults can identify with the character of Alice, I think her vulnerability as well as her resiliency is appreciated, her constant need to make sense and order of a chaotic and nonsensical world, and her tearful frustration when her efforts fail.  There is a consistent duality in the Alice novels that reflects the duality of the adult world, ““We may feel trapped and stifled in Wonderland. But there is also a sense of freedom which comes from recognizing the truth and being forced to laugh at it, from understanding the chaos and uncertainty we have always sensed about our lives.” (Natov, 61)  I think it is mainly this quality of duality; of order and chaos, of the literal and of nonsense, the child’s eyes and the adult’s understanding, and of the idea that our stable and consistent world is just a rabbit whole away from Wonderland, that attracts and keeps adult readers and it is this audience of adult readers that has allowed and enabled the Alice stories to endure as long as they have.  Kidd noted in his article that, “Alice or Carroll appear everywhere: in popular music, television, graphic novels, musicals, ballets, operas, plays, and realist theater.  Alice has at once been preserved intact and transformed dramatically.” (Kidd, 74)  Children are not the gatekeepers of entrance into canonical status in Children’s Literature; it is the adults that ensure this status.  Deborah Stevenson states authoritatively in her article Classics and Canons that, “Ultimately, the literature’s most powerful children are ex-children.” (Stevenson, 109)  Novels that can be enjoyed and understood by children and adults alike are much more likely to be reproduced, reinterpreted, and proliferate cultures of the past and present, they will be much more likely to enter into the realm of the canon.  It is no surprise then that Carroll’s Alice stories are so iconic, so proliferated, and so enduring in their standing as one of the greats.

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