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Friday, December 20, 2013

On the importance of Alice in Wonderland

by John MacBeath Watkins

The popularity of a book is one measure of its importance, but more important and hard to quantify is its cultural impact. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland scores well on the first, but its cultural impact is seldom discussed.

The original press run of 2,000 copies sold out quickly when the book came out in December of 1865, and the book has never been out of print, which is enough to prove its appeal to readers. But it also represented a break with the past. It included parodies of a number of Victorian poems written for children, because Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson was not writing at children, he was writing for them.

Children had been told stories from mythology and fables from the oral traditions for as long as there had been story telling, an art form that must have come shortly after the invention of language. Aesop probably didn't write all of the stories attributed to him, but he did write them down. Much the same can be said of Charles Perrault, the 17th-century French writer of the Mother Goose stories. His Sleeping Beauty seems to be based on a medieval tale that had been adapted earlier in the 17th century by Giambattista Basile.

If you've read the unbowdlerized versions of folk tales, you know that some of them are terrifying. When I was a kid, we had a little hardcover volume of Irish fairy tales in which there were stories where people joined the fairies in a dance and were compelled to dance until their death, and I vividly recall one in which a girl is captured by a giant, who cuts off her feet to keep her from running away.

But these stories were not necessarily written for children. Perrault, for one, was definitely writing for adults, which might explain the inclusion of the Bluebeard story.

There was a tradition of writing morally uplifting stories specifically for children within Christianity. The Venerable Bede, best known for his history of the Anglo-Saxon church, wrote morality tales for children as well. One might have expected Charles Dodgson, a deacon in his church, to do the same, but he seems to have liked children too well to do this. In fact, most of the poems in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are parodies of exactly that type of work.

Consider Isaac Watts' Against Idleness and Mischief:

How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!

How skilfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

And the Alice version:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

Not only is it funny, it scans better. Who the hell rhymes wax with makes?

Or consider a poem by David Bates, Speak Gently:

Speak gently! -- It is better far
To rule by love, than fear --
Speak gently -- let not harsh words mar
The good we might do here!

Which, in Alice, becomes:

Speak roughly to your little boy
And beat him when he sneezes
He only does it to annoy
Because he knows it teases

Clearly, "Lewis Carroll" was writing to please his audience and make them laugh, not to firmly instruct them on morality. Some of the jokes are hard to get, unless you read The Annotated Alice, in which Martin Gardner provides the background needed.

Other jokes are hard to get without hearing them in an English accent, like the pun, "we call him a tortoise because he taught us." Americans pronounce the "r" and miss the joke.

The humor, whimsy, and fantasy was very different from the terrifying fairy tales people told in the oral tradition or the moralizing of so much of the literature purposely written for children. It represented the invention of a new kind of literature for children, not stories shared with adults (although plenty of adults love reading the book) or the moralizing of people who saw children as objects to be molded.

The parodies were subversive, making fun of the didactic moralizing of the children's literature that had preceded it, but the book was also interesting because it feels like there is a level of meaning below the surface. In fact, Douglas Hoffstadter called his philosophical work, Godel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid “A metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.” He also used some of the characters from Carroll's work, such as Achilles and the tortoise, in dialogues within his book. (In fact, he includes the dialogue between Achilles and the Tortoise that Carroll wrote for the journal Mind in his book.)

There is an argument that childhood as we now understand it was invented in the 18th century, when the first books really aimed at children were published by John Newberry. Stories like The History of Little Goody Two Shoes, published in 1765,were in theory aimed at children, but for sound marketing reasons were actually aimed at their parents, who wanted them instructed more than they wanted them entertained.

The existence of a professional class meant that there was a new class of children. They were not growing up on farms, where their labor became valuable as soon at they could lift a bucket. There had long been the merchant class, of course, but they put their children into the business as soon as they could, to teach them what they'd need to know to keep the business running.

But if you are a doctor, your patients don't want your kid handing you the scalpel, and if you are a lawyer, there's a long period before you can bring the next generation into the office. Childhood as a time when you went to school and remained in a sort of social chrysalis until your were grown up had been invented. As generation succeeded generation, you soon had parents with a sentimental memory of such a childhood, and a more indulgent attitude toward their children than a subsistence farmer could afford to have.

Not that growing up on a farm was all bad. When they rose early in the morning to milk the cows, my grandfather and my father would recite poetry to each other. Sometimes, they got so involved in it that they failed to shut off the milking machine until the cow reminded them. As such machines took some of the drudgery out of farming, kids growing up on farms could spend more time in school and prepare for a life beyond the farm.

Born from this new chrysalis of childhood was a literature that was designed to give pleasure to children instead of instruction. Alice is pure play, a book for the child to enjoy. But all mammals learn through play, and humans are no exception. Alice gave parents another lesson, that a book children actually want to read is better for their reading skills than a book their parents might prefer they read.


  1. A well-written and entertaining insight into what set Lewis Carroll's novels apart from the other literature (for children)in Victorian England. This article does what most other sites fail to do: explore the cultural impact of the Alice novels.