Alice in Wonderland – Nonsense?

Lewis Carroll’s works Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There are by many people considered nonsense books for children. Of course, they are, but they are also much more. Lewis Carroll had a great talent of intertwining nonsense and logic, and therefore creating sense within nonsense. If you look past the nonsense you can find a new meaning other than the one you found completing your third grade book report. You find that the books are full of references and parallel aspects of Victorian Society such as topics of etiquette, education, and prejudice, and through these topic’s is shown a child’s ability to survive in a hostile world. By this last statement I am referring to Cohen’s comment that “Wonderland” (published in1865) captures “the disappointments, fears, and bewilderment that all children encounter in their dealings with authoritarian, pompous and mystifying adults” which Wonderland seems to have no deficiency of.

Throughout the story Carroll portrays his views on the education of the times. He make’s “morals and tales of obedience”(Brown, May Lee) seem nonsensical by the character of the Duchess and Alice’s preoccupation with her lessons. The Duchess keeps insisting to Alice that “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it”(Wonderland, 70), but with morals like “mustard and dogs both bite”(Wonderland, 70) you can see this rule is not quite right. “The absurdity of such a character”(Brown, May Lee) trying to teach Alice anything is a parody of what Carroll thought about the lessons children were being taught. Also

“Alice refers to her lessons and her education, usually very proud of the learning that she has acquired. It seems, however, that the information that she remembers from her lessons is usually either wrong or completely useless.”(Brown, May Lee)

All of Alice’s knowledge seems to consist mainly of maxims and morals about obedience and safety, which Carroll considers very limited. In the books Carroll also inserts many verses that were parodies of former verses for children. He rewrites them in pure nonsense having no moral or meaning other than pure amusement. “This rejection of typical Victorian manners and education of children supports one of the themes in his Alice books, the idea that a child’s imagination has value.”(Brown, May Lee)

Another view Carroll shows through the eyes of Alice is his thoughts on prejudice. In a scene from Alice in Wonderland the cook is violently hurling saucepans, plates, dishes and what ever else she can get her hands on at the Duchess and the baby. At this the Duchess states “If everyone mined their own business the world would go round a deal faster than it does.” Alice, thinking this as a great opportunity to show off her knowledge, starts to discuss the Earth’s rotation on it’s axis. To which the Duchess replies “Talking of axes, chop off her head!” In this passage Carroll shows that

“adults are cruel, childlike, irresponsible, impulsive, and self-indulgent-- the exact five adjectives Wohl asserts that Victorians attributed to the Blacks and to the lower classes. Carroll manipulates these prejudices and shows how these characteristics also apply to adults, authority figures, and even royalty.”(Brown, Catherine Ionata)

In short the whole scene is a mockery of commonly held prejudices of its day. Another place where the ignorance of prejudices is shown is in Through the Looking Glass. While waking through the “wood where things have no names” Alice meets up with a fawn and they advance through together. Once they depart from the woods the fawn realizes she is a fawn and Alice is a human child. “The fawn scurries away in fear.”(Brown, Wendy Voughon) Carroll uses this scene to “make his point that, as in Victorian England, distinctions were drawn not upon knowledge, but upon ignorance and a label.”(Brown, Wendy Voughon) Likewise, in the Garden of Live Flowers all the flowers seem to be represented “as different levels within the British social class structure.”(Brown, Susan W. Wong) The finer and rarer specimens, such as the tiger-lily and the rose, are placed in a higher class than the more common and simpler daisies which the tiger-lily describes as “the worst of all. When one speaks, they all begin together, and its enough to make one wither to hear the way they go on!”(Through the Looking Glass, 122)

Through the inhabitants of Wonderland Carroll also “parodies several social customs which he found particularly humorous.”(Gardner, 101) In Victorian times proper etiquette meant everything and there were numerous rules present which governed proper behavior. One of these rules was “A lady should never ‘cut’ someone after encountering them socially”(Gardner, 115) or, in a more familiar term, never fail to acknowledge their presence after being introduced. At the feast given for Alice when she becomes a queen Alice encounters this rule.

“You look a little shy. Let me introduce you to that leg of mutton,” said the Red Queen. “Alice--Mutton: Mutton--Alice.” The mutton got up in the dish and made a little bow to Alice; and Alice returned the bow, not knowing whether to be frightened or amused. “May I give you a slice?” she said, taking up the knife and fork and looking from one Queen to the other. “Certainly not,” the Red Queen said very decidedly: “it isn’t etiquette to cut anyone you’ve been introduced to.”

Through the punning of the term “to cut” as well as the ridiculous bowing of the leg of mutton Carroll pokes fun at etiquette. Also poking fun is the scene where the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon try to explain the Lobster Quadrille, a parody of a Victorian dance. Ballroom etiquette, should be conducted “with becoming politeness; avoiding, at all costs, the appearance of indecorous behavior.”(Gardner, 118) Even the how they describe this “mad romp” dance would be considered as “indecorous behavior” with their screaming, shouting, crying, and yelling as they dance around Alice interrupting the other at each chance. Another rule of etiquette was that Victorian children were expected to behave at all times. “Argument and ‘answering back’ were never permitted, and indeed, they were seldom attempted”(Gardner, 118) When Alice is at the trial of the Knave of Hearts, Carroll parodies this sort of rule and the expected behavior by having Alice “talk back” to the King.

“At this moment the King, who had been for some time busily writing in his note-book, called out “Silence!” and read out from his book, “Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court.” Everybody looked at Alice. “I’m not a mile high,” said Alice. “You are,” said the King. “Nearly two miles high,” added the Queen. “Well, I shan’t go, at any rate,” said Alice; “besides, that’s not a regular rule: you invented it just now.” “It’s the oldest rule in the book,” said the King. “Then it ought to be Number One,” said Alice.

Just by allowing Alice to question the authority of the King and point out the stupidity of his rules he is pointing out the stupidity of contemporary behavioral standards. Alice also does the same with the Queen. The Queen furious that Alice is talking back demands her head cut off. To this Alice replies (very loudly and decidedly) that it is “Nonsense” and the Queen goes silent.

Furthermore throughout the book adults are shown to be cruel and uncaring. Numerous characters repeatedly verbally attack Alice. One example is the unicorn who turned around “and stood for some time looking at her with an air or the deepest disgust. ‘What--is --this?’ he said at last.” The rose, caterpillar, Duchess, hatter and especially the Red Queen also contribute to the criticisms. A sinister betrayal of children by adults is also shown by the Walrus and the Carpenter as the young oysters are lured away and then eaten. Another good example is when the guard comes around to collect the tickets after Alice got on the train.

“now then! Show your ticket, child!” the Guard went on looking angrily at Alice. And A great many voices all said together (“like the chorus of a song”, thought Alice) “Don’t keep him waiting child! Why his time is worth a thousand pounds a minute!” “I’m afraid I haven’t got one,” Alice said in a frightened tone: “there wasn’t a ticket office where I came from.”(Through the Looking Glass, 129-130) “

This passage supports the theory that Alice’s imaginary world, with all its madness, represents the “bewildering, unfriendly and materialistic adult world into which young children were (and still are) prematurely thrown”(Makinen, 1) Often, at an early age, children realize that “money is what makes the world go round.” As Carroll suggests, this realization can be “quite frightening considering the child probably has no direct access to, or direct control aver, a reliable source of income.”(Makinen, 1) Alice is scolded and ridiculed for having no ticket. Yet where she came from no ticket was available. The conductor should not hold her responsible. “She is inherently disadvantaged like those born into poverty.”(Makinen, 1) The last example of rudeness by adult figures occurs at the feast. The second time Alice tries to carve a slice, the pudding reacts with “Characteristic Wonderland pettiness”: “What impertinence! I wonder how you’d like it, if I were to cut a slice out of you, you creature!’(Through the Looking Glass, 201)

In conclusion Carroll’s wonderland charters (all adults) “are complete mockeries of the adults that Victorian children had to obey.”(Hayes, 2) They show the ignorance and absurdity of their time. Yet Carroll does show a note of hope. At the end of the first book Alice stands up and expresses her feelings that the whole trial is nonsense and that the “soldiers” were just a pack of cards. In the second book Alice, sick of the chaos and confusion, summons the courage to challenge the Red Queen. With these two achievements Alice breaks “the spell of the domineering, repressive authority figures”(Makinen, 2) and gives hope that in reality this could also be possible.

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