Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Uncommon Nonsense

Those who seek a profound meaning cloaked within the bizarre and absurd scenarios of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are sure to be frustrated.  Lewis Carroll was no Tolkien or C.S. Lewis whose works, while they can be enjoyed solely as epic adventures, contain clear Christian references beneath the surface.  Neither was he aiming to teach an adult audience a meaningful message told in the language of a childish tale.  Some have gone so far as to turn their scrutiny on the author himself, searching his life for an explanation behind the mad caperings of his peculiar story.  The portrait of the author, however, serves only to confuse matters rather than to elucidate them.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, or Lewis Carroll, was not the exuberant eccentric that one might imagine when reading such strange fantasies.  He was a shy, stammering college professor who excelled at mathematics, logic and philosophy and his circle of friends included such sober notables as Alfred Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the other Pre-Raphaelite artists.  He lived a quiet, uneventful life as a professor, remaining at the same college for twenty-six years.  Chesterton describes him as a “singularly serious and conventional don, universally respected, but very much of a pedant and something of a Philistine.”  Applying psychoanalysis to the story of Wonderland and its retiring author is as ridiculous as a croquet game played with live flamingos and hedgehogs.  A plethora of conflicting dualities immediately rear their heads in the face of the analyst: the somewhat severe Charles Dodgson vs. the vivid Lewis Carroll; the predictable world of mathematics vs. the sporadic adventures in Wonderland; refined logic vs. utter nonsense.  In the words of Alice herself, the matter becomes “curiouser and curiouser!”

Alice's_Adventures_in_Wonderland_-_Carroll,_Robinson-_CoverAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland is exactly what it appears to be and nothing more, i.e. a whimsical fairy tale written expressly for the amusement of children.  There are no analogies, secret agendas or symbolisms here.  It is simply the story of a girl who fell down a rabbit hole into an upside—down world, where things are not as they seem, unbounded by laws of convention, reason and logic.  The literary enthusiast who strives to decipher the senseless riddles of the Mad Hatter or the reason for the Queen of Hearts’ unbridled rage will only find himself going round and round in a meaningless “caucus race,” returning to where he began, perhaps a little drier but no wiser than before.

If we as adults find Alice in Wonderland perplexing and irrelevant it is because we have forgotten what it is to be a child and how delightful the fantastic and nonsensical are.  Children’s games are usually filled with grotesque characters, ridiculous interactions and strange situations.  Anyone who has told stories to children knows that they are always delighted by the outrageous.  The more exaggerated or ludicrous, the more hilarious it is to them. It is when the reader accepts this absolute fact that the irrationality of Wonderland becomes less baffling.  At first, Alice is disquieted by her inability to comprehend and even communicate with the inhabitants of this strange land.  When she meets the Cheshire cat, he explains everything in one startlingly simple revelation: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”  From then on, Alice does her best to appreciate and accept what she encounters, from the morose mock-turtle, to the ridiculous trial of the Knave of hearts.  It is in this capacity that nonsense is in its proper place, not necessarily teaching lessons but merely giving joy to the young heart.  Carroll’s story grew out of an afternoon excursion with the three children of his friend, Henry Liddell, the youngest of whom was the eponym of the tale.  It was a spontaneous story told for the pleasure of a particular little girl.  The words of Carroll himself concerning the book can speak for themselves:

The why of this book cannot and need not be put into words … for I think a child’s first attitude to the world is a simple love for all living things.  And he will have learned that the best work a man can do is when he works for love’s sake only, with no thought of fame or gain or earthly reward.  No deed of ours, I suppose, on this side of the grave is entirely unselfish.  Yet if one can put forth all one’s powers in a task where nothing of a reward is hoped for but a little child’s whispered thanks and the airy touch of a little child’s pure lips, one seems to come somewhere near to this.

Alice in Wonderland is not a moral tale, but it is in some ways a metaphysical one.  Children are especially dear to Christ and it is a privilege and a blessing to bring joy to their pure hearts.  It is also through the simplicity of childish games and attitudes that children can teach us to adopt a more wholesome perspective of the world.  They are wonderers, taking delight in the smallest and seemingly inconsequential things.  The nonsense of Wonderland and the imaginary realms dreamed up by children can bring us closer to understanding the spiritual realm. Strictly speaking, miracles are nonsensical such as Christ’s Resurrection or the mystery of the Trinity.  Catholicism does not make earthly sense and the heresies that plagued the early church were all rationalizations of spiritual truths that tripped up those who could see only with the eyes of reason.   We cannot presume to understand the cosmos based on our poor, confined understanding and logic.  Chesterton in Defense of Nonsense reminds us that:

 Religion has for centuries been trying to make men exult in the ‘wonders’ of creation, but it has forgotten that a thing cannot be completely wonderful so long as it remains sensible…. This simple sense of wonder at the shapes of things, and at their exuberant independence of our intellectual standards and our trivial definitions, is the basis of spirituality as it is the basis of nonsense. Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook.

At the end of the novel, Alice’s elder sister reflects on the childish tale she has just heard related from her little sister’s lips.  She understands exactly what has happened, that all the adventure and enchantment has been but a fantastic dream, a nonsensical twist on the “dull reality” which, though sensational, comes to an end in the face of life.  Though the dream is ended, there yet lingers the simple truth that it represents:

Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland long ago.

Does the dream end and regular life resume as before?  Do the marvellous adventures and characters lose their significance after we have seen life from their unfamiliar view? We must live our lives according to the reason and logic which bind our material world but we must also maintain those qualities which the children who delight in these adventures possess: innocence that sees with the eyes of faith, vivacity in the face of suffering and the wise nonsense to penetrate the spiritual mysteries around us.  The tale of Wonderland should continue to pass from generation to generation, delighting our children so that they can continue to teach us to see God in the perplexing conundrums and insignificant trifles of this world.

Emma Fitzpatrick

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Emma Fitzpatrick writes from Ottawa, Canada. She earned her college degree in literature and is an aficionado of sacred music and Alfred Hitchcock films.

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  • TheodoreSeeber

    I recognize the darker purpose in Alice In Wonderland, for I nearly fell into it myself as a teenager- for a certain type of mental illness, the company of young people of the opposite sex is quite irresistable. Alice in Wonderland is the story of grooming a young child for sexual abuse.

    • maranathangel

      Mr. Seeber, I don’t believe it. Where’s the proof? I’m a (female) nurse who takes care of a 1 1/2 y/o boy. I make up silly stories all of the time. Am I a weirdo just because I’m a spinster with a cat? Can’t you just love people no matter what age without being a sicko?
      Ms. Fitzpatrick, I really enjoyed your article. Thank you for writing it.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        The key there is you are female.

        • maranathangel

          Interesting in what way? Can you give me a reference so that I may investigate this myself? Why is there a difference in male and female for this sort of perversion? I just can’t believe what you say on your word alone. I need evidence. If you would provide it I would be most grateful.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            A reference:
            http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/Lewis-Carrolls-Shifting-Reputation.html

            While his early experiments do not rise to the level of modern pornography by any means, the signs of what we would call a pedophile today are definitely in his actions. You can also google Charles Dodgson Photography to see for yourself, though there are a few fakes and bad search results in the resulting image page, and most of his more nude photographs aren’t on the web due to child pornography laws.

            It is entirely possible that he never took anything “too far”- though it is interesting that in the time between originally telling the tale to Alice Liddel, and sending her an early copy of the manuscript entitled “Alice’s Adventures Underground”, her parents refused to let him take her on any more picnics.

            You aren’t taking nude photos of the boy you take care of. You aren’t seeking the company of other 11 year old young men (or even younger, as Charles’ interest seemed to be more for the younger-than-10 set).

            I thank God that I was turned away from that path 20 years ago, though not before causing a scandal in my family with a cousin that other were abusing.

            • James

              Sorry, no. Your allegations do not in any way match the research. Please, by all means, actually study people before you go off and say horrendous things.

              The Liddell family DID NOT prevent Dodgson from taking the Liddell girls on picnics. Dodgson DID NOT take them alone, but included Duckworth and the Liddells’ nanny on these excursions. Despite the rumors of the “cut pages,” the Liddells and Dodgson remained close until his death; the supposed “split” between them came from an agreed upon distance designed to quiet down rumors of a romance between Dodgson and the nanny.

              Dodgson took nude photos of little girls, yes, but also little boys, grown women, grown men, and the elderly. These shots were hardly sexual. When the young were snapped nude, Dodgson was always insistent that parents be present for every moment of the shoot. (Perhaps fatally to your theory, it should be noted that Dodgson did not ever photograph Alice Liddell nude.)

              Please, do research. Please. It’s un-sourced statements like these that let lies be accepted for decades.

              • TheodoreSeeber

                Then how do you explain Ina’s comments to Dodgson’s biographers?

            • stephany

              ‘Of the approximately 3,000 photo­graphs Dodgson made in his life, just
              over half are of children—30 of whom are depicted nude or semi-nude.
              Some of his portraits—even those in which the model is clothed—might
              shock 2010 sensibilities, but by Victorian standards they were…well,
              rather conventional. Photographs of nude children sometimes appeared on
              postcards or birthday cards,
              and nude portraits—skillfully done—were praised as art studies, as they
              were in the work of Dodgson’s contemporary Julia Margaret Cameron.
              Victorians saw childhood as a state of grace; even nude photographs of
              children were considered pictures of innocence itself.’

              That’s taken from the article you posted. You might want to actually read things over before you go and tell other.

          • stephany

            I believe that the time period that Carroll/Dodgson lived in had a lot of art/photography of naked children. So to say that he was perverted with that argument is.. well, uninformed.

      • Claudia

        I do agree with you Mrs Maranthangel

    • Claudia

      Are you crazzy? Alice can’t be an argument for your own problems.It’s and will ever be a mastepiece

  • Lone Hoot

    Alice was not the youngest of the three children in the boat on the seminal day of the story. Edith was the youngest, Lorena Charlotte was the oldest, and Alice Pleasance was in the middle. The one person who understood Alice best was Holly Pleasance of the novel “Hollytime.” And for the record, scholars have combed through all of Carroll’s writings, letters, notes, journals, etc., and all letters written to him and to others by his “child friends,” and no one has found a shred of evidence that he ever did anything improper with Alice or any other child. My 2 cents.

  • Daniel John Williams

    Wonderful piece!

  • STF

    Wonderful piece. A quibble, or a query, (depending how you look at it): faith is not, strictly speaking, unreasonable. Faith makes sense even if it is the sense belonging to another realm of existence. Our reason may not be able to grasp fully the highest of truths, but they are still truths and, as such, not unreasonable. I wonder if the term “supersense” is, in a way, better than “nonsense.” As GKC said, nonsense is a symbol of the mysteries of Faith – but they are not in and of themselves nonsensical. Human logic falls short of many things, including the logic of heaven. The strangeness of things, the elements of the bizarre, are lures to a higher reason that only exists in that real Wonderland.

    • Emma F.

      Dear STF,

      I completely agree with what you said about ‘supersense.’ I believe this is already implicit in the article, though I did not expound on it as you have. Supernatural truths, though beyond our reason, are not, of course, unreasonable or nonsensical in themselves. I sincerely hope I did not give that impression. Thank you for that annotation.

  • Eve Tulbert-Diab

    Well…I’m sorry, but this is…simply… not true. The dinner revolt at the end of Lookinglass and the Trial scene at the end of Alice are actually clear, pointed references to THE key problem for children in Carroll’s day–state-sponsored food insecurity during the Victorian “Hunger Years” (in which control of bread prices under Corn Laws led to mass hunger at the same time that the colonies were revolting over their sugar (treacle!) slavery)… (It’s just that the bread is so thin these days, says Hatter, on trial.) The key predicaments and problems in Wonderland relate to food insecurity –food was the key problem of the Victorian Working Class. Food insecurity was also the key predicament for early Christians–and a Christian Eucharist can not be served at the Mad Hatter’s tea party because the poor (the Hatter) can not buy wine (Alice, ch. 5) This is a form of nonsense–but Carroll’s point was the structural violence of the Queen was the most nonsensical. Best of luck with your reading and research….(do a little more next time).
    http://www.victorianweb.org/science/health/hunger.html

    • http://eacafe.blogspot.com/ Oo_oc_oO

      joking or … ?

      • Eve Tulbert-Diab

        No…completely serious. Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, Alice in Wonderland…and many other works of the Victorian era discuss the problem of food insecurity. The debate over treacle in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party scene have been analyzed as the “Nonsense” humor approach to a serious political and moral situation. Do you see it now when you re-read the Tea Party scene? Contemplate other moral “Tea Parties” that you have heard of in American history, and 1865, the year that freedom was won in the United States. Get it now?

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  • Bob Drury

    I wouldn’t call it nonsense. From youth to old age I have enjoyed the discussions in logic by Alice with the Duchess and with Humpty Dumpty, as well as the discussion of mathematical sets and subsets at the Mad Tea Party.

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