Saturday, December 09, 2017

Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

Introduction

Opening Passages: From Alice:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice ‘without pictures or conversations?’

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

From Looking-Glass:

One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it:--it was the black kitten's fault entirely. For the white kitten had been having its face washed by the old cat for the last quarter of an hour (and bearing it pretty well, considering); so you see that it couldn't have had any hand in the mischief.

Summary: Both of Carroll's most famous works are attempts to capture, in a basic sort of fairy-tale narrative, the imagination of children. This is particularly obvious with Through the Looking-Glass, which, while it gets its structure from the chess game, gets its content from nursery rhymes, but it is true throughout. This is perhaps the simplest way to capture the new thing that Carroll was attempting: a fairy tale, but elaborated as much as possible from the perspective of a child of seven and a half years (as we discover Alice is in Through the Looking-Glass). This is a shift, since fairy tales typically had not been, indeed still aren't, constructed in an attempt to mimic a child's own imagination. The result is inevitably episodic; the overarching plots, to get to the garden party and to get queened, are minimal, and one thing comes after another in quick succession, and without much rhyme and reason. Carroll himself recognized this as a potential issue in his essay, Alice on the Stage, and attributes to his tendency simply to be struck by ideas and develop them on their own, but it fits with the child's-perspective approach.

In this sense, 'nonsense' is a misleading name for the genre; it is really concerned with fragmentary sense. It's not that the White Rabbit is nonsense; it's that the White Rabbit is sense on its own, and that is all. As Carroll notes in the same essay:

And the White Rabbit, what of him? Was he framed on the `Alice’ lines, or meant as a contrast? As a contrast, distinctly. For her `youth’, `audacity’, `vigour’, and `swift directness of purpose’, read `elderly’, `timid’, `feeble’, and `nervously shilly-shallying’, and you will get something of what I meant him to be. I think the White Rabbit should wear spectacles. I am sure his voice should quaver, and his knees quiver, and his whole air suggest a total inability to say `Bo’ to a goose!

The White Rabbit is not an allegory, but a fragment capable of serving as allegory for the oddness, from a child's perspective, of the adult tendency to rush around and 'nervously shilly-shally'. The nonsense is that of the adult world insofar as its sense cannot be fully grasped by a child. Thus the baffling conversations, which are like the conversations children sometimes have to get through with adults in which they don't understand half of the assumptions being made; hence the arbitrariness of the examination for being queen, or the endless tumble of apparently incomprehensible punishments. If you see the world of adult sense with a child's partial perspective and imagination, that is the sort of 'nonsense' that we get in the Alice books. In both books this is mediated by the fact that it is supposed to be a dream; this, however, I think mostly serves to help the adult reader get a foothold in a child's world, where the difference between dream and waking is not so sharp because the latter does not always seem as obviously more coherent than the former.

But all this is, perhaps, a bit too serious; it's not an allegory for children among adults, although it uses something of that as a basis. It's a lot of silliness, of course, just for the sake of it. There is, of course, a great deal of humor throughout. I found the tendency of the Looking-Glass folk to recite poetry to Alice whether she wanted to hear or not rather funnier than I remembered.

Favorite Passages: From Alice:

The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought: still it had very long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect.

‘Cheshire Puss,’ she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. ‘Come, it’s pleased so far,’ thought Alice, and she went on. ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice.

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

‘—so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.

‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’

Alice felt that this could not be denied, so she tried another question.

From Looking-Glass:

'I know what you're thinking about,' said Tweedledum: 'but it isn't so, nohow.'

'Contrariwise,' continued Tweedledee, 'if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.'

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

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