Alice in Wonderland — book review

by 21cstories

Alice requires no introduction — everyone is supposed to know her name, having read the story or not. Written by Lewis Carroll for a little girl he knew, the book combines fantasy and adventure with elements of tragedy, farce, comedy, madness, and absurdity, and is replete with plays on words, twisted logic, re-phrased rhymes and clever dialogues. In short, a book that entertains and educates, like every book ought to.

Alice, in her sleep, has an adventure in an imaginary world ruled by people who look like playing cards, and inhabited by animals who can talk. She undergoes changes in her height, moves from one place to another through film-like effects, and interacts with animals in various scenes that make up the book chapters. The story ends with her in a dramatic scene in the court of the queen and king of hearts who rule the wonderland.

The wonderland is unreal — a world of fantasy and imagination. It is a transformation of the real world, with human beings replaced by animals who can talk, and things considered to be possible only in magic do happen here — hence the appeal of the story to children. The wonderland is also a logically and linguistically challenged world — the finer aspects that fill every page of the story and of interest to adult readers.

A few glimpses of the interesting, the absurd and the surreal, in the order of the chapters:

– Alice comes across a rabbit who is wearing a coat, and has a watch in his pocket.

– The ‘Caucus-race’ – a race organised by animals, where everyone runs in circles in no order, in a completely random manner. The winner, after a long deliberation – everyone!

– Alice, reduced in size, is nearly drowned in a pool of tears she had shed as a giant.

– A caterpillar sits atop a mushroom, smoking hookah.

– Alice, now of same size as the caterpillar, has a conversation that begins with the caterpillar asking her who she is. Alice is confused, after growing tall and short in succession. The conversation proceeds forward, and the caterpillar, asking short, annoying questions, brings it back to the first question.

– Alice visits a small mad house and comes across the Duchess of the kingdom with a small baby in her arms and a cook in the kitchen. The Duchess mishandles the baby, the cook throws things at her, and finally they sing a small, grotesque rhyme:

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

– Alice takes away the baby from them to save him, who then turns into a pig.

– A cat sits ‘grinning’ in the madhouse. Alice talks to the cat, who then disappears and reappears, leaving behind only the ‘grin’. She reappears later in the story, the ‘grin’ coming first.

– Alice joins a mad tea party — a table kept in a garden where a hare and a hatter are frozen in time — it is always tea time for them, and they are forever having breakfast, caught in time.

– The savage Queen of hearts goes about ordering — “Off with his head!” at the slightest provocation or misdemeanor by her subjects who constantly live in fear of their lives. No one, however, is ever executed.

– Three ‘playing cards’ characters are painting a white rose with red colour for fear of execution. The queen had ordered for a red rose plant.

– The ‘mock’ turtle — a farcical, comical creature who sits on a rock lamenting and sighing forever, though it has gone through no such experiences.

– The mock turtle went to school and learnt Reeling and Writhing, and in arithmetic, learnt — Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision, followed by Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting, and the languages Laughing and Grief.

Some logical elements:

– The grinning cat proves to Alice that she is mad: To begin with, a dog is not mad. A dog growls when angry and shakes its tail when pleased. The cat growls when it is pleased, and moves its tail when angry. Therefore it is mad.

– The sentence spoken at the mad tea party was grammatically correct, yet meaningless.

– At the caucus race, the mouse says “…found it advisable to…” — what does ‘it’ refer to here, a simpleton animal asks.

– The cat re-appears only with its head. The queen orders the head to be chopped off. Three arguments take place: The executioner says a head without a body can’t be beheaded. The king says if there is a head than it can be beheaded and all else is non-sense. The queen says her order must be carried out soon or else all of them would be dead.

– I had nothing, so can’t have more, Alice says at the mad tea party. You mean you can’t have less, for it is easy to have more than nothing, the Hatter corrects her.

What is the meaning behind Alice in Wonderland?
What sense can one make of this story? Lewis Carroll himself said his words could plausibly be imbued with meanings he did not intend. The story ends with thoughts of Alice’s sister on how a girl like Alice would grow up with tender feelings and love for children in her heart.

The animal characters — mostly oddities of characters — come out as absurd and comical, very sensitive and also rude to Alice. She complains of being ordered about to go here and there. Every animal creature argues foolishly over words with her. Her commonsense and naive, taken-as-understood sense of logic is attacked at every encounter with the animals. Manners are at stake everywhere in the story — the mad tea party and the caterpillar on the mushroom scenes highlight her outrage at being slighted and offended. The royal house keeps everyone perpetually under terror of being executed at the slightest offence to the queen. The ‘mock’ turtle, brooding silently over injuries that never took place, brings out the whole tragicomedy of the situation in wonderland.

Wonderland is perhaps the world of adults as seen through the eyes of a child who has not left her commonsense behind. In its exaggerated portrayal of characters and events it appears unreal and imaginary. Yet, it may not be too far removed from reality. (James Watson likened the people involved with the discovery of DNA structure with the characters of the story.)

Excerpts:

At the mad tea party:

“Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice. [Why is a raven like a writing-desk?]
“No, I give it up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.
“Nor I,” said the March Hare.Alice sighted wearily. “I think you might do something better with the time than waste it asking riddles with no answers.”

The mock turtle’s story:

They had not gone far before they saw the Mock Turtle in the distance, sitting sadly and lonely on a little ledge of rock, and, as they came nearer, Alice could hear him sighing as if his heart would break. She pitied him deeply.

“What is his sorrow?” she asked the Gryphon, and the Gryphon answered, very nearly in the same words as before, “It’s all his fancy, that: he hasn’t got not sorrow, you know. Come on!”

At the court trial:

“You never had fits, my dear, I think, ” [the king] said to the queen.
“Never,” said the Queen furiously, throwing an inkstand at the Lizard [member of jury] as she spoke….
“Then the words [of the poem used as evidence] don’t fit you, said the king, looking round the court with a smile. There was a dead silence.
“It’s a pun,” the king added in an offended tone, and everybody laughed.
“Let the jury consider their verdict,” the king said, for about the twentieth time that day.
“No , no! said the queen. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards.”

Other web sources:

A site devoted to Alice in Wonderland

Book – Alice in Wonderland
Author – Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson)
First published – 1865
Pages – 106 pp
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