Alice’s Chain of Thought
Not previously published. I wrote this essay for a college seminar in May of 1985. The professor gave me a grade of 298 out of 300, and remarked, “I very much enjoyed reading this. It is certainly different from the usual term paper in format but managed, very creatively, to shed interesting light on Alice.” I have made minor typo corrections here, but have not rewritten anything, seeking to share this text as an archival example of my earliest essays after high school. + +
“The human mind is at its best when playing.” —J. L. Synge
I sit upon the bank of a still, gently lumbering river—the River Thames. I have picked a large number of daisies, and it is now up to me to string them together into a chain. I carefully split the first daisy’s stem . . .
As I think of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it occurs to me that Lewis Carroll has created, in Alice, a rational being in a mad world. She tries to make sense of a nonsensical world. In her whimsical innocence, Alice provides meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, a world where absurdity reflects the absurdity of our world. She often detects cruelty and logical absurdity when she encounters it, and she expresses sympathy and kindness at appropriate moments largely by using innate logic and previous knowledge, by various kinds of self-reference, and through help from the Cheshire Cat, which may be a deity figure. The reader identifies with Carroll’s central character, but Alice, unlike the reader, does not always recognize her own limitations and lack of logic. If Lewis Carroll is suggesting that our minds can supply meaning to our often “mad” world as Alice does for hers, he may also suggest that we are not always perfectly clear-headed and accurate in interpreting our world—that our inborn sense of the “right” and “logical” may also have limits. We shall see first how extensively Wonderland is a part of our world today, and then illustrate the ways Alice makes meaning in her world, and the ways the reader makes meaning for himself. It is a pleasant irony that the “meaningless world” of Wonderland has invaded our own. I hold in my hand a book by Douglas R. Hofstadter, called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. On its cover, it calls itself “a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.” It is this bringing together of science and literature that helps Alice find meaning in her dream. Throughout Wonderland, the world of manners, logic, mathematics, justice, time, and space are turned topsy-turvy. By combining these “realities” with conversation and description, Carroll creates literature, and gives meaning to what seems so arbitrary and meaningless. By showing us what the nature of science and logic is not, in Wonderland, he shows us, in reality, what it is. While I muse over Gödel, Escher, Bach, a record is playing. On the cover of the album are a number of Victorian-style illustrations by Colin Elgie (Genesis, Trick of the Tail, 1975). They are strangely reminiscent of John Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland (as the book is now popularly called). As I listen to the music, I notice the record label, “Charisma,” spinning around on the turntable. Its logo is the Mad Hatter, crooning into a microphone. I discover that it is based on John Tenniel’s illustration accompanying the description of the Mad Hatter singing “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat” (Carroll, 63).
I reach for another book. It is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. In this contemporary nonsense novel, the universe is Wonderland, and its Alices, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, travel its boundless space in search of meaning in life. The universe itself has created a great computer (“Deep Thought”) to decidedly answer the “Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” (Adams, 179). Arthur and Ford are somewhat non-plussed when Deep Thought answers, “with infinite majesty and calm,” simply, “forty-two” (180). With this answer, Douglas Adams illustrates that there is no “answer” to “Life, the Universe and Everything,” and that fact, in itself, is meaningful. Lewis Carroll does the same thing in Alice in Wonderland. By showing us what is not meaningful, he leads us to what is.
I think it no coincidence that the answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything” is forty-two. In the courtroom scene in Alice in Wonderland (“Alice’s Evidence,” Chapter 12), the King calls for silence and announces a rule: “All persons more than a mile high to leave the court.” It is curious that the King calls this rule, “Rule Forty-two” (Carroll, 105). Furthermore, this coincidence is compounded by the intriguing fact that, in Alice in Wonderland, the number of illustrations by John Tenniel is exactly forty-two! It is possible to conclude that Douglas Adams purposely chose forty-two as the answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything,” based on the fact that there is a remarkable similarity in style between The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Alice in Wonderland. Adams is clearly influenced by Carroll, and thus he may have consciously or subconsciously acknowledged his debt of influence in this manner, among others.
But how does one explain the coincidence between the number of “Rule Forty-two” and the number of illustrations by John Tenniel? It may not be chance or purely arbitrary, but again, it shows that while certain things have no meaning, others do.
In Alice in Wonderland, the significance of Rule Forty-two is that it has no meaning. The reason the rule does not make sense is that we and Alice have prior experience that defines the sensibility of rules. One expects rules to have some relation to logic, and when they do not, they cease to have meaning based on our prior experience. Alice had no prior experience regarding any rules in Wonderland (and probably had reason to believe that there were no rules!), so, to her, the number of the rule (forty-two) is entirely illogical. It is this same illogic that Douglas Adams implies when he offers forty-two as the answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything.” Carroll may have used the number of this rule, then, as an “illogical symbol” of the logic that should, by necessity, accompany meaningful rules. This should lead one to believe, of course, that there are rules that do have meaning, and that understanding is meaningful. There is indeed some hope of finding meaning in our seemingly meaningless world.
I glance at another book or two. The first is Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book by Shel Silverstein. An irreverently cartooned Mad Hatter, smoking a cigar, tells all the “children” reading to vote for Uncle Shelby as governor. Не says “I’m not mad any more keeds [sic], because I’ve quit old Alice and I’m now working for your friend and mine ‘Uncle Shelby’” (Silverstein, 70). Also, there is a strange coincidence between the title of Silverstein’s book and a story by none other than Lewis Carroll. The story, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,” is quoted in Gödel, Escher, Bach, and in it, a logic system is presented, with a major and minor premise labelled “A” and “B,” and the conclusion labelled “Z” (Hofstadter, 43). A far-fetched coincidence, perhaps? Yes, maybe it is, but isn’t that exactly what happens in Wonderland?
Wonderland is a place of continual coincidence. The poems, sayings, and nursery rhymes that seem to appear by necessity are amazingly coincidental parodies of poems, sayings, and nursery rhymes from reality. Wonderland is a place where just when Alice grows weary of the Gryphon’s dances or the Mock Turtle’s singing, the cry is heard, “The trial’s beginning!” and Alice is saved from certain verbal torture (Carroll, 95). At the trial, it is a significant coincidence that although “Alice had never been in a court of justice before,” she knew all about such courts, because “she had read about them in books” (96). Furthermore, when the trial reaches its crescendo, and doom is certain to fall on the Knave of Hearts, against whom there is no logical evidence, and when Alice can no longer cope with the court’s lack of logic, she “coincidentally” begins to grow larger, simultaneously becomes fully bold and uninhibited, and reaches the tumultuous realization that the courtroom is “nothing but a pack of cards!” (110). Here, Alice sees the reality in her dream, and thus it is no simple coincidence that the next thing she knows is that she wakes up and escapes from the courtroom. Coincidences such as these are very meaningful, for they logically connect levels of perception, the levels of reality, and the level of Alice’s real life with the level of Wonderland.
It is a delightful observation, alongside the coincidences in Alice in Wonderland, to see coincidences in reality, but even more delightful to see coincidences between the two. Whenever this happens, it supports the contention that, indeed, where Alice in Wonderland is seemingly meaningless, reality is meaningful. These coincidences may seem far-fetched, but coincidence, as stated, is exactly what happens in Wonderland. When one observes a coincidence such as the similarity between Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book and the Lewis Carroll story, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,” it is meaningful to realize that coincidence is also exactly what happens in reality.
Another coincidence is that in Gödel, Escher, Bach, opposite the Lewis Carroll story, is a picture of none other than a tortoise and a 20th-century “Achilles”! (Hofstadter, 42). This picture is the work of the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher, although it was Hofstadter who placed the picture with Carroll’s story because of the observed similarities. It is this kind of coincidence noticed by Hofstadter that shows that much of reality may be interpreted in the same way as Wonderland.
I reach for another book. It is The World of M. C. Escher, edited by J. L. Locher. In an essay from the book, entitled “Escher: Science and Fiction”, C. H. A. Broos talks of “Escher’s preference for Lewis Carroll” (Broos, 36). Broos goes on to say—and I think the comment applies especially well to Lewis Carroll, as well as to M. C. Escher—that, according to the mathematical physicist J. L. Synge, “the human mind is at its best when playing” (36). Lewis Carroll, in Alice in Wonderland, is certainly at play, and definitely at his best.
I reach for yet another book. It is Alice in Puzzleland, by Raymond Smullyan, author of the well-known puzzle book with a delightfully recursive title, What Is the Name of This Book? It is filled with dialogues and stories using characters of Alice in Wonderland as they explore the fascinating world of logic, mathematics, and puzzles. The noted critic of Lewis Carroll, Martin Gardner, in his introduction to Ray Smullyan’s book, makes an observation that is true of Carroll just as much as Smullyan: “No one can read this book . . . without becoming more aware of the mystery of being” (Smullyan, x).
As I flip through the pages, I come to a very powerful, obvious realization. Lewis Carroll completely permeates our modern existence. How has he done it? Even the 1966 song that has just begun on the radio—“White Rabbit,” by the popular music group, Jefferson Airplane—is directly inspired by Lewis Carroll. With Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll has captured the imagination of our modern world tremendously.
I pierce a second daisy.
Putting the books back on my shelf, I realize that the music has ended. Suffice it to say that the world of Wonderland has influenced the world of all of us in the 120 years since Alice in Wonderland was published. Carroll’s masterpiece has been observed, by one critic, to be “one of the world’s most-translated books,” having been translated into over forty-five languages (Phillips, xix). The same critic has even called Lewis Carroll “the world’s most quoted author (after Shakespeare)” (xix). The book must, by this evidence, be providing some sort of meaning to this seemingly meaningless world of ours.
It is necessary here, before we go on, to settle a semantic problem. By “meaningless world,” I could mean just Wonderland or the world of reality (which often does seem meaningless). When I talk of finding “meaning” in a “meaningless world,” then, I refer largely to the world of reality, the everyday world. Carroll suggests meaning in reality by showing us meaninglessness in unreality. Alice can never find meaning, or logic, in Wonderland. This fact, by extrapolation, suggests that we can find meaning in reality. “Wonderland” may, in fact, represent “reality,” and by implying that the two often appear to be meaningless, he suggests that only the mind can give them meaning. In this manner, then, Alice in Wonderland is a sort of “victimless satire.” Furthermore, the process of implying the opposite of what he says—that when it seems meaningless, reality can be meaningful if the mind judges it right—may be called the “Wonderland Effect.”
For instance, in some ways, Alice herself is meaning. Her sensibilities come from outside Wonderland, and that may be meaningful as a metaphor to the wonderland of our reality. To Christians living in a fallen earth (our “Wonderland”) it suggests that meaning comes best from outside our existence also: God is “meaning” for Christians.
The ultimate understanding that God is meaning for Christians is the logical extension of Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorem” as explored in Gödel, Escher, Bach, and possibly the reason why, in his introduction to the book, Hofstadter states emphatically, “in a way, this book is a statement of my religion. I hope that this will come through to my readers, and that my enthusiasm and reverence for certain ideas will infiltrate the hearts and minds of a few people” (Hofstadter, xxi). These “certain ideas” may very well have begun with Lewis Carroll. Martin Gardner, in another introduction (to an annotated version of Alice in Wonderland), states that “Carroll grew more and more restive with the thought that he had not yet written a book for youngsters that would convey some sort of evangelistic Christian message” (Gardner, 14). Carroll’s release from this burden came in the writing of Sylvie and Bruno, but, as Gardner notes, “ironically, it is Carroll’s earlier and pagan nonsense that has, at least for a few modern readers [Hofstadter?], a more effective religious message than Sylvie and Bruno” (14). The suggestion that God is meaning for Christians satisfies Carroll’s religious longing for meaning outside both reality and Wonderland.
At any rate, when I ask, how does Lewis Carroll bring meaning to a meaningless world, I refer not only to the “subset” of Alice while in Wonderland, but to the larger set of our reality. But this raises some unsettling questions. Does Carroll really intend Wonderland and reality to be the same thing, or is this merely a viable interpretation? SI Wonderland just a child’s reality? Is Alice an identity figure for children to follow as they grow up and learn to make sense in their world, which they liken to Wonderland? Maybe Alice’s questioning the absurdities in Wonderland is Carroll’s way of suggesting that children view real life as a Wonderland of absurdities.
That reality and Wonderland may be intended to be portrayed as one and the same is supported by the last line of the acrostic Carroll poem, “A Boat, Beneath a Sunny Sky,” which is included in some versions of Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. In it, Carroll concludes, “Life, what is it but a dream?” (Gardner, 345). It is Carroll’s way of suggesting reality is Wonderland and Wonderland is reality. He suggests that humans have innate senses of logic, morality, and humanity, and they can be attuned to both the real and unreal world. These questions are all part of that elusive “set” or “subset” in question when referring to the world of Wonderland.
How then, does Lewis Carroll bring meaning to a meaningless world?
I pluck another daisy.
One way is through self-reference. In the opening paragraph, Alice tells herself, “what is the use of a book . . . without pictures or conversations?” (Carroll, 5). Alice in Wonderland is full of Tenniel’s vivid pictures and a stream of masterful conversations. This sort of self-referential back-pat makes the reader conscious of reading Alice’s adventures, and serves to constructively confuse the levels of reality. It is in this way, perhaps, that Wonderland and reality are the same. But more than that, a self-referential comment makes the reader cognizant of himself, and may make him think profoundly about his own condition. If this is accomplished through self-reference in literature, then in this way among others, Carroll has been successful as a writer, for it is only through self-awareness that human beings are able to better themselves.
There is a great deal more self-reference in Alice in Wonderland. Later, Carroll chooses to avoid describing the Gryphon by referring the reader to one of Tenniel’s pictures: “(If you don’t know what a Gryphon is, look at the picture)” (82). Also, in the courtroom scene, Carroll describes the King as wearing his crown over his wig. Here, the author tells the reader, “(look at the frontispiece if you want to see how he did it)” (96). At this point, the reader must become aware of what he is doing (reading the book), turn to the frontispiece (p. 4), and look at it. By deliberately wrenching the reader in and out of imagination, and back and forth from reality, Carroll makes the reader aware of different levels of perception, and of the fact that awareness is naturally meaningful. Reference to our own innate sense of logic allows us to comprehend our sensory experiences in our world. The natural result is that our minds continually impose categories and patterns on all the data and information around us.
Another example of self-reference, perhaps more subtle, is found in the second chapter (“Pool of Tears”), where Alice imagines sending Christmas presents to her own feet. “Oh dear,” she exclaims, “what nonsense I’m talking!” (12). This could be taken as Carroll’s own comment on the content of the book, and perhaps he is suggesting that its content is nonsense and nothing more.
Nonsense has that divine luxury of potentially working on two levels. Thus, if nothing can be understood on the second, deeper level, it can be defended by retreating to the first, simple level of “just plain nonsense.” This is very tantalizing, for the astute mind continues to see suggestions and references that imply greater significance. The King of Hearts, in the courtroom scene, for example, refuses to assume that there is no meaning in the “unsigned verses” read by the White Rabbit (109).
The King can hardly be thought of as having an astute mind, however, for his concept of meaning lacks application. Alice in Wonderland tantalizes its critics because they not only see potential meanings, but also potential applications. The irony is that “meaning” and “application” may be the same thing, but then, “Wonderland” and “reality” seem to be one and the same also. Obviously, it is this intrigue, among other things, that is one of the great lures in Alice in Wonderland, and one of the sources for its timeless appeal.
A further example of self-reference involves the Cheshire Cat. Alice’s comment about “all the nonsense” she speaks can be understood in much the same way as the Cheshire Cat’s comment about the inhabitants of Wonderland: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad” (56). In Carroll’s created world, there is nothing but madness, and every being is infected with it. Such a self-referential comment (albeit subtle), constructively confuses levels of perception, reality, and imagination. Carroll’s comment may therefore directly apply to the world of reality—that we are all mad. But this would follow only if the Cheshire Cat is indeed mad. The Cat’s reasoning that he is mad goes as follows:
“To begin with,” said the Cat, “a dog’s not mad. You grant that?”
“I suppose so,” said Alice.
“Well, then,” the Cat went on, “you see a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.” (57)
“Q.E.D.,” he might triumphantly add. The Cat’s logic, however, is not logic at all, and if one remembers that for the moment we are assuming that what is true of the Cat is true of us, then the Cat’s logic may show, in an absurd way, that we are not mad after all, which is meaningful. It is in ways like this that Carroll reveals meaning in meaninglessness.
To continue the argument, the Cheshire Cat’s declaration gives rise to an interesting point. If the cat says he knows he is mad, and that everyone else is mad, including Alice, he has made a judgment based on criteria from outside Wonderland. Is the Cheshire Cat therefore not mad? The evidence seems to prove that he is not. But if he is not, then why does he say he is mad? And if he says he is mad when he is not, then he must be! Paradox!
Perhaps the Cheshire Cat says he is mad just to make Alice believe that some consistency exists in Wonderland. But because it is the only consistency, it would be inconsistent . . .
The whole system of circular reasoning threatens to drown itself in its own paradox, however, if we do not leave it alone. The paradox, says Raymond Smullyan, is “one of Carroll’s favorite themes” (Smullyan, v), and it should be remembered that this is so because, according to Gardner in his introduction to Smullyan’s book, paradox reveals the “mystery of being” that is bound up in the “difficulty of distinguishing what is true from what is false, or what is real from what is unreal” (x). It could not be more accurate a description to say that Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland reveals the “mystery of being,” and therefore draws meaning from a meaningless world.
Let us say, therefore, that the Cheshire Cat is not mad. What is the Cheshire Cat, then? It may, in fact, be Wonderland’s form of a deity. Lewis Carroll was, we recall, the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and he felt a keen sense of spiritual concern for those who read Alice in Wonderland. In his Easter greeting to “Every child that loves Alice,” he states:
I do not believe God means us thus to divide life into two halves—to wear a grave face on Sunday, and to think it out-of-place to even so mention Him on a week-day. Do you think He cares to see only kneeling figures, and to hear only tones of prayer—and that He does not also love to see the lambs leaping in the sunlight, and to hear the merry voices of the children, as they roll among the hay? Surely their innocent laughter is as sweet in His ears as the grandest anthem that ever rolled up from the “dim religious light” of some solemn cathedral? (Carroll, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, 94)
From Carroll’s perspective, it would clearly be natural for him to include a super-natural figure in his writing. That figure is best found in the Cheshire Cat, for it turns out that the Cheshire Cat is the only friend Alice has in Wonderland. It responds to Alice’s desires: “I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy,” says Alice (Carroll, 57), after which, the Cat thereafter only vanishes slowly. Also, the Cat appears at the most opportune times. When Alice becomes very uncomfortable with all the violence on the Queen’s Croquet Ground (Chapter 8), the Cheshire Cat suddenly appears: “She was looking about for some way of escape, and wondering whether she could get away without being seen, when she noticed a curious appearance in the air . . . She made it out to be a grin, and she said to herself, ‘It’s the Cheshire Cat: now I shall have somebody to talk to’” (74). As Alice is the only “sane” creature in Wonderland, she is the only one who knows the Cheshire Cat. The King regards the Cat’s head “with great curiousity” [the entire head appears after a while] (75). “Who are you talking to?” the King asks, and Alice replies, “It’s a friend of mine—a Cheshire Cat,” a comment she makes of no other creature in Wonderland.
The Cat itself acts like a spirit, for it hovers above them, and sometimes only its head or smile is visible. That its smile is always the last part of it to be visible is perhaps a suggestion that its essence (the smile, which could symbolize happiness) is meant to be left with those who can see it.
The Cheshire Cat also gives Alice advice, when it first appears to her. When Alice asks the Cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” (55), the Cat acts much in the way God might by respecting Alice’s power of choice. “That depends,” the Cat says, “a good deal on where you want to get to.” When she states no preference, the Cat tells her about a Hatter and a March Hare who live in opposite directions nearby, but still, the Cat respects Alice’s power of choice by saying, “Visit either you like” (56). Although she certainly does not completely understand the Cheshire Cat, in it, Alice begins to find a friend and companion, and in this way, the Cat is very much a benevolent deity figure, providing some meaning for Alice while in Wonderland.
Furthermore, to return to the Croquet Ground, when the Cheshire Cat refuses to comply with the King’s arbitrary pronouncements, the King and Queen sentence it to death. “Off with his head!” they shout, and there is a great to-do about the whole affair (75). Perhaps this sentence could be likened to the crucifixion of Christ on the cross. To complete the picture, the gradual fading of the Cheshire Cat may be likened, at an extreme, to the ascension of Christ after the resurrection; the Cat does not reappear in Wonderland again. Given Carroll’s religious convictions, this interpretation is not entirely unfounded. Along with almost all other interpretations of Alice in Wonderland, however, whether this is true or not will always remain debatable.
At least so far, we have seen that Alice learns by applying innate or previously learned logic and knowledge to the things she encounters in Wonderland. While we may not have quite the same luxury of applying previously learned knowledge in reality, we may take comfort that we may have some innate mental structure that allows us some understanding of life. In this way, at the Mad Hatter’s tea-party of reality, the tea we encounter will be much more palatable, with or without the sugar of life’s pleasant absurdities.
I feed the stem of another daisy through the careful slit made in the previous one.
If interpretations of Alice in Wonderland will always remain debatable, it is because of the nature of nonsense. What is the nature of nonsense, how does one critique it, and how does one gain meaning from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland? “We ‘re all mad here,” the Cheshire Cat says. And Alice says, as previously mentioned, “Oh dear, what nonsense I’m talking!” and adds, “I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it” (108).
“If there’s no meaning in it,” the King of Hearts says, “that saves a world of trouble, as we needn’t try to find any” (108, 109). If there is no meaning in Alice in Wonderland, the best we can do is make observations. I have already made a number of observations, of course. “And yet I don’t know,” the King continues, “I seem to see some meaning, after all” (109).
Like the King, we as readers cannot resist the impulse to look for meaning. The moralizing Ugly Duchess makes a sensible comment in her conversations with Alice: “If everybody minded their own business,” she pronounces, “the world would go round a deal faster than it does” (52). Perhaps, as far as Lewis Carroll is concerned, we should let the world go round faster! But how do we make sense of the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit stuffing the Dormouse into the teapot? Alice in Wonderland is a string of absurd, impossible events, where time is stationed at six o’clock, and flamingos double as croquet mallets, cats disappear but leave their grins, and babies turn into pigs. Life is so absurd, that “Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible” (9).
And this is what makes Lewis Carroll delightful. The laws of time, size, and space are abolished, and the laws of logic and manners are severely contorted. By visiting a world where there is no conventional order, the reader can see the value of order in reality. While in Wonderland, levels of reality are confused, and what is right on one level is not right on the other. And to complicate matters, principles may be carried into Wonderland where the situation is not completely isomorphic with reality:
She [Alice] jumped up in such a hurry that she tipped over the jury-box with the edge of her skirt, upsetting all the jurymen on to the heads of the crowd below, and there they lay sprawling about, reminding her very much of a globe of gold-fish she had accidentally upset the week before [in reality].
“Oh, I beg your pardon!” she exclaimed in a tone of great dismay, and began picking them up again as quickly as she could, for the accident of the gold-fish kept running in her head, and she had a vague sort of idea that they must be collected at once and put back into the jury-box, or they would die. (103)
This passage could be an example of Alice’s temporary confusion resulting from her repeatedly encountering so many absurdities. But it is clear, that by thinking this, Alice is not as clever as she thinks she is. For another example of Alice’s limited awareness, examine the following dialogue, beginning with the Duchess:
“Flamingoes and mustard both bite. And the moral of that is—‘Birds of a feather flock together.’”
“Only mustard isn’t a bird,” Alice remarked.
“Right as usual,” said the Duchess: “what a clear way you have of putting things!”
“It’s a mineral, I think,” said Alice. (80)
Alice also reminds herself of her own wisdom, such as, “a red hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long” (10). She thinks highly of herself and her knowledge, but speaks from a limited perspective. The interesting point is that she never realizes when she is wrong. The implication of this thought—that we might never realize when we are wrong—is sobering. Often we are too close to the trees to see the forest. Lewis Carroll, with Alice in Wonderland, lets us see a large part of the forest of reality.
But to return to the question of how to critique nonsense and Lewis Carroll, the secret is subjectivity. If you are able to find meaning, then you have critiqued nonsense and Lewis Carroll. “Any work of nonsense, “ Gardner advises, “abounds with so many inviting symbols that you can start with any assumption you please about the author and easily build up an impressive case for it” (Gardner, 8). If you cannot find meaning, then you can enjoy it purely for its nonsense and whimsy. As for me, I enjoy the blanket of Alice in Wonderland’s nonsense, but also the eclectic process of finding meaning in its multiple folds.
I examine the petals of yet another daisy.
What conclusions, then, might be made of Alice in Wonderland? Clearly, one is that Alice brings meaning to a meaningless world. She is a path of light where before there was only darkness. Although the eyes of those around this Victorian child while in Wonderland are never opened by the rational light of logic and sensibility that she provides, at least we as readers may be enlightened. In short, almost any reader can see in Alice some trait, either good or bad, that he sees in himself. The awareness of self this brings about cannot help but make the conscientious reader a better person.
Furthermore, Alice is a promise of hope, a breath of fresh air in a damp, musty world of illogic and disorder. Whether or not we choose to accept the suggestion that we too might rely on our own benevolent deity figure, or rely on an innate sense of logic, is entirely up to us as readers. It can be concluded that we cannot hold Lewis Carroll at fault for neglecting to show us reality. By showing us unreality, he may have shown us reality in the best possible way. Such is the power of Lewis Carroll’s creativity.
Wonderland is obviously a viable part of everyone’s world today. Everyone has heard the stories of little Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the Knave of Hearts. Wonderland is well known, and will continue to be so. While far more than an expansion of English literary folklore and the world of Mother Goose, Alice in Wonderland has become a legend of its own. The broad, eclectic background that brought Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece into being, along with the depth of love for children and their often amazingly sensible values that motivated the story’s telling in the first place—all are responsible for an endless piquing of the imagination, and an endless stringing of constructive chains of thought. The inspiration and use of the imagination—when the mind is at play, and at its best—is perhaps the greatest talent man may have, for it is only in this way that we may ever transcend the meaninglessness of reality. Reality is, in effect, a world fallen down a rabbit hole. There is hope and logic in the world, and Lewis Carroll has shown it to us. This is the genius of nonsense.
I add another daisy to the chain.
“How long shall I make the chain?” I ask myself, absent-mindedly.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I reply, “maybe you should never stop making it.”
“So it never has an end?”
“But if it’s a chain, a real chain, then it won’t have an end, and yet I can stop making it.”
“Yes, I think so, and now I want to stop making it.”
[“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end; then stop” (107).]
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