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“There aught to be a book written about me”

Written in 1865 for young Alice Liddell, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has remained a popular text for children and adults alike. Some of this is due to its absurdity, surreal encounters rich with symbolism, but much of its appeal comes from the characters Carroll brings so vibrantly to life, not least of all Alice.

A young child herself, Alice is someone the intended reader can relate to - but she’s far more complex than that. In fact, she’s so complex that she confuses herself; “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” Very philosophical for a children’s book. It’s easy to like Alice, with a free indirect style ensuring we feel much the same as she does throughout her adventures. She may be hasty in crawling so eagerly into the rabbit hole, but we go with her willingly enough.

she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it

The first character Alice meets is the White Rabbit. Alice doesn’t think it “so very much out of the way” to hear a rabbit speak, but “when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket”, Carroll uses italics to emphasise how unusual it is to see a rabbit wearing clothes. Such anthropomorphism is a key feature of the text with almost all of the animals given human characteristics. Repeated exclamatories, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” creates a sense of urgency, the rabbit’s concern a means of establishing an individual voice and intriguing the reader. We’re eager to discover who he is and what he’s late for. Carroll has us hooked.

The White Rabbit begins with some authority in the text, ordering Alice to “Run home this moment”. The use of imperatives mark him as an important character, as does his apparent leadership in organising others to remove Alice from his house. Yet he does not remain an authority figure. Indeed, he is very much in service to the Queen and is somewhat frightened of her, “talking in a hurried, nervous manner, smiling at everything that was said”. Essentially, though, the White Rabbit serves first as Carroll’s means of getting Alice to Wonderland and then as a literary device taking her from one surreal encounter to another.

it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone

When we first meet the Cheshire cat, he’s smiling. It makes him an immediately welcoming character, especially as we find him in the company of the Duchess and the cook, a scene of alarming domestic violence. An abundance of dynamic verbs makes this scene a very active one in which the Duchess threatens “chop off her head!” long before the Queen does. Kitchen utensils are thrown along with insults, and even the baby is tossed to Alice with little care, a series of actions that bring the characters to animated life. Yet smiling through it all, providing a sense of calm, is the Cheshire cat. A sequence of adjacency pairs occurs shortly after, both Alice and the Cheshire Cat offering questions and answers in a relationship of equals. He’s also clever enough to have anticipated the baby turning into a pig, “I thought it would” only to return with a well-timed mishearing joke, “Did you say pig, or fig?”. Such humour is to be expected from one who always smiles.

Yet the Cheshire Cat has a serious side too. He shows concern later in asking how Alice is, and how she likes the Queen. It marks him as the friendliest character in the text; Alice even introduces him to the King as “a friend of mine”, which is perhaps unsurprising as she has often referred to her own cat, Dinah, throughout her adventures. The Cheshire Cat shows a strength of character we can admire, a trait he has in common with Alice herself, showing a fierce independence in refusing to kiss the King’s hand that is typical of a cat, even if little else about him is.

A Mad Tea-Party

Supporting the Cheshire Cat’s claim “we’re all mad here” is The March Hare, Hatter and Dormouse. The March Hare’s questionable methods of watch repair, the Hatter’s impossible riddles, the Dormouse’s sleepiness and treacle obsession, all mingle during their constant bickering to make them a striking ensemble cast of characters. They are the tea-party of the chapter’s title, Carroll’s wordplay at work again in referring to the party of characters as well as the occasion itself.

Here, Carroll offers an altogether different version of table manners. Alice’s various reprimands during the tea-party provide humour but are also something a child can relate to. Much of the dialogue uses a formal tone which, though quaint to a modern reader, presents these characters as yet more figures of authority. They instruct Alice in the correct way to behave even though they themselves do quite the contrary, the seriousness of their tone in stark contrast with the ridiculousness of their actions a way of highlighting the hypocrisy a child may be familiar with from adults. It means Alice is only too eager to leave this party (“I’ll never go there again!”) speeding us along to another encounter...

“Off with her head!” the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.

Fearsome and violent, The Queen of Hearts is named with irony. Her speech is full of imperatives and exclamatories with plenty of repetition concerning decapitation. She is the closest we come to having a villain in the story.

The courtroom scene brings together various characters we’ve met, with the Hatter’s return in particular showing how frightening a figure the Queen can be. He’s still drinking tea (he began on the fourteenth, or fifteenth, or sixteenth of March) but he’s so afraid of the Queen (her hard stare makes him turn pale) that he takes a bite out of his cup accidentally. He trembles so much that he “shook both his shoes off”. Whereas previously he was rude to Alice, here he endears himself to the reader in his fright, his function to highlight the formidable figure of the Queen. She is dominant figure with her “voice of thunder” and a frown “like a thunderstorm”, figurative language presenting her as a force of nature.

Yet the Queen, for all her power, is challenged…by Alice. It marks a rejection of authority, perhaps that of a parent, and concludes Alice’s own transformation. When the tale began, Alice was unsure of herself, confused about her identity, but as she encounters other characters she undergoes a series of transformations. This is illustrated by her various shifts in size until finally, and quite literally, she grows up. As events in Wonderland become more absurd, so Alice becomes more self-assured, returning to normal (and normality) in the courthouse, symbolic of order. In defying the Queen, Alice attains her own identity and it’s an achievement that sees her wake up.

“Oh, I’ve had such a curious dream!”

‘It was all a dream’ may seem a cop-out conclusion by today’s standards, but not only was it acceptable (even typical) in Victorian times, it’s particularly apt for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In presenting Wonderland as Alice’s dream, Alice’s subconscious, Carroll suggests that all the characters inhabiting it are actually aspects of Alice herself. When she complains of these characters, “I never was so ordered about in all my life”, she could very easily be talking about her own emotions and desires.

In this respect Alice could be any girl, something the lack of physical description supports. She’s impetuous in her headlong rush into the rabbit hole, polite (mostly), and develops from an uncertain girl who cries an entire ocean of tears to one who is confident and independent. She is good and makes moral judgements (“If I don’t take this child away with me,” thought Alice, “they’re sure to kill it in a day or two”), not at all upset to hear the Duchess is sentenced to death. Yet she is not without a mean streak, ridiculing ugly and less intelligent children whilst her treatment of poor Bill the lizard is nothing less than bullying. It’s a complex mix, a normal mix, of attributes.

Alice is a “curious girl”, eager to learn, explore, experience, but also one that is herself a curiosity. “There ought to be a book written about me” she notes in a moment of post-modern observation, and so there is; one that illustrates the complexity of her identity by populating her world with equally curious characters.

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