Analysis

The ‘Alice’ books have always been a favourite subject for analysis, as the story lends itself to various interpretations. On the following pages you can find deeper analyses of the origins of the texts and illustrations, characters, and ‘hidden meanings’ in the Alice books.

‘Explain all that,’ said the Mock Turtle.

‘No, no! The adventures first,’ said the Gryphon in an impatient tone: ‘explanations take such a dreadful time.’

Levels of analysis

1. Purposeful parodies and references

Lewis Carroll actively incorporated and parodied aspects of his environment and the Victorian culture in his books. An example is the parodying of the poems that children had to learn by heart in his days. The original poems behind his parodies are easy to recognize.

Also, he made references to actual events and people in his stories. For example, Alice and her sisters appear several times in the books, and some incidents (like getting very wet during a trip because of unexpected rain, and trying to get dry again) have found their way into the story. By doing this, Carroll made the story extra appealing to his original audience: the real Alice and her sisters. When publishing the book, Carroll left out several of these intimate jokes that other readers wouldn’t understand. But many still made it into the published version.

2. Influences from his environment

There are also aspects out of the author’s environment that he knowingly or unknowingly must have integrated into the story. Inspiration is a peculiar thing; many events and forgotten memories may influence it. It is certainly not unthinkable that characters like the Cheshire Cat or White Rabbit were inspired by things Carroll read, saw, or otherwise encountered in his lifetime. However, most of the time we won’t know for sure if it was a deliberate act to weave these aspects into his story, or that he was not aware of the triggers that inspired his ideas.

3. Hidden meanings

Many people believe that the books also contain hidden meanings on a much deeper level, like the promotion of drug use, or an attempt to mock the political situation. However, most of these allegations rely on speculations and interpretations. We have no definite ‘proof’ that Carroll meant anything at all with his stories, except to amuse his child friends.

Carroll himself wrote the following to a friend in America, when being asked about the meaning of his poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’:

“I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense. Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means. So, whatever good meanings are in the book, I’m glad to accept as the meaning of the book.”
(source: Collingwood, “The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll”)

This comment is also applicable to Carroll’s Alice stories.

Analysis of illustrations

mad-tea-party-smallThe same levels of analysis can be applied to the illustrations. Carroll sometimes gave Tenniel precise instructions on what to draw, which may have been not only a matter of visual preference, but also an additional way to incorporate references into the story. Tenniel may also have added his own jokes and references to the time he lived in, in his drawings.

In addition, illustrators have a certain consistent style, and are also knowingly and unknowingly influenced by their environment and memories. Therefore Tenniel’s drawing style, jokes and other ‘trademarks’ are not necessarily specific for the Alice books, but can also be found in his other works.

Origins

On these pages, I’ll identify several of the parodies and hidden references that can (supposedly) be found in the Alice stories.

‘If I’d meant that, I’d have said it,’ said Humpty Dumpty

Literary elements

croquet-smallOn the following pages you can find texts about literary elements in the ‘Alice’ books, which may come in handy when you have to write a school paper or something the like.

The purpose of these pages is not to replace the joy of reading and analysing the books yourself, but they are meant to be a helpful guideline to create your own understanding of the stories.

`And how many hours a day did you do lessons?’ said Alice, in a hurry to change the subject.
`Ten hours the first day,’ said the Mock Turtle: `nine the next, and so on.’
`What a curious plan!’ exclaimed Alice.
`That’s the reason they’re called lessons,’ the Gryphon remarked: `because they lessen from day to day.’

Interpretive essays

Below you can find several articles with all kinds of explanations for / interpretations of the books. Please mind that these texts were not written by me. References to the author and publication details can be found on the page itself. The articles are reproduced on my site with permission from the authors.

General discussion of the ‘Alice’ books

Discussion of Lewis Carroll, the author, in relation to Alice

What/who influenced Carroll while writing the story

Illustrations

Poetry

Drugs

Politics

Philosophic reasoning

Mathematics

Other subjects

 

On the Lewis Carroll section of the Victorian web, you can find many more interesting essays about a.o. the social and political, religious and philosophical, economic, science and technological, and many other themes and contexts in the Alice books.

Also read about Carroll’s relations to Victorian art and his use of fantasy.