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.’
About analysing the ‘Alice’ books
There are several levels of analysis from which you can look at the ‘Alice’ books, when trying to determine what’s behind them:
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.
As the author had numerous interests, they also reflect in his writing. Therefore you can find scientific, mathematical, psychological, literary, artistic, political as well as philosophical references in the stories.
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. In the article ‘Alice on the Stage‘, he told us about how he expanded the original tale for publication:
[…] many more [fresh ideas] added themselves when, years afterwards, I wrote it all over again for publication: but (this may interest some readers of ‘Alice’ to know) every such idea and nearly every word of the dialogue, came of itself. Sometimes an idea comes at night, when I have had to get up and strike a light to note it down–sometimes when out on a lonely winter walk, when I have had to `top, and with half-frozen fingers jot down a few words which should keep the new-born idea from perishing–but whenever or however it comes, it comes of itself. I cannot set invention going like a clock, by any voluntary winding up: nor do I believe that any original writing (and what other writing is worth preserving?) was ever so produced. If you sit down, unimpassioned and uninspired, and tell yourself to write for so many hours, you will merely produce (at least I am sure I should merely produce) some of that article which fills, so far as I can judge, two-thirds of most magazines–most easy to write most weary to read–men call it ‘padding’, and it is to my mind one of the most detestable things in modern literature. ‘Alice’ and the ‘Looking-Glass’ are made up almost wholly of bits and scraps, single ideas which came of themselves.
Therefore, any theories that claim Carroll’s ‘Alice’ books have one integral, underlying meaning should be taken with a grain of salt.
‘If I’d meant that, I’d have said it,’ said Humpty Dumpty
Analysis of illustrations
The 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.
In this subsection of the website, I’ll identify several of the parodies and hidden references that can (supposedly) be found in the Alice stories.
- Story Origins – things out of Lewis Carroll’s environment that inspired him when writing the story of Alice in Wonderland
- Picture Origins – things that inspired John Tenniel’s illustrations
- Poem Origins – poems that were parodied by Carroll in his story
On 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.’
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
- “Lewis Carroll”: A Myth in the Making – about the tendency to create a myth around the name “Lewis Carroll”, in stead on focussing on who Charles Dodgson really was.
- The Man Who Loved Little Girls – should we really frown upon Dodgson’s nude photographs of children?
- The Liddell Riddle – about the missing pages in Dodgsons diary and his break with the Liddell family
What/who influenced Carroll while writing the story
- Tenniel’s illustrations
- A Case of Mistaken Identity – about the mix-up between the Knave of Hearts and Knave of Clubs
- The truth about “Alice” – how Alice in Wonderland can be seen as a political satire about the Wars of the Roses
- Diluted and ineffectual violence in the ‘Alice’ books
- How little girls are like serpents, or, food and power in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books
– About the role of food in the ‘Alice’ books and how it relates to class differences
- A short list of other possible explanations
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.
I can also recommend Melanie Bayley’s “Alice’s Adventures in Algebra: Wonderland solved” on Newscientist.com.
Also read about Carroll’s relations to Victorian art and his use of fantasy.
In my webshop, you can find several books that analyse the ‘Alice’ stories even further.