Why We Still Love Alice

Why We Still Love Alice

I met Alice when I was three or four. In Disney’s technicolor, she was every bit as vibrant as the flowers that mock her and call her a weed. I met her again in middle school, sometime in the mid-1990s, this time as a Project Gutenberg text. She was stark black-and-white, unadorned, unillustrated HTML. I visited Alice at Oxford’s Christchurch College, where Carroll taught. I saw the stained glass windows in her honor and the long-necked fire irons that paved the way to cries of “Serpent.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which celebrates its 150th publishing anniversary this spring, remains a cultural touchstone for many, as it does for me. In the past ten years alone, more than 68 peer-reviewed academic projects focused on the two Alice novels. They have inspired numerous film adaptations and, most recently, their own ABC spinoff. No lesser literary personage than Nabokov translated the novels into Russian.

What makes the adventures of a precocious Victorian child so long-lived? It’s certainly not the novel’s’ universalism – most of its jokes are highly-specific to Victorian politics and culture. It might be the book’s iconic imagery. Who can forget the hookah-smoking caterpillar? the flamingo-and-hedgehog croquet game?

For all its nonsense and nonsensical beauty, I suspect that what makes Alice so appealing is its complexity. Alice is young girl, but she suffers from from boredom equal to that of a character in Office Space – and she manages to escape, for a little while, to a world where flowers sing, rabbits wear watches and cats appear and disappear at a moment’s notice.

The escape itself is beautiful, vivifying, but it is perhaps less important, in the long run, than the method. Alice doesn’t go anywhere, and when the shift to her dream world happens, she barely even notices:

“suddenly a white rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”

It’s not clear whether Alice really sees the rabbit; or, awake, imagines she sees the rabbit; or dreams the rabbit altogether. Fictional worlds collapse into each other. There is Alice’s world, the world of nineteenth-century England, and there is  Alice’s dream world. Who can untangle them, or pull them apart?

Certainly not Alice, and certainly not us.  At the end of the novel Alice wakes and tells “her sister, as well as she could remember them, all these strange Adventures of hers.” Alice runs off. The sister, older and more mature, remains seated, thinking of Alice:

and still as she listened, or seemed to listen, the whole place around her became alive with the strange creatures of her little sister’s dream. The long grass rustled at her feet as the White Rabbit hurried by–the frightened Mouse splashed his way through the neighboring pool – she could hear the rattle of the teacups as the March Hare and his friends shared their never-ending meal.

Alice’s sister knows that she is imagining, that if she opens her eyes “all would change to dull reality,” but her reverie, like Alice’s, raises the possibility that Wonderland exists not far from us. It is perhaps only askance to us. It might be present the at the corner of one’s eye or at the edge of one’s attention. This is a complex narrative crisscross – in the collapse of sleeping and waking, the imaginary and the real, the prosaic becomes magical. Alice models the dialectical relationship between narrative and life, books and lived experience.

Alice offers us the possibility of a rich imaginative life that is never distinct from our everyday lives, no matter what shape those daily lives take. Further, it hints that we, like the world we live in, are more than the sum of our seeming. Or, as the Duchess breaks it down for us:

“Be what you would seem to be,” – or if you’d like to put it more simply – “Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been is not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.”

“I think I should understand that better,’ said Alice very politely, ‘if I had it written down.”

The Duchess believes people are what they seem to be, but her language breaks apart as she tries to articulate this philosophy. Alice can’t understand it, and Carroll insinuates that neither should we. Like Alice’s world, which viewed sideways or in glimpses appears fundamentally different, a person is far more than he or she seems; our interiors belie our exteriors. Lewis Carroll got that. His books do, too.

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.