Daniel Pecheur's Reviews > Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
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Feb 04, 11

bookshelves: british-literature, fantasy-fairy-tales, favorite-masterpieces
Read in January, 2006

So I know not everyone would consider Lewis Carroll's masterpiece one of the greatest jewels of literature, but for my own personal tendencies and imagination, I consider this one of the most original, enchanting, unforgettable, and wonderfully unique stories ever written. It certainly doesn't follow any conventional plot structure or maintain any distinct direction in its sequences, but nevertheless, it is a one-of-a-kind as a fantastical reverie of images, poetry and colorful characters strung together in a perplexing and bizarre tapestry of vignettes. I can go back to both Wonderland and Looking Glass-land any time I fancy I want to jump back into that fairy-tale labyrinth of conundra. It's a bewildering and yet so quaintly delectable of an experience to forsake our mundane reality and plunge into the nonsensical visions of Lewis Carroll. It's easy as a literary critic to dismiss Lewis Carroll because he's not profound nor does he probe the secrets of the soul. The Alice stories follow an entirely unprecedented and unconventional form of story-telling that is decidely lacking in a moral or poignant emotional component. Lewis Carroll is a category of his own, and his phantasmagoric story of mathematical puzzles and zanny characters has delighted readers with an enduring record that stands the test of time. The Alice stories are often loved and revered as great children's stories that appeal to the wildest side of imagination, yet what is often overlooked are the intriguing elements of inverse logic, mathematical principles, poking bits of satire and linguistic twists encrypted beneath the surface of the surreal Wonderland and Looking Glass worlds. One must remember that Lewis Carroll was first and foremost a mathematician in his time as Dean at Oxford and through his stories he applied and scattered much of his mathematical thinking into creative formula. Some notable examples would include the reference to the mathematical principle of changing bases and positional numeral systems when Alice tries doing math problems in "The Pool of Tears". Or in "The Mad-Tea Party," when the March Hare says to Alice during their debate on semantics, "Why, you might as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see!'", it's Carroll's clever way of alluding to inverse relationships in math. Many scholars have speculated, unbeknownst to many of the Alice stories' greatest fans, that Carroll used his stories not just to entertain precious Alice Liddell or like-minded children, but also to launch a scathing assault on some of the emergent trends in mathematical study during the 19th century which Carroll opposed, as a proponent of conservative mathematical principles. An example of this can be gleaned from the peculiar play on logic that when Alice sees the Cheshire Cat all but vanish except for his grin, she remarks on having seen a cat without a grin, but never a grin without a cat" which may be a pointed jab at the avant-garde Non-Euclidean mathematical ideas which implied certain reversals of logic in the mathematics Carroll had known and believed in. Other interesting tid-pits is the play on word-roots and etymology like when the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass" tells Alice the rule of having "jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam today" which is derived, arcanely enough, from a play on words between "jam" and the Latin word "iam" (pronounced the same as the former) with a limited meaning about the word "Now" associated with "already" and not "Now" in the present. Carroll also manipulates and parodies the language of many of the popular songs and nursery rhymes of his day such as "Bonnie Dundee" or "Twinkle, Twinkle little Star" or in the characters of Humpty Dumpty and Tweedledee & Tweedledum whom Carroll exploits and refashions with stunning ingenuity. Or there's the reference to the War of Roses with the appearance of white roses painted red in the Queen of Heart's garden (red associated with the House of Lancaster, white associated with the House of York). There's so much else to the Alice books that recommends them for a second, third, and forth look, etc. Who can forget the uncanny bursts of portmanteaux and bewildering imagery found in the Jabberwocky poem? Or what lover of poetic rhythm can resist the dynamic, erratic and exciting meters found in poems such as "The Walrus and the Carpenter" or "You are Old Father William."
The absurdly humorous interchanges and dialogues are unforgettable and thought-provoking. One of my favorites is this one from the Mad Tea Party in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:
"Alice sighed wearily. `I think you might do something better with the time,' she said, `than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers.'
"`If you knew Time as well as I do,' said the Hatter, `you wouldn't talk about wasting IT. It's HIM.'
`I don't know what you mean,' said Alice.
`Of course you don't!' the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. `I dare say you never even spoke to Time!' "

or from 'Through the Looking-Glass" in Alice's dialogue with Humpty Dumpty:
"'And only ONE for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'
'I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master—that's all.'"

not to mention what I thought was the funniest exchange of all from Alice's dialogue with the White Knight:
"'It's long,' said the Knight, 'but very, VERY beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it—either it brings the TEARS into their eyes, or else—'
'Or else what?' said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.
'Or else it doesn't, you know. The name of the song is called "HADDOCKS' EYES."'
'Oh, that's the name of the song, is it?' Alice said, trying to feel interested.
'No, you don't understand,' the Knight said, looking a little vexed. 'That's what the name is CALLED. The name really IS "THE AGED AGED MAN."'
'Then I ought to have said "That's what the SONG is called"?' Alice corrected herself.
'No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The SONG is called "WAYS AND MEANS": but that's only what it's CALLED, you know!'
'Well, what IS the song, then?' said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.
'I was coming to that,' the Knight said. 'The song really IS "A-SITTING ON A GATE": and the tune's my own invention.' "

The Alice stories flow, fizzle, warp and bend into so many different splurges of colors, it's simply an experience in itself. They are stories that should be held to their own standard and met on their own terms. It's a reality turned inside out and exploding in a pandemonium of unworldly characters, ludicrous poetry and a fun maze that winds round and round at the zenith of surrealism. I love it.
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