It seems strange that I have never read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland before, in fact I had always thought the title to be Alice in Wonderland as most films based on the novel are. The short book feels like a childhood memory, yet to my knowledge I have never read it before, or had it read to me.
Like many, it’s the 1951 Disney film that means the most to me in the canon of Alice adaptations. Reading the original story for the first time, it’s clear that the text serves as inspiration and a licence to create rather than truly adapt. Many elements considered ‘classic’ Alice such as Tweedledum and Tweedledee are don’t appear in the novel (these two are from the sequel, Through the Looking Glass.
First told to three young girls, one called Alice, Lewis Carroll created the story that became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1862. Over time, he wrote down the short 15,000-word tale and expanded it to almost twice the length. The book was published in 1865 with original illustrations by Punch cartoonist John Tenniel.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is probably the most famous example of nonsense literature. Its loose plot follows Alice as she enters the underground world of Wonderland and meets an array of unusual characters. Constantly changing size and stumbling into new situations, the story unfolds much like a hazy dream.
Each situation in the story introduces Alice to a mathematical or linguistic concept and it’s these that stand out more than the events, first as nonsense then quite plain and logical.
For example, there’s the semantic lesson:
“Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
and the mathematical revelation when Alice contests she can’t have more tea as she hasn’t had any to begin with:
“You mean you can’t take less: it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
Beyond the language, many of the characters in the novel have transcended the pages into popular culture. The Mad Hatter, March Hare, Queen of Hearts and White Rabbit are often referenced in films and literature today. I image most could conjure up the Queen’s off with their head catchphrase without ever reading the book.
Perhaps most interesting, I found in researching the book that it might not be quite as fantastical as we image. As Oliver Lansley reveals, Carroll suffered from a rare condition “that causes strange hallucinations and affects the size of visual objects, which can make the sufferer feel bigger or smaller than they are.”
Despite the fun of the wordplay and memorable characters, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland left me cold. Despite its brief word count, the novel took me weeks to read as I never felt excited to continue the story. Perhaps that’s because there is no story as such, more a series of scenes that, for the most part, can be read in any order or without reference to each other. There’s never a sense of the story building to anything, leaving it charming but flat.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of the Guardian 100 Best Novels.
About the Author
Lewis Carroll was born Charles Dodgson in 1832 and is famous for writing both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass. As well as a pioneering and influential writer of literary nonsense, Carroll was a respected mathematician.
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