After 150 years, we still haven’t solved the puzzle of Alice in Wonderland

Making sense of madness. Wikimedia Commons

Alice is turning 150 this year, yet we still love to read about (or watch) this curious little girl’s adventures in Wonderland again and again. There’s something about this book that has made it a timeless classic, a fascinating story which has reached far beyond the children of the mid-19th century, for whom it was first written.

Part of the reason is that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was a turning point in children’s literature. Earlier books and stories for children tended to have a strict focus on moral education and improvement. Most books were there to teach you how to be a good little boy or girl, rather than entertain or excite your imagination. But Lewis Carroll changed all that.

Alice knows best

Instead of instructing the child, Carroll centres his narrative on a young girl who lectures adults, in a world where everything is topsy-turvy. Alice dishes out advice on manners right, left and centre, and reprimands the inhabitants of Wonderland for rudeness and general madness. She knows best – the adults are unreliable, illogical and somewhat insane. This is a complete reversal of the way children and adults were portrayed in earlier literature.

The outcome is hilarious: the book’s irreverent humour appeals to the anarchic nature of the child. For example, well-respected verse of the time is ruthlessly parodied. The Mad Hatter recites “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! / How I wonder what you’re at!”, while Alice manages to perform a comical rendition of Robert Southe’s “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them”.

Carroll uses his narrative to mock the Victorian education system. Alice uses long words she doesn’t understand because they seem important. At school, the Mock Turtle has learned “Reeling and Writhing” and the “different branches of Arithmetic”: “Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision”. Word-play, nonsense, humour, parody, and role-reversals: these are staple ingredients of children’s books today, thanks to Carroll.

(Mis)interpreting the mystery

The reasons for Alice’s success abroad are a bit more complex, but they may be related to perceptions about the quintessential Britishness of the book. Wonderland has a queen, tea parties, games of croquet, and domestic servants. The nostalgic view of an idealised Victorian society is surely part of its attraction. These are some of the same ingredients that have made Downton Abbey or the Harry Potter series so successful around the world.

A bad influence? Wikimedia commons

But, perhaps most intriguingly, there is a lingering suggestion that the book has a dark underside. It has often been suggested the many magic foods that Alice consumes in Wonderland could be allusions to drugs. She does eat from a magic mushroom, after all, while conversing with a hookah-smoking caterpillar. This is a pop culture interpretation, based on the way the surreal sequences of the book were perceived by later generations – notably the hippie culture of the 1960s and 70s – rather than any hard evidence. But it is a reading persists to this day, as demonstrated by the opening scenes of The Matrix.

Slightly more worrying were the doubts and aspersions cast on Lewis Carroll’s interest in Alice Liddell, the little girl for whom the story was originally told. Lewis did take photographs of young girls, which we might look at suspiciously today. Despite the fact that recent scholarship has proved such suspicions to be unfounded, the rumours keep coming back.

Always a puzzle

Unlocking a deeper meaning. Wikimedia commons

Other readers go deeper into the text, in search of meaning. On one reading, the “dream” framework of the story is a metaphor for the journey inwards, towards the uncontrolled urges of the subconscious. After all, Alice seems to threaten to eat many of the characters in Wonderland, perhaps reflecting Freud’s oral stage of psychosexual development. And she is continually asked, “who are you?”, to which she does not always have a clear answer.

Or, it could be an allegory for the tumultuous process of growing up, represented by Alice literally waking up to reality at the end of the story. The search for a “deeper” meaning is made all the more captivating by the apparent meaninglessness of Alice’s strange and nonsensical encounters.

Ultimately, Alice in Wonderland is a wonderful example of an “open text” – a text that can mean what you want it to mean, depending on your perspective. It has become folklore, a meme that we love to reproduce. It is a story ambivalent enough to allow a multitude of interpretations. Fairy tales survive because they are versatile: they mean different things in different contexts. Alice in Wonderland has become a sort of modern fairy tale, and it will no doubt continue being adapted and interpreted for many more years to come.

As we wish happy 150th birthday to Alice, it’s also worth remembering that this is a story by a mathematician. I’m sure Carroll would have loved to know that his book remains a puzzle, which so many people are still trying to solve.