We all know the story, don’t we?
Well, I didn’t know it as well as I thought I did.
So as I mentioned a couple posts ago, a friend of mine and I are doing the 12 Meses 12 Libros Challenge. This month’s challenge was to read a book recommended by a friend. Well, since we two are doing it together, we swapped our favourites. I had her read Good Omens, by Neil Gailman and Terry Pratchett, and she gave me her copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass. She said I could read either or both (‘One is cards, one is chess.’), so I figured it’s a kid’s book, I’ll read both. Plus, I’ve always meant to.
When I was a kid, maybe fifth grade, I was weird. I had very strict ideas of what behaviour was acceptable, I only wore skirts (by personal choice, no real reason), and every day after school, I made myself a cup of tea and watched the Disney cartoon, Alice in Wonderland. It’s been a lifelong Thing, yet somehow I never got round to actually reading the book. Breanna and I didn’t even meet until high school, yet this is something we had in common.
First of all, this book, if you haven’t read it, is exactly as trippy as everyone says it is. Its reputation is richly deserved.
The plot is a bit different from the cartoon, but as it came first, I’m going to treat it as though the cartoon didn’t happen. There we go, just move it right out of the way so we don’t keep referring back to it like a crutch from our formative years that shaped the way we interact with reality.
It’s a series of loosely connected, nonsensical vignettes: the fall down the rabbit hole full of furniture; the long room full of locked doors, with the key, glass table, bottle marked DRINK ME and the cake marked EAT ME; being washed away by her in tears; the Caucus Race; the White Rabbit’s house; the caterpillar; the Duchess with the pig baby and pepper soup; the Mad Tea Party; playing flamingo-and-hedgehog croquet with the Queen of Hearts; the Mock Turtle’s story about his school days and lobster dances; and the Trial of the Knave of Hearts who stole a plate of tarts that weren’t missing.
Despite the hundred years’ worth of analysis done on this book, I honestly feel like it reads like a man telling a story to a child to amuse her and pass the time. I don’t read anything in it beyond childlike nonsense and whimsy. Dinah was the name of the Liddell’s cat, this takes place on March 4th which was Alice Liddell’s birthday. I mean, you interject details about kids into the stories you tell them to keep them interested.
I had written out a whole long analysis of the plot, but it’s so wild with so many twists, that my briefest summary would be almost as long as the thing itself, so I’m going to just not.
Through the Looking-Glass
Through the Looking Glass, though familiar in plot, is quite a bit different. It actually makes less sense, if such a thing is possible.
In fact, there are a few points where Carroll can’t seem to find an appropriate transition and blatantly says something to the effect of, ‘something happened, I don’t know what, but we’re here now. It’s a dream, it doesn’t have to make sense, Go with it.’ Which…looks sloppy on the surface, but is just so bold it borders on genius and I’m a little annoyed I didn’t think of it. It’s one of those things that would never work in modern fiction because we have such finely-tuned Rules that Cannot be Broken, and Victorian readers were far less finicky about that sort of thing. And also, it’s a kid’s book, and as long as it’s fun, kids aren’t that critical.
The premise of Through the Looking Glass is that Alice starts off telling one of Dinah’s kittens that if you look through the mirror above the fireplace, you see a whole other room, which isn’t merely a reflection of the one she’s in, but is connected to a house, and a larger world, more like a window than a mirror. She drifts off, which she seems to be aware of, and in her dream, does indeed climb through the mirror into the Looking Glass world. On the table by the fire is a chessboard of living chess pieces, who become the driving agents and principle characters of the plot.
In Looking Glass world, everything is backwards of what it should be, as explaining by a couple of characters. Unlike in Wonderland, where the characters explain things as though they’re perfectly normal and Alice is the one who is odd, in Looking Glass world, they seem perfectly aware that there is a normal world and they’re the odd ones.
It’s so clear to everyone, including the inhabitants of Looking Glass world that they’re in a dream, that when Tweedledum, Tweedledee, and Alice encounter the Red King asleep under a tree, Tweedledee asserts that they’re all living in his dream and that Alice isn’t real at all. In fact, the very last chapter of the book asks whose dream it was all along: Alice’s or the Red King’s.
This book features a number of familiar characters from the cartoon who were absent in the first book; the garden of live flowers and Tweedledum and Tweedledee; as well as characters who were sort of merged or familiar in other ways. For instance, Humpty Dumpty makes an appearance here, sitting on his wall, and the Queen of Hearts from the cartoon seems to be a mixture of the Queen of Hearts from Wonderland and the Red Queen from Looking Glass world, with her commands of ‘don’t twiddle your fingers!’ and ‘curtsy while you’re thinking–it saves time.’ It seems that a couple denizens of Wonderland did make it into Looking Glass world in the forms of the Anglo-Saxon messengers, Haigha and Hatta (The March Hare and the Mad Hatter–this book really does need to be read aloud in a British accent to get all the puns). There is even a theory that Lewis Carroll himself makes an appearance, as the gentle, caring, and oddly well-described White Knight, who guides Alice through the last phase of her journey.
Alice is also a little different, to the point that one can almost say she matured between books. In Wonderland, she’s an aggressive know-it-all who seems to have a compulsion to show off what she knows and how foolish everyone around her is. In Looking Glass world, she goes along with things more, only snapping if things are too weird for too long. Except with the White Knight, for whom she seems to have a little more patience, even though he is a comically buffoonish character. She only looses her temper at the very end when she seizes the Red Queen and shakes her so hard that she wakes herself up and sees that she’s shaking the kitten.
Reading Club Questions
This book, like The Rook, also came with some helpful questions.
1 What do the denizens of Wonderland have in common?
What seems to be most in common is how nonsensical everyone is. They’re all pretty stubborn, superior, and quite a few of them talk in riddles or puns. They are almost all adults, as well, which is interesting when it comes to how they interact with Alice. When she tries to make sense of what’s going on, they either have a reason for why she is wrong, misunderstanding, foolish, or bark orders at her or change the subject without acknowledging her comments or questions. One can imagine this being a psychological reflection of her bewilderment and frustration with the adult world in her real life and how she feels about being ignored, and could perhaps explain why she is so assertive about how clever she is.
2 Is Wonderland a place of adventure, romance, or escapism? A daydream? Or an oblique collision with reality?
Honestly, I think Wonderland is a nightmare. Alice doesn’t seem to enjoy being there. There are a few times when she’s in awe or wonder about some weird thing or other, but mostly she’s annoyed, angry, or confused to the point of tears. She ranks her encounters in terms of how infuriating these creatures are to talk to, and puts up with verbal abuse if it means that she’s at least worked out how part of the society operates.
3 Is there satire in the Alice books? If so, what is its target?
There definitely is. The immaturity and ineptitude of the royals, the snobbery of the ‘wise,’ the arbitrary rules of society; these class issues, I think, are aimed at the adults in the audience. But I think there’s also a message for children, again, going back to the relationship between Alice and all of these adults whose rules seem to make no sense, and who either see her as a rude annoyance or ignore her completely. With the exception of the White Knight, who is so hopeless he needs her to look after him and who doesn’t call her names or ignore her.
4 In the Alice books there is no direct treatment of such serious matters as how to make a living, the vicissitudes of love, marriage, raising children, and the like. Instead, there are impossible situations, absurd characters, animals who talk. But is there, amid the fun, some comment on a serious aspect of human life? If so, what is it?
There is a lot of violence in both worlds, and everyone seems perfectly fine with it, despite the fact that it has been mentioned that people can die in Wonderland. There are references to people and animals being hunted and eaten, there’s a war, and characters regularly suit up to fight each other. There’s even a mock justice system, where there are trials which nearly always end in death sentencing (though the King of Hearts pardons the condemned.)
5 Does Alice herself have any character, any signs of an inner life, or is she just a device to stand in contrast to the others, to be a foil for them?
I would say so, though much more in Wonderland than Through the Looking Glass. In Wonderland, she is driven to get to the garden. She has detours, gets lost, gets distracted, but she does eventually find the garden. Not that she has much more than tangential involvement in the plot, but it’s a dream. I don’t have much direct control over my dreams either, and I’m 30. However, in Through the Looking Glass, she starts off with a plan, then encounters the Red Queen and decides she wants to get to the queen spot on the board, but as I mentioned at the beginning of the Through the Looking Glass analysis, there are times when Carroll doesn’t even give us a transition, Alice is just swept away to the next weird adventure with no more control over it than the audience has.
In the coming weeks, I will share a post about the three Disney films. I warn you, if you’re a Tim Burton fan, you may want to skip that post. But, following that, I will be sending out a newsletter with Wonderland themed recipes and party ideas, so do stay tuned, and sign up for my mailing list.
Next month is for a literary classic. I posted the question to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to ask what you guys think I should read, and one friend came back with the perfect answer: Treasure Island. I am STUPID EXCITED about it and can’t wait to start!