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The Book Club

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland

1. “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland”… What? Parked under the category of literary nonsense, the novel is definitely one-of-its-kind in terms of plot development and the vast assortment of weird characters. I have read my fair share of nursery books and childhood fantasy verses, but Lewis Carroll’s text takes the reader to another fictional dimension altogether. The language used and the flow of the storyline makes for easy reading – as we are guided through the world of wonderland by Alice herself – and the extent to which some events and characters are so ridiculously portrayed makes for a good laugh as well. The relatively short story is complemented by the outstanding illustrations of John Tenniel; coupled with a number of poems and songs in-between dialogues. These are some of the reasons that have allowed the novel to enjoy long-lasting popularity, with a proliferation of film series in cinemas and on televisions.

2. Carroll’s self-promotion of his own novel, which has “pictures and conversations” (an abundance of them, actually). “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations’”? This quote in the opening chapter does set the foundation for the rest of the novel, which is quintessentially an explosion of dialogues between Alice and the various characters she meets.

3. Comprehending the significance, symbolism of the adventures and creatures. Given that the tale is constantly playing with logic, and subtly making references to historical events or individuals, understanding their significance or relationships can be quite a challenge. I deliberately picked up a version that had a number of footnotes, which provided important explanations for some of the linguistic expressions, and the purported inspirations behind the myriad of creatures. Doing this would be a great move for the reader who is unfamiliar with Carroll’s background, or unaware of the general English developments of the time. Sources do point to Carroll’s mathematical background, with examples drawn from the interactions with multiplication, concepts of abstraction and substitution et cetera; generally perceived to be satires. Many of the characters and location-settings – in fact, the story itself – have been thought to be influenced by different aspects of Carroll’s personal life. Comprehending these little intricacies will render the entire reading experience more wholesome.

4. A satire on education. This was a satire that I managed to pick out quite immediately. During Alice’s interaction with the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle, the discussion and description of the sea school seems to be an obvious pun or play on the lessons that Alice might be going through. In the larger picture, it is making fun of education in general, with the ‘Reeling and Writing’, ‘Ambition’, ‘Distraction’, ‘Uglification’ and ‘Derision’.

5. Appreciating the proverbial English phrases. Through his active and expressive use of characterisation, Carroll has managed to popularise many proverbial English phrases, such as “mad as a hatter” (with reference to The Hatter) and “mad as a March hare” (with reference to the March Hare). Exciting use of the English language will get the reader excited, and inspired to find out more about the origins of particular words or expressions. Through “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland”, the phrase “grinning like a Cheshire cat” (with reference to the Cheshire Cat) was made fashionable as well.

6. Alice. Coming from a comparatively “normal” and monotonous background, Alice’s original world – the real world – is governed by laws, rules and orders; so it is little surprise that she begins to figure out the curious world of Wonderland and its nonsensical figures and features. Unknowingly, since Wonderland is a product of her fantastic imagination, she is also grappling with her personal sense of self and identity. After being suddenly ushered into a world that is mysterious and complicated, Alice – based on her education, world-view and understanding of the world – struggles with the unfamiliar logic that she is confronted with. There is a clear disjoint between her perspectives and the proceedings of the Wonderland surroundings, and it seems almost impossible for her to communicate sensibly with anyone and everyone. The responses she gathers from the Hatter, the March Hare, the Pigeon, so on and so forth make no clear sense to her – for instance, the Hatter’s contentions on time and its movement – with no distinct sense of order. However, in the end, instead of assimilating into the illogical framework and community of the Wonderland universe, she does emerge and break free.

7. Alice struggling with the seeming impossibility of things. “So many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible”.

8. The Queen of Hearts. She is Alice’s primary antagonist; though her physical appearance as a mere piece of playing card seems to suggest that she, like the rest of her Wonderland, has no substance. Similarly, she does have considerable influence with her rhetoric – as she has the uncanny ability to strike fear into the hearts of her followers – but the fact is that no executions are actually carried out even though she constantly yells “off with his / her head”. The absolute power that she holds does immobilise Alice in the beginning of their interactions, and her lack of respect for logic is revealed when she casually asserts “sentence first, verdict afterwards”; nonetheless, Alice eventually dismisses the Queen of Hearts and her counterparts as “nothing but a pack of cards”, which brings her dream to an end after she had grown to her full size.

9. Life as a confusing puzzle and progress towards maturity. The perplexing world of Wonderland parallels life itself: a maze of expectations and frustrations that does not always work out the way one expects. Given personal experiences and perspectives, individuals need to negotiate the way they navigate through this journey – balancing societal guidelines and private aspirations – instead of blinding conforming or assimilating. Alice’s numerous physical changes in size is a representation of the phase of development, as she struggles to come to terms with a comfortable size for herself.

10. Do you really get it; I don’t, actually. “‘Be what you would seem to be’ – or, if you’d like it put more simply – ‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise’”.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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