Yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about what you’re supposed to do after college when you find some sort of literary fascination and there’s no one around who’s paying a heap of money to sit in a desk next to you and talk about it.
She responded: “Well, I guess we could write essays about it that no one would read. At least then it would be out there.”
And so I bring you this essay.
I’ve written about Alice on this blog before (a long time ago), but I’m back at it again in light of the upcoming release of the new Disney movie – which seems almost, but not entirely, unrelated to the actual sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland written by Lewis Carroll.
My fascination with Alice started when I was maybe 8 or 9 with a blue book that had pages edged in silver and said, in beautiful curled letters on the front, “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There”. I actually read this book before I ever read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which popped into my life somewhere around 7th grade English class.
Needless to say, I was hooked. I poked at mirrors everywhere I went. I played around outside and stuck my arm in what I presumed to be rabbit holes (in retrospect this was a good way to lose a finger to a badger). After all, if Alice could find another world, then surely I could too.
What interests me most now is the way Alice has stuck with us as a society. She’s a commonplace figure in plays, songs, movies, books, mini series, artwork, even makeup – just about every version of art and pop culture in existence. In imagined adulthood, she often finds herself in an insane asylum, holding up the classic archetype of the victimized Victorian female wrongly imprisoned for something men call insanity but is actually just her attempt to be an individual and an equal. Different is dangerous. Alice is different, and so she is a threat. She has become, in many ways, a figure we can point to and say “Look what would have happened to Alice.” As a woman, she would have been subjected to calls of madness and forbidden from the normality of life as a result of her experiences. A fate that may well have been avoided were she a man.
But really, we don’t know what Lewis Carroll would have had happen to Alice as an adult, we can only imagine a version of the future in which her innocent childhood adventures would have led to her downfall. It’s a grotesquely romantic notion, but the insanity situation is one we’re quite fond of when it comes to Alice, perhaps because we can’t imagine a future in which her actions don’t have consequences. In the so-called “real world”, she couldn’t have lived to tell her story without be locked up.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is, at its core, an innocent children’s story. But is it, really? As a whole we’re much more interested in the controversy surrounding the author – and what that may have meant about his subject and his story – than we are in the story itself. I would argue that Alice in Wonderland has become more fascinating to us precisely because of the questionable nature of Lewis Carroll and his interest in the real Alice. Which begs the question, was the story actually corrupt to begin with, or has society corrupted it in pursuit of creating a more interesting version of events?
Ultimately, I would argue that the many ways society has repurposed Alice over the past 150 years says far more about society than it does about Alice. To see her appear as a victim of a male-dominated society unable to accept her differences, to see other characters from the story borrowed and transfigured to reflect modern dichotomies – to see all of the various versions of the story is really just to hold the mirror up to ourselves.
We’re seeing Alice through our own looking glass, and she reflects far more of our society than she does of herself.