The 1865 work by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll was a pseudonym) about a girl’s trip into a fantasy world has been of tremendous influence on literature and music, and a mainstay of animated and feature adaptations for generations. It is widely considered to be one of the best examples of the literary nonsense genre in the world’s written history.
What started as a simple story to entertain three young girls during a 5-mile boat ride in July of 1862 has grown into a worldwide phenomenon adored by millions.
The book’s adventures and characters may have been based on real-world individuals, places, and situations around Oxford. The “Rabbit Hole,” symbolized the actual stairs in the back of the main hall in Christ Church; and on a suggestion by Dodgson, the Hatter was illustrated to resemble Theophilus Carter, a furniture dealer infamous for his unorthodox inventions.
Dodgson was a mathematician at Christ Church and it has been repeatedly suggested that many mathematical concepts are referenced throughout the tale. The references are so frequent that mathematician Keith Devlin made a case in the journal of The Mathematical Association of America that Dodgson wrote Alice in Wonderland in its final form as a scathing satire on new modern mathematics that were emerging in the mid-19th century.
But you know it wouldn’t be mentioned here unless it also carried with it a controversial history.
As early as 1900 it was suspended from classroom use at Woodsville High School in Haverhill, New Hampshire, because the novel contained expletives, references to masturbation and sexual fantasies, and “derogatory characterizations of teachers and religious ceremonies.”
In 1931 it was banned by the Governor of Hunan Province in China on the grounds that “Animals should not use human language, and that it was disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level.” Some of you remember similar reasons used in the United States in the challenges of Charlotte’s Web and Winnie-the-Pooh.
There have also been several challenges in the last few decades by parental groups who feel that the book encourages drugs and child abuse.
The rumors of drug use were first put into public consciousness during the 1960’s by psychiatrists opposing the LSD subculture sweeping the nation. This was borne primarily around The Mad Hatter having a card on his hat which read ’10/6′. This card is a price tag in English pounds, shillings and pennies, which was then written as l/s/d. Dodgson explained the meaning of the tag in his ‘Nursery Alice‘: “The Hatter used to carry about hats to sell, and even the one that he’s got on his head is meant to be sold for ‘ten shillings and sixpence’.”
As for claims of child abuse, there’s no more violence in this work than a Bugs Bunny short on Saturday morning. Royalty being a bit crazed and beheading everyone is part of history. Is this yet another example of revisionist history?
There are some that claim Dodgson was a pedophile and that he was sexually attracted to the three girls he told his tale to. There is a story that he photographed them nude that is the basis of this argument. First of all, many Victorian-era artists photographed people in the nude, even children. It was a common and widespread practice. He did so with the three girls only with the permission of their mothers and he instructed that after his death the pictures either be destroyed or returned to the girls.
Some scholars have suggested that the many ironic twists and puns which Dodgson uses to tell the story are a subtle satire of politics and religion; the meanings of which are lost to the scores of children reading it, but enough for adults to fear that he is exerting a subconscious influence on the minds of young readers.
Talk about reading between the lines.
When it was first released, Alice received little attention and generally poor reviews, with more credit given to Tenniel’s illustrations than to Dodgson’s story. But near the end of the 19th century Sir Walter Besant wrote of Alice as “a book of that extremely rare kind which will belong to all the generations to come until language becomes obsolete.”
Above all, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are brilliant works of fiction aimed at entertaining children. Literature for children had, up to that point, been self-righteous and narrow-minded in its scope; but these absurd tales, full of puns and comedy, had no meaning, no moral agenda. “I can’t tell you just now what the moral is,” remarks the Duchess, “but I shall remember it in a bit.” Her memory fails her anyway.
On November 26, 1864, Dodgson gave a then 12-year-old Alice Liddell a shorter, handwritten manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, which included illustrations he drew himself. He dedicated it as “A Christmas gift to a dear child in memory of a summer’s day.”
It lives on today as a gift to the world; as a reminder of the wonder and adventure of childhood, and the freedom of imagination.
Sources: American Library Association, Wikipedia, Huffington Post, The Sunday Times (UK)
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions