Thursday, January 3, 2013

Classically Readable #1: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The new Classically Readable meme was devised by me so that I could force myself to read more classics and occasionally fill my little brain with something besides magic swords, steampunk cats, spaceships, and general fluff.  (Not that there's anything wrong with fluff-- fluff is what I live for.)  Since the blogging world is typically obsessed with the new and the soon to-be-released, I also thought it might be fun to look back (sometimes way, way back) at the classics.  Because there must be a reason people still read (or claim to have read)  these books after all these years, right? 

Now, without further ado: Alice.  So picked because it's a fun classic to start with, short and easy to read.  I read and re-read an Alice picture book when I was younger, saw the Disney movie along with a million other kids, love the quirky 2010 Tim Burton movie, and have a poster of the Cheshire Cat up in my room.  But I was always curious to read the original stuff-- the literary madness which started it all...

Genre: children's fantasy
Pages: varies a lot depending on the edition-- usually more than 100, but less than 150 pages
Published: 1865 by Lewis Carroll (a pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge)
Selected Theme Song:

Seven-and-a-half year old Alice is sitting outside with her sister one lazy afternoon when she chances to see an unpunctual, talking rabbit with a pocket watch run past.  Adventuresome Alice is quick to pursue and so tumbles a long way down a rabbit hole.  At the bottom she finds an enchanted, unfamiliar, and incredibly random world.  In Wonderland, the Mad Hatter and March Hare have an endless tea party with their dozy friend the Dormouse and the fearsome Queen of Hearts holds court among her playing card subjects.  Also present (and less well-represented in the movie versions) is a wailing baby who sometimes turns into a pig, a very rude Duchess, an unfortunate lizard, and a very unfair criminal trial preceded over by the King and Queen of Hearts.  Young and very British Alice causes quite a stir in this bizarre world, for her 'perfectly sensible' ways of doing things seem as alien to the inhabitants of Wonderland as they are to her.  Alice quickly finds that, in the kingdom at the bottom of the rabbit hole, one must struggle to keep one's proper size, talking mice can be surprisingly touchy on the subject of cats, and keeping one's head on one's shoulders is a much greater challenge than she would have hoped.

Alice is a perfectly mesmerizing tale: completely unpredictable and engrossing, not least due to the fact that it seems to be complete nonsense, interspersed with parody poems and filled with purposeful paradoxes.  This nonsensical quality is what has kept it a classic over the century and a half since it was first penned and inspired so many film adaptations and art.  As I read it, I wondered: was there a method to the madness of Alice?  Author Lewis Carroll-- actually Charles Lutwidge, an English writer and deacon-- is usually considered to have loosely based his heroine Alice on a real-life girl called Alice Liddell.  Carroll invented the story to entertain Alice and her two sisters during an afternoon rowing and later wrote the story down, with some additions.  Alice became a children's classic almost immediately after it was published, though in the modern day it seems like adults read it more often than children (?-- most of the children I know read If You Give A Mouse A Cookie more than Alice)  The sequel, Alice Through The Looking Glass, was published afterwards but tends to be lumped in with the events of the original Alice (for example, the walrus and the carpenter poem actually appears only in Looking Glass).

More analytical, sinister, and maybe unlikely interpretations of Alice are everywhere-- many people like to believe that Carroll's characters represent real-life figures, or that his stories are symbolic, with important themes or political commentary.  There are also some long-running rumors still going around about how Carroll was an opium addict or liked little girls a little more than he should have (ugh), but I really don't know how much credibility those have.  I "get" some of these allegorical claims for Alice: like the Queen of Hearts is supposed to be a caricature of Queen Elizabeth I, who the author didn't much like and the crazy Wonderland system of justice a parody of the British court system.  Another theory I found is that Alice's sometimes scary, sometimes whimsical adventures represent her coming-of-age in an era when-- just like today, I guess-- growing up had extreme ups and downs.  

Most people in the know do agree that Carroll wrote the books (Adventures and the later Looking Glass) with his friend Alice Liddell in mind, and as a dedication to her even after she grew up and moved away, which she did shortly after he published his book.  Thinking of Alice in this way puts a melancholy spin on the story, but Alice as a book couldn't be more light-hearted and even funny in its weird, whimsical way.  I was totally thrilled to discover  that the original Alice is definitely worthy of having inspired so many other stories, art, and films.  I adored this classic children's book, but the jury is still out on whether all children enjoy Alice's nonsensical adventures, or if some would find them simply confusing.



Katie (Call Me Crazy) said...

I'm so happy to find out that you adored this one! I recently bought it from my bookstore and have been wanting to read it.
I love that you're doing a classics meme! I've been playing around with names for kind of the same idea for my blog, I think I'll do something like 'Keepin' in Classy' haha! :)
Thanks for the awesome review Kat!

Anya @ On Starships and Dragonwings said...

Fun! I always do mean to go and get cultured by reading some more classics, and Alice is definitely one of the more readable ones ;-) thanks for joining in the review hop this week! Please remember to link back to the hop though!

Rachel Bradford said...

I re-read the Alice books last year and enjoyed them. I read the Norton Critical Edition, though, and it focused WAY too much on sexual innuendo.

I think it's horrible that all these rumors abound about his interest in little girls. The problem is, the took pictures of naked children, and he thought naked girls were more attractive than naked boys. However, in Victorian era the pictures he took were quite appropriate, as was his opinions that naked children are beautiful. It is only in the post-Freudian era that we became so judgmental about such things.

I think it's very unfair to spread such rumors. And also unfair that in today's culture women can LOVE other people's little kids, but men get looked at with suspicion when THEY love other people's kids. I know plenty of men who feel like they can't show their affection for kids because they get glared at. That's unfair.

Sorry. End of rant. Nice review!

Kat said...

@Katie-- Ooh, can't wait to see the meme you come up with! I picked Classically Readable, spinning off the phrase 'classically beautiful'-- I hope people 'get' it. Hope you enjoy Alice as much as I did!

@Anya-- Sorry about that! I linked up in a big hurry yesterday.

Kat said...

@Rachel-- Yes, I stumbled across those Carroll=paedophile rumors when I was researching the background of Alice. Carroll tends to get an unfairly bad rep, what with it being a popular myth that he was an opium addict and the modern interpretation of his favorite photography subjects-- subjects which were commonly used artistically in his era. I agree with you, though-- it's a reputation he doesn't deserve.

Thanks for commenting!

nrlymrtl said...

I've read Alice twice in my life and each time I have found it disturbing. And yes, I expect that's somewhat normal. However, I usually enjoy disturbing, but I have never enjoyed this one. I expect I'll try it every few years and see if my tastes change.

Aylee said...

Ohh, good for you for actually making an effort to read the classics! I would like to, as well... but I keep getting distracted by all those dang new releases publishers keep putting out!

I read Alice in Wonderland in junior high and yeah, it was pretty nonsensical! Although I understood later that Lewis Carroll - who was something of a mathematician - was using Alice in Wonderland as a means to teach real life Alice math and logic skills.

Kat said...

@Aylee-- Huh, I had never heard that background story before, about math and logic, but it makes sense: Carroll was a mathematician. I know what you mean about the new releases-- they are so enticing, with their gorgeous covers and the anticipation. Thanks for commenting!

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