Posted by: Kyle M. | November 12, 2009

Is Alice Still Relevant?

There has been many a heated debate amongst scholars and academics as to whether or not Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a story that warrants extensive analysis. One side of the argument maintains that the tale was written exclusively for the pleasure of Alice Liddell, a girl who the author, Lewis Carroll, knew in real life; therefore, to scrutinize it as anything other than a children’s story is to essentially contort a once-touching work into a heartless, mechanical piece of hollow symbolism and empty political references. The opposition raises an equally valid point; the editor of The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner, concedes that ,”there is something preposterous about an annotated Alice (The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, page XIII),” but insists that it is nevertheless significant. He has boldly claimed that the subsistence of the text in question is solely due to the fact that it has been analyzed so intensely. His assertion that, “It is only because adults -scientists and mathematicians in particular- continue to relish the Alice books that they are assured of immortality (The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, page XIV),” is certainly competent food for thought, even if one doesn’t particularly agree with it. He also states that, in order to appreciate the story to its fullest capacity, one must be aware of the historical climate that it was written in; many of the ‘puns’ prevalent in the tale are direct references to the Victorian England that Carroll  lived in, and require the proper context to be understood. “No joke is funny,” says Gardner, “unless you see the point of it (The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, page XIII).”

Will this conflict reach a resolution in the foreseeable future? Probably not. In a world where people still believe in a flat Earth*, the likelihood of either opinion completely dissolving is incredibly slim; deeply entrenched viewpoints die-hard. While I might not feel particularly passionate about either talking point, I find the discourse to be incredibly interesting; not because of the “heart” of the debate, but rather the peripheral implications that its very existence brings to light. The fact that those who are for analyzing Alice resort to suggesting that it wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for the scholars and that its jokes need context to be appreciated is something I find to be awfully curious; if annotations are constantly needed to put the symbols and jokes into a proper historical perspective, is the book nothing more than an artifact? Gardner says that, “the time is past when a child under fifteen, even in England can read Alice with…delight…children today are bewildered and sometimes frightened by the nightmarish atmosphere of Alice’s dreams (The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, pages XIV).” If one would agree with this point…what exactly IS the story? A collection of sly political allusions and symbols for savvy adults and intellectuals? While there’s nothing especially wrong with that…a political ‘joke’ from over one hundred years ago is hardly timely; perhaps one can ‘appreciate’ that Carroll was poking fun at X king or Y duchess, but wouldn’t the wit grow thin  over a century later? Is it feasible for one to actually laugh out loud at Alice’s jokes without bearing the time period they were intended for in mind? Or have they grown archaic, leaving the tale as nothing more than a banal document for academics to incessantly dispute?

A satisfactory answer can only be divined by examining a specific political allusion in the book and attempting to salvage a scrap of relevance. One of the more ‘well-known’ instances of commentary comes in the form of the ‘Caucus-Race’ in Chapter Three; despite the name, it’s not a race in the traditional sense. It’s a fairly random and chaotic activity, as evidenced by Carroll’s description of the animals behavior: they were “running when they liked, and [leaving] when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over (The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, page 31).” Gardner’s annotations shed a substantial amount of light on the ‘purpose’ of this event; he explains that a caucus in Britain refers to a “system of highly disciplined party organization by committees (The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, page 31, Annotation 2).” He goes on to suggest that, “Carroll may have intended his caucus-race to symbolize that committee members generally do a lot of running around in circles, getting nowhere (The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, page 31, Annotation 2).” If Martin is correct, Carroll is expressing discontent with the lack of results produced by the government, who seem to ‘dance’ around whilst accomplishing absolutely nothing.

Depending on one’s capacity for cynicism, there IS relevance to this ‘pun.’ The world is still full of incompetent politicians (As it will be, as long as there are people), including the infamous Bogoyovitch and, some might say, our current or preceding president (Though let’s refrain from pursuing that rabbit). The concept of people running around in circles being a metaphor for the political system is amusing to this day (If a bit obvious and overdone), in spite of the fact that it was conceived over a century ago.

Perhaps the book is indeed more than an artifact after all; on a rare occasion, a work is created that transcends any and all cultural and historical boundaries. Does Alice fall into that category? That’s too broad of a question for my purposes; regardless, it has retained a healthy amount of its wit and charm over the years, which is no easy feat.

However, my opinion is not the sole authority on this issue (Nor is it on any issue…), so I turn to you, the reader.

* See here: http://www.alaska.net/~clund/e_djublonskopf/Flatearthsociety.htm

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Responses

  1. Regardless of where one stands on the validity of analyzing this text, one can’t help but appreciate your point here: “Perhaps the book is indeed more than an artifact after all; on a rare occasion, a work is created that transcends any and all cultural and historical boundaries. Does Alice fall into that category? That’s too broad of a question for my purposes; regardless, it has retained a healthy amount of its wit and charm over the years, which is no easy feat.”

    Bravo. Well said/posed.


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