Ranking among the best-known, most influential and heavily adapted stories in the history of modern literature, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel Through the Looking Glass (1871) have played a major role in emergence of nonlinear and multicodal storytelling, due in particular to Carroll’s extensive experiments with language and story logic.
The publication history of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is well-documented: While rowing along the river Thames in the vicinity of Oxford on July 4, 1862, the Oxford mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known under his pen name Lewis Carroll, devised a story about the fantastic adventures of a girl named Alice for the three Liddell sisters, the children of a befriended family. Carroll served as a teacher and mentor for the family’s middle sibling Alice. Later, Carroll committed that story to manuscript form, completing it in March 1863 as Alice’s Adventures Under Ground and, one year later, presenting it to Alice Liddell as a gift, containing 37 of Carroll’s own illustrations (which can be seen online in the British Library’s digital “Turning the Pages” section). Urged by his friends, Carroll expanded the original story and published it on November 9, 1865 under the title Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The published version included 42 illustrations by John Tenniel, who at that time was one of the most popular graphic artists of the Commonwealth.
In 1871, Carroll published the second Alice book, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. While both books comprise twelve chapters, the second one – in contrast to the first, episodical story – narrates Alice’s new adventures within the structure the last twelve moves of a chess game in Wonderland.
Success and adaptations
Alice quickly became successful, albeit it was poorly reviewed at first, and it has since been adapted, transformed and alluded to in popular culture in countless ways, including Carroll ‘s own simplified, children-friendly version The Nursery Alice, which was published in 1890. When the copyright for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland expired in 1907, the number of adaptations and transformations skyrocketed, contributing to the popularity of the Alice world and characters throughout the 20th century. To date, there are more than 100 different English-language editions, and it has been translated into more than 170 languages (An extensive overview of Alice adaptations in various media from the 19th to 21st century can be found on the English-language Wikipedia page)
Nursery rhymes and proverbs as characters
While such factors were certainly beneficial, the story’s continuing popularity across media is mainly due to features of the story itself:
For instance, Carroll’s characters openly invite a continuing quest for real-life persons and cultural contexts behind the fictional characters (see the annotations in Burstein and Gardner): Some of them are modeled after persons from Carroll’s own life, such as Alice Liddell, his colleagues at Christ Church College in Oxford, or the Dodo and the White Knight as alter egos of Carroll himself. Other characters are playful impersonations of nursery rhymes or popular proverbs: the Cheshire Cat grins like a Cheshire Chat, the Mad Hatter is mad as a hatter, and so on (see O'Sullivan, 300f.).
Text and image
Another part of the appeal of the Alice stories stems from the intricate entanglement of Carroll’s text with Tenniel’s illustrations, which have shaped the public imagination of Alice and the strange characters that populate Wonderland. Even though Tenniel based his illustrations on Carroll’s own illustrations for Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, he developed an own style and perspective on the cranky inhabitants of Wonderland, and thereby predetermined public imagination of that fictional world unto this day.
Tenniel’s illustrations are important also because Carroll’s text largely abstains from describing the outer appearance of its characters. It rather resorts to dramatic storytelling, abstaining from describing the looks and dresses and spatial layouts of Wonderland and its characters, which in turn invites readerly imagination. For that reason, not only have Tenniel’s illustrations become an integral part of the book (see Wartenberg, 40ff.), it also invited the plethora of other illustrations in later – post-copyright-expiration-date – editions of the Alice books by artists such as Salvador Dalì, Peter Newell, Arthur Rackham, Charles Robinson, Mervyn Peake, and Graham Ovenden (see Delahunty and Schulz).
Nonsense and Language Games
The Alice books also heavily rely on language games and nonsense poetry, which has made them particularly interesting for philosophers of language and linguists. As stated before, “many characters and episodes in Alice are a direct result of puns and other linguistic jokes” (Gardner, xv). Carroll’s language games, however, have been written for a British 19th-century audience (and, indeed, particularly for a ten-year-old British girl). This makes it difficult for non-native-language 21st-century readers to properly understand the apparently nonsensical poems and episodes. Thus, translations of the Alice stories can only try to transpose Carroll’s language games into analogous phenomena of the other language.
Carroll’s playful approach to storytelling it evident in the emblematic verses of the “Mouse’s Tale” in chapter III, which relies on the homonymy of the words “tale” and “tail”: While listening to the mouse’s “long and [...] sad tale” (33), Alice literally imagines that tale as looking like a tail (see image below).
Just as non-traditional as its language style is the story’s narrative structure: The trajectory of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, with their rapid succession of episodic, apparently unrelated happenstances and encounters, have been likened to the dramaturgy of a dream (see Lexe 2003, 101). The longer Alice stays in Wonderland, the more the readers are witnessing a total breakdown of (narrative) logic and a disintegration of the rules of unity of space and time, culminating in the last chapter’s complete collapse of the cardboard courtroom in which Alice’s trial is held (and this collapse, of course, is another narrative pun, likening the course of events to the way a stack of cards eventually collapses on the ground).
The events of the story, thus, seem totally coincidental, always leaving open the possibility of yet another course of events, depending on the whims of the writer and his knack for imagining up yet other language games to be turned into actions and events. From that perspective, Carroll’s writing also reveals an affinity to automatic writing (see Gardner, xv). Hence, at its core, Alice is an episodic text, since apart from her arrival and return there is no real causal-logical narrative chain (while Through the Looking Glass follows the logic of a chess game).
This is why the Alice books have always been considered as subversive stories, not only giving way to (apparently unfounded) rumours of Carroll being an avid drug consumer hiding various allusions to drug use in his texts (remember that Alice is constantly eating and drinking variations of mushrooms, tea, and other mysterious fluids that alternatively alter her bodily or mental state). Alice certainly is open to such interpretations which have been epitomized in popular culture in Jefferson Airplane’s Woodstock hymn White Rabbit (for which an congenial music video exists that mashes up scenes from Walt Disney’s 1950 animation film adaptation of the first Alice story.
Another way of looking at Alice as subversive is to regard the world of Wonderland as a "kafkaesque world of grown-ups, who have become strangers to curiosity, mutual understanding, and the will to imagine“ (Lexe, 105f.). And indeed: the White Rabbit is a slave to his watch and his tyrannical queen, whose world has to function strictly according to her arbitrary rules; and the various other characters encountered by the young heroine of the story come across as inflexible victims of their own ill-conceived routines. And thus, perhaps, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are an exercise in an adult’s attempt to imagine how bizarre the world of adults must seem when seen from a child’s perspective. Perhaps that’s the reason for the story’s continuing success and relevance.
• Carroll, Lewis, Martin Gardner, and Mark Burstein. The Annotated Alice, 150th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2015. Print.
• Delahunty, Gavin and Christoph Benjamin Schulz. Alice in Wonderland: Through the Visual Arts. London: Tate, 2011. Print.
• Douglas-Fairhurst, Robert. The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland. London: Vintage, 2016. Print.
• Gardner, Martin. "Introduction to The Annotated Alice.“ The Annotated Alice, 150th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2015, pp. xiii-xxii. Print.
• Lexe, Heidi: Pippi, Pan und Potter. Zur Motivkonstellation in den Klassikern der Kinderliteratur. Praesens: Verlag für Literatur-und Sprachwissenschaft, 2003. Print.
• O'Sullivan, Emer. "Transfer über Sprach- und Kulturgrenzen: die Übersetzungsgeschichte von Alice in Wonderland ins Deutsche.“ Kinderliterarische Komparatistik, edited by Emer O'Sullivan. Heidelberg: Winter, 2000, pp. 296-378. Print.
• Wartenberg, Thomas E. Thinking on Screen: Film As Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.
• Zamolska, Anna. "Carroll, Lewis“, in KinderundJugendmedien.de, 2013.
• Digital version of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, British Library, “Turning the Pages”
• List of Alice adaptations