In classic literature for children, there are books that have some sort of double meaning, where there are hidden messages, subtle witticisms, and symbolism in the story. These kinds of books can be considered as works intended for children and adult readers, i.e. the age does not matter because the stories have something to offer to everyone. Young children like these books for their fantastic qualities and as entertainment, but most readers do not pick up on the many puns and jokes until they are a little older. This is the case with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, which works on two levels: as a delightful children’s fantasy and as an impish poke in the eye of adults. Children who read this book just enjoy the nonsense of the mysterious journey into the strange world described in the book, but the story also appeals to adults on quite a different level which young readers cannot really grasp. In this essay, I’m going to analyze the story by focusing on the main characters and the most relevant themes, trying to show the different understanding of the book and some topics depending on who is the reader.
We can analyze the adult and young point of view of the book from different situations in the book, but the most obvious theme that can be found in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the theme of growing up through the development of the protagonist: Alice. Children who had read the book just would think that the plot of the story is about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world; She has an amazing dream about changing size and meeting various strange creatures underground in Wonderland; she is curious, with a wide imagination, etc. However, with a more in-depth search, the adult can find that Lewis Carroll may have indeed parallel the journey from Alice’s childhood to adulthood. The book represents the child’s struggle to survive in the confusing world of adults. To understand our adult world, Alice has to overcome the open-mindedness that is characteristic of children. When she enters Wonderland, Alice finds a way of living and reasoning that is quite different from her own.
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But during the journey through Wonderland, Alice learns to understand the adult world somewhat more. In fact, she is growing up. This is also represented by her physical changes during the story, the growing and shrinking. She comes into new situations in which adaptability is absolutely necessary for her success “‘ it makes me grow larger, I can reach the key; and if it makes me grow smaller, I can creep under the door'” (15), and although in the beginning, she cannot maintain enough composure to keep herself from crying, more and more she starts to understand the creatures that live in Wonderland. And in the end, Alice realizes what the creatures in Wonderland really are ‘nothing but a pack of cards’: “‘Who cares for you?’ said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.)’ You’re nothing but a pack of cards!'” (109). At this point, she has matured too much to stay in Wonderland, the world of the children, and wakes up into the “real” world, the world of adults.
Related to the theme of “growing up”, is the theme of “identity”. Along with the text, we can notice how in Wonderland, Alice faces the importance and instability of personal identity. She is constantly ordered to identify herself by the different meeting with strange animals, but she has doubts about her own personality as well: After falling through the Rabbit hole, Alice tests her knowledge to determine whether she has become another girl; when the Caterpillar asks her who is, she is unable to answer, as she feels that she has changed several times since the morning, etc. (41). ‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging ‘ opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I-I hardly know, Sir, just at present- at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then. ‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar, sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’ ‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir, said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’
Among other things, this doubt about her identity is nourished by her physical appearance: Alice grows and shrinks several times, which she finds quite confusing. Also, The Cheshire cat questions Alice’s identity: As she has entered Wonderland, ‘she must be mad’, he states (58). But it is not only Alice’s identity that is unstable; some creatures in Wonderland have unstable identities as well: For example, the Duchess’ baby turns into a pig (55-56) and the jury has to write their names down if they do not want to forget them (97). However, Alice growing up and identity are not the only themes interesting for analysis; Alice’s motive for entering and intersecting in Wonderland is simply curiosity: she just sees the White Rabbit and decides to follow him because he is wearing a watch and a waistcoat. Since these two motifs (identity and curiosity), can help us to understand the same showed through “the growing up” motif: an adult reader can notice that Carroll wrote in the story also about this three important topic in life, but for a child, the reader is just Alice’s strange adventures.
Due to this, we can advance that the book presents some sort of realism in a fantasy realm. We will carry on proving it, analyzing more characters and themes of the story. Besides Alice’s character and the things we could observe as adults, there are some interesting characters worth analyzing. If we focus by a close reading on the other characters who help Alice’s character to develop the story, we can notice that all these strange animals with human-like features for children are just part of “Wonderland”, but are also related to topics of the real life. For instance, one of the most relevant characters who always with Alice in her strange travel is the White Rabbit, a strange rabbit who is always in a hurry: “‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!'” (1). Of course, this is fantasy, but if we take a look at Lewis Carroll biography we will realize that the author lived in the Victorian age, which leads us to the idea that the character of the White Rabbit is just a mockery of the typical English man that lives always worried under the stress and the rush of time.
Another character is the Mad Hatter, a crazy unbalanced animal. By coincidence, “Mad as a hater” was also a common expression in 19th century England because many hatters did go mad from exposure to mercury, which was used in the process of making felt hats. Moreover, in the old English sayings there is a proverb that says: “Mad as a hare” as a common phrase alluding to the frenzied behaviour of hares in March, their mating season; and of the character in the story is the Mad Hare, who is crazy, as it is referred in the proverb. Then, although from child’s view is not noticeable since these animals characters, as well as since Alice character, an adult can appreciate the society where Lewis Carroll lived. Afterwards, if we keep thinking as an adult reader, we can find again hidden meanings under characters that for children are just funny, crazy or strange supernatural beings that are part of the fantastic world of Wonderland. For instance, the clearest case is The Queen of Hearts, which is one of the playing card characters Alice meets when she is finally able to enter the beautiful garden through the door in the hallway.
The Queen of Hearts rules over Wonderland and she is a tyrant, violent, authoritative and dominant. She likes to play croquet with live flamingos and hedgehogs as mallets and balls, but only when she wins, and by her own rules. And constantly orders the beheading of people when something isn’t to her liking: “‘Off with his head!'” (72), although these orders apparently never are actually carried out. She also has her own ideas about how trials should be conducted and is feared by all other Wonderland inhabitants because of her lack of patience and explosive character. So, The Queen of Hearts could be a thinly disguised parody of Queen Victoria, known for her uptight morals, and her bad temper. Furthermore, Queen Victoria is perhaps the inspiration for the Duchess as well. To sum up, since the analysis of some of the character in Alice in Wonderland we have been able to prove how this famous tale on classic literature for children, can be also a good reading material for another kind of readers because we could find an enormous underlying meaning behind the fantastic characters.
Moreover, we can dare to say that Lewis Carroll wrote the book appropriate for different implied readers. Furthermore, we could notice Lewis Carroll’s ideology on the surface of the story; concretely, as it is it said in Exploring Children’s Literature (Gamble and Yates 2002), ideology is the term used to talk about the writer’s system of values and beliefs. Implicit ideology is the one we found, which means: “the writer’s unexamined assumptions. Very often these values will be taken for granted, particularly if they are widely shared values”. Also, Wolfgang, referring to the term implied reader asserted: “literature addresses the problems inherent in the systems referred to so that we can construct whatever was concealed or ignored in the system concerned or in the ideologies of the day”. Because of all this, we can highlight the importance of the close reading, usually made by an adult, because “different meanings of the same text have emerged at different times and the same text read a second time (or closely) will have a different effect from that of its first reading”.
In brief, this is what we found: the difference between Alice in Wonderland book from the point of view of children readers against adult readers. It’s interesting to remark that this topic appears also in another famous book on literature for children; for instance, Matilda, Oliver Twist, etc. In conclusion, I think is a great and interesting book because for children is a reading that develops children’s imagination. And for adult readers is a good novel worth reading closely attentively and critically because in my opinion readers can develop a better understanding of literature by learning something about the culture or period of history that produced it. Besides that, I also think that everybody has ever had the desire to fly, to be other people, to through the walls or stop the time. Alice takes all of these desires and gives us her adventure, which for me just means the absolute freedom of the human mind; actually, a fascinating topic that only an adult reader can grasp. So as a future teacher, I think that our roles as teachers in this case of reading could be seen as inducting children into established modes of understanding to discover the true meaning that lies within a text.
- Carroll, L. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Oxford World’s Classics, 2009 (1865).
- Nikki Gamble and Sally Yates. Exploring Children’s Literature. Nikki Gamble and Sally Yates, 2008.
- Lorena Caadas Barber English for Young learners Children’s Literature, Group A