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“We fancy that any real child might be more puzzled than enchanted by this stiff, overwrought story.” – Review of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
“Lewis Carroll, on the other hand, disappoints most of these students. They prefer ‘sense’ to ‘nonsense’… ” – Gillian Adams (1985)
Reader Response is a critical theory that stresses the importance of the role of the reader in constructing the meaning of a work of literature. Lois Tyson offers this definition: “Reader-response theory…maintains that what a text is cannot be separated from what it does…reader-response theorists share two beliefs: (1) that the role of the reader cannot be omitted from our understanding of literature and (2) that readers do not passively consume the meaning presented to them by an objective literary text” (170). Reader-response theorists recognize that texts do not interpret themselves. Even if all of our evidence for a certain interpretation comes from the work itself, and even if everyone who reads the text interprets it in the same (as improbable as that might be) it is still we, the readers, who do the interpreting, assigning meaning to the text. Reader response criticism not only allows for, but even interests itself in how these meanings to change from reader to reader and from time to time.
Reader Response to Alice
In a way, this entire website is a study in Reader Response. After all, every critic, film-maker, illustrator, musician, and fan site I have examined represents a reader with his or her own interpretation of what Alice is, ought to be, or ought to make us feel. And it is difficult to argue that the culmination of all of these interpretations, the “collective Alice myth” does not affect the text. After all, we can’t quite read Alice the same way if we know that “alice” is a street name for LSD, or that Lewis Carroll took nude photographs of his “child friends,” or if we’ve seen the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland. Our culture has changed and so has Alice, even though Charles Dodgson has been dead for over 100 years. As Robert Phillips put it, "Alice is what you make of her. It should be quickly said that no one has known exactly what to make of her..." (xxi).
One interesting way to track the reader response to Alice is to watch her “grow up” in the various media for which she has been adapted. Helen Pilinovsky noticed the trend in her article, “Body as Wonderland: Alice’s Graphic Iteration in Lost Girls” (182). In the Alice books Alice is given the age of seven and a half and Tenniel’s Alice seems to be about that age, perhaps a little older. But as time has progressed, Alice keeps getting older, from Arthur Rackham’s ten or eleven year old Alice in 1907, to Harry Furniss’ “sexy” pre-teen Alice in 1926. Disney’s Alice seems to be a little younger, perhaps 9 years old, but then she begins to age again. She is teen-aged in Jonathan Miller’s 1966 film, as she is in the 1990’s television series. And finally the two latest Alices, Tim Burton’s in the 2010 film, and Nick Willing’s in the 2009 Syfy mini-series, are in their late teens or early twenties. These “grown up” Alices are a fascinating example of how the “Alice myth” has evolved and how Alice has changed in its readers’ imaginations.
Alice Growing Up:
John Tenniel (1865) -------> Arthur Rackham (1907)-----> Harry Furniss (1926)----->
Jonathan Miller (1966)-----------> Tim Burton (2010) ------------> Nick Willing (2009)
Gillian Adams has also written an interesting article on her college students’ response to Alice when it was read in her class. She writes that
“the lack of any explicit, clear instruction in the text not only as to how a child should behave in Alice's situation, but to the readers of the text on how they should interpret it, engenders a negative response in many students. Carroll's wit, his intellect, his artistry, his sense of play, is lost on them, and they cannot accept a text so open and so ambivalent.” (9)
Perhaps their disappointment lies in the fact that the Alice we think we know and love is no longer Carroll’s Alice. It is a semi-imaginary amalgamation of all her adaptations, half cloaked in myths and rumors. But since this new “Alice” affects our understanding and thus our interpretation of the Alice texts, a good understanding of the reader response to Alice is necessary and beneficial to our own response.
Want to Read More?
Wikipedia Article on Reader Response Criticism
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