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Lewis Carroll's Alice from chapter 1Image and Text

"Once or twice [Alice] had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?' "
-Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

 

On this website, I have dedicated a lot of space and time to the question of how the different illustrations of Alice can affect our experience with the text. It is my hope that readers of this site will come to realize just how different John Tenniel’s Wonderland is from Ralph Steadman’s, or Helen Oxenbury’s, or Arthur Rackham’s, or Camille Rose Garcia’s, etc., and how their different visions of wonderland can invade and shape our own.  For, although when scholars or readers use the term “the text” they most often mean only the words, I would argue that in many cases, and especially in the case of Alice, “the text” is a much more complex entity, that must include not only Tenniel’s or Carroll’s, but any illustration.

 

Illustrations: Just for Children?

Print culture, for the majority of the twentieth-century, was biased against illustrations, in favor of words.  The rise of graphic novel and electronic literature has begun to change this in the twenty-first, but for nearly a century, illustrations belonged firmly in the domain of children’s literature.  Illustrations, the argument goes, were more important for children, since they could not appreciate fully or understand the beauty of the words alone.  Adults did not need pictures to be engaged by a text.  Thus a hierarchy emerged with text (i.e. the words), as the complex domain of adults, placed firmly above illustrations, the simple stimulus for children. 
And though today we might still hold tight to this notion, the 19th century had a much greater affinity for illustrations in all kinds of books.  The “widely-shared hunger for visual stimulation,” as Richard Maxwell calls it, was satisfied in books, by illustrations that were often quite as, if not more, revered than the text that accompanied them (xxv).  More than this, illustrations were regarded as a “crucial component of the institution of literature” because of their powerful ability to shape a reader’s experience with literature (Maxwell, xxv).  And there can be hardly any doubt that if Alice's Adventures in Wonderland had been published without illustrations, reading it would be a very different experience.

 

Alice Illustrators

Self Portrait of John Tenniel The first illustrator, of course, was Lewis Carroll himself, which as Haskell points out “makes this case of image-text inquiry a particularly intriguing one" (66).  It is easy, regarding his original Alice’s Adventures Underground, to argue that the illustrations are part of the “Text.” After all, as Alice says, “what is the use of a book without pictures?”  After Carroll came John Tenniel in the first printed edition, whose portrayal of Wonderland and of such memorable characters as the Mock Turtle, the Queen of Hearts, and the Mad Hatter profoundly impacted the imaginations of the succeeding generations. These images "reigned, almost unquestioned, in the collective imagination of two generations" until the copyright expired, and then were followed by wave after wave of illustrators, over two hundred as of 2005, trying to revisualize Wonderland (Haskell 66).   And the unique position of Alice, being regarded both as “children’s” and “classic” literature, has inspired many of the worlds greatest artists, such as Salvador Dali, Arthur Rackham and Ralph Steadman, to participate in the “Aliceomania” (65).  Each illustrator interacts with the Carroll's words, making choices not only about how to draw the well-known characters, but also about what to represent visually and what to leave out.  The question we must face, then is whether or not these images actually become the "text."

 

Illustrations as Text  

In simple terms, there are two ways to approach the question of image and “text”:  you could either say that illustrations are an artist’s response to the words of the text, important but not necessary, or you could argue that there is no dichotomy between image and text, and that illustrations and words work in tandem to create “The Text.” The second view, though perhaps widely accepted in cases where the author and illustrator of a work collaborate, is perhaps the less popular view due to the word bias of the twentieth century.  However, illustrators in 19th century were more open to this idea.  Nicholas Frankel describes the Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley’s this way:

In Beardsley’s view, the literary text is not something immaterial and timeless that magically escapes its medium.  Rather, Beardsley holds the literary text to be a fabricated thing, like a piece of cloth or porcelain, its texture heightened and accentuated by what the illustrator does to it. (263)

Beardsley would argue that an illustrated book, like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, is a “composite form” with the words and illustrations continually giving meaning to each other and to the "text" (263). Indeed, the idea that Alice is such a composite form is strongly supported by the fact that Carroll made his own illustrations to accompany the text in the manuscript. And later illustrations also show the inseparability of word and image. For example, consider the way that Tenniel and Alison Jay arrange their illustrations of the Cheshire Cat:

Jay's Cheshire Cat Illustration

Both of these pages demonstrate the "composite" nature of an illustrated book. In both cases the illustrations "wrap" around the words, interacting and intertwining with them, making them difficult to separate. And indeed, if either the illustrations or text were to be removed the "pagescape" (i.e. the spaces of the page as they are physically laid out) would definitely look incomplete and strange, affecting our experience of reading the text.

 

Illustrations as Response to Text

However, there is also a strong argument to be made that illustrations are a response to the words of a text, especially in cases where the illustrator is not (nor works with) the author. In those cases the illustrator interacts with the words, envisioning his or her own images of the fictional world, then displaying those images in drawings presented next to the text.  Those images may (and often do) affect our response of the text, but in the end they are in themselves a “reader response” and therefore must not be conflated with the “Text.”  John Vernon Lord, one of the Alice illustrators, is very aware of this separation.  He wrote in his preface to Alice, "There is always the problem that illustrators may skew a reader's own imaginative world." Note that he calls this a “problem.”  It seems that, to him, in an ideal world the reader could come to the words with a completely blank slate to create his or her own “imaginative world” taking or leaving the illustrations.  He presents his illustrations as his own response to the text, and a unique one at that. As Eric Haskell points out, "Each artist articulates an Alice onto the pagescape just as each reader projects an Alice onto the mindscape" (66). Every illustrator brings some different response to the text, giving us a remarkable opportunity to see into the minds of dozens of illustrators, to visualize Alice as they visualize her.  And it would be foolish to argue that these visualizations do not affect us as readers.

It seems to me that, in the end, illustrations live in unique tension, being both part of a text and a response to it, and thus the images of Alice are crucial for us to understand both the “Text” and to understand how Wonderland has evolved over the last 150 years.

As you wander through this site, I encourage you to take a look at the character image galleries.  Seeing one-hundred-fifty years worth of representations of, say, the Caterpillar reveals quite a lot of how Wonderland has evolved, not only in the "pagescape," but also in our minds.

 

 

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