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“The more the details of his life and work are raked over, the more confusing they become” - Humphrey Carpenter
The basic claim of the Biographical Interpretation is that the best thing any one could do to better understand the Alice books is to understand the man who created it. This is an older critical approach, and a popular one even in Carroll’s day. And it makes a lot of sense. After all, a writer’s inspiration has to come from somewhere, so why not closely study Carroll’s life to find that inspiration?
However, understanding Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Dodgson is not so easy as it might first appear. Many biographers have tried, but few have managed to fully explain the link between the shy Oxford Don who would not even admit to being Lewis Carroll for many years, and the witty, irreverent and energetic author of children’s books. Different critical schools highlight different aspects of his biography: psychoanalysts focus on his sexual repression; mathematicians on his profession; and these days much attention is paid to his relationships with his “child friends.” The resulting picture is complex and enigmatic, making Carroll himself as elusive as the meaning of his most famous works.
One of the major drawbacks of the biographical approach is that it tends to glorify the “genius” of the author in ways with which many modern critics do not feel quite comfortable. The approach also tends to disregard the meanings that some popular readings assign to the text. The psychedelic interpretation, for instance, cannot be “proved” from details of Carroll’s life, therefore it must be ignored, despite the fact that it flavors a lot of Alice representations and adaptations even today.
However, the biographical approach is certainly still an important facet of any Alice interpretation and certainly has been one of the major schools of Alice criticism for over a hundred years. We can glean some very important clues on how Alice is “meant” to be read by studying Lewis Carroll. For instance, it can be very useful to read Alice knowing that Carroll wrote “I can guarantee that the books have no religious teaching in them—in fact they do not teach anything at all” (Warren 31). Knowing Lewis Carroll and the “meaning” he found in the Alice books is a fascinating and, many would argue, necessary step for any Alice interpreter.
Read about Lewis Carroll
There are several rather good mini-biographies of Lewis Carroll on the Internet. To get a sense of the man himself, click on one of these links.
The Victorian Web - "Lewis Carroll"
The Victorian Station - "Lewis Carroll"
Wikipedia - "Lewis Carroll"
The Lewis Carroll Society (UK) - Charles Dodgson's Life
For some more essays on Lewis Carroll, try
Contrariwise: the Association for New Lewis Carroll Studies
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