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Chess Pieces ImagePlay Literature

 “Do you ever play at games? Or is your idea of life ‘breakfast, lessons, dinner, lessons, tea, lessons, bed, lessons, breakfast, lessons,’ and so on?  It is a very neat plan of life and almost as interesting as being a sewing machine or a coffee grinder.” 
- Charles Dodgson



Although Alice is traditionally placed in the genre of “children’s literature,” many critics have pointed out that adults enjoy the Alice books quite as much, if not more than children, not only in our present era, but even in Carroll’s.   Therefore it is useful to broaden our terminology and examine not only how the book is entertainment for children, but also how it fits the less specific genre of Play Literature.


What is Play Literature?

“Play Literature” is not one of the “typical” literary genres.  Some critics may hesitate to use the term to avoid the implication that “play” literature is not “serious” or worthwhile. However, for a work like Alice it is a very useful term.  According to Katherine Blake, the main proponent of Alice as play literature, anything can be play “insofar as it is undertaken voluntarily, disinterestedly, for its own sake” (14). In her book Play, Games and Sport: The Literary Works of Lewis Carroll, Blake uses several tenants of the game theory, a popular economic theory, to understand both the social interactions within the novel, and how the work as a whole function as a game for its readers.


Wonderland: the Game

Game Theory, an approach to economics that has been adapted to several other academic subjects, attempts to understand human behavior by comparing it to a player’s strategy in a game.  Game Theorists assume that every player is trying to win, that the rules are constant and known to everybody, and the players make decisions based on what they think the other players WIlly Pogany's Mad Tea Partywill do. Blake’s argument is that the best way to understand Alice’s interactions with the other characters is to imagine her thrown into games in which she wants to participate but routinely fails because cannot figure out the rules (122). For instance, at the Mad Tea Party, Alice asks an “embarrassing” question of the Mad Hatter:

A bright idea came into Alice's head. "Is that the reason so many tea-things are put out here?" she asked.
"Yes, that's it," said the Hatter with a sigh: "it's always tea-time, and we've no time to wash the things between whiles."
"Then you keep moving round, I suppose?" said Alice.
"Exactly so," said the Hatter: "as the things get used up."
"But what happens when you come to the beginning again?" Alice ventured to ask.
"Suppose we change the subject," the March Hare interrupted…

Alice, in typical game mentality, wants to know the “stop” rule, which every game or process should have, so that she may join in the game. However, the March Hare and Mad Hatter keep her purposely out of the “loop,” and, by refusing to share the rules of the game, prevent Alice from playing at all.  And it is this failure to become integrated into the game that eventually causes Alice to leave the table (Blake 123).

Blake argues that Carroll’s motive for this and the other “failed” game situations is not to glorify  “a realm unconstrained in the rules of the social game” but that Carroll shows his wish that “human activity could be better formalized and bound in by game constraints” (20).  The hilarity, but also the nightmare quality of Alice is produced by the lack of “stable terms, rules, and limits” (20). 


Alice as a (Math) Game

In addition to helping us understand the social interactions within Alice, looking at Alice as play literature also allows us to think of the work as a whole as a game played between Carroll and the reader. We know of course that Alice originated as a tale told by Charles Dodgson to entertain Alice Liddell and her sisters one summer afternoon. In the same way, the printed version Alice is full of “inside” jokes, parodies, logical puzzles and other games, which entertain the reader by challenging them to play the game and figure out the “rules” of Wonderland.

Also, recently several critics have read Alice as a game specifically for mathematicians. Charles Dodgson was, after all, a mathematician by profession, and the Alice books are full of mathematical jokes.  For a list of “math jokes” in chapters 5, 6, and 6 click here.

Most of these jokes poke fun at the developments in Symbolic Algebra, a new branch of mathematics in Dodgson’s time, some principles of which Dodgson found absurd. Helena Pycior has written on the subject:

“The point of Carroll's humor now seems clear: structure does not guarantee meaning; emphasis on structure over meaning, so basic to the symbolical approach, can lead to nonsense.” (167)

The spirit of fun and play, especially in games of logic and mathematical conundrums, resounds in Alice and it is really quite useful for us to interpret the novel, not merely as play/entertainment for children, but as a game for everyone, especially mathematicians.


Want to read more?

"The Hidden Math Behind Alice in Wonderland" - By Keith Devlin on MAA.org

Slideshow presentation of Math Jokes in Alice

NY Times article on math in Alice.


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