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“Alice was, therefore, far more than its author realized, a tract for the times”– Humphrey Carpenter
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An historical approach to Alice encourages us to rely on a close examination of the trends, culture, and philosophy of the Victorian period for our interpretation of Alice’s encounters in Wonderland. As you might imagine, this opens Alice up to an enormous number of focuses and approaches. Though the historical approach may seem daunting in sheer scope, it is extremely useful for us to remember that Alice was written during a specific time period with its own specific concerns and habits. In this section I explore a few of the major trends in Alice historical criticism, but this is by no means an all-inclusive list. To read more about the historical approach, click here.
One popular approach to Alice has been to read it as a political allegory, with Wonderland a symbolic England, ruled tyrannically by the Queen of Hearts, who of course would correspond with Queen Victoria. There does seem to be evidence that Dodgson was not over-awed by the Queen (Lurie 5). The extreme violence assigned the “aristocracy” of Wonderland (the Duchess and the Queen) as well as the ridiculous mangling of justice in the Trial (“Sentence first, then verdict”; and indeed, the British justice system at the time was in shambles) are both often used as evidence that Alice belongs perhaps more to the genre of Political Satire than even Carroll realized.
Another interesting line of the political approach is treating Alice as an allegory for colonization. Alice was written during the heyday of British colonization, when the British Empire controlled huge portions of land in Africa and India. Daniel Bivona has written an interesting article comparing Alice to an imperialist, “incapable of constructing…the ‘system’ or ‘systems’ that give meaning to the behavior of the creatures” (150). Alice’s failure to understand the “native” culture, and her insistence on imposing her own norms and values ultimately culminates in a life-threatening situation:
`No, no!' said the Queen. `Sentence first--verdict afterwards.'
`Stuff and nonsense!' said Alice loudly. `The idea of having the sentence first!'
`Hold your tongue!' said the Queen, turning purple.
`I won't!' said Alice.
`Off with her head!' the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. (Chapter 12)
Another common approach for historicists has been to read Alice as a reaction to the contemporary discoveries in the fields of science and mathematics. Dodgson, as a mathematician, would have been well aware of the new developments in that field, such as symbolic algebra. In fact, as a conservative mathematician, Dodgson found some of the new theories to be rather ridiculous, perhaps provoking him to make fun of them in Alice. As Helena Pycior argues, “The parallels between Carroll's nonsense writings and symbolical algebra are striking: both stressed form or structure over meaning, using words (or other symbols) with multiple possible interpretations” (165).
In the world of science, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published just six years before the Alice. Many critics argue that the book, which profoundly impacted the thinking of the late nineteenth century, also inspired Carroll to include several references to the theory of evolution in Alice. William Empson, for instance, argues that the Pool of Tears, which Alice makes in Chapter 2, represents the “sea from which life arose,” citing as evidence the animals such as a Dodo and monkey which seem to “arise” from the pool (346). Additionally, the study of the natural history was increasingly becoming the national past time in Victorian Britain, which critics have used to explain some of the imagery in Alice, such as Alice’s encounter with the pigeon (Lovell-Smith), and the talking flowers in Looking Glass.
Another effect of Darwinism was the dawning of an “era of skepticism” (Carpenter 68) and decline of religious fervor. Although Dodgson took Deacon’s Orders in 1861 (the final step before becoming a priest) and he consistently took a stand against irreverence when it came to the Church, some critics have found his work to be itself a “mockery of God.” Humphrey Carpenter has used the song parodies in Alice (many of which are parodies of religious songs) and the nihilistic overtones of the book as evidence that Dodgson’s work is a “rejection of the old secure system of beliefs” (69).
Finally, traces of many of the social issues and debates of the Victorian era are present in Alice. Indeed Alice itself may even have helped to shape some of these debates such as the question of how to deal with the education of children. In the Victorian era, children were quite a problem. Often treated as miniature adults, children were often required to perform, were severely chastised, or were ignored. Alice has often been read as a satirical attack on children’s treatment and education. Alison Lurie argues that the book is radical reaction against the impersonal didacticism of British education, pointing out that “All the adults [in Wonderland], especially those who resemble governesses or professors, are foolish, arbitrary, cruel, or mad” (5).
Another social issue that the Alice books seem to subvert is the role of women in society. Victorians expected women to be the “angels of the home,” docile, discreet, and domestic. Alice is none of those things. Lurie calls her “active, brave, and impatient; she is highly critical of her surroundings and of the adults she meets” (7). Yet, other critics have seen Alice as the most Victorian of all the women in the book. Laura Ciolkowski argues that
“the excessive violence of the Duchess, the Hatter's 'rude’ remarks, the ‘savage’ behavior of the Queen become the occasions for Alice to represent Wonderland as an uncivilized country desperately in need of the moral guidance and social instruction that can only be provided by a proper English woman.” (7)
The jury is still out, but if you are interested in the role of women as represented in the Alice books, click here to learn more about the feminist interpretations.
Finally, Alice is very interesting when read in light of the growing social concern over the treatment of people with mental diseases. Jan Gordon outlines how in the Victorian era an insane person was “appropriated” to the status of a child, which was an improvement over the status of animal, as the eighteenth century would have it (101). Although, considering the marginal identity of children, this still kept them on the furthest edges of society. Thus, considering Carroll’s elevation of the child as an “ideal” and his compassionate treatment of the “mad” characters, the March Hare, the Mad Hatter and even the Cheshire Cat, Alice can be read as a radical stance for the rights and humane treatment of the insane.
Want to Read More?
There are several interesting articles on the Victorian Web.
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