Are there any English-speaking readers who are not acquainted with the adventures of mid-19th century Alice, the little girl who falls asleep only to follow a waist-coated, watch-carrying White Rabbit down down down the rabbit hole to a wonderland replete with substances that make her large or small, pithy platitudes that "do not come out the same as they used to do," talking animals, a Mad Hatter, Mock Turtle, enigmatic Chesire Cat (whose smile lingers after the Cat has disappeared), sharp-chinned Duchess, muddled King and enraged Queen of Hearts? First published as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 by Oxford mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, this charming and topsy-turvy tale, like the mouse’s tail, has wound and bent its way into the hearts of multiple generations.
“What use is a book,” thinks Alice, peeping at her sister’s book as they sit on the grassy bank, “without pictures or conversation?” The very affordable CrabCube 2010 reprint of Lewis’s original publication will disappoint in neither. John Tenniel’s enchanting illustrations are faithfully reproduced, and the conversations interrupt one another in plentitude: when not engaged in chatty absurdities, defiant contradictions and poetic recitations with the fantastic beings of Wonderland, the irrepressible Alice has conversations with herself (interspersed with the narrator’s parenthetical conversational asides to the reader), as for example, when she falls down the rabbit hole:
"I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?" she said aloud. "I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think"— (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over).Frequently lauded for its humor, literary nonsense, word play, inverted logic and fantasy, Alice in Wonderland can also be read as a social commentary on the tyranny of entering adulthood in class-conscious Victorian England. A timid but inquisitive Alice struggles for the proper grown-up social response, be it to an invitation to wine when there is nothing but tea (“‘then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily”), or to a Duchess that violently tosses her baby while singing (“the poor thing howled so, that Alice could hardly hear the words”), events which are treated with equal dismay by the precocious, somewhat snobby little girl destined to mature into an upper-class protector of British culture. The naughtiness and logical defiance of the creatures of Wonderland must have delighted the repressed children for whom the story was written, the Liddell and Macdonald children among them, but the naughtiness stays within safe perimeters, and ultimately Alice dismisses all the aberrant creatures with adult aplomb, pointing out each logical error of the king and queen in the final trial scene, and concluding, “‘Who cares for you? You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’” The appeal of Lewis’s subversive wit delights even in our permissive age. Enjoy your dip into Wonderland once more.
Reviewed by Alexandra Boyer