“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” turned 150 years old in November, and it remains as vibrant and relevant as ever.
At its 100th birthday in 1965, it became a totem of the counterculture, inspiring Grace Slick’s heady bolero, “White Rabbit.”
Adapted into animated and live action films, music and videogames, plentifully referenced and reillustrated, it shapes and reshapes our globalized mass culture.
Do girls today still read Carroll’s original tale? I think they should. Nowadays girl heroines train to be assassins, master their supernatural powers, or shop. By contrast, Alice dreams a world and forays into it, modeling all the qualities we should inculcate in girls: curiosity and common sense, confidence and courage.
Alice teaches girls to navigate the world without fear. When she falls down a rabbit hole, and continues falling, she gets bored and tries to calculate the distance. In passages that probably made parents squirm, she quaffs from a strange bottle labeled “drink me” and devours an unfamiliar cake titled “eat me.”
To her credit, she checks the bottle to see if it is marked poison, “for she had read several nice little stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts, and other unpleasant things. …” Carroll was mocking earlier Victorian books for children, which didactically instructed them to avoid injury and misfortune, to be proper and to become prosperous. On the graves of such grim plot lines, Carroll created a monument to sheer absurdity, uncommon sense and downright silliness.
Adrift in a dreamland, Alice ventures forth, mingling with its odd inhabitants: the White Rabbit, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts. She meets their madness with reason and their incivility with toughness. To the caterpillar’s befogged, pedantic demand, “Who are you?” she replies, “I think you ought to tell me who you are, first.” In Carroll’s story, this behavior is not answering back; it is standing up for oneself.
Alice speaks truth to power. When the Queen of Hearts chides her to hold her tongue, she refuses, pointing out the absurdity of a trial in which the sentence precedes the evidence. Alice’s thinking is not always crystalline: She can’t precisely perform math and remember geography. But her questions penetrate the morass of unthinking custom that the often pathetic creatures inhabit, such as the mad tea party. Alice’s bracing voice should inspire girls to speak their minds to make a difference.
Perhaps the largest life lesson Alice has to offer smart, ambitious girls is not to take themselves too seriously. She grows 9 feet tall, and shrinks to become smaller than a puppy. So much happens to her in one day that she forgets who she is. Yet this doesn’t deter her from engaging the strangeness around her. “How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another! However, I’ve got back to my right size: the next thing is, to get into that beautiful garden – how is that to be done, I wonder?”
The capacity to wonder makes Alice indestructible.
The fictional Alice holds far more interest than her inspiration, the real-life Alice Liddell. Readers wring their hands about Charles Dodgson, who wrote the story under the pen name Lewis Carroll, and his relationship with his young protégé.
He photographed her in questionable poses. Her family suddenly broke off contact with him. Did he make advances on her? Propose marriage? Scholars have strained the evidence repeatedly without finding a conclusion, so we will probably never know. But Victorian sexual standards differed from ours. The age of consent for girls was raised in 1865 – from 12 to 13. Why does our culture wish to cast Alice Liddell as Dodgson’s victim? Must the story of a fearless girl adventurer be haunted by a tale of violation?
Perhaps the pedophilic narrative about Dodgson expresses parental fears about the welfare of our daughters, granddaughters, nieces and other young female relatives. But constantly imagining a predatory world in which girls are always available for victimization also helps bring about that reality. Wonderland is an upside-down world in which nonsense reigns. Is that the only context that supports a fearless girl protagonist?
I don’t recommend turning a blind eye to the real and horrible ways in which girls are routinely deprived, violated and immiserated throughout the world. But within popular culture and our own families, we can do a better job of imagining girlhood.
When girls are hemmed in by overprotective adults, they take fewer chances. When they are encouraged to be fearful, they never acquire the strength to stand and be counted. Perhaps that’s why “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” still enchants us as an ideal. On its anniversary, we can best celebrate Carroll’s story by using it to teach and delight our girls.
Let’s follow its example, to reimagine the real world as one in which they thrive.
Susan Zieger is an associate professor of English at UC Riverside who specializes in 19th century British and related literatures.