The secret messages inside "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

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Or some people have waaaay too much free time.


[spoiler alert]
Oddly, the Burton film of Alice in Wonderland was complained about because it was a complete rewrite, but the linking theme is just as described - except that instead of Alice going through puberty, in the film she grows up and liberates herself, starting as a potential decorative adjunct to a Victorian aristocrat, and passing through a stage as a warrior before becoming head of a trading mission to the Far East. Once Charles Dodgson had recovered from the shock, and after he demanded for days to be told how to do colour photography and moving pictures, I think he might have approved.

But is the theme correct? Alice Liddell was eight at the time and the basic stories were told to her and her sister. Dodgson was a mathematician who liked continuous functions. Alice’s transformations are just like that - functional transforms. On Growth and Form came out many years after the Alice books, but with Dodgson’s interest in map transformations I’m inclined to see Alice’s long neck coming out of Dodgson having had a conversation with someone about the neck of the giraffe - same number of bones as most mammals but elongated - than complex psychological explanations. He was a researcher (“student”) at Oxford, after all, and taking place in High Table discussions - when he wasn’t hanging out with the intelligentsia on the Isle of Wight.


The walrus’s cigar, however, was just a cigar.


I like the mathematical satire explanation, as for instance written up here. Because having heard the idea that the mad tea party is about quaternions – x, y, z going around forever without the fourth variable t – suggestions to do with mundane drugs or sex just seem too ordinary to hold much interest.


One of the more amazing sexual over-interpretations I’ve read was in a book called ‘Oedipus in Disneyland’, with a modern-day framing story involving lots of sex and LSD. Completely methodical and convincing about the sexual interpretations.

Of course, Aleister Crowley was equally methodical and convincing in proving that Alice in Wonderland was all about the Kabalah.

In combination, these convinced me that the Alice stories are fundamentally a Rorshach blot - you see in them whatever meanings you are predisposed to see.

(The one thing they wouldn’t be is an attack on symbolic algebra - that was one of Dodgson’s major enthusiasms, and he wrote a whole series of logic word puzzles which could only easily be solved using the new Boolean algebra.)


And they think other people have the same weird and convoluted imaginations that they do.

I had forgotten that. Also, he aimed a lot of his mathematical puzzles and so on at girls. Dealing as he did with male students in his day job, his correspondence with girls suggests that he got a lot of intellectual pleasure from them. Perhaps they just weren’t as entitled, stuffy and self-important as the average undergraduate at the House in that era.

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I prefer the idea that Dodgson was just trolling literary critics and analysts.

In the same way I feel that if there is a supreme being out there, it created multiple religions with absurd, unbelievable stories just to troll people. “And they still believed it after the part about the talking snake?”

That and no benevolent deity would outlaw the consumption of bacon.


It would really upset deconstructionist lit-crit types, because they see it as a way of mythologizing a text that should stand alone, but there was a real Alice, and she might have had something to do with the story.


That Dodgson had “mixed feelings” about Queen Victoria is interesting. There’s a story that she sent him a letter after Wonderland was published that said, “We look forward to seeing more of your work.” And he sent her a mathematics tract as a joke.

I heard that story when I was a student but apparently it was going around in Dodgson’s lifetime and he was unhappy that anyone thought he’d mock the Queen in that way. Parodying her in fiction was another matter, of course.


No one’s actually brought up the accusations of pedophilia, but I’d still like to take a moment to plug In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: A New Understanding of Lewis Carroll, which does a great job of arguing that Dodgson had a healthy interest in adult women.

I thought those photos were just innocent art in a relatively new medium, influenced by his uncle Skeffington Lutwidge - a Metropolitan Commissioner in Lunacy, the Commission being a UK body established by the Madhouses Act of 1774. (Talk about going down a rabbit hole - one Wikipedia article just leads to another.)

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Carroll struggled with this. He wasn’t allowed to challenge the Church of England - he would have been expelled from Oxford - and so had to write very carefully. But it is clear from his writings that he didn’t believe most of orthodox doctrine. His solution to eschatology was to conclude that if the Church said there was a Hell, well, it must exist. But it was empty…

As I recall he was actually presented to the Queen and she made the remark (I wasn’t there if course, I seem to remember a newspaper report.) Dodgson, of course, knew of Albert’s scientific and engineering interests and perhaps wrongly assumed that the Queen shared them. Albert had died only a few years before.

He was unable to get married because only heads of colleges could do that, and he was deeply attached to Oxford and his research there. Once the girls he befriended reached 16, they could not visit him unchaperoned, and he had an extensive correspondence with them. I have seen articles suggesting that he was doubly unfortunate because he liked women and he liked children and was required by his job to be celibate. Even after he became very rich from the Alice books, he still couldn’t get married without leaving Oxford college life.
Stupid system…I went to a co-ed school and then Cambridge. The public schoolboys from single sex schools found it all quite normal, but I found it deeply weird. The year after I graduated, my college went co-ed.

Sorry if I’ve posted a lot on this but Dodgson is a particular interest of mine.


Any piece on out-there critical or psychological interpretations of classic children’s literature is not complete without mention of “The Pooh Perplex” and “Postmodern Pooh”, both by Frederick Crews. They’re student-casebook collections of critical responses to the Pooh books from such different viewpoints as… well, here are some chapter headings:

  • Paradoxical Persona: The Hierarchy of Heroism in Winnie-the-Pooh
  • A Bourgeois Writer’s Proletarian Fables
  • A.A. Milne’s Honey-Balloon-Pit-Gun-Tail-Bathtubcomplex [by one Karl Anschauung, M.D.]
  • O Felix Culpa! The Sacramental Meaning of Winnie-the-Pooh

and from the second volume

  • The Fissured Subtext: Historical Problematics, the Absolute Cause, Transcoded Contradictions, and Late-Capitalist Metanarrative (in Pooh)
  • Gene/Meme Covariation in Ashdown Forest: Pooh and the Consilience of Knowledge
  • The Courage To Squeal

and, inevitably,

  • Virtual Bear

As you’ll be able to tell from these, there aren’t many critical or cultural sacred cows which Dr Crews leaves ungored, including one or two which are dear to me, and almost certainly to you as well. Very highly recommended.

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When you stare into the honey jar, the honey jar stares into you.


That doesn’t in any way preclude his having a strong sexual attraction to children.

That’s one possible interpretation, but apparently his friends thought the nude photos of little girls were pretty creepy even by Victorian double-standards; I’ve read there are letters preserved from several of them telling him he really needed to cut it out because dude, so skeevy. *

Also not mentioned so far - at some point after Dodgson was friends with the Liddell family and told Alice Liddell the original stories, her father had some sort of confrontation with him. Nothing was recorded of what the cause or subject was, but Mr. Liddell banned him from any further contact with Alice or with the Liddell family thereafter. It certainly makes me wonder what the cause was, and what was said.

  • Not an exact quote.

It’s been a long time since I read the book I mentioned above, but it argues that there was a problem between Dodgson and an older member of the Liddell family, not Alice.

I’m curious about the letters. Nude pictures of pre-pubescent children were considered quite innocent at the time and there were many examples of these readily available, so one wonders what was so objectionable about Dodgson’s. If the letters are real, perhaps they actually refer to pictures of older subjects. Dodgson, again according to the book previously mentioned, had a habit of referring to many of his intimates as a “child-friend,” even if the person in question was well into adulthood.

Or just maybe…it’s a fantasy story where odd things happen and the experts are spouting nonsense.

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