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The Mad Hatter’s World


ISSUE:  Winter 1973


It was just over a hundred years ago that “Through the Looking-Glass,” the second of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books, was published, yet Carroll’s fantasy adventures into a little girl’s dream worlds have a wider, more responsive audience than they may ever have had. Looking­ Glass inversions and Wonderland absurdities give us striking shorthand renditions of the language and behavior of a modern world in which it sometimes seems-to quote the Cheshire Cat – that “I’m mad. You’re mad. We’re all mad here.” Andre Gregory’s recent New York stage version exalted the manic potential of the Alice worlds to black humor proportions. The dry, ingenuous tone and the mix of rebellion and self-indulgence in the Alice books have been made to order for the canny, loose “youth culture” of the last few years; and the psychedelic landscapes that the Jefferson Airplane and others have discovered are stunning enough to cause some people to wonder whether shy, inhibited Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, creator of a hookah-puffing caterpillar and mushrooms that change your size, might not have been surreptitiously in the opiate tradition of Coleridge and DeQuincey.

There is no real evidence that Carroll tripped to hallucinatory worlds, but there are enough indications that Carroll was deliberately probing in the Alice books for a new adult life-style, built around a concept that is close to play, to explain their strong appeal to contemporary readers. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass” have always led double lives as adult fantasy literature as well as children’s classics – Katherine Anne Porter once observed that she found them, in fact, enjoyable only when she read them as an adult—but we have been inclined to look upon them largely as grownup escapes into childhood and not as attempts to define and come to new terms with adult life. William Empson has argued, for instance, that the Alice books reflect the post­-Romantic feeling that “there is more in the child than any man has been able to keep.” Though Empson adds that Carroll uses Alice to bring out some hard-headed and unsentimental judgments about the foolishness and even puerility of adult behavior, he apparently does not see any sustained and, one might say, “serious” attempt in the Alice books to explore the possibilities of a freer, richer adult life-style. Such a dimension seems, indeed, almost too much to expect of books that we turn to for the whimsy of talking animals, logic games, and parodies.

Yet within the Alice books are explorations of an adult life that venture as far as Carroll could risk going toward freedom from the duties, responsibilities, and arid self -limitations of modern society-and in this aspect we may dis­ cover the immediacy of their appeal to contemporary readers. Furthermore, in Carroll’s ambiguous feelings toward the relatively stable middle-class society that oppressed him, and in his anxieties about the self-exposure that his nonsense barely cloaked, we discover something of the reasons why writers probing from within a culture turn predominantly to comedy-as they have done in England for a century and a half and in America for the last decade. 

II 

One of the pleasures, surely, of reading “Alice in Wonderland” is to witness the absurd and sometimes devastating ways in which a rather too well-bred little girl learns of the caprices of language and logic and of the alarmingly erratic tracks of her own mind. I am going to concentrate here, however, on what may be an even stronger source of its appeal to adult readers, the covert delight that we take in madcap behavior. Much of our enjoyment of all comedy lies in our realization that we, too, would like to play and carry on, just as the adult creatures of “Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass” do. The creatures Alice meets are clearly grown-ups (with the exception of the Tweedles) and they are engaging in pastimes whose allure would seem to be peculiarly to adults.

What a pleasant change the caucus-race would be from the competition of most “games” and adult occupations: “they began running when they liked and left off when they liked,” and at the end of the race “everybody has won and all must have prizes.” How nice it would be to sit, as the Mock Turtle does, on a shingle by the sea, and sentimentally ruminate on one’s experiences-to surrender to all the self­ indulgence that seems too rarely possible in modern life. It is always tea-time for the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse, and people they don’t like just aren’t invited; “No room! No room!” says the Hare. When Humpty Dumpty uses a word it means what he chooses it to mean, neither more nor less.

We cannot say exactly what was included in the original, oral version of “Wonderland” that Carroll spun for the Liddell sisters while boating on the Thames, but we do know that many of the additions he made to the tale when writing it out for publication were those very episodes of comic indulgence, such as the mad tea party and the reminiscences of the mock turtle. Common to these additions is the sense of a poignant need to retreat to personal patterns of play and whim, as if to escape from the narrowing pressures of a life in society. In the years just before “Wonderland” was published, Carroll himself chafed and despaired under what seemed to him the onerous burdens and anxieties of adult life. At the end of each year he sadly assessed himself and recorded in his diaries his failures to live up to his responsibilities as a scholar, teacher, and man of religion. “Great mercies, great failings,” he wrote at year’s end in 1855, “time lost, talents misapplied – such has been the past year.” In 1868 he made this self-appraisal: Dec. 31 (Th). Here, at the close of another year, how much of neglect, carelessness, and sin have I to remember! I had hoped, during the year, to have made a beginning in parochial work, to have thrown off habits of evil, to have advanced in mv work at Christ Church. How little, next to nothing, has been before me; once more let me set myself to do something worthy of life ‘before I go hence, and be no more seen.’…

He pleaded with God to “make me hereafter such a worker! But, alas, what are the means?” Characteristically, in February, 1863, he bemoaned that “This year has given no promise as yet of being better than its predecessors: my habits of life need much amendment” and then he listed four ways (including “denying myself indulgence of sleep in the evening”) by which they could be improved. Distracted by his amusements, unambitious, eyed suspiciously by the parents of his little girls, and nagged by a sense of failure for forsaking a religious vocation, Carroll looked for life possibilities in which these concerns and burdens did not exist. In his own life, he found respite in his many hobbies and avocations; he was an inveterate riddler, game­ maker, rhymester. In the Alice books, however, Carroll could render through imagination the fragments, at least, of a desired life style – a life style that has the freedoms and satisfactions of adult play.

Through play, in fact, Carroll developed the talents for which he is most remembered. He began writing nonsense as a boy for the amusement of himself and his brothers and sisters. As he acquired a special, self-conscious skill at it, his play developed into an art – but into an art that retained its child’s play quality. Nonsense, to be successful, must keep that precarious balance between childlike whimsy and the capriccio of a trained artist showing off his skills. Like caricature it is apparently casually rendered, but it is often swept up in the exuberance of comic creation, the writer improvising, piling on richer and wilder creations and scenes for his own delight in them, like Dickens indulging himself in more and more of Mrs. Gamp.

The exuberance of play, however, is often deliberately restrained by an arbitrary order of rules invented by the player, and this was especially important to Carroll. In this quality of personally devised order – the brief moments in the Alice books of creatures rehearsing their individual delights–one captures the pleasure of personal control of one’s life, and perhaps achieves the stasis that so many Victorians sought in a rapidly changing world.

Even more important is the relief play brings from the officious moralizing of other people. The “moral” of “Wonderland” is drawn by the Duchess (although she doesn’t practice it): “If everybody minded their own business, the world would go round a deal faster than it does.” Victorian comic writers from Thackeray to Butler tried to fend off those ponderous forces that were bent on dictating ethical, social, and even psychological conformity. In moments of play, at least, one can operate, as Johan Huizinga has noted, “outside the antithesis of wisdom and folly…of good and evil.” In later years, Carroll could rhapsodize about his dream – Alice because she was living in the happy hours “when Sin and Sorrow are but names – empty words signifying nothing!” The homiletic hymns and rhymes that Alice tries to recall in “Wonderland” but cannot– “The Old Man’s Comforts,” “Against Idleness and Mischief,” “The Sluggard,” and “Speak Gently” –all share three elements: an injunction to be industrious and responsible, the reminder that we shall all grow old, and an invocation of our religious duties. Significantly, these banished thoughts are those we try to forget in play.

Carroll could not forget them for long, however, and Wonderland’s imaginative projection as a possible variant life style was at the same time an opportunity to register and somehow “work out” the very anxieties that gave rise to the search for a new life style. In dreams we are often able to do all these things, and “Wonderland” is such a dream.

True to the dream, most things in Wonderland do not happen in a logical and chronological manner. There is no “plot” to the book; instead, dream thoughts pull seemingly disorganized elements together. Almost immediately the anxieties Carroll recorded so often in his diaries come to the surface in the behavior of the White Rabbit, who’s late, who’s lost his glove, who’ll lose his head if he doesn’t get to the Duchess’ house on time. The Rabbit will later act for the Crown in the surrealistic trial of the knave at the book’s end, thereby explicitly linking such social anxieties with the arbitrary punishment and the dread of fury that persistently flashes along hidden circuits of Wonderland’s dreaming brain and periodically seizes Alice and the creatures. At the end of the innocuous caucus race, the Mouse tells Alice his “tale”; it is about Fury and it prefigures the terrifying dissolution of the Wonderland dream itself. According to the tale, personified Fury, who this morning has “nothing to do,” imperiously decides he’ll prosecute the Mouse: ” ‘I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,’ said cunning old Fury; ‘I’ll try the whole cause and condemn you to death.”’

Time and again the delights of play are cut off suddenly by such arbitrary violence, for we perceive that play by its nature cannot last. No wonder the Mad Hatter curtly changes the subject when Alice reminds him that he will soon run out of places at the tea-table. Too soon he is dragged into court by the Queen to be badgered and intimidated, despite his pathetic protest “I hadn’t quite finished my tea when I was sent for.” Play can only temporarily remove us from outside reality, as Carroll himself repeatedly discovered, because authority, society (characterized in those adult women–Queens and Duchesses) will interfere and impose its angry will. This is why I believe it is inaccurate to assert, as Hugh Kenner and Elizabeth Sewell have, that Carroll’s books are “closed” works of art, literary game structures that are deliberately isolated and fundamentally unrelated to the Victorian social world outside them. They show, on the contrary, Carroll’s reluctant conclusion that totally independent life patterns are impossible and even dangerous, and they are Carroll’s paradigms of the way social power is achieved and how it operates in Victorian England.

Inherent in the very freedom of play is its weakness. Functioning by personal whim, it is potentially anarchic, thus vulnerable to the strongest, most brutal will. Halfway through the book Alice unaccountably must enter Wonder­ land a second time and she finds its tenor radically different. Instead of the pleasantly free caucus race, she is in a croquet game where “the players all played at once, quarrelling all the while.” All order has collapsed; hedgehog balls scuttle through the grass, bodiless cats grin in the dusk. And the domineering Queen of Hearts imposes her angry will more and more as she exploits the anarchy of the hapless world of play.

The antics that the mad tea party group, the Caterpillar, and other free souls had been indulging in were, in a word, nonsense. Just as nonsense writing is a form of play activity, play itself-at least as Carroll conceived it-is nonsensical in the context of the “real world”; it has been deliberately deprived of meaning, of any overt social and moral significance. Alice noted at the tea party that “the Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.” At the trial of the knave, however, suddenly there is meaning attached to nonsensical actions and statements: it is the meaning that the autocratic Queen wants attached to them, so they can be made to serve her lust for persecution. The most damning piece of evidence, according to the Crown, is a nonsensical letter purportedly written by the defendant. Alice argues, “I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it,” but the King of Hearts insists, “I seem to see some meaning in [the words] after all.” The individuals who assert power in society, Carroll is suggesting, decide what things shall mean. Their whims, prompted and carried out by an irrational fury against people who would be free, dictate our responsibilities, our duties, our guilts, our sins, our punishment.

Here the adult victim’s view nicely corresponds to the child’s view of grown-up authority. If a child is called to task, told to remember some rule or duty he has forgotten about or never fully realized he was responsible for, he feels like the Mad Hatter, who is told “Don’t be nervous, or I’ll have you executed on the spot.” Justice from a child’s perspective often does seem to function like the Queen’s: verdict first, guilt later.

This vision is surely familiar to post-Kafka readers and may be one of the reasons why “Wonderland” has such contemporary appeal. If there is a difference between Car­ roll’s rendition of social power and the view of present writers it lies, probably, in Carroll’s attribution of the evils of that power to the ambitions of specific unscrupulous individuals. Social authority is frequently depicted in our contemporary literature as a vague but pervasive, impersonal force: monolithic, self-sustaining, its motives obscure, its constituents unidentified. Although “Looking-Glass” implies a social order close to this, “Wonderland” delineates – as much mid-Victorian literature does – an Establishment that is made up of greedy, insensitive individuals fulfilling selfish urges for power and disguising it with moral cant. Such a view reflects the rise to power in nineteenth-century England of the entrepreneurs, the exploiters, and the social climbers who are so vividly depicted in Dickens and Trollope. It reflects also the abundance and variety of self-appointed moral arbiters of the time: the Churchmen, earnest reformers, and busy, bustling middle-class matrons. Yet, in the final analysis, Carroll’s particular depiction of the way society works stems largely from his own psychological makeup. His reluctant conclusion that a totally free lifestyle is impossible and ultimately undesirable is a consequence, as I shall show presently, of that unique mix in Carroll of fear of anarchy, of self-doubt, and of realism about the way things are.

III

We talk of the Alice books as if they were one book, despite the fact that “Wonderland” was published in 1865 and “Through the Looking-Glass” in 1871. Though they bear certain resemblances, there is a remarkable difference in the mood and strategy of the books. In “Looking-Glass” Carroll sees the prospects for free activity in society much more pessimistically. We discover immediately that “Looking-Glass” is worked out as a chess game in which Alice is propelled along toward a visible goal; she is no longer exploring on her own. There is a deterministic impulse underlying the Looking-Glass dream; indeed, it ends with the suggestion that we are all part of the dream of a God-like Red King whose own unconscious wishes predetermine our lives.

Alice’s entry to Wonderland had been balked by problems of identity; she had to shed some false notions relating to size, rote-knowledge, and rules of behavior before she could participate in the dream world. On entering the looking-glass, she is confronted with difficulties in moving “forward,” as if her need now is to move out, away from home and childhood into the adult world of roles and responsibility.

While “Wonderland” is set in a spring afternoon, “Looking-Glass” takes place in mid-winter; the first book’s golden aura now seems only the yellowing of age. Alice is rudely told by the flowers that she is beginning to fade. Humpty dwells upon her age and the possibility of death, and in parting, as Humpty offers her his finger to shake, he says that he very much doubts if he’d know her if they did meet again, because “you’re so exactly like other people.” How chilling it is, Carroll seems to be saying, to contemplate a dry, unsatisfying maturity like that of the Queens in “Looking­Glass,” whom Carroll later described:

The Red Queen I pictured as a Fury, but of another type from the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland; her passion must be cold and calm; she must be formal and strict, yet not unkindly; pedantic to the tenth degree; the concentrated essence of all governesses! Lastly, the White Queen seemed, to my dreaming fancy, gentle, stupid, fat and pale;…just suggesting imbecility, but never quite passing into it…

The poems that frame “Looking-Glass” echo the plaint, and seem to be spooned up from Carroll’s deepest, stickiest treacle-well:

Come, harken then, ere voice of dread,
With bitter tidings laden,
Shall summon to unwelcome bed
A melancholy maiden!·
We are but older children, dear,
Who fret to find our bedtime near.

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Toward the end of “Looking-Glass” the White Knight – whose resemblance to Carroll himself has often been noted – invents for Alice a nonsense verse that is a Looking-Glass distortion of “Wonderland”: this one, too, is set in a summer, now “long ago,” not about a child, however, but about a pathetically aged man, “who seemed distracted with his woe.” Growing old, we recall, was banished from “Wonderland”; it was in the poems Alice “forgot.” In “Looking­Glass” it is omnipresent.

Adult play, which was so vividly real early in “Wonderland,” is not seriously offered again. Humpty, the Lion and the Unicorn, and the Tweedles carry on a bit, but their careers are predetermined by the nursery rhymes about them. By wishing for the crow of the Tweedle rhyme to come, Alice makes it come, and one uneasily suspects that if she willed it, Alice could make Humpty fall off the wall immediately. If the Cheshire Cat of “Wonderland” is the comic spirit of play, able to go where he wishes, do as he wishes and remain – sometimes literally – detached, the gnat Alice meets in “Looking-Glass” is the comic spirit of that book: he can barely be heard, his humor is forced and restricted in range, and he, himself, is miserable.

The blend of sadness with humor was by no means unusual in early Victorian England. One need only think of Samuel Johnson or Charles Lamb to remind himself that melancholia and tragedy haunted the personal lives of the humorists themselves. Indeed, wistfulness and sentimentality had long been combined with laughter in the English humor tradition that stretched back into the eighteenth century and still flourished in the first half of the nineteenth century. “Mirth itself is too often but melancholy in disguise,” Leigh Hunt wrote, and Hazlitt insisted that although “we cannot suppress the smile on the lip…the tear should also stand ready to start from the eye.”

Carroll could not help but be aware of the sentimental humor tradition, even though it may have abated considerably by the sixties. The comedy of “Looking-Glass” seems to be more directly in that tradition, especially in its emphasis on eccentricity, rather than adult play.

Eccentric behavior, always the favorite subject of English sentimental humor, was treated by most Englishmen with considerable indulgence because it reflected individuality and oddity, enabled a man to cater to his whims a bit without being in any way a threat to the prevailing public order. English bourgeois society “gave” to that extent, permitting a good number of exotics to flourish so long as their conduct did not smack of rebellion or social criticism. If anything, eccentricity (in literature, at least) affirmed English norms, for the amiable eccentric was by nature benevolent and often pious, a man of home and hearth, manifestly harmless. No better examples can be found than its two archetypes: Fielding’s Parson Adams and Sterne’s Uncle Toby. Herein lies the difference between it and the adult play that Carroll formulated in “Wonderland,” for that play is anti-social, an opting out of society, often “irresponsible” and implicitly critical of the prevailing system.

Adult play and eccentricity admittedly shade into each other. There are elements of each in both Alice books, but it is apparent from the tone and structure of “Looking-Glass” that Carroll did not go back again to an exploration of the possibilities of a free life-style and that he settled, as he grew older, for a conventional – if less joyful – accommodation to the societal patterns of his time.

The White Knight, for example, has all the characteristics of the amiable eccentric: he is melancholy, loveable, and laughable, and very obviously modeled after Don Quixote, who, to early nineteenth-century readers, seemed to be a perfect specimen of the amiable humorist. And he is very much part of the chessboard social pattern. Contrast the White Knight with the waspish Hare and Hatter, who have no part in any larger social order. The creatures in “Looking Glass” spend much of their time perched on walls or upside down in a ditch idly contemplating-like Parson Adams or Sterne’s Walter Shandy. At one point in “Looking-Glass,” when Alice bursts into tears because it is so very lonely there, the White Queen tries to comfort her by telling her to “consider what a great girl you are. Consider what a long way you’ve come today.” “Can you keep from crying by considering things?” Alice asks. “That’s the way it’s done,” the Queen says.

Consider what a long way you’ve come: “Looking-Glass,” unlike “Wonderland,” has the speeded up tempo and brassy talk of the acquisitive, industrial society. Alice is flung onto a rushing train, and asked where her ticket is. “Don’t keep him waiting, child,” a chorus of voices demands, “his time is worth a thousand pounds a minute.” The land is worth a thousand pounds an inch, the smoke from the engine a thousand pounds a puff. Alice is haplessly driven on toward womanhood, as an underlying anxiety constricts dream’s action tighter and tighter toward the breaking point –  until at last life becomes unbearable and rapacious.

The last moments in the Looking-Glass, as the banquet guests wallow in the gravy, are a hideous analogue of the life of an indulgent society. Just as the characters are less joyful and independent than those of Wonderland, so the society here is faster, harder, more manipulative. The Darwinian motifs of survival of the fittest and of cannibalism that had shot randomly through Alice’s first dream have now become almost the governing principle in a world where people are figuratively “consuming” others.

The half a dozen years between the two books had resigned Lewis Carroll to an even more muted expression of rebellion. They were also years in which Victorian England grew more affluent, more wasteful, perhaps a bit more frenetic. Carroll’s own life, as the diary entries from 1866 to 1870 reflect, was more demanding, and his interests turned more to politics and affairs of the world. Ever sensitive to changes in the quality of life, Carroll may have sensed the disillusionment that was to beset the late Victorians when the promise of a more satisfying life through progress proved empty to them. Already feeling like a man hopelessly out of tune with his time, Carroll in his oblique and highly personal way registered these nuances of change in English culture and, sadly, in his own prospects for happiness and freedom.

IV 

Lewis Carroll has been posthumously psychoanalyzed more than any other English writer, save maybe Swift. The smug callousness with which his possible repressions and perversions have been delineated constrains one from any more inquiry into the man, yet the ambivalence of positions and tones in the Alice books – the odd mixture of self-pity and insouciant gaiety, of coy spoofing and mordant commentary on human foibles – do inevitably draw us to inquire into the complex of attitudes that dictated the comic expression Carroll chose.

The recurrent preoccupation with anarchy and madness, in “Wonderland” especially, entices us to speculate on the part they played in Carroll’s thought. It is, we recall, the anarchic tendencies of play and its vulnerability to irrational fury that led Carroll to close it off as an adult possibility. Carroll was not the only one of his time to share an uneasiness about social disorder; the desperation and brutality of the London underworld was never far away, and the possibility of worker uprisings in city and country was, for many, a serious problem. Indeed, the very speed and randomness of social change may have seemed anarchic. There is a remarkable resemblance in this sense between Carroll and Dickens, whose “Pickwick Papers” shares Wonderland’s picaresque quality, interrupted by random tales of delirium, congenital madness, and of men losing control of themselves. We have in Carroll a not unusual fear of anarchy and a tendency to equate individual insanity to social chaos.

The madness in the Alice books is often no more than the “looniness” of children’s literature, or a harmless addlepatedness, which Alice usually absorbs with considerable aplomb. But there is a more worrisome dimension to the motif. The hallucinatory qualities of the books, the sudden metamorphoses, the wayward thoughts of cannibalism and dismemberment, the hot flashes of fury, all remind us that in dreams, especially, our minds seem to wander dangerously close to insanity. Throughout his life Carroll displayed a fascination with mental derangement. His long poem, “The Hunting of the Snark,” subtitled “An Agony in Eight Fits,” takes us imaginatively to the borderline of dissolution: a Baker goes out like a candle at the sight of a boojum snark. An insomniac, Carroll worked off and on at the small book of mathematical “pillow problems” to take the mind, he said, off the “undesired thoughts” that fly into the head in those late-night hours before sleep. And Carroll recorded in his diary the confusion between dream and wakefulness that makes us question our very sanity:

Query: when we are dreaming and, as often happens, have a dim consciousness of the fact and try to wake, do we not say and do things which in waking life would be insane? May we not then sometimes define insanity as an inability to distinguish which is the waking and which the sleeping life?

The psychologist Ernst Kris suggests that the venture into comedy itself is “double-edged,” often carrying us near to the most unpleasant and terrifying aspects of existence and non-existence. So often do comic writers from Cervantes to the present play with insanity that we can well wonder about the standard of “common sense” prevalent in comedy; it seems at times to be an attempt to hold onto some generally agreed-upon reality.

All this is not to show that Carroll feared he would go mad, but that he was acutely conscious of the distortions of the human mind. He was preoccupied enough with the train of his own uncanny thoughts to have strong doubts about those potentially anarchic individual life styles that he concocted. He was evidently uneasy about deviation from societal norms. For this reason Alice herself acts in “Wonderland” and “Looking-Glass” as a check on the possibly manic behavior of even the “free” adult creatures like the Hatter and the Hare. She retains throughout a nice balance of self­control and imagination, which may be, in part, what made pre-adolescent little girls so attractive to Carroll. Even at her most disoriented, Alice can declare firmly that “I’m I.” Though Carroll gently spoofs Alice’s literal-minded common sense, she serves to remind us that no matter how appealing some of the creatures’ life styles are, any sensible child her age must see it all as silly behavior by grown-ups. When the chaos and foolishness of Wonderland get out of hand at the end of the book, it is Alice who becomes the adult by growing in size and authority, and the imaginary creatures appear to be only errant children. Built into the work which vividly and alluringly explores the free behavior patterns that Carroll was attracted to is a perspective that makes it all seem puerile and pathetic, as if Carroll had doubts in his own mind about the sense (as well as the social wisdom) of that life style.

Carroll’s ambivalence is even more in evidence when he treats religious issues. The Alice books can he easily read as subtle critiques of Calvinist tenets. “Looking-Glass’s” dreaming king seems to parody predestination, as does its punishment first, guilt later. The knave’s trial draws on the idea that there is something one is guilty of but cannot remember – which may, in fact, be a primordial sin lying deep in one’s unconscious. Carroll, writing later in life of his religious beliefs, explicitly rejected the notion of punishment for original sin. And there are numerous allusions in the Alice books to the burdens and anxieties that religion, through its hymns and stultifying moral parables, places upon us.

Yet there is nothing we could characterize as overt or conclusive condemnation of religious belief in either of the books. Issues like Original Sin and Darwinian survival of the fittest cut so many different ways in “Wonderland” that it appears that Carroll is expressing only something of the confusion in his own mind. This is, the British historian G. Kitson Clark suggests, symptomatic of intellectuals in the 1860’s, who shared “…a general uneasy feeling that Christianity had been disproved by someone, which combined with the increase in the number of secular interests and amusements to cause a retreat from the old habits and certainties.” Carroll himself had undergone a crisis of confidence in his ability to defend his religious beliefs in 1857 which figured in his decision that he had no vocation for the ministry. Presumably doubt, directed perhaps as intensely against himself as against religious doctrines, lingered during the period of the writing of the two Alice books, even though Carroll responded then and throughout his life to any license in literary portrayal of religion with exaggerated sensitivity. Evelyn Waugh, a religious man who himself dealt in the comic mode with the problems of sincerity of belief in “The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold,” says of Carroll: 

It seems likely to me that Dodgson was tortured by religious skepticism; his abnormal tenderness of conscience with regard to blasphemy is explicable if we think of him as treasuring a religious faith so fragile that a child’s prattle endangered it. He believed that the only way he could protect his faith was by escaping…from contemporary life – in his scholarship into remote and fanciful abstractions, in literature into nonsense.

Hence we have the conflicting impulses that underlie the Alice books: a fervent desire to set up a completely free, amoral life style of adult play, and an equally intense dread of the anarchy that would ensue; a need to assert Carroll’s own, very individual way of recreating contemporary adult life, and a distrust close to fear of the mad tracks of his own fantasies; an antagonism to the life-and-freedom-denying tenets of religion, and despair at the slippage of his own faith. Added to this is an ambivalence many of the literary figures of Carroll’s generation felt toward the society of their day – and which may, indeed, be a characteristic shared by many twentieth-century British and American comic writers. Though “Looking-Glass” registers, as we have noted, a decline in the quality of individual life, and sharp criticism of the frenzy and the rush of industrial England, nonetheless the 1850’s and 1860’s were, objectively speaking, a progressive, relatively comfortable time. In an era of such excitement, hope, and affluence, how legitimately can society be faulted in what one feels is not quite right about his own life? Especially when one is as acutely aware as Carroll was of his own shortcomings and anxieties?

Ambivalence and indirect attack, angst and muted self­ assertion are beautifully accommodated in nonsense. The virtue of nonsense is its obliqueness; it is ideally suited to criticism from the “inside” of a class or society by one too wracked by self-doubt to engage in open assault. In nonsense one does not have to be precise about one’s target or the manifold causes of grievance. George Orwell, drawing on an observation of Aldous Huxley’s, notes that nonsense poetry usually does not specifically identify the people or institutions in society that are accused of denying men their pleasure and freedom. Orwell uses an Edward Lear nonsense limerick as an example:

There was an old man of Whitehaven
Who danced a quadrille with a raven;
But they said, “It’s absurd
To encourage this bird!”
So they smashed that old man of Whitehaven.

“To smash somebody just for dancing a quadrille with a raven is exactly the kind of thing that ‘They’ would do,” Orwell observes. We know very well who “they” are: the Establishment, the self-appointed moral arbiters of society. And what are they smashing? Harmless adult play, whimsy, dancing. Lear’s verse is slight, hardly “serious,” yet its underlying resentment is perfectly communicated.

A further virtue of nonsense is that the author is never made vulnerable himself. Since nonsense is light and swift–-child’s play–there is an element of self-parody in it which makes us reticent to take any of the author’s self-exposure too seriously. Furthermore, though nonsense verse is anarchic and manic-made up, after all, of nonsensical words blithely substituted for the ones that we expect to read, the tone somehow incompatible with the mood, the subject usually animals and people engaged in unlikely and incongruous activities–it is rigidly controlled anarchy, in a straitjacket of conventional verse forms and rhyme schemes. Nor can the author be counterattacked or criticized. Carroll can allude to his misgivings about such sensitive matters as religious beliefs, morality, and social responsibility without exposing himself to challenges to his own orthodoxy or propriety.

Indeed, in Carroll’s case, his contemporaries found no social criticism in the Alice books at all. Carroll’s books and his nonsense poems fit comfortably into the mid-nineteenth century light comedy tradition that Professor Donald J. Gray has analyzed in his essay “The Uses of Victorian Laughter.” In the vaguely liberal bourgeois magazines like Punch that flourished during the period, important topics were treated so gently, Gray contends, that humor did as much to confirm as to challenge prevailing social and political opinion. The newly established Victorian middle class was as uneasy about the lengths to which its comedy should go as it was about its sexual mores.

This may be why Carroll wrote comedy, however, and why it flourishes so often in affluent middle-class cultures. Comedy enables us to register our criticisms of society and yet somehow take into consideration our personal doubts and ambivalence – even to expose our weaknesses and analyze or parody them. Its very involution suggests the comic writer’s own internal struggles and worries. Many other writers of the Victorian period – George Meredith and Samuel Butler, for example – found it as necessary as Carroll to turn to comedy and irony for a tone and stance that would allow them to combine the social criticism and literary self-analysis that they felt it was necessary to engage in. It is possible that comedy – like eccentricity – is an accommodation to ordered, middle-class society. That, in fact, comedy is one of the ways society diverts and sublimates the anger and irritation of its members into a relatively less destructive expression. That, also, one undertakes comedy only when one cannot or will not rebel from the prevailing social and moral order, just as in play we seem to be deliberately reminding ourselves that our escape is only temporary, and that our withdrawal should not be taken seriously.

Yet comic works like Carroll’s, reticent and oblique though they are, do eventually loosen up social rigidities. They do give us a strong sense of the anguish of the man locked up inside the middle-class society, twisting in anger and despair, yet unwilling to burst out. The Alice books do succeed in communicating perfectly what is felt to be wrong with adult life in such a society and why one has so much difficulty dealing with it. And the popularity of the Alice books attests that the message is still getting across.

 

 

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