Alice in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll

by contributor

Sharon Fleming

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Context

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson lived from 1832 to 1898, and is best known by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll. Carroll was a mathematician and a church deacon who spent a significant amount of time teaching mathematics at Church Christ, Oxford — a college affiliated with Oxford University. From the early days of his life, Carroll suffered from physical deformities. As a child, Carroll’s peers took notice of his stammer and partial deafness and found him difficult to understand, due to his lack of coherent speech. As a result, his peers underestimated his intelligence. No one imagined Carroll could achieve such astounding levels of academic and writing success. Aside from his excellence in religion and mathematics, Carroll possessed a tremendous understanding of children’s minds and behaviors. In addition to expressing this understanding through writing, Carroll took photographs of children. In fact, he became one of the most talented amateur photographers of his time.

Carroll developed his facility with young people in part because he struggled with keeping adult company. In fact, he developed distinct personalities through which he interacted with adults and children. Among children, Carroll’s stammer disappeared, and he thrilled them with his storytelling abilities. When he was young, Carroll became the de facto family entertainer, and his younger siblings loved listening to his stories. Carroll sought the company of children and frequently wrote about them in his diaries. Children, in turn, gravitated toward him.

In 1856, Carroll developed an acquaintanceship with the children of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, where Carroll studied and taught. Liddell’s children — three daughters named Alice, Lorina, and Edith — loved listening to Carroll’s stories. It did not take long for a bond to develop between Carroll and the girls, particularly Alice. He often took them on boat rides, during which he would entertain them with fanciful stories. When he shared one such story with Alice in 1862, she encouraged Carroll to write it down. Using Alice as his protagonist, Carroll’s resulting manuscript turned into his first major commercial success, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — often shortened to Alice in Wonderland — in 1865. Six years later, Carroll published the book’s sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

When Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published, it received negative criticism. Many people did not understand Carroll’s writing and described it as sheer nonsense, a disappointment, and an irritation. Its absurdity repelled some readers. However, the book’s poor reception did not last long. By 1871, it garnered many positive reviews. Perhaps those who read the book from cover to cover got something that the half-readers never noticed. In the long run, readers — young and old alike — have embraced the book’s terrific combination of logic, satire, and pure fantasy. It has won over critics and stood the test of time. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has retained its place in the English literary canon for 150 years.

Following an abrupt end to Carroll’s friendship with the Liddell family in 1863, many speculated about the nature of Carroll’s interest in children. Some scholars have cast aspersions on his character due to his fondness for children, particularly young girls. These arguments suggest Carroll had an indecent association with Alice and even wanted to marry her when she was just 11 years old. This theory gained momentum when Mrs. Liddell confiscated and disposed of all the letters Carroll wrote to Alice. Moreover, Carroll removed all pages in his diary associated with the Liddell family. Nevertheless, there is no evidence suggesting an inappropriate relationship between Carroll and Alice.

Carroll maintained a deep affection for children throughout his life. In all his undertakings, Carroll thought of children. When in the company of children, Carroll felt comfortable and content. He could not be held back by feelings of incompleteness that crept in when he shared the company of adults. The happiness he got from children was so strong that he could not stop thinking of ways to sustain it. He imagined fantasies about the inquisitive and adventurous lives of children and infused them in his writing. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a scintillating display that captures young people’s thinking and imagination.

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