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Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass were so part of my childhood that I immediately recognised references in The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls , though I hadn’t read the books. Then, last week, this article about commonly misinterpreted books found its way onto my browser.
People typically think Wonderland is about drug use. And that’s understandable–Alice is forever eating or drinking something that makes her smaller or taller. The caterpillar is smoking a hookah, for pity’s sake. And then, with the existential questions. Only stoned people talk that the kind of nonsense. I mean, really.
Dodgson (Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was actually a Euclidean mathematician who was entirely against the new maths being taught at Christ Church, Oxford, where he worked. From the article:
All the weird drug-trippy stuff that’s been misinterpreted since Woodstock is, we’re sorry to say, really just an elaborate satire of modern mathematics. … in the mid-1800s,… a bunch of irritating young people invaded academia and started bringing new concepts to math. Weird new concepts. Like “imaginary numbers” and other crazy stuff.
What incensed Dodgson was that math no longer had any real-world grounding. He knew that you could add two apples to three apples to get five apples, but once you start thinking about the square root of -1 apples, you’re living on the moon. The Rev. Dodgson thought the new mathematics was completely absurd , like something you’d dream up if you were on drugs.
So he decided to write a book about a world that followed the laws of abstract mathematics, purely to point out the batshit lunacy of it. Things keep changing size and proportion before Alice’s eyes, not because she’s tripping on bad acid, but because the world is based on stupid postmodern algebra with shit like imaginary numbers that don’t even make any sense god dammit. “Alice” was the sensible Euclidian mathematician trying desperately to keep herself sane and tempered…
I decided I really had to read it, armed with this knowledge.
And it’s so much fun when read through that lens!
The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.
Then, during the croquet match where the arches and balls and even mallets keep moving:
‘I don’t think they play at all fairly…and they don’t seem to have any rules in particular: at least, if there are, nobody attends to them…’
And Alice, the sensible one, is usually told she is silly or ridiculous, but the Duchess sees her for who she is:
‘Right, as usual…what a clear way you have of putting things!’
Poor, logical Alice. Stuck with the imaginary numbers crew.
I was already quite familiar with both stories, having watched the cartoons and the live-action films many times as a child (I have still not seen the Tim Burton film somehow), but somewhere along the way I must have seen the books, as well, as the Tenniel illustrations were also well-known to me.
Dodgson was um…fascinated…by little girls and the stories were written for Alice Liddell–there is no doubt about this. But it’s possible he could have also been responding to the absurdity of the illogical acrobatics the new mathematicians wanted numbers to do. He enjoyed playing around with riddles and words, but numbers weren’t to be trifled with.
The version I read is the one shown at the top of this post–the Penguin Clothbound Classics edition, which includes both Alice books based on Carroll’s final 1897 revisions, as well as extensive notes, the original story Alice’s Adventures under Ground, Carroll’s thoughts on the stage play ‘Alice’ based on the stories and a brief biography of the author.
It also has the answer to that infernal riddle: Why is a raven like a writing desk? In the preface to the 1896 edition Carroll wrote:Enquiries have so often been addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s Riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz. ‘Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat, and it is never put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an after-thought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.
It gets right up my nose that he didn’t originally have an answer and only came up with one after being bothered over it… Still. There’s an answer now.
The notes for Through the Looking-Glass include notes on ‘Jabberwocky’ and what many of the seemingly nonsensical words mean–some were supposed to mean something, others genuinely weren’t.
I have a new favourite word now. Frabjous. Which is what this book was–the notes were particularly enlightening. If you’ve left off reading the Alice books because you’ve seen cartoons or films or whatnot I recommend doing so. They can both be snagged for free (legally and everything) from Gutenberg .
If you’re already a fan of the books I highly recommend the Snark Buster games. There are currently three of which I’ve played the first two. Snark Busters (sometimes called Welcome to the Club) and Snark Busters: All Revved Up. The third is Snark Busters: High Society. These are extremely well-done hidden object puzzle games that take place in a steam-punk Victorian world that also has a mirror-world where actions in one world affect the other. They’re great fun and no doubt take their name from Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ .
VladStudio also has some Alice themed wallpapers.
I particularly enjoy: