Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Uncommon Nonsense

Those who seek a profound meaning cloaked within the bizarre and absurd scenarios of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are sure to be frustrated.  Lewis Carroll was no Tolkien or C.S. Lewis whose works, while they can be enjoyed solely as epic adventures, contain clear Christian references beneath the surface.  Neither was he aiming to teach an adult audience a meaningful message told in the language of a childish tale.  Some have gone so far as to turn their scrutiny on the author himself, searching his life for an explanation behind the mad caperings of his peculiar story.  The portrait of the author, however, serves only to confuse matters rather than to elucidate them.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, or Lewis Carroll, was not the exuberant eccentric that one might imagine when reading such strange fantasies.  He was a shy, stammering college professor who excelled at mathematics, logic and philosophy and his circle of friends included such sober notables as Alfred Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the other Pre-Raphaelite artists.  He lived a quiet, uneventful life as a professor, remaining at the same college for twenty-six years.  Chesterton describes him as a “singularly serious and conventional don, universally respected, but very much of a pedant and something of a Philistine.”  Applying psychoanalysis to the story of Wonderland and its retiring author is as ridiculous as a croquet game played with live flamingos and hedgehogs.  A plethora of conflicting dualities immediately rear their heads in the face of the analyst: the somewhat severe Charles Dodgson vs. the vivid Lewis Carroll; the predictable world of mathematics vs. the sporadic adventures in Wonderland; refined logic vs. utter nonsense.  In the words of Alice herself, the matter becomes “curiouser and curiouser!”

Alice's_Adventures_in_Wonderland_-_Carroll,_Robinson-_CoverAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland is exactly what it appears to be and nothing more, i.e. a whimsical fairy tale written expressly for the amusement of children.  There are no analogies, secret agendas or symbolisms here.  It is simply the story of a girl who fell down a rabbit hole into an upside—down world, where things are not as they seem, unbounded by laws of convention, reason and logic.  The literary enthusiast who strives to decipher the senseless riddles of the Mad Hatter or the reason for the Queen of Hearts’ unbridled rage will only find himself going round and round in a meaningless “caucus race,” returning to where he began, perhaps a little drier but no wiser than before.

If we as adults find Alice in Wonderland perplexing and irrelevant it is because we have forgotten what it is to be a child and how delightful the fantastic and nonsensical are.  Children’s games are usually filled with grotesque characters, ridiculous interactions and strange situations.  Anyone who has told stories to children knows that they are always delighted by the outrageous.  The more exaggerated or ludicrous, the more hilarious it is to them. It is when the reader accepts this absolute fact that the irrationality of Wonderland becomes less baffling.  At first, Alice is disquieted by her inability to comprehend and even communicate with the inhabitants of this strange land.  When she meets the Cheshire cat, he explains everything in one startlingly simple revelation: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”  From then on, Alice does her best to appreciate and accept what she encounters, from the morose mock-turtle, to the ridiculous trial of the Knave of hearts.  It is in this capacity that nonsense is in its proper place, not necessarily teaching lessons but merely giving joy to the young heart.  Carroll’s story grew out of an afternoon excursion with the three children of his friend, Henry Liddell, the youngest of whom was the eponym of the tale.  It was a spontaneous story told for the pleasure of a particular little girl.  The words of Carroll himself concerning the book can speak for themselves:

The why of this book cannot and need not be put into words … for I think a child’s first attitude to the world is a simple love for all living things.  And he will have learned that the best work a man can do is when he works for love’s sake only, with no thought of fame or gain or earthly reward.  No deed of ours, I suppose, on this side of the grave is entirely unselfish.  Yet if one can put forth all one’s powers in a task where nothing of a reward is hoped for but a little child’s whispered thanks and the airy touch of a little child’s pure lips, one seems to come somewhere near to this.

Alice in Wonderland is not a moral tale, but it is in some ways a metaphysical one.  Children are especially dear to Christ and it is a privilege and a blessing to bring joy to their pure hearts.  It is also through the simplicity of childish games and attitudes that children can teach us to adopt a more wholesome perspective of the world.  They are wonderers, taking delight in the smallest and seemingly inconsequential things.  The nonsense of Wonderland and the imaginary realms dreamed up by children can bring us closer to understanding the spiritual realm. Strictly speaking, miracles are nonsensical such as Christ’s Resurrection or the mystery of the Trinity.  Catholicism does not make earthly sense and the heresies that plagued the early church were all rationalizations of spiritual truths that tripped up those who could see only with the eyes of reason.   We cannot presume to understand the cosmos based on our poor, confined understanding and logic.  Chesterton in Defense of Nonsense reminds us that:

 Religion has for centuries been trying to make men exult in the ‘wonders’ of creation, but it has forgotten that a thing cannot be completely wonderful so long as it remains sensible…. This simple sense of wonder at the shapes of things, and at their exuberant independence of our intellectual standards and our trivial definitions, is the basis of spirituality as it is the basis of nonsense. Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook.

At the end of the novel, Alice’s elder sister reflects on the childish tale she has just heard related from her little sister’s lips.  She understands exactly what has happened, that all the adventure and enchantment has been but a fantastic dream, a nonsensical twist on the “dull reality” which, though sensational, comes to an end in the face of life.  Though the dream is ended, there yet lingers the simple truth that it represents:

Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland long ago.

Does the dream end and regular life resume as before?  Do the marvellous adventures and characters lose their significance after we have seen life from their unfamiliar view? We must live our lives according to the reason and logic which bind our material world but we must also maintain those qualities which the children who delight in these adventures possess: innocence that sees with the eyes of faith, vivacity in the face of suffering and the wise nonsense to penetrate the spiritual mysteries around us.  The tale of Wonderland should continue to pass from generation to generation, delighting our children so that they can continue to teach us to see God in the perplexing conundrums and insignificant trifles of this world.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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