Thursday, 26 November 2015

‘Curiouser and curiouser!’: 150 Years of 'Alice in Wonderland'

by James Burkinshaw

one of the original illustrations
by John Tenniel
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll was first published 150 years ago. He originally told the story to entertain seven-year-old Alice Liddell and her two older sisters, Lorina and Edith, during a river picnic near Oxford, after she had begged him for a story “with plenty of nonsense in it”.

Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Dodgson, a Mathematics don at Christ Church, Oxford, who, in Alice, presents nonsense as indistinguishable from logic. Puns and puzzles subvert any attempts to make sense of the world that Alice encounters, a feeling of anxiety underlying the sense of wonder: ‘Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. “I don’t quite understand you,” she said, as politely as she could.’ This sense of ontological uncertainty is suggested from the very opening of the book, with Alice’s dizzying descent into the rabbit hole: ‘Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end!’  

With its vertiginous holes, time-obsessed White Rabbit, random growing and shrinking, counter-intuitive logic and dreamlike setting (in which time and space seem arbitrary and unpredictable), it is particularly appropriate that Alice’s 150th anniversary should coincide with the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s formulation of the Theory of General Relativity (see Elliot Ebert's article here). Although written in the mid-nineteenth century, Carroll's classic children's novel seems in many ways more at home in the modernist, twentieth century universe of Einstein, Freud and even Kafka.                          

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