Victorian Childhood and Alice in Wonderland Term Paper
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Alice in Wonderland as Victorian Literature -- Being a child in Victorian England was difficult. They had to behave like the adults did, follow all rules, they had to be seen but not heard. Children, however, are naturally curious; unable to sit for long periods of time, and as part of normal cognitive development, consistently asking questions about the world. In fact, childhood is the period when a child acquires the knowledge needed to perform as an adult. It is the experiences of childhood that the personality of the adult is constructed. Alice's adventures, then, are really more of a set of curiosities that Carroll believed children share. Why is this, who is this, how does this work? and, her journey through Wonderland, somewhat symbolic of a type of "Garden of Eden," combines stark realities that would be necessary for her transition to adulthood.
For Victorians, control was part of not only the social order, but their understanding of place and time in the world. As Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole: "Down, Down, would that fall never end? (Carroll, 13), she still remains so "logical" in that, "I wonder what the latitude or Longitude I've got to?" Ibid.) Education, being part of "control," was the way proper young Victorian children accepted their social class and became good English citizens. However, Carroll seems to be telling us that sometimes knowledge is useless in certain situations and the Victorian idea of "knowing all there is to know," as Alice mistakenly believes the world will be upside down, is incorrect. This shows that education was very important at the Victorian times and children were taught morals, rules and warnings on how to behave and what to do in which situation but in real life this was not always applicable and even useless, and Alice rather grows up through experience than through schoolbook knowledge. Indeed, the idea of a topsy-turvy world for Victorians would be one that was unordered to their sensibilities.
Alice is almost immediately presented with the painting of the roses and the death sentences given the painters by the Queen of Hearts, "Off with their heads." This is certainly an example of the absurdity of the adult world from the point-of-view of an innocent (a child). Why, in the world, would the Queen want to kill painters (83)? However, seemingly answering that question for all, the Cheshire Cat informs Alice that "We're all mad here," as if this will explain any of the contradictions she sees. Indeed, Alice remarks, "I don't want to go among mad people," but is out-argued by the cat who also indicates that Alice must be mad, "or [she] wouldn't have come there" (66).
Additionally, all is not brightness and fun in Wonderland. Often Alice is treated harshly enough to cause her to cry, sometimes because of her lack of social grace and childish candor, sometimes because she cannot understand the various and contradictory motivations that seem to pop up. Indeed, Alice is never harmed, at least overtly. Part of Alice's initiation into adulthood is her ability to be clever, and her ability to tell fact from fantasy. "It was all very well to say 'Drink me,' but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. 'No, I'll look first,' he said, 'and see whether it is marked 'poison' or not'; for she had read several nice little stores about children who had got burnt and eaten…" (17). Still, she is a child, and a child is curious about the world, and after she tries the liquid she grows in size. This is an important theme in that at the beginning of the story, she cannot control the process and grows so big that she becomes unwieldy; but toward the end of the book she learns to control the process -- a marked symbol of maturation.
Alice, and likely Carroll, continually struggle with the problem of confronting the concept of identity. After falling through the Rabbit hole, Alice tests her knowledge in literature to determine whether she has become another girl. She is unable to answer who she is, thus it is implied that books or simple education in school cannot help one in determining "self" or in finding one's place in the world. Several times in the book, Alice is ordered to identify herself by the creatures of the Wonderland but is unable to answer, as she feels that she has changed several times since that morning. Alice's
doubt about the identity mostly is influenced by her physical appearance, because she grows and shrinks several times, which she finds "very confusing." The White Rabbit mistakes her for his maid; Pigeon thinks she is a serpent:
"And just as I'd taken the highest tree in the wood," continued the Pigeon, raising its voice to a shriek, "and just as I was thinking I should be free of them at last, they must needs come wriggling down from the sky! Ugh, Serpent!"
"But I'm not a serpent, I tell you!" said Alice. "I'm a- I'm a-"
"Well, what are you?" said the Pigeon. "I can see that you're trying to invent something!"
"I- I'm a litter girl," said Alice, rather doubtfully, as she remembered the number of changes she had gone through, that day (55).
Thus, the characters of Wonderland try to tell her what or, rather, who she is and Alice, of course, is confused but finally she understands that she must control the objects around her, rather than be controlled by them, and "grow up on her own terms." Children, of course, believe that adults want them to change -- behavior, attitude, time-management, etc., but are often resistant to change themselves. Whereas a child is more inclined to accept change as a normal part of life. Expressing a clear symbol of what modern readers would recognize as "the generation gap," not only do the Wonderland denizens tell Alice who she is (supposed to be) but how to be (D'Ambrosio, 1075). To which, Alice replies, "I've tried every way, but nothing seems to suit them" (65). This is an important and difficult lesson of growing up -- the idea of self-definition as opposed to letting the external world define one's nature. In Victorian England, it is likely that the external defined most everything about Carroll's life -- the Deans of the College, the religious community, the expectations held for someone as a math professor, and certainly in his dealings with children. In point of fact, Carroll presents us with adults who are either indifferent, incompetent, meddlesome, or often even disagreeable people (Ayres, 237-8). For instance:
The Mad Hatter -- "Your Hair wants cutting," said the hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity and this was his first speech (79).
Tiger Lily -- "I don't care about the colour," the Tiger-Lily remarked. "If only her petals curled up a little more, she'd be all right. (155)."
The Duchess -- "You don't know much," said the Duchess, "and that's a fact" (73).
The Red Queen -- "Look up, speak nicely, and don't twiddle your fingers all the time" (158).
Clearly, Alice is found wanting -- not just in who she is, or isn't; but what she looks like, knows, and says -- all parts of the hierarchical nature of adulthood.
Then there is the age old notion of responsibility -- how much Carroll, and most likely, every reader of Alice, wants to throw off duties, responsibilities, and the self-limitations of modern society. In Alice, we see this well-bred little girl learning about the capricious nature of language, of cynicism and sarcasm, of an adult's ability to lie (and get away with it), and how the adult world is seemingly erratic. With the exception of the Tweedles, all the creatures Alice meets are clearly adult -- but not the kind of adult she is used to / it is always "tea-time" for the Mad Hatter, the march Hare, and the Dormouse and if anyone comes they do not like, they simply cry, "No room, no room." This is certainly a contradiction to the overly polite ways of Victorian society, where even a dressing down sounds like a polite poem. In fact, if one can find any singular moral of Alice it is in the hypocrisy of the Duchess when she declares: "If everybody minded their own business," the Duchess said, in a hoarse growl, "the world would go round a deal faster than it does" (61).
Still, Alice views the world as orderly (very clearly Victorian), and when her adventures end with what she sees as one of the most egregious incidents of adult cruelty -- the Show Trial -- she is able to overcome this injustice through her new found mental acuity combined with her body growing (symbolically from child to adult?) as she fills the courtroom. It seems that Carroll is suggesting that the way to master such a weird, contradictory, and sometimes unpleasant world is…
Sources Used in Documents:
Sander, David. The Fantasic Sublime: Romanticism and Transcendence in Nineteenth-Century Fantasy Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Thacker, Debora and Jean Webb. Introducing Children's Literature. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Walker, Stan. "Novels for Students: Alice in Wonderland." 1999. Enotes.com. <http://www.enotes.com>.
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