Alice in Wonderland is my favorite book. Not a Johnathan Franzen novel, not Hemmingway, not Fitzgerald or Dickens or Orwell or anyone you’d expect a self-described writer to say. Alice in freakin’ Wonderland.
Some of you are probably going “…Why?” and some of you may be nodding your head in agreement. For the people in the former group, this is for you.
Would you believe me if I said Alice in Wonderland is one of the most subversive, radical, and rebellious books of all time? That it forever changed the landscape of children’s books? It has an incredible importance in literary history when looked at in context of the Victorian era. Here’s why:
In Victorian England, children’s books were supposed to do a number of things. Firstly, they should teach a moral, so reading served doubly as lesson time for children. The morals children’s books would teach fell in line with Victorian values, which were… well… stiff. There was a rigid set of expected rules gentlemen were supposed to follow, and even more for women. In Victorian children’s books, these morals and values were imparted to children through male characters. Among the values Victorian authors wished to teach children: Obedience, proper table manners, politeness, and- especially for girls- unassuming and submissive.
You don’t need to have read the book to know this doesn’t describe Alice at all.
Alice is brash. She speaks her mind, interrupting and questioning multiple characters throughout the story. The tea party scene in depicts just about the worst table manners ever. (Made extra spicy for Victorians since it involves tea, which has its own set of rules and etiquette.) Alice serves as the antithesis of young Victorian heroines, the first heroine in British literature to not be simply the mouthpiece for some lesson in manners. For the first time, children’s books had an actual character for kids to love.
And then there’s the message that fans of the book have taken so strongly to- Alice doesn’t teach us about manners or how to treat your elders or anything. What it teaches us is that it is okay to be who you are. “We’re all mad here” is the enduring line from the Cheshire Cat. It has taken root in pop culture and become something of a rallying cry for those of us who feel we don’t “fit in.” I don’t believe such a message was Caroll’s intention, but it certainly was the result.
Contemporary reviews were mixed. Some praised Alice as one of the best children’s characters in ages, some praised John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations but panned the story, some just decried it as advocating improper behavior. And just about everyone was confused about the plot.
Because this is the most radical thing about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Nevermind the contemporary scandals or the messages it may teach, there is something about the very core of the book that is still radical even today.
There’s no plot.
Well, there’s sort of a plot. But it’s not a strict linear progression of A to B to C. It doesn’t follow that arc your English teacher showed you freshman year. It’s more wibbly wobbly. Alice kind of traipses about from place to place, and while in the final chapter all the idiosyncratic creatures Alice meets return for her trial, the actual “conflict” of who stole the Queen’s tarts is rather arbitrary. It doesn’t have any relevance to the previous eleven chapters. Almost nothing in the story connects. Each chapter is almost one strange vignette after another, with the only common threads being the white rabbit and Alice. And in the end, when Carroll tells you it was all just a dream, he goes one step further. Not only is there no plot, nothing at all actually happened. The entirety of the book’s plot is essentially this: A seven and a half year old takes a nap.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not really a story. To be a story, to make any sort of logical sense, would be to go against the entire nature of the book and its rebellious spirit. Poor Alice has to sort out this surreal fairy tale herself, but logic need not apply in Wonderland.