My students don’t like Alice. She’s rude, they say, she is snobby, she interrupts. They didn’t like Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden either, but then she grew up. They liked her when she grew her garden, learned to be polite, learned to care. They don’t see Alice caring; they think she’s self-centered, spoiled. And she is, they’re right.
But, she’s not real, I want to say to them, she’s an invention! Why would someone invent a character like that? What does she suggest to you, what can you learn from her? Why is she so popular, after all these years? Is it just the Disney cartoon? Surely that can’t be enough. Why is this self-centered child still so interesting to us?
They don’t want to talk about that. They want to talk about Lewis Carroll. Wasn’t he on drugs, after all? Didn’t he use opium, get too interested in little girls, teach math? He’s suspect in their minds, so they don’t have to take his creation seriously.
Plaintively I point out that opium was the only painkiller (besides alcohol) available at the time. I point out that no one’s been able to establish any impropriety in his relationships with little girls. I point out that his photographs are remarkable. I don’t talk about his math or the chess problem in Looking-Glass other than to note that I can’t solve it, don’t understand it. But I don’t need to, to enjoy his book.
Alice in Wonderland was an instant hit. What did it say to a Victorian audience that it doesn’t say to my students? Did they enjoy a rude little girl, governed as they were by rules of propriety and hierarchy? Did they like the way she challenged queens and duchesses, caterpillars and kings? Or did they, perhaps, enjoy the way she seemed to escape the fate of most Victorian women, to be a wife and mother? By freezing her at seven (seven and a half, in Through the Looking-Glass) Carroll exempted his little girl from the life her mother had led, the life the real Alice Liddell did, of course, lead.
My students are annoyed by Alice’s class-consciousness. She worries that she’s turned into someone else, just hoping that it’s not Mabel who lives in a “poky little house” and doesn’t have enough toys. Alice obviously has enough toys and thinks she deserves them. I’m not sure she’s all that different from at least some of my students in this regard. My students drive nicer cars than I do, tote cell phones and pagers, expect high-speeed internet access and cable tv as rights. They carry Kate Spade bags, wear Abercrombie and Nike and Polo and names I probably don’t even know. They are Alice, bossy little things who think they know best, think they don’t have to pay attention when someone recites poetry (Alice continually interrupts).
They are goal-oriented. In Through the Looking-Glass, Alice wants to get to the eighth square and be a queen, and when she gets there she finds the crown too tight, the rules too onerous, the other queens unfriendly. Adulthood isn’t that appealing to her. They expect to be immune, though, from Alice’s fate. They will grow up and the queens will be nice to them, the crowns will fit, the toys will get even better.
As I remind my students, Alice is the product of a middle-aged man’s imagination. He grew up in a large family, surrounded by two sisters, and missed the company of girls and women in Oxford’s almost all-male environment. Alice Liddell, the girl for whom he wrote the original Alice’s Adventures Underground, was a teenager by the time he finished his novel, with no time for children’s books or the tales of a middle-aged man anymore. She was almost 20 by the time he published Through the Looking-Glass. How did she feel, being immortalized at age seven by her father’s friend and colleague? She grew up; Alice in the book didn’t. I find her stasis a bit uncomfortable myself, the haze of nostalgia that Carroll invests the book with in the poetry that bookends Through the Looking-Glass. Let her go, I want to say — and then remember how often I’ve imagined “freezing” my own child in a perfect moment. A parent has to let go; a family friend, a childless bachelor, does not. He fixes her at the moment he most enjoyed her, keeping her enthralled by his stories forever.
But there’s a value to that imaginary “freezing,” if we can only see it. In real life we grow up, get married (or don’t), have kids (or don’t), acquire jobs, and mortgages, and cars and the other accoutrements — and responsibilities — of adulthood. Even if we “fail” to accomplish one or more of those things, we are defined in relation to them. If we are not parents, we are childless; if we are not married, we are unmarried, or not married yet, or single — terms that define us by what we lack. Alice lacks nothing in her adventures, as children lack nothing in theirs — they invent themselves daily, shedding what they no longer need or want the minute it ceases to amuse. Women especially are so defined by the roles we play in our culture — mother, wife, caregiver — that Alice’s freedom from those roles seems delicious to me, and may have to many of her original (adult) readers as well. Children’s literature’s other famous perpetual child — Peter Pan — is frozen in time in a way that makes him seem, quite literally, dead. “Lost” out of his pram at a crucial childhood moment, he is replaced in his mother’s love by another child, left to exist in a perpetual present where all the other children abandon him to enter their real lives, to enter adulthood, to grow up. Alice is not dead, she’s vibrantly alive in the two novels that bear her name — but she slips out of them at the end, still a child.
My students are of course not parents, and I know my reading of the novel is conditioned by the fact that I am. My own daughter is now twice Alice’s age, and likes Alice well enough but doesn’t really worry about this stuff, about who Alice is or why anyone should care. Nor does she worry much about how women’s roles are defined in our culture — she is still young enough, idealistic enough, hopeful enough, to think she can do whatever she wants. I think that’s great, mostly — she has all the regular high school stuff to worry about, after all: who likes whom, and why, and who told them anyway? That sort of thing. Oh, and getting an education, and getting into college, and . . . all that. Like her slightly older peers in my classes, she’s already on the “what’s next” treadmill; her goal is college, as theirs was — theirs is now a job, or grad school, or marriage and family. My own daughter doesn’t know what she wants to do when she grows up, or where she wants to go to college, and while she sometimes worries about that we try to encourage her to slow down, enjoy the process, be who she is right now. The way Alice sometimes does, the way I wish I could sometimes, too. On the way to growing up, after all, it’s helpful to find some enjoyment, after all, some time just to be.
But finally I think that’s why my students don’t like Alice — that’s all she does, is just be. She doesn’t grow up. Her story isn’t even linear; you could shuffle it, like a deck of cards, and it would make just as much sense in any other order as in the order they read. Carroll removed some episodes, shuffled others, when he wrote it — and why not? There’s no progress in this book, only change that defies logic. My students believe in progress, in logical development — their lives haven’t yet taught them that the linear often deceives, that logic can be used to manipulate and conceal the truth as often as to reveal. Alice appeals to the very young, who enjoy the anarchic energy of the story, and the jaded, who want to recapture it. Sadly — but perhaps inevitably — she’s lost on the confident young she most resembles.