Art through the looking glass at new exhibition

Nearly 150 years after ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was written, a new exhibition explores how Lewis Carroll’s surreal story has inspired artists. Why are we so attracted to his fantastical world?

Summer 1864: On a boat trip on an Oxford afternoon, three young sisters ask a family friend called Charles Dodgson to entertain them with a story. Thinking fast, he invents a wild yarn in which middle sister Alice Liddle follows a rabbit with a pocket watch down a magic rabbit hole into an extraordinary world populated by bizarre creatures. It becomes one of the best-loved books of all time.

The original telling of Alice in Wonderland is just the beginning of the tale. Over the years, Alice-inspired offerings have become curiouser and curiouser, from the biscuit tins and boardgames of Victorian England, to Disney’s popular film, right down to Salvador Dali’s surreal interpretations of the book’s events.

With two exhibitions currently devoted to her, on top of a recent film and full-length ballet, we have never been so enraptured with Alice. Many argue her influence extends to whole literary genres, like magic realism, which places fantastical happenings in the everyday.

Lewis Carroll’s world ‘down the rabbit hole’ is one in which reality is turned on its head. As Alice grows and shrinks, encountering a pipe-smoking caterpillar, a deranged eternal tea party and the insane tyranny of a talking playing card, it is difficult to see any underlying meaning or message. Carroll once admitted that there never was any answer to the Mad Hatter’s famous riddle: ’Why is a raven like a writing desk?’ Similarly, argue many critics, there is no ‘solution’ to the absurdity of Alice in Wonderland itself.

But others do see more to Alice’s world than just pointless fantasy. Carroll was a mathematician, and wrote at a time of dramatic change for the subject. Alice’s constant changes in size, for example, can be read as an expression of frustration with new concepts like imaginary numbers.

There are others who see Alice’s adventures as a kind of parable for growing up and feeling lost in a world where nothing seems to make sense. For Virginia Woolf, the story was not a book for the young, but a powerful tale in which adults could ‘become children’.

Absolute nonsense?

Many of us are attracted to Wonderland precisely because it abandons the laws of nature, and allows us to escape from reality. To try and read meaning into Alice’s strange adventures would be a mistake: we would do better to enjoy the fact that they don’t make sense.

On the contrary, others say, it is their deep relevance to ordinary life that makes the Wonderland books so appealing. By placing the everyday struggles of growing up into a fantastical frame, Carroll’s work illuminates the challenges of real life in a new way, allowing us to understand our selves and our society from a new perspective.

You Decide

  1. Is there a deeper meaning to Alice in Wonderland? Would it be a good thing if there were?
  2. Does literature always need to have a ‘message’, or is a good story sometimes enough on its own?

Activities

  1. Write your own nonsense poem, taking inspiration from one of Carroll’s works.
  2. Write an essay on what Alice in Wonderland might communicate about growing up. Use examples from the text to support your ideas.

Some People Say...

“Reading nonsense books is a waste of time.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Where can I see the exhibitions about Alice in Wonderland?
Two UK exhibitions are currently taking place. The Tate Liverpool is showing a range of work inspired by the book, while Manchester’s Portico Library explores whether the story is really for children.
What other books did Charles Dodgson write?
Through the Looking Glass continues the adventures of Alice, and includes famous poems like Jabberwocky and The Walrus and the Carpenter. The Hunting of the Snark, another nonsense poem, describes ‘the impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature.’
What was he like?
Dodgson was a mathematician at Christ Church College, Oxford, and a renowned photographer. He was a friend of many esteemed artists and writers.

Word Watch

Curiouser and curiouser
This is a famous line from the book. In full it reads: ‘“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English). “Now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was! Good-bye, feet!”’
Salvador Dali
A surrealist artist born in 1904. Dali’s work embraces the key features of surrealism, putting together unusual and unexpected images, and creating scenarios that were bizarre and sometimes nonsensical. His most famous work is The Persistence of Memory, a landscape draped with melting clocks.
Magic realism
A literary genre in which strange, fantastical occurrences happen in an everyday setting. Examples include Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, in which prejudice and racism towards an immigrant Indian cause him to turn, literally, into a demon-like creature.
Imaginary numbers
Any number with a square root that is less than zero. Imaginary numbers are advanced mathematically, and are useful in fields of mechanics and engineering.