Lewis Carroll’s popular work, Alice in Wonderland, took a swing in such an imaginative direction that it revolutionized the definitions and expectations of children’s literature. Carroll’s work embraced nonsense within children’s literature, while throwing away such expectations as didacticism, the genteel tradition, and cautionary themes. The tone, attitude, and style employed in Alice in Wonderland also embraces childhood by trying to embellish it with imagination and prolong it by making fun of the very characteristics that might encourage a child to grow up. The anti-didactic, anti-cautionary, and anti-genteel nature of Carroll’s work makes children laugh and use their imagination while simultaneously making many adults cringe from Carroll’s mocking tone and attitude.
Anti-didacticism involves anything that works against teaching a lesson or moral to the reader. Alice in Wonderland is by no means a work that intends to instruct or teach a moral lesson, but rather mocks such an idea. For example, Carroll makes fun of rote learning when he has the character Alice unsuccessfully recite multiplication tables and verses. Rote learning is mocked in Alice’s very words, “I’ll try if I know all the things I used to know” (Carroll 379). When Alice recites her multiplication tables, she cannot get them correct nor can she reach twenty by multiples of fours. After attempting multiplication tables, she completely befuddles her geography when she tries to remember which capitals correspond with which countries. Finally, she attempts to recite “How doth the little–” but gets all the words mixed up! Even through these few examples, Carroll is also able to capture a surrealistic tone within his work by creating juxtapositions or unnatural combinations, such as “four times five is twelve” and “London is the capital of Paris” (379). Carroll also seems to make fun of didacticism during the second encounter between the Duchess and Alice. The Duchess, who acts very bizarre and sometimes inappropriately toward Alice, ironically spouts off nonsensical morals for everything they discuss. For example, when Alice says that the Duchess’s flamingo might bite, the Duchess replies with the absurd comment that “both flamingoes and mustard bite” followed by this illogical moral: “And the moral of that is — ‘Birds of a feather flock together'” (409). These examples illustrate how didactic themes are not only lacking in Carroll’s work but that Carroll is even mocking didactic literature.
The anti-cautionary nature of Alice in Wonderland means that typical, every-day cautionary advice used throughout our lives is the same type of advice that is repeatedly broken or ignored within this story. Carroll seems to mock cautionary tales by having Alice ignore any advice that she might have been taught by her elders. Three examples of every-day advice that are broken within this story include “curiosity killed the cat,” “look before you leap,” and “be careful what you put in your mouth.” Alice disregarded the first well-known piece of advice the second she left her sister (by whose side she should have probably remained) in order to follow a curious-looking rabbit who wore a waistcoat with a watch in the pocket (Carroll 375). She ignored the second common piece of advice when, without stopping to think at all, she scurried into the rabbit hole and ended up falling down a long shaft underground (375). Later, she forgot to be cautious about what she put in her mouth when she drank from a bottle that had no label (386). Finally, throughout the story, Alice continued to put things into her mouth and eat them without really knowing what they were. Very fortunate that the things she ate were not dangerous, she quickly learned that the physical changes to her body were caused by the things she ate, and she soon figured out how to use them to her benefit (388). Carroll might have written the story to mock cautionary tales in order to break the expectations of children’s literature, to prolong childhood, or even to show that children might learn some of their best lessons by learning from their own mistakes.
Finally, the genteel tradition is one that seemed to hold equal importance in children’s education as didacticism and cautionary lessons during Carroll’s time period (Griffith and Frey 371). Through his satire of the genteel tradition, Carroll seems to encourage the preservation of childhood and hope to rid their education of petty rules. For example, Alice attempts to curtsey while falling through the air down the rabbit hole (Carroll 376). The ridiculous nature of this effort mocks the genteel tradition. Another example of the anti-genteel nature of Alice in Wonderland is the Mad Hatter Tea Party scene. The entire tea party is devoid of good manners and acceptable codes of behavior; instead, the party is complete with rude remarks, interruptions, a chaotic table set-up, and no table manners (399-403). Additionally, when Alice tried to instruct the Mad Hatter and March Hare regarding behavior that was civil and uncivil, she was openly mocked by the other two characters until she behaved rudely back at them (399-400). A final anti-genteel example might be Carroll’s complete mockery of the game croquet, as played by supposedly “sophisticated” individuals. Carroll also describes through Alice’s eyes how chaotic and ridiculous the entire scene is; flamingos are used as the mallets, hedgehogs as the balls, and playing card soldier men to create the hoops on the course (406-407). Carroll parodies each of these genteel traditions through his well-created, ridiculous and chaotic scenes.
By exchanging old traditions for imagination through his anti-didactic, anti-cautionary, and anti-genteel styles, Carroll seems to succeed at truly cherishing and prolonging childhood. Alice in Wonderland is strictly entertainment for children, but for adults, it satirizes the common and accepted traditions that many adults of Carroll’s time period expected of children’s literature. By writing in this style, Carroll was also able to realistically portray how a child’s dream is his own and that it does not follow the same rules and traditions of society.
Carroll, Lewis. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Classics of Children’s Literature. 5th ed. Eds. John W. Griffith and Charles H. Frey. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2000. 373-425. Print.
Griffith, John W., and Charles H. Frey, eds. Classics of Children’s Literature. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2000. Print.