“All About Alice”, by Anthony Burgess

1890 illustration from the original UNESCO article


Anthony Burgess (1917 – 1993) was a British novelist known for the novel A Clockwork Orange

Lewis Carroll, who wrote Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass, was, in private life, a professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He latinized Lutwidge to Ludovicus or Lewis and Charles to Carolus or Carroll, and, under this name, produced the first Alice book in 1865 and the second in 1872.

He produced other books as well – mostly on difficult mathematical subjects. Queen Victoria, enchanted by the Alice books, asked for all of Mr Carroll’s publications and was bewildered by the delivery of treatises on trigonometry and the binomial theory. Lewis Carroll was also the first of the great photographers, and his studies of children – especially of little Alice Liddell, who was both the heroine and the first reader of the two great books – have a charm and a mastery of technique envied by the snappers of today.
He never married, he was deeply and innocently religious, he liked to be cut off from the dangerous outside world. He was happy to be enclosed by the walls of an Oxford college and to tell stories to the little daughter of Dr Liddell, the great Greek scholar. But the publication of the two Alice books brought him fame. There was something in the adult imagination and yet it pleased, and continues to please, children. Carroll was a greater man than he knew.

Listen to an imaginative dramatization about how Alice in Wonderland was written, from 1937.

Both the Alice books are fantasies, aspects of the love of nonsense which was prevalent in England in the Victorian age. There was no nonsense in the rest of the world. When, in the early years of the twentieth century, France began to discover the delights of nonsense, this was called surrealism, and it was regretted that the British were too old-fashioned to produce surrealists in the staid age of Victoria, and of these perhaps Lewis Carroll was the greatest.

Surrealism consists in destroying the logic of ordinary life and substituting a kind of logic of the unconscious mind. Alice’s adventures take the form of dreams in which bizarre things happen, but these things are based on a more serious approach to language than we can permit ourselves in waking life. By language I mean, of course, the English language in which Carroll wrote; many of his dream-jokes are impossible to render into other tongues. If there is an insect called a butterfly, it seems dreamily logical to have a bread-and-butterfly, and Carroll’s illustrator, Tenniel, draws us one of these. The flower known as a dandelion is a dandy lion, hence it can roar. There is a school in which the lessons get shorter every day: the lessons “lessen”. If your watch stops, the dreamworld says that time has stopped. The watch of the Mad Hatter and his friends the March Hare and the Dormouse has stopped at teatime, so they must go on taking tea forever.

One of the characters who appears in the looking-glass world is Humpty Dumpty, who is a talking egg. His name not merely describes him: it is him (or he). An egg has a hump above and a dump below. He is the most dangerous, and yet the most persuasive, philosopher of language imaginable. He says “There’s glory for you”, and he explains that “glory” means “a fine knockdown argument”. Alice protests, but Humpty Dumpty says “It’s a question of who is to be master, you or the word.” Words, in other words, can mean what we want them to mean or else what the logic of dreams wants them to mean. Their normal everyday meaning doesn’t apply when we pass through the looking-glass.

Alice’s world is a world full of eccentric English Victorians disguised mostly as animals. Like real grown-ups they can be very rude or pompous to a child like Alice, but in her dreams Alice can answer back without being punished for her effrontery. She is temporarily living in a kind of Garden of Eden, in which total liberty seems to be possible – in Wonderland, Alice can change her shape and size merely by drinking from a bottle that says DRINK ME – but liberty is circumscribed not by notions of right and wrong but by mad logic. In the songs she hears or sings herself this mad logic seems to disappear, but there is substituted for it the spirit of parody, which implies an existing logic in the waking world. Alice knows very well a song that goes:

Twinkle twinkle little star,
How I wonder what you are,
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky.
This becomes:
Twinkle twinkle little bat,
How I wonder what you’re at,
Up above the world so high,
Like a teatray in the sky.

Why bat? Why teatray? For that matter, why is a raven like a writing-desk? We feel that if we dig deeply enough we shall find our answers, but there is no time for digging, except for apples. If, in French, potatoes are pommes de terre, they are apples in the earth, and digging is quite in order. It is the very English eccentricity of the denizens of Wonderland and the Looking-Glass world that endears them to us. The White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts, the White Knight, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, marvellously drawn by Tenniel, are also very fully characterized by Carroll. They speak as we would expect them to speak, and they are full of an appalling self-will and vigour. But the men are less vigorous than the women. It is a child’s world of petticoat government in which the women – mothers, sisters, governesses – are near and magisterial, as well as wantonly cruel, while fathers are more distant, nicer, and busied with their own eccentric affairs.

But finally the appeal of the Alice books is to the creative imagination, by which space and time can become plastic and language itself diverted from the everyday course of straightforward communication. There is a strong poem, which Humpty Dumpty kindly explains to Alice, that sums up the possibilities of the dreaming world. It is called “Jabberwocky” and it begins:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Slithy” is both slimy and lithe, to gyre is to gyrate, to gimble is both to gambol like a lamb and to turn like a gimlet or corkscrew. Humpty Dumpty calls these “portmanteau words”, because, like portmanteaux, several things can be crammed into them. James Joyce saw the possibilities of this Jabberwocky language and, in his great novel Finnegans Wake, which presents an adult, not a child’s dream, he used the technique. What, with Carroll, began as a joke ends, in Joyce, as the most serious attempt ever made to show how the dreaming mind operates.

But we leave it to the psychologists and literary critics to find in the Alice books great profundities and profound ambiguities. The Freudians have seen sexual symbols in them, which Carroll’s innocent conscious mind could not be aware of, and the Marxists have seen images of social tyranny and revolt. We are wisest if we become children again and use the books to recapture a lost innocence. We must learn to identify ourselves with a girl in a Victorian frock whose hair is long and golden and whose manner has the self-assurance of a product of the Victorian ruling class.

To be honest, Alice is not a very nice little girl. She is far too sharp and bossy and proud. She lacks humility, but – and this is an aspect of the British imperialist spirit – she also lacks fear. It requires great courage, at the trial of the Knave of Hearts, with the Queen shouting “Off with her head!”, for her to cry: “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” and to see the chaos of the mass pasteboard that, a minute ago, was an imperialist society whirling about her head. She is transported to mad colonial territories and retains something of her sanity. She is very British and very Victorian, but she is also admirably and universally human.

Listen to The NBC University Theater version of Alice in Wonderland, from 1948.

This abridged version of the article by the British novelist Anthony Burgess in the Unesco Courier (June 1982) was published online at the UNESCO website under a creative commons license: CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO


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