No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

2012/34: The Annotated Alice -- Lewis Carroll, ed. Martin Gardner

'This is a child!' Haigha replied eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her, and spreading out both his hands towards her in an Anglo-Saxon attitude. 'We only found it to-day. It's as large as life, and twice as natural!'

'I always thought they were fabulous monsters!' said the Unicorn. 'Is it alive?'

'It can talk,' said Haigha, solemnly. [Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 7]

Read for the Coursera Fantasy and SF course (week 2).

I've read the Alice books many times, though not for a while: my copy is Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice, which I bought for a course in my first year at university, and thought tremendously clever. (I don't think I'd encountered this level of entertaining discussion, expansion and explanation in criticism before.)

As usual with rereads, I'm as intrigued by what I'd forgotten as by what I remembered. For instance, I'd forgotten how much antagonism and aggression there is: I don't just mean the Red Queen's decapitation-frenzies, but the general belligerence and mistrust of almost everybody who Alice encounters.

I'd also completely forgotten about the Anglo-Saxon attitudes of Hatta and Haigha. But I did remember a lot of the poetry, word for word. Oh, brain, why so picky?

My Coursera essay below.

Alice's parents are never mentioned in either Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass. Her sister (who isn't named) appears briefly in the beginning of Wonderland, but Alice -- despite being seven years old, and in a puzzling and sometimes frightening situation -- doesn't think about her mother or her father.

Indeed, there are very few parent-child relationships in the books, and these relationships are depicted as negative or distant. The Duchess's cruelly-treated baby ('speak roughly to your little boy / and beat him when he sneezes') turns out to be a pig. The King and Queen of Hearts have ten royal children, but they are indistinguishable from one another. The poem 'You are old, Father William', is about a young man and his father, both rude and impertinent. ('Be off, or I'll kick you downstairs!') The only positive parent-child relationship seems to be that of the nameless hero of 'Jabberwocky' and his proud parent who cries 'Come to my arms, my beamish boy!'.

The absence of parents may be a reflection of Victorian middle-class life. Alice and her sister may well have been left to the care of a nurse or governess -- both of whom are mentioned in the books -- seeing their parents only rarely. When Alice dreams of exploring Looking Glass House, she is alone in the drawing-room with only Dinah the cat for company. Nobody is supervising her, and there is no one to stop her playing or keep her from harm.

In the absence of her parents, Alice is an independent individual who can make choices and be the heroine of her own story. By the end of the second book she has become a Queen in her own right, capable of standing up to the Red and White Queens and asserting herself.

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