The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The invention of childhood

BEFORE

1812 Swiss pastor Johann David Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson focuses on four children who, with their parents, discover self-sufficiency on a desert island.

1863 The hero of The Water Babies, by English author Charles Kingsley, is a young chimney sweep who learns moral lessons in a fantastic underwater realm.

AFTER

1883 Italian Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, featuring a marionette, is a moral tale for children.

1894 Characters in English author Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book include Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves, and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, a mongoose.

The concept of “childhood” was really only invented in the 18th century, when the middle classes began to see the value of a child’s innocence and play. For most of literary history, children were rarely mentioned, occasionally appearing in such works as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile and William Wordsworth’s The Prelude. In the 19th century, Charles Dickens sometimes placed children in the foreground of his stories, but only in books for adults.

Most tales written for, as opposed to about, children were adaptations of adult stories, or morally didactic. In the early 19th century, the Brothers Grimm’s illustrated folktales, originally collected for adults, were criticized as being unsuitable for young people because of their sexual and violent content – later editions were adapted to be more child-friendly. Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote his Fairy Tales (1835–37) specifically for children, caused an outcry by failing to include a moral.

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In Wonderland, the laws of both nature and society are turned on their heads: time and space behave unpredictably; animals talk; at tea parties and games, anything might happen. The child’s sense of threat in an adult world is evoked through fantasy.

A golden age

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, writing for children enjoyed a golden age, founded on increasing literacy, the growth of commercial publishing, and recognition of the imaginative potential of a child’s world. Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), by English author Thomas Hughes, started the tradition of the school story; another new genre was the coming-of-age tale, such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868–69) in the USA. Other classics include Johanna Spyri’s Heidi (1880–81), from Switzerland, and Scotsman J M Barrie’s Peter Pan (1911).

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of the most influential books of this flowering. Regarded as the first masterpiece for children in English, its fantastical story is a marked departure from the prevailing realism of literature at the time. On a July day in 1862, Charles Dodgson, a young mathematics don, went rowing with a male friend and three young sisters on the Thames near Oxford, and told a story about a girl named Alice – which was also the name of one of his passengers, Alice Liddell, aged ten. So Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland took shape, appearing as a handwritten book, and then as a publication under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll.

A surreal world

In the story, seven-year-old Alice falls down a rabbit hole and finds herself in a surreal universe. She negotiates alone a world of strange creatures, strange attitudes, strange happenings, and strange linguistic logic. This is the focus of the book and its principal theme.

Part of the book’s coherence comes from the fact that Alice herself entertains unorthodox logic. As she falls down the rabbit hole she wonders if she is going to land in the “Antipathies” (Antipodes), and imagines herself appearing ignorant when she has to ask whether she is in Australia or New Zealand. Her next observation shows Carroll brilliantly inhabiting a child’s ingenuousness: “No, it’ll never do to ask: perhaps I shall see it written up somewhere.”

Alice constantly wonders: about who she is, what are the rules of this peculiar world, and how she is to regain normality; common issues of childhood. Her bewilderment at first focuses on her being the wrong size, either too big or too small to do as she wants. After she meets the Caterpillar a new anxiety arises: the challenge of being repeatedly, often rudely, contradicted. Towards the end, with the Queen’s repeated plea for a beheading, the possibility of violence adds to the tension.

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The brusque, hookah-smoking Caterpillar intensifies Alice’s insecurity: she is so confused by Wonderland that she cannot even answer his question “Who are you?”

Escape from rules

The characters that Alice meets are mostly animals. Apart from Alice and her sister, who features before and after the adventure, the only human characters are the Mad Hatter and the Duchess, since the King and Queen of Hearts are playing cards. Parents do not make an appearance, nor is there any reference to them.

Yet the inversions of everyday life that imprison Alice might also, at the same time, be seen as liberating by Victorian adults accustomed to convention. One of the attractions of nonsense is that it offers a playground for the imagination, and arguably for the satisfaction of subliminal needs, including occasional escape from social rules.

Alice makes no reference at the end to having learned any lessons from her adventures. However, she does, in the course of the book, become more forthright, and by the time of the trial scene near the end she is capable of saying to the Queen that her perverse sense of justice is “Stuff and nonsense!” Her final act, by which time she is child-sized again, is to insist that the playing cards are just that – inanimate things – whereupon they fly into the air. By force of character she has punctured the illusion.

The coda, featuring Alice’s older sister, is beautifully judged. It starts with her dreaming “after a fashion”, since a fully-fledged dream would be less subtle than this elusive mind-state. First, she affectionately imagines Alice herself; then the weird characters Alice has been describing pass in front of her. Finally, she imagines Alice turning into a “grown woman”, but keeping the “simple and loving heart” of her childhood, and passing on the story of Wonderland to a new generation.

"‘Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,’ thought Alice; ‘but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!’"


Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The Harry Potter phenomenon

For Harry Potter, mortality lurks in the shadows: he is a hero fighting the forces of darkness, and learning life lessons in the process.

J K Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (1997–2007), featuring the adventures of a young wizard, show how powerful children’s writing can be. Rowling owes the phenomenal success of the books partly to her skilful mixing of genres, combining fantasy, coming of age, and school story, together with elements of the thriller and romance. Rowling has stated that death is a major theme in the books, but this does not prevent them from containing a strong vein of humour.

The publication schedule of the series allowed Harry to grow up in real time, so that the first generation of young Harry Potter readers literally grew up along with him, making their experience of reading the books particularly powerful.

Immensely popular with children and also garnering a substantial adult readership, the books have generated great wealth for their author. More than 450 million of the seven books had been sold by 2013.

The meaning of nonsense

Fantasy conveyed with as much vividness, wit, and sensitivity as Carroll’s has immediate impact but will raise questions about hidden meanings. Food in the book often triggers unease – did Carroll suffer from an eating disorder? Since the brand of mathematics he taught at Oxford was conservative, at a time when more abstract ideas were taking root, some of the weird logic may be a satirical side-sweep at the new maths. And as the book was a gift for the real Alice, it may contain private references for her.

Carroll’s sources of inspiration will never be comprehensively recovered, yet any in-jokes in no way diminish the universality of Alice’s adventures, grounded as it is in the vulnerability of children, a theme as relevant today as it was in Carroll’s time.

Carroll brought out a second and similar book about Alice in 1871: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Here too are memorable characters (such as the Walrus and the Carpenter, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee), nonsensical songs, and witty aphorisms that flirt with alternative logic. As in Wonderland, meaning is slippery: a word, claims Humpty Dumpty, “means just what I choose it to mean”. However, the sequel is more menacing than the first Alice story, perhaps reflecting Carroll’s grief over the loss of his father.

The lure of fantasy

A line of influence stretches from the magical transformations of Wonderland through J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C S Lewis’s Narnia series, the whimsical rhyming world of Dr Seuss, Roald Dahl’s beloved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and J K Rowling’s wizard stronghold Hogwarts. Although in the 21st century a new realism has entered writing for children, with stories of abandonment, homelessness, and alienation, fantasy remains perennially compelling to young minds.

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Humpty Dumpty, in common with characters in Wonderland, has conversations with Alice that are characterized by riddles, wordplay, and perverse logic posed as rationality.

LEWIS CARROLL

Born in 1832 in Cheshire, England, Charles Dodgson (best known later by his pen name, Lewis Carroll) was the son of a clergyman. He took a first-class degree in mathematics from Christ Church, Oxford, and from 1855 he held a lectureship there until his death. He was also ordained as a deacon. His first published work, in 1856, was a poem on solitude. Dodgson was well connected, his friends including the critic and writer John Ruskin, and the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He was a notable photographer, taking portraits of the poet Alfred Tennyson, the actress Ellen Terry, and many children. He died in 1898, aged 65, as a result of pneumonia after a severe dose of influenza. By this time Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the most popular children’s book in Britain. Queen Victoria was one of its admirers.

Other key works

1871 Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There

1876 The Hunting of the Snark

See also: Robinson Crusoe • Gulliver’s Travels • Children’s and Household Tales • Fairy Tales • Little Women • Treasure Island