The Wonder of Alice

Alice journeys down the rabbit-hole into a world of her own creation. Everything in Wonderland is a dream-like reflection of the life of an ultra-sensitive little girl trying to assert her existence. Alice is insatiably curious. “Curiouser and curiouser!” She’s adventurous, but she creates so many obstacles for herself. She drinks a potion to get small enough to get through the door to the garden but discovers she left the key on the table and can no longer reach it. The creatures she meets she’s constantly accidentally offending and scaring off, leaving her lonely and frightened again. She tries to bring something of her real world into this strange one, so she tells the creatures about her cat, Dinah, but then blunders and tells them how skilled Dinah is at catching whatever creature she’s talking to. One of my favorite parts is when she complains to the Caterpillar about how wretched it is to be three inches tall.

“It is a very good height indeed!” said the Caterpillar angrily, rearing itself upright as it spoke (it was exactly three inches high).
“But I’m not used to it!” pleaded poor Alice in a piteous tone. And she thought to herself “I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended!”

But Alice never stays timid for long. She’s always “venturing to say” something that contradicts what a creature tells her. When the Cat explains that he’s mad, using the logic that a dog isn’t mad and a dog growls when it’s angry and wags its tail when it’s happy, while the Cat growls when it’s pleased and wags its tail when it’s angry, therefore it’s mad, Alice says, “I call it purring, not growling.”

This is Alice making sense of the contradictions she finds in her real world by exploring them in this fantasy one. At the trial, a guinea pig is suppressed by the officers of the court. This was done by slipping the guinea pig, head first, into a canvas bag and then sitting on it.

“I’m glad I’ve seen that done,” thought Alice. “I’ve so often read in the newspapers, at the end of trials, ‘There was some attempt at applause, which was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court,’ and I never understood what it meant till now.”

The world appears frightening but feels eventually safe. The Queen is running around sentencing everyone’s head to be chopped off, but then Alice has the King following along pardoning them. Alice, who spends much of the story at a tiny size, starts to grow, at the trial, into her normal size.

I wish you wouldn’t squeeze so,” said the Dormouse, who was sitting next to her, “I can hardly breathe.”
“I ca’n’t help it,” said Alice very meekly: “I’m growing.”
“You’ve no right to grow here,” said the Dormouse.
“Don’t talk nonsense,” said Alice more boldly: “you know you’re growing too.”
“Yes, but I grow at a reasonable pace,” said the Dormouse: “not in that ridiculous fashion.”

As Alice grows in physical size, she becomes more and more assertive, she starts to object to the absurdness of a trial being conducted backwards. They try to make her leave the court, citing rule 42, but Alice objects:

“that’s not a regular rule: you invented it just now.”
“it’s the oldest rule in the book,” said the King.
“Then it ought to be Number One,” said Alice.

I was probably nine or ten when I got a hardbound copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland out of the bookshelf in our family room and started reading. I read as far as Alice journeying down the rabbit-hole, and I recall enjoying it, but I was intimidated by the oldness of the book. I didn’t imagine I could get through it. So I put it back. I was twenty-five or so when I finally read it. It’s a book I reread every so often. I like to call it the most fun you can have reading a book, because more than anything it’s a fun read, filled with wordplay and absurdities. But I sometimes regret that indelible moment of my childhood when I sat with that book and read that first chapter. Why didn’t I keep going? Alice is the best kind of brave, because she sees the nonsense of the world and confronts it. Which is different from either soaring over it or tunneling through it. It’s more courageous than both. I could have benefited from that influence when I was nine or ten. I can still benefit from it now, which I suppose is why I return to that book so often.


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