The Alice books - an imaginative testimony to a child's experiences of socio-cultural norms of the late Victorian age.
Introduction: Alice in Wonderland is perhaps the most renowned fantasy book for children. Over and above this though, it has relevance for adults. People too often dismiss it as purely escapist reading, a means to escape from the monotony of everyday realism by delving into the realms of fantasy. Many critics propose that it operates on more than one level and I would have to agree - it is a pioneer of children's literature as well as a product and critique of the Victorian age. It is a story that has captured the world's imagination, with vivid characters and exciting adventures. The sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, although not as well known, equally offers an insight into the late nineteenth-century. I intend to explore the many layers found in these stories, and hope to expose them as being more than mere narratives, but as pieces of literature that thrive because they are so cleverly constructed Perhaps also their success lies in that they deal with the universal theme (for children and adults alike) of making sense of the seemingly nonsensical aspects of life and society. The stories, as well as the strange characters and happenings, are reminiscent of the Absurdist genre in drama, in which the objective is to turn the world upside down, so to speak, in order to understand people and society. My dissertation will begin by exploring the literary trends of children's books prior to 1865, in other words, before Alice in Wonderland was published. I intend to present an overview of Victorian and pre-Victorian children's fiction, tracing the development of the story for teaching and religious instruction, up until the time when the story was liberated to be simply the vehicle for pleasurable recreational purposes. Thus my opening chapter is an exploration of the didactic children's literature that dominated the early nineteenth century, examining the educationalists that helped expand the genre of children's literature. Next, I will include a brief biography of Lewis Carroll. It is important to my overall theme in that a biography sums up, in one human centre, the forces at play in Victorian sensibility. As a modern audience, we seem to seize upon the idea of his 'character', desperately attempting to understand what motivated him to write such tour de force stories. The interest for me at this point is to examine how academics have portrayed Carroll's 'character'. The motive behind this section is to beg the question of whether his complex personality affects our reading of the texts, or whether they can be seen as entirely separate from a life to which some scandal has been attributed. In the remainder of my dissertation, I shall focus on how the texts are a reflection of a typical Victorian child's experiences, and discuss how Alice 'grows' as a character, and what she reveals about her society in the process of discovering how she should define herself. Alice is the vehicle for Carroll's subversive commentary about his society, and her experiences in Wonderland and Looking-Glass land are often rooted in the undermining of conventional behaviour and traditions. Lastly, I will examine Carroll's stylistic organization of the narratives, paying particular attention to his treatment of time, dreams and language in the texts. I will discuss what his intentions are in creating 'nonsense that makes sense', as well as what this 'nonsense' discloses about the society he lived in and the values he seems to object to.