The Grotesque and Chaotic in Alice in Wonderland


The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo: she succeeded in getting its body tucked away, comfortably enough, under her arm, with its legs hanging down, but generally, just as she had got its neck nicely straightened out, and was going to give the hedgehog a blow with its head, it would twist itself round and look up in her face, with such a puzzled expression that she could not help bursting out laughing; and, when she had got its head down, and was going to begin again, it was very provoking to find that the hedgehog had unrolled itself, and was in the act of crawling away: besides all this, there was generally a ridge or a furrow in the way wherever she wanted to send the hedgehog to.

It is no accident that the grotesque style in literature tends to be prevalent in eras marked by radical change and stress. Such was the Victorian period, within which a whirl of social, economic and religious change took place that pulled the rug from underneath the British people, then struggling to find meaning in a world they no longer knew. The French revolutionaries, who guillotined the last noble head before the advent of the eighteenth century, continued to impress the British world during the Victorian age and are thought to have "certainly influenced the thought and the works of every major English author for the remainder of the eighteenth century and beyond" (DC, History). In the nineteenth century came Industrialism and, in the eyes of Victorians, its predominantly negative consequences; then, the discovery of scientific proof relating to evolution, which forced the people to question the existence of God, a solid cornerstone of British history; and the Reform Acts, a set of unprecedented laws that gave voting privileges to the deserved

These events and more uprooted all that had meaning to the Victorian, leaving him with a world of chaos, a grotesque world devoid of meaning. Lewis Carroll, greatly frustrated by this chaotic nature of existence, endlessly and futility sought for order, just as his character Alice searches for order in this grotesque Wonderland. Referring back to the above passage, Alice must learn to play croquet in this grotesque and ridiculous fashion, with flamingos as mallets and hedgehogs as balls.

Whereas the game of croquet itself possesses meaning, this absurd way of playing in Wonderland leaves Alice struggling to find order: as she finally "succeeds in getting its [the flamingo's] body tucked away, comfortably enough," it would untwist itself. And time after time, after Alice establishes and re-establishes order with one facet of the game, another would break down again into its chaotic state. These futile efforts only end in greater frustration and finally submission. Although the tone of this passage seems light and comical, its message is wholly serious. This scene, one of many in Alice in Wonderland, perhaps symbolizes the author's hopeless struggle and consequential anxiety in his quest to discern meaning in a world that has reduced itself to the chaos and perhaps the absurdity comparable to that of Wonderland.



Education's Role in the Alice Books


Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end? "I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?" she said aloud. "I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think --" (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the school-room, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) "-- yes, that's about the right distance -- but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I've got to?" (Alice had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say.) Alice in Wonderland (Norton Critical Edition)

Education plays a large role in the Alice books, contributing both to Carroll's characterization of Alice and to our perceptions of Victorian England. Throughout the Alice books, as in this passage, Alice refers to her lessons and her education, usually very proud of the learning that she has acquired. It seems, however, that the information that she remembers from her lessons is usually either completely useless or wrong. For example, although she can remember the how many miles down until the center of the earth, she mistakenly believes that everything will be upside down when she passes through to the other side.

The information in the Victorian Web about education indicates that traditional public schools emphasized Greek and Latin, house systems, school spirit, improving character, and that the goal of education was to mold the student into a young Christian gentleman. This approach can be seen in Alice, since her knowledge seems to consist mainly of maxims and morals about obedience and safety. Carroll seems to feel amusement at best, and utter contempt at worst, for this typically Victorian penchant, especially in his satirical characterization of the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland. "Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it", says the Duchess. Alice's experience with her, however, makes the reader laugh at the absurdity of such a character. Kathy Szoke, in her discussion of the Victorian audience, explains how authors make their audiences think about issues relative to their own lives. Carroll certainly made a conscious decision to make morals and tales of obedience, a large part of Victorian upbringing, nonsensical. This rejection of typical Victorian manners and education of children supports one of the themes in his Alice books, the idea that a child's imagination has value.