Childhood’s End in Alice in Wonderland

February 28, 2010

Illustration from Through the Looking Glass by John Tenniel

There is so much to say about Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and most of it has already been said in much smarter people than me. But I’ve committed myself to writing critically about everything I read from now on, so suffer these few thoughts on a very tired subject.

Dodgson (Carroll was a penname) wrote Alice in Wonderland for a real girl named Alice Liddell, who was the daughter of a colleague at Oxford. So all the while he was writing this story for her, he was aware of the fact that she would soon grow up, and her personality would change. Dodgson adored children, perhaps even idealized them, and both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are permeated with a sense of the inevitable loss of Alice’s childhood.

The poem that ends Through the Looking Glass conveys this sense of loss succinctly in the following lines:

Long has paled that sunny sky :
Echos fade and memories die :
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

This poem differs from the tone of the book as it becomes almost elegiac. Of course, by the time this volume was published, the real Alice was still alive and still young—but she was no longer the little seven-year-old that Dodgson had so loved and immortalized. He even admits that the idealized child of his imagination is not the same as the real Alice, as she has never been seen “by waking eyes.” She has never existed apart from his Wonderland.

In the last lines of the poem, however, Carroll gives us a sad strange glimmer of hope:

In a wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die.

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?

Alice will always be preserved in the text of Wonderland, which children and adults alike continue to enjoy today. But there is a meaning beyond that, relevant to our everyday lives. Though the summers of childhood die, the dream continues on. We are all still children in Wonderland. Whenever we dream, we return to that state of innocence and chaos that characterizes childhood. Even through the golden gleam of our twilight years, as long as we live, we dream. And as long as we dream, we are children still.


3 Responses to “Childhood’s End in Alice in Wonderland”

  1. SighterGoliant Says:

    In theology, we have this notion called “recapitulation,” which is that the content of doctrines and the forms of religious thinking, while they continually need updating in changing contexts of lived experience, also continually need to be re-expressed with charity given towards what the thrust of the doctrine might suggest — that is to say, not dismissing an archaic notion like the Virgin Birth out-of-hand, but maybe updating the notion to consider Mary as a powerful sympathizer and symbol of solidarity with women living through crisis pregnancies.

    So I would encourage you to think that what you do here is not simply “saying what’s been already said.” The work of recapitulation is important, as it is the only way literature, with all its potential for creative interweavings with our present-day embodied selves, can continue to speak.

  2. IceCrystal Says:

    What SighterGoliant said.

    I really must read both of these works. I’m familiar with the story as it’s been presented in animation and pop culture references, but I’ve never actually experienced the originals.

    We should never seek to put dreaming or imagining behind us! If that makes us perpetual children, so be it. 🙂

  3. Great post. I read Alice in Wonderland a while ago, but I still need to get on Through the Looking Glass.
    If you can find it, I recommend borrowing (it’s a giant book and quite expensive) the graphic non-fiction novel “Alice in Sunderland.” It’s a brilliant compression of the history of Alice in Wonderland’s writing with the history of Sunderland and England.

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