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alice in wonderland

20 july 2021

I started (re-)reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass because I was eager to watch Unsuk Chin's opera (with libretto by David Henry Hwang). But after I began the opera, the video I was watching kept getting interrupted by ads for car insurance and holiday rentals. Which might have been OK if they'd placed the ads at intermissions, but they kept breaking in, mid-surrealism. Which I guess made things more surreal, but not in a good way. I gave up and just read the books instead.

We think of Wonderland and Looking Glass as volumes of the same work, and we usually run them together in memory. (At least I did; I shouldn't speak for you.) But the two books are distinct in tone and execution. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is tauter, more headlong – straight down the rabbit hole and never slows down for a moment afterwards. Through the Looking-Glass is more deliberate and (heh) reflective. Wonderland has most of the famous characters and scenes; Looking Glass has most of the famous quotes and poems. They complement each other but they are quite different books.

Both Wonderland and Looking Glass are dreamlike, in fact explicitly framed as Alice's dreams. At first, the frustrations in Alice's dream-world are oddly realistic (in the sense that they are just like real dreams) and very unsettling. This is particularly true when Alice grows and shrinks uncontrollably, keeps getting lost, cannot make progress through Wonderland (not that there's any particular progress to be made).

Eventually, though, Alice takes control of her course; she becomes a kind of lucid dreamer. The Caterpillar explains that she can modulate her growth and shrinking by eating from different sides of his mushroom, and from that point on Alice is relatively able to chart a course through Wonderland. She still can't play croquet if her flamingo rebels, but things are somewhat more manageable.

Alice remarks to the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle:

"I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning," said Alice a little timidly; "but it's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then." (55)
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland arguably change their heroine. Of course we barely see her before she goes down the rabbit hole, but we see how she first reacts and we see her morph into a confident girl who can take charge of her fantasies and ultimately scatter them like a deck of cards.

When Alice goes Through the Looking-Glass, though, she remains calm and purposeful throughout, uncanny as her surroundings continue to be. Though Looking Glass is also a dream, she carefully initiates it by stepping through her mirror, instead of falling headlong down a hole. The Looking-Glass world is weirder and more elaborate in some ways; it has a whole geography (famously based on a chessboard) rather than just a one-dimensional sequence. But it is also less threatening than Wonderland.

And Looking Glass has a logic too, its famous logic of paradox that has inspired so much paradoxical art ever since. When Alice comes upon the Red King snoring, Tweedledee explains that the King is dreaming about Alice.

And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be? … You'd be nowhere. (45-46)
Which makes no sense but every bit of sense too. Alice certainly leaves off dreaming about the Red King once her book is over, and we see no more of him after that. Or of Alice either. "All that we see or seem …" I don't know if Lewis Carroll read Edgar Allan Poe, but he might have and he would have found him a kindred spirit; later Vladimir Nabokov would read them both and pay homage to both in various paradoxical ways.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. 1865. Through the Looking-Glass. 1871. Kindle Editions.