Monday, April 5, 2010

Literalism in Alice in Wonderland

As I read Alice, I can't help but notice that Carroll frequently confuses and distresses his heroine by making literal what is often an expression or else plays out the duality of a pun. When she reaches the bottom of the rabit hole and can't find an escape, for instance, she literally begins drowning in her own tears.The mouse's confusing "tale" is written in the twisting shape of a tail. The caterpillar constantly questions the commonplace expressions Alice uses like the habit of saying "you know" or "myself". It is by turning our habits of language and expression upside down that Wonderland becomes such a fantastically strange place. Carroll succeeds in creating a truly strange world not just by making outlandish things happen, but by basing a bizarre turn of events on a common experience: tea parties, games of chess and croquet , even familiar songs like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star". This is what makes Wonderland so unsettling and strange.


  1. Virginia,
    I think you have a great point in your post, especially when it comes to "twisting" around what is real to fit the dream world. The parodies that Carroll uses of different songs and nursery rhymes is particularly effective as well. And yes, everything is so literal that it begins to become absurd which I believe is part of the fantastical appeal of Alice and Wonderland.

  2. The literalization of such arbitrary phrases as Carroll tackles seems like it has interesting implications for language. The phrases that Alice finds the most unsettling as enacted in the world are really those that have no meaning for us in and of themselves, but extraordinary meaning as mere social phrases. In this world we all understand their second meaning, beyond the literal, knowing that their "enactment" in social situations in the real world will follow certain rules and norms. The translation makes the phrases sensible, but the translation is untrustworthy vis a vis our own understanding of these phrases.