A curious girl, a hysterical turtle, a stammering rabbit, a smoking caterpillar and a vanishing cat met in a visual dreamscape on July 4, 1862 when a story was told to a girl called Alice that would eventually become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Written during the first Golden Age of Children’s Literature, Wonderland collapsed the walls between the waking world and the galaxy of dreams. Considering it was published four years before even Gandhi was born, the fact that the marvellously subversive Wonderland has withstood the test of time is a testament to the ceilings it shattered especially in children’s literature. Much like a Victorian Taare Zameen Par, Wonderland was written for the children instead of at the children. This underlying thought was the seed from which a glorious imagination germinated into the immortal characters of the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat.
History of Wonderland
The historical context in which Wonderland was introduced is relevant to perceive its cultural importance. Till Wonderland, most children’s literature carried the tone of an authoritarian headmistress. Stories like The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) or The History of Little Goody Two Shoes (1765), as if the names weren’t indicative enough, were aimed at instruction rather than entertainment and often used fear of monsters as a motivator. Wonderland broke through this trope by letting children know that there is nothing to fear in monsters, and it did so magnificently without triggering or calling upon any terrible aspect of a real-life experience.
When I had first read Wonderland at the age of 10, I had, obviously, not grasped the deep connotations the book embodied. I just remember cherishing the weirdness of the world, relishing the beautifully illustrated talking animals and sharing the delicious frustration of Alice over a place that no longer made sense. Having been forged in the lands of Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle, I was not new to magic or monsters. Wonderland, however, revelled in ‘magical nonsense’: a genre constructed to take children through a fantastical world that was illogical – in a bid to prepare them for the ‘real’ confusing world that awaited them at the gates of adulthood.
Coming of Age
Wonderland is, in a sense, a ‘coming-of-age’ book where Alice grappled with important themes and issues that not only plague children but also adults today. Among other things, Wonderland taught Alice:
1. The complexity of discovering her identity (her conversation with the caterpillar).
“Who in the world am I? Ah, THAT’S the great puzzle!”
2. The courage required to stand up for herself (and against fascist forces).
‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first — verdict afterwards.’
‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. `The idea of having the sentence first!’
‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.
‘I won’t!’ said Alice.
3. The experience of navigating the landmines of adolescence represented by her frustration with shrinking and growing which could be a metaphor for the physical changes in the body that could be exciting or frightening.
4. To embrace diversity and ‘weirdness’:
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
5. To move on from the delights and despair of the past:
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, I was a different person then,” Alice tells the Mock Turtle and Gryphon.
6. To stand up to bullies by seeing through the façade of aggression:
“Off with her head!” the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.
“Who cares for you?” said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”
7. To challenge the contours of her imagination (her conversation with the White Queen):
“There’s no use trying,” Alice said, “one CAN’T believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
8. Most importantly, like Neo from the Matrix, taking the path untaken by following the rabbit, the true inner calling, unafraid of a little tumble on the way even though the term ‘rabbit hole’ has turned from a conduit to a magical world into a metaphor for extreme distraction.
Why adults can still re-read and enjoy Wonderland
Wonderland is filled with riddles and questions open to interpretations that differ from one age to another. While children obviously admire the inexhaustible mine of nonsensical word-play and humour, adults can appreciate its dark surrealist undertones.
And this is where I realised that Wonderland should be a compulsory book recommended to every guardian to read with the child together. The way I interpreted the book as a child and as an adult is so starkly different. For instance, remember the Caucus Race at the beginning where every one runs haphazardly in random directions with no purpose at end and everyone ends up winning. When I was younger, much like Alice, I found the race to be absurd. And now, the parliamentary deadlocks vividly flash before my eyes upon reading the same chapter. I am sure to someone else, it is a reflection of life with its arbitrary turns and twists with no true end game. This is why Wonderland is a beautiful children’s book because it appeals to the young and the old alike.
More importantly, it allows guardians to empathise with children. When Alice finds the rules of Wonderland incomprehensible, her response is an echo of a child’s reaction to the arbitrary rules of social etiquette and egos they are compelled to follow by adults without understanding why.
With the rise of the internet culture, the world has grown extremely cautious about curating the curiosity of children for fear of the cruel world around them. And this is despite knowing that no matter what they do, they will fail to prepare and save them from everything. I suppose in that sense Wonderland also sends a message to the guardians to let go a little and let the child find his/her/their own treasures in the attic. And Wonderland’s magic lies in that it doesn’t do it explicitly, but does so by planting a seed in the chrysalis of their imagination. It subtly pushes the brains of children to be more creative and quicker to learn new ideas by pushing them into a paradise of paradoxes and puns. BBC even published an article on how Wonderland’s treatment of memory, language and consciousness continues to inspire just not Freudian psychology but also modern neuroscience.
Wonderland is a world governed only by the rules of chaos, imagination and magic. A world that is not tied up in the gordian knot of ‘sense’ and ‘logic’. When I see the diverse books I read now, the interests I have cultivated, the exotic conversations I ache for – I cannot help but credit it to the seed of curiosity planted in my head by Wonderland, and for that I will be eternally grateful.
So, maybe on this Alice Day, gift your niece or nephew a copy of this world of mockery and nonsense, and who knows, you might have just given them the key to open the treasure chest that lurks in the mind of every child. Or maybe read it yourself. In a world where current events are stranger than fiction, it is vital to read whimsical tales about being the only sane person in a mad, mad world.
Gourav Mohanty is a lawyer practicing in the Bombay High Court. He has five years of experience in dispute resolution, and is a gold medalist from Symbiosis Law School.