The influences on Alice in Wonderland
- Article written by: Hannah Gabrielle
- Published: 19 Nov 2015
Much time has been spent documenting the psychedelic aspects of Alice in Wonderland, from the literal magic mushroom that helps Alice regain her stature. From the distorted scale of Alice following instructions to ‘Eat me’ or ‘drink me’ and subsequently shrinking down to diminutive size or growing to the size of a house. Sanity is questioned and debated by the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Cheshire Cat. Self-knowledge appears to be the most important characteristic eschewed by the caterpillar, but can we know what the literary influences were that led to the creation of Alice?
Lewis Carroll owned a copy of The Literature and Curiosities of Dreams, whose year of publication coincided with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In it, author Frank Seafield presents a history of dreams that attempts to explain their causes, effects and meanings. Clearly Carroll’s interest in dream theory was fed and developed through his personal reading that evidences a keen interest in human psychology.
The Literature and Curiosities of Dreams
Lewis Carroll owned a copy of this book exploring and discussing dream theory and human psychology.View images from this item (2)
Above all the story is playful, being rife with wordplay, riddles and an abundance of healthy nonsense. Despite his success as an author Carroll, real name Charles Ludwidge Dodgson, was first and foremost a mathematician. In fact, he taught at Christ Church College, Oxford, specialising in geometry, algebra and logic. This is revealed by his releasing a book in 1887 entitled The Game of Logic in which he aims to teach the fundamentals of logic by employing a game structure. Though called a ‘game’, it is in the sense of creative mental play that is important, rather than being a contest to win.
Lewis Carroll's The Game of Logic
Lewis Carroll published several books for children’s about logic and mathematics, such as The Game of Logic, complete with board and counters, 1887.View images from this item (4)
Further evidence of Carroll’s love of mental play with mathematics is his book A Tangled Tale, a collection of short humorous puzzles, called ‘knots’. The puzzles originally featured in a monthly magazine published in the early 1880s. Each knot is described in story form, then summarised as a maths problem.
A Tangled Tale by Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll produced A Tangled Tale, a collection of ten puzzles that require reading and logical thought to solve.View images from this item (10)
Another characteristic of the text indicative of Carroll’s playfulness is the satire in Alice. The book mocks popular Victorian literature, such as Robert Sothey’s ‘The Old Man’s Comfort’. Carroll rewrites the poem taking an absurdist approach to the exchange between the old man and the younger, renaming his version 'You Are Old, Father William'.
'The Old Man's Comforts' by Robert Southey from The Annual Anthology
A poem satirised by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland.View images from this item (3)
In Sothey’s poem the reasons for the 'Old Man’s Comforts' and ‘how he gained them’ are explained thus:
In the days of my youth, Father William replied,
Jessica's First Prayer, a popular 19th century children's book
A popular children's book that significantly outsold Alice in Wonderland.View images from this item (1)
Edward Lear, a contemporary of Carroll’s, enjoyed a similar appreciation for absurdity. His works are certain to have been an influence on Carroll's literary style. Lear also created literature for children, interestingly for specific children, much like Carroll. He released A Book of Nonsense in 1946, which cannot have failed to escape Carroll’s notice.
A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear
Edward Lear's popular nonsense verse was an influence on the literary style of Alice.View images from this item (113)
Lear’s treatment of nonsense literature, playfully disrupting meaning, rather than generating gibberish must have appealed to the mathematician in Carroll. As Martin Dubois notes, in his article ‘Anthropomorphism in Alice in Wonderland’ some of the common techniques of Nonsense literature ‘include the inversion of logic and language, the creation of curious juxtapositions, and experiments with size and scale.
John Tenniel, who drew the famous illustrations of the Alice manuscript and its sequel, was a far more successful individual than Carroll when the manuscript was first published. Carroll had seen his handiwork in Punch magazine, for which he was the political cartoonist.
'Blind-man's buff' from Punch
Sir John Tenniel, the illustrator of Alice was an established political cartoonist for Punch magazine.View images from this item (1)
'The Nemesis of Neglect' from Punch
Another illustration by Sir John Tenniel, showing his distinctive style, in Punch magazine.View images from this item (1)
Tenniel produced 42 illustrations for Alice, 32 of which featured in the final published edition. Twenty of these appeared in The Nursery Alice, released in 1890, which was aimed at a younger audience.
The Nursery Alice
‘Drink me’ Alice illustration by John Tenniel from The Nursery Alice, 1890.View images from this item (37)
Letters between Carroll and Tenniel at the time of pre-production of the book suggest that Caroll was willing to accept the artist’s ideas, despite having strong ideas and suggestions about how his characters should be rendered. In fact, Tenniel’s influence is conveyed by Carroll’s recalling the first edition of the book due to Tenniel’s dissatisfaction with the quality of the printed pictures.
There is no doubt Tenniel’s typical style is instantly recognisable, particularly to a Victorian audience, and in large part helps account for the immediate success of the book. They stand in stark contrast to Tenniel’s craftsmanship and honed talent as an illustrator.
You can explore the whole manuscript of Alice in Wonderland, with Carroll’s initial illustrations, in our Award winning Turning the Pages™ website.