The Victorian World and Underworld in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’

“âÂ?¦This curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people. `But it’s no use now,’ thought poor Alice, `to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make ONE respectable person!'” (Carroll 5). From very early on in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Victorian sense of living a double life is readily apparent. Also riddled throughout the book are Alice’s very proper Victorian ideas of how things should and should not be, most of them having to do with respectability and order.

The Wonderland Alice finds herself in is strange, intimidating and full of colorful characters. As a seven year old child she finds it both exciting and intimidating. She literally falls into it of her own will and can only leave it by exerting control over the bizarre inhabitants. Up until the end of the story, when Alice does gain control over her situation, she allows the strange creatures who inhabit Wonderland to order her around and dictate her behavior.

She is ordered around by nearly every creature she comes in contact with, is dictated by the strange rules of this world, and is made to feel as though she were constantly in the wrong although she has done nothing unusual for a child her age. These unreasonable dictates show the strictness of the Victorian world, particularly towards children.

This was the stated age of ‘children should be seen and not heard.’ There were many different rules of propriety that people in Victorian society were to follow. Children as well as adults had their reputation leveled at them in a manner so as to make them behave properly. Alice shows knowledge of what is and is not proper often when she converse with the inhabitants of Wonderland. “`Don’t grunt,’ said Alice; `that’s not at all a proper way of expressing yourself'” (Carroll 28). Even when sneezing or crying, for Alice, there are acceptable and unacceptable noises that can be made.

Victorian society consisted of many, many rules. Children were usually given these rules, or warnings, in cautionary tales where some child does something they should not and ends up hurt, dead, or in hell. Alice obviously had been exposed to these tales. At only seven, they are a forefront in her mind when she ends up in a situation where the rules are not explicitly set out.

“It was all very well to say `Drink me,’ but the wise little Alice was not going to do THAT in a hurry. `No, I’ll look first,’ she said, `and see whether it’s marked “poison” or not’; for she had read several nice little histories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts and other unpleasant things, all because they WOULD not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them: such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; and that if you cut your finger VERY deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds; and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked `poison,’ it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later” (Carroll 4).

While it is interesting to note that Alice has learned some things from the cautionary tales she has read in the past, it is her curiosity that is the most memorable part of her character. Alice is not a shy, retreating little girl. Alice is “a fearless and inquisitive child, observant and forthright, scared at times but more often levelheaded in the face of a world which has, along with all the adults in it, been turned upside down” (Schellenberg 1). While she may allow other to boss her around to a certain extent, it is mostly because of the abnormality of the situation she finds herself in that makes it so she is malleable to the extent that she is.

Alice has not been raised to live in an ambiguous world. Her world, England’s Victorian world, is highly structured. Partially because of this over structuring of Victorian society, the feeling of living a double life or of being two people was not abnormal. This idea of an underworld or separate underground society is not uncommon in Victorian literature. Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a prime example of this.
In the very beginning of the book, Alice is lying outside near her sister and she is bored to tears. Things are normal, if not terribly interesting, but it is not until she notices a rabbit looking at his pocket watch (definitely an unusual occurrence) that things start to go awry. What is interesting to note is that Alice is not coerced or tempted into following the rabbit and taking the fall, but goes of her own free will.

It is in the beginning of the book that we see most of the religious connotations of Alice’s fall. After the fall down the rabbit hole, she ends up in a dark tunnel which she desires to leave nearly the moment she arrives. “âÂ?¦She knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains” (Carroll 3). Not only has Alice fallen, but she longs to be released into a garden. The religious imagery between the fall from innocence into sin and the wish to return to paradise is not perfect, of course. For even in the garden, Alice finds life less than perfect. “Neither the elusive garden in WonderlandâÂ?¦ however, offers more than a temporary oasis in a mutable, biological, and mortal wasteland” (Kelly 1).

Alice’s descent into Wonderland and subsequent adventures can be seen in the religious light of the overly-morality obsessed Victorians. Carroll even pokes fun at the Victorian obsession with morality in Alice’s garden conversation with the Duchess. “`How fond she is of finding morals in things!’ Alice thought to herself” (Carroll 43). The Victorians were fond of finding morals in things. And their morals often included the view that what you saw was what you got. “âÂ?¦Maybe it’s always pepper that makes people hot-tempered,’ she went on, very much pleased at having found out a new kind of rule, `and vinegar that makes them sour–and camomile that makes them bitter–and–and barley-sugar and such things that make children sweet-tempered” (Carroll 41). Alice’s belief that it is what you eat (or see) that makes a person act as they do is something often seen in Victorian beliefs. Victorians believed that a book really could be judged by its cover. Short, ugly, or malformed people were cruel and corrupt and violent while tall, beautiful, and perfectly formed people were smart and kind and good. However, the overly restricted society, as stated above, led to an interesting phenomenon.
Like many societies where all things considered immoral are publicly scorned and being involved in an immoral act could ruin your reputation, an underworld evolved in which so-called respectable people could lose themselves in non-respectable activities and yet keep their reputation intact, so long as they were not too open about their activities. In the underworld of the Victorians gambling, drug use, prostitution, and other immoral activities were rampant. And many of those are shown in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The caterpillar is a prime example of the darkness in Wonderland. A strange creature that speaks in riddles, the caterpillar is an opium addict who smokes a pipe throughout his conversation with Alice. But outside of that obvious connection to opium, the feel of the book itself is as though Alice were walking through a drug induced dream. “The complex dream atmosphere which Alice lives through can easily be compared to a mind-altering drug experience. The idea of eating a mushroom or drinking from a bottle that causes one to feel altered in some way parallels drug experience as well” (Connell 1). Opium use was very common during the Victorian age with five out of six families using opium (Connell 1). Even more important, Carroll himself was a known opium user. So it is not surprising that he lent both the active use of the drug and the drug induced atmosphere to his book.

Yet another part of the underworld of Wonderland is the madness inherent in all of the inhabitants of Wonderland. All of the characters of Wonderland are mad, some more obviously than others. The idea of dealing with madness bothers Alice quite a bit which is not surprising. Very few people choose to deal with those that are mad, particularly a little girl of seven. However, it seems that there are no other options for the little girl. As the infamous disappearing-reappearing Cheshire cat says, “`Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: `we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad’ (Carroll 29).

While it would seem that insanity is not something that can be held to merely one time period, there are other factors that link the insanity of Wonderland to the Victorian period. For instance, the Mad Hatter. It was in the Victorian period that the Industrial Revolution hit England so hard. One aspect of this was in the factories and haberdashers used mercury on pelts and felt that they used to make their hats. Overexposure to mercury caused serious mental problems in long term haberdashers. But that is merely one case of how the horrors of Industrialization are shown in Wonderland.

However, we have to wonder what it is that allows Alice of all of these creatures to escape Wonderland? Throughout the book she evidences many emotions; curiosity, fear, amusement, sadness, distain, horror, prudishness. Yet, although she is affected by Wonderland and affects Wonderland herself, she never really joins it. She is an interested bystander who becomes a bit of a dabbler.

There are a few takes on how to look at Alice’s character. Does she represent Imperialism? This was the time of the British Empire after all. Alice falls into Wonderland, uses its resources and is highly judgmental of the natives. She, at only seven, sets herself far above them and considers them insane and disreputable.

And the prejudice Alice is exhibiting was not just Britain’s distain and racism towards countries that they conquered and colonized.
“âÂ?¦Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland relates directly to Herbert Spencer’s argument that “the intellectual traits of the uncivilized. . . are the traits recurring in the children of the civilized.” In Lewis Carroll’s presentation of reality from the point of view of a child’s hyperbolic fantasy, adults are cruel, childlike, irresponsible, impulsive, and self-indulgentâÂ?¦Carroll manipulates these prejudices and shows, through Alice’s eyes, how these characteristics also apply to adults, authority figures, and even royalty” (Ionata 1).

Carroll turns the idea of the lower class adults acting like upper class children by having the adults of Wonderland more childlike and wild than the young girl that Alice is.

However, the willingness Alice exhibits about searching out new things and wanting so eagerly to make order of the disorder does not point her out as a criticism of Imperialism except, perhaps, as a side note. Rather, Alice is an example of the Victorian child lost in the underbelly of Victorian society. She is confused, often frustrated, and while she is still interested in what is going on around her, the longer she is in Wonderland the less she understands or wishes to be there.

Because of the lack of structure and sense, Alice is drifting through Wonderland in confusion. She tries to bring order to a disordered world, tries to make sense of the nonsensical. From the moment Alice falls down the hole, she is in a world she does not understand. The ground has, literally, been snatched from under her feet and she has trouble regaining her balance.

Near the end of the book Alice realizes that she has to take control in order to deal with these creatures. “In this final scene, however, Alice turns the table on the bossy inhabitants of Wonderland. Rather than continuing to accept their behavior, she recognizes that they do not behave as they should in Victorian societyâÂ?¦ Once she treats the cards as she should in her own societyâÂ?¦then Alice is allowed to return to it” (Krauskopf 1). Yet another Victorian lesson, all things and all people have their roles and status and it is up to the upper class, the superior people, to keep these roles clear.

Once Alice realizes that she is in control she has her way out of Wonderland. By realizing that the guards and soldiers that are set upon her are merely a deck of cards, Alice topples the structure of Wonderland, adds common sense, and awakens to find it has been merely a dream. What is interesting is that this tale becomes Alice’s tale to tell other children. Once she regales her sister with the story, Wonderland climbs into her sister’s mind and inhabits her thoughts for awhile as she imagines Alice telling this tale to children when she is an adult.

This ending wraps everything up in a succinct manner. Alice is alive, well, and able to grow into a young woman. Wonderland is merely a dream. And the Victorian ways of life are once again hidden safely in the sane boredom of a summer’s day.
“âÂ?¦How she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other little children, and make THEIR eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days” (Carroll 64).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

+ 4 = thirteen