The Annotated Alice contains the complete Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, with extensive notes by editor Martin Gardner, who also penned the Introduction. The informative and interesting annotations are a welcome addition. They are very helpful in understanding and appreciating Carroll’s writings, which are full of symbols, wordplay, riddles, etc., as well as now very obscure historical references and even inside jokes (placed in the works as a treat for the real life Alice and her family, the only people who could be expected to get them).
I had never read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass before now, though of course I’m familiar with the many characters and passages from them that have become well-known in the culture.
In fact, it strikes me that there are probably only a handful of books in history that have had so many such elements become so broadly familiar even to people who have never read them. The Bible certainly, and perhaps some works of Shakespeare, but not a whole lot else.
There is much to praise in the book, especially this edition with Gardner’s invaluable contributions, but I find that what’s most on my mind after reading it are more negative thoughts, so I’ll get those out of the way first.
There are two things in particular that made me uncomfortable reading this book. (Neither of which is a criticism of Carroll or Gardner, by the way, as I’m talking about my subjective reactions based on other things from my life that reading this stirred up in me.)
To start with the lesser of the two, while certainly in large part Carroll’s works are delightful nonsense designed to elicit laughter and joy in children, they have a decidedly dark undercurrent. These fantasies are mostly happy daydreams, but with just enough nightmare mixed in to keep you off balance.
There were times while I read this that I felt like I was getting back in touch with things that had frightened or discomfited me in childhood, which was not the best feeling, though it was intellectually interesting to recognize.
I really have given very little thought as an adult to what sort of thing—especially in fiction—bothered me in childhood, though I do remember one conversation on this topic a few years ago.
I had mentioned to someone that I was going to watch The Wizard of Oz with a child friend of mine that weekend. She reacted with some concern that that might be an inappropriate choice, as it is a movie that can be quite scary to young children. (The girl in question was 6 at the time.)
I was surprised, as it had never occurred to me that kids might be frightened by such a movie. I thought of The Wizard of Oz as like the Peanuts specials or whatever—harmless children’s entertainment.
We talked about it, and talked about what is and is not scary for kids, which led me to reflect on what I had been scared by at that age.
It seemed (and seems) to me like I was rarely if ever scared by monsters or wild animals or fictional bad guys or whatever. I mean probably to some small degree I was, especially when I was very young, but I don’t remember that kind of thing ever having much effect on me.
I do remember at times though being bothered more by the frustration or confinement elements of a story, the feeling of being trapped or being unable to do what you’re trying to do or go where you’re trying to go.
That’s reflected in my bad dreams as an adult. I rarely if ever seem to have dreams where I’m shot, beat up, fired from a job, dumped by a girl, whatever. (Of course, I remember only a tiny fraction of my dreams, so who knows?) Only once in a blue moon might I have one of those classic “embarrassment” dreams, like where I’m walking around school or some public place and realize I absent-mindedly forgot to put pants on that day and so am still in my underwear or naked.
But I do still get the “frustration” dreams, like the common one so many people seem to have where you’re running and yet moving forward at a pace more like slow walking at best. One of the ones like that that I seem to get most often is I’m in a school that becomes increasingly mazelike the longer the dream goes on, where I’m trying to get to a certain room or trying to find an exit or whatever, and somehow I have to go up a floor before going down two floors, and then certain hallways seem to no longer exist, and so on.
It’s not a pleasant or neutral feeling of “Oh, here’s a curious situation; this could be an interesting puzzle to try to figure out,” but an increasingly panicky feeling of being trapped, of the world not behaving like I’m used to, of things not making sense.
When I thought back on The Wizard of Oz—which I saw multiple times in childhood, I’m sure starting very young—I honestly couldn’t recall ever being the slightest bit bothered by its witches and flying monkeys and such. They were all just goofy make-believe beings. But I was able to recall feeling discomfort at the way the main characters were trying to get somewhere and kept running into impediments in doing so.
Not that it was any kind of big deal, like I cried or had to stop watching or anything like that; it was quite mild. (Then again, I can still recall it all these decades later, so was it really so mild?)
But it was that frustration thing. Not, “Oh no, the monkeys are going to get her!” but “She keeps getting so close to being able to go home; why can’t she take that final step?”
Reading The Annotated Alice, I had some flashbacks like that. Maybe kids are assumed to react favorably to a world of imagination where it’s all unpredictable, things aren’t bound by the laws of nature, people talk in nonsense and in riddles, and you’re just sort of along for the ride, unable to control or take responsibility for what happens to you but just appreciating the crazy succession of fantastic images. But I think as a young child I would have been, if not frightened, then at least left vaguely unsettled by this kind of make-believe.
Maybe that’s why I’ve never been tempted to do acid or mushrooms or whatever. I want the world to make sense. I want to be responsible. I want there to be some rational connection between actions and goals, some way to get where I’m trying to go.
The very idea of going “down a rabbit-hole” or entering into some bizarro world through a mirror feels less like an enjoyable adventure than claustrophobic. If I put myself in Alice’s shoes, I imagine myself feeling more and more frustration with every nonsensical interaction.
So, yes, it’s a fun dreamworld to a degree, but there’s a fine line between entertaining dreams and nightmares, and Carroll’s works also have the irrational stuff of nightmares (even if the ratio is more like 80-20 or 90-10 in favor of the entertaining dreams).
But let’s move on to the second thing that bothered me reading The Annotated Alice, and that’s the broad issue of pedophilia, which has become a real sore spot with me.
There has always been some suspicion, some controversy, about Carroll. He was a socially awkward bachelor who is not known to have had any sexual or romantic experiences with an adult. He clearly preferred the company of children, but only female children. He raved about their extraordinary beauty and charm, wrote poems to and about them, spoke of his love for them with a passion normally reserved for a sweetheart, photographed them in the nude, and of course wrote the Alice books themselves as a gift and an homage to a specific little girl.
There was an unexplained break with the family of the real Alice, and there were many pages in his diaries missing after he died, believed removed by family members to avoid scandal.
Then again, the evidence of something untoward isn’t quite so damning as all that might sound. For one thing, there is some evidence that he may have had trysts or attempted trysts with adult women after all. Some historians now contend that whatever conflict there was with Alice’s family is more likely to have been over his involvement with or advances toward Alice’s mother, her older sister, or one of the household servants rather than the young Alice herself, and that the missing diary pages may well have referred to affairs or other potentially scandalous matters involving adult women, not children.
Furthermore, in his time in the Victorian Age in Britain, it was quite common to draw and photograph children in the nude as symbols of a sort of perfect virginal purity. When you judge somebody from a 20th or 21st Century American perspective, enjoying photographing minors in the nude seems like such overwhelming evidence of pedophilia as to be not just evidence anymore but to constitute pedophilia. But when you step back and realize just how culturally variable such things are from place to place and time to time, the weight of that evidence lessens considerably.
But to explain why I found the whole issue upsetting, why my awareness of the history of Carroll and his writings made reading The Annotated Alice unpleasant to a degree, I need to delve into myself and my history.
When I became aware of the pedophilia frenzy when it really took off—in the ’80s I think it was—I thought it was ridiculous, but it wasn’t an issue that personally involved me so it wasn’t all that much on my mind. I just saw the hatred in people’s eyes, the wild tales of magically “recovered” memories of Satanic orgies of raped and cannibalized children, the way basic civil liberties and any presumption of innocence were thrown out the window in such cases, and on and on, and I recognized it as the typical mob behavior toward whoever today’s latest scapegoat is—communists, witches, terrorists, Jews, what have you.
All of a sudden child molesters were supposedly running rampant; anyone accused or suspected of being a child molester was one; child molesters were pure evil and no punishment was severe enough for them; and so on. The usual routine irrationality from the species that brought you war and religion.
If it had any effect on my behavior at all it was that it made me determined never to get within 10 feet of anyone before their 18th birthday since the slightest interaction carried significant risk of being labeled a pedophile by someone, thus pretty much ending one’s life. But I didn’t have much interest in children anyway, so no big deal.
But then I had an unexpected opportunity to get to know and spend time with some young children—various friends of mine had had kids at roughly the same time—and it turned out to be a truly emotionally transformative experience. I found them endlessly fascinating, and felt that I connected with them and they connected with me in a way that is very rare between adults and children. (I think if there is a “secret” as to why, it probably has to do with the fact that I treat children in most respects as equals, in contrast to the way almost all adults automatically go into a very different mode when dealing with children—paternalistic, correcting, supportive in a kind of inane sloganeering way, whatever, but wholly different from how they would address someone they respected as their equal.)
Now I felt like being actively involved with children would be good for me and good for them. So I loosened up considerably as far as my previous resolve to avoid them like the plague due to the pedophilia frenzy. For a time I even seriously pursued a possible career that involved working closely with children.
I had always regarded as utterly implausible the notion that the overwhelming majority of Americans had come to take for granted—to wit, that the only reason someone (especially an unmarried adult male) would want to be with children, would speak of his love for them, would speak of being fascinated by them, etc. would be if he were motivated by sexual desire and trying to get into a position to molest them—but I hadn’t thought through any alternative non-sexual reason an adult would so highly value having children in his life.
And I’m sure those reasons—both good and bad—are varied. But now I had direct experience to draw on to better understand at least one way that one could find the company of children non-sexually appealing.
I don’t know how best to articulate it—I’ve tried before and never felt I captured it all that well—but what I came to realize is that being around children and really opening myself up to them and interacting with them in the way that came natural to me put me in touch with some crucially important things from my own childhood that I had let slip away.
I now believe that as we go through life, there are valuable things we have at each stage of our development that are worth keeping, and flaws that are worth changing or growing out of. True maturity doesn’t consist of leaving your younger self behind for some new and improved older self, but of knowing what from your younger self is worth retaining and what is better jettisoned.
Whether it be curiosity, wisdom, refraining from pigeonholing people based on stereotypes, uninhibitedness, compassion, the capacity to delay gratification, or any other desirable trait, people at certain ages are more likely to have it than people at certain other ages, and, crucially, it’s not a one-way street where the older people get the more of the good stuff they have. Some of the most beautiful, most extraordinary traits of human beings you will encounter more in children than in adults, and some you will encounter more in adults than in children.
Ideally I’d like to have in my present self the best of what 5 year olds have, the best of what 90 year olds have, and the best of every age in between.
Being around children is like being around people from a very different culture. You can presume that any way such people differ from you constitutes something inferior in them and that you will be doing them a favor by encouraging or coercing them to change to be more like you—which is the default way adults deal with children—or you can recognize that some of their differences likely constitute ways they’re ahead of you and some likely constitute ways they’re behind you, and that therefore it is worth observing them and listening to them with a truly open mind, and realizing that in your relationships with them you can learn as well as you can teach, you can improve by moving more toward what they are in certain respects as well as they can improve by moving more toward what you are in certain respects.
Like I say, all this was quite the revelation to me, and it altered my willingness to risk being around children in spite of the societal attitudes that I remained quite aware of.
But then I got burned. Not too severely; it wasn’t so much that anything particularly horrible happened to me as that I realized just how close things had come to that. I never had to fend off accusations of child molesting or anything that extreme, but I saw that if things had been just a tiny bit different in this or that respect, if I had caught just one more bad break at just the wrong time, that very much could have happened.
So I all but returned to my prior attitude of treating children as basically radioactive out of self-preservation. Not all the way; I still have a small number of friends who are minors that I interact with occasionally. But, I would never again, say, seriously consider pursuing a career that involved working with children.
So whereas before I disagreed in the abstract with the common attitude that the only motive an adult could have for valuing relationships with children would be a sexually predatory one, now the issue had a lot more emotional resonance for me.
Now it was personal, not abstract. Now that attitude genuinely hurt me when I encountered it, and at times made me angry. Now I knew that when you scare people like me away from children, you are doing untold damage.
I know I benefited certain children significantly through my interaction with them—just as they benefited me—and that I would have continued to do so in an environment that actually permitted, or better yet encouraged, that. Even through something as simple as sitting with a child and patiently listening to them and respecting their point of view rather than automatically assuming I know better because I’m an adult, I could do them some good.
Now that can’t happen, and that’s a shitty thing.
So when I read The Annotated Alice, and when I read the Introduction about Carroll and his relationships with children and the controversies about that, and when I read related material online, it triggered all these emotions in me—the emotional awakening and joys I’d experienced through my relationships with children, and especially the pain when that blew up.
I have no idea if Carroll had sex with children, if he sexually desired them and frantically whacked off regularly to the naked photos he had of them, if he had no awareness of sexually desiring them but at some unconscious level that was the true explanation for his interest in them, or if none of that was the case and his interest in them was utterly non-sexual. I just hate that it even has to be an issue.
It’s like arguing over whether a white woman who favors civil rights for blacks is—consciously or unconsciously—motivated by her sexual fetish for black men. Sure, there are women who have that preference, and I’m sure some of them are involved in one way or another in racial justice issues, but wouldn’t there be something unhealthy and disgusting about a society where a large segment of the population assumed that that was the only possible explanation for such a woman’s behavior, and we had to argue about it every time and gather evidence every time to condemn or exonerate (though some suspicions would always remain) the woman, and more and more women refrained from getting involved in such causes because they didn’t want to deal with so many people jumping to such conclusions about them?
Carroll loved little girls. His heart was open to them and he wanted to make them happy. Prima facie that’s a good thing. A very good thing. It’s possible he was a terrible person and we just don’t know it, just as it’s possible that any human being is. But his loving children doesn’t make him a terrible person, and it isn’t strong evidence of his being a terrible person.
I want to celebrate him for his interest in children, his love of children, and all the positive energy he directed their way, but I feel involuntarily constrained in doing so, like I’m blocking that the way I’ve had to train myself to block my own love of children, and that stinks.
OK, I’ll get away from that stuff and finally get back to making a few remarks about the book itself. But these essays have never been strictly conventional “reviews” of books; they are my opportunity to write about what reading a book made me think and feel. And reading The Annotated Alice brought up the above matters for me, so I’ll make no apologies for focusing the bulk of this piece on them.
The Annotated Alice includes the original illustrations by John Tenniel, which is a plus.
Not having previously read the books that make up The Annotated Alice, I didn’t realize just how many familiar characters and such they contain. For example, I knew of Jabberwocky, Humpty Dumpty, and The Walrus and the Carpenter, but I don’t think I knew they were from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass.
But that’s not to say that they all originated in these books. Humpty Dumpty and Tweedledum and Tweedledee, for instance, came from nursery rhymes composed well before Carroll came along. He just appropriated them and turned them into characters in his own stories. Kind of like Disney movies tend to overlap significantly with the source material from which they come, but are rewritten and reworked.
The books are quite parallel. In each, Alice moves through some sort of magic portal (a rabbit hole in one; a mirror in the other) into a parallel universe of anthropomorphized animals and inanimate objects. In each, almost all the characters she encounters tend to be impatient with her, to be very literal or punning in what they say and how they interpret what is said (this is the source of much of the humor in the books, and is similar in some ways to some of Groucho Marx’s wordplay humor). In one she meets a deck of playing cards come to life; in the other its chess pieces.
I mentioned above that there is something potentially nightmarish in the Kafka-esque absurdities and contradictions of this world, and in the frustration of trying to get any information or make any progress getting where one’s going when dealing with people (to use the term “people” broadly) who talk in riddles, spew nonsense, and put unconventional interpretations on whatever is said to them.
But one reason it doesn’t go very far in that scary direction—one reason the nightmarish qualities are more potential than actual—is that Alice herself isn’t frightened and only occasionally is frustrated. It’s not like she’s constantly, desperately, trying to get back home, like the aforementioned Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Instead, she’s mostly content just to wander around exploring and having “adventures” (in keeping with the title of the first book).
There’s little in the way of a plot to either book. It’s like The Wizard of Oz in that you follow the main character around and see the encounters she has with the odd characters she meets, but it’s unlike The Wizard of Oz in that Alice is not trying to do or achieve anything in particular, but is just, as I say, wandering around.
Gardner notes that when Alice interacts with the various chess pieces (which is in Through the Looking-Glass) you can interpret her and their movements to correspond to the movements of such pieces in an actual game of chess, and that it mostly makes sense. Not entirely—turns don’t alternate properly but instead the same color sometimes moves multiple times in a row, plus one time a king is in check and that color makes a move other than getting the king out of check, which is contrary to the rules of chess—but mostly.
That’s not something he came up with himself; he notes various other commentators who have sketched out the chess moves they believe best correspond to the text. But to me it still seems like a bit of a stretch. There’s a great deal of ambiguity in the “moves,” so it’s not surprising that you can find some way to interpret almost all of them (but still not quite all of them) such that they’d be legal and make some strategic sense, so it’s not as impressive as it might at first appear.
The many poems and songs and such in the text are generally parodies of real ones, though in most cases ones that almost no one would be familiar with today, however well-known they might have been in Carroll’s time. Gardner helpfully includes in the notes the full text of the works being parodied.
I rather like the mock turtle. Actually the character himself would rank in the middle or below in terms of my favorites, but what I like is his name. It’s a good example of how Carroll’s humorous wordplay works. It’s a play on mock turtle soup, which is soup made with meat other than turtle meat, prepared so as to resemble turtle soup. Thus the “mock” modifies the soup, not the turtle. It’s imitation turtle soup, not soup made from imitation turtles. So Carroll’s character is like a misinterpretation. The name of the thing in real life does not imply—contrary to superficial initial appearances—the existence of a mock turtle, yet a mock turtle shows up in the bizarre world of Wonderland.
As far as my favorite characters, I enjoyed the queen’s constant “Off with his head!” and “Off with her head!” and the tea party with the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the constantly dozing Dormouse, both from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The former is presumably not as scary for kids as it could be, since the king follows along behind her and discreetly pardons everyone before the capricious sentences can be carried out. The latter tea party continues indefinitely because they somehow angered “Time” and so Time is currently in a bit of a snit and is standing still, and it happens to have stopped right at tea time, so they have to sit there and drink tea until further notice. And it has stopped right during the time that poor Dormouse would normally be asleep, since his is a nocturnal species.
On the whole, they’re fun, clever books. I did find myself fading some toward the end, as I wasn’t quite as into Through the Looking-Glass as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but I don’t know if that’s because the former is slightly weaker or because there is in the books a kind of sameness to a lot of the scenes—and as I say, a lack of plot—and the repetition gradually built up such that whichever of the two I happened to read second I would have enjoyed a little less than the one I read first.
I don’t know if children today would enjoy Carroll’s stuff as much as they do modern children’s books like Junie B. Jones or Goosebumps or whatever. For adults interested in checking out his work—or returning to it if they first encountered it in childhood—I would recommend Gardner’s The Annotated Alice version of the books, for his helpful and interesting notes.