Book review

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1866)

Alice can be enjoyed at lots of different levels. If you are an older reader, read to the end or go to the notes for older readers.

It was definitely one of those days for Alice:

'Who are you?' said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, 'I - I hardly know, Sir, just at present - at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.'
I think it must have been the weather. It was very hot, you see, so perhaps she only noticed the White Rabbit because she wasn't doing all the busy things that she normally did. Or perhaps, she was drowsy and fell asleep and dreamt it all. So, I'm still not very sure how you actually get into Wonderland. Once she had spotted him, Alice just followed the White Rabbit, across the field and down the rabbit-hole under the hedge. Well, if you saw a rabbit with a waistcoat and pocket-watch, you would probably try and follow him to see where he came from, too.

If you ever do see such a rabbit and follow him, like Alice, you may end up in Wonderland. It's a very strange place. There doesn't seem to be anything you can rely on, not even your own size. Alice learns how to govern her size a little by eating and drinking magic foods which she finds, but it is a case of trial and error. The very small cake, with the words 'EAT ME' beautifully marked in currants is a good example:

She ate a little bit, and said anxiously to herself 'Which way? Which way?', holding her hand on top of her head to feel which way it was growing; and she was quite surprised to find that she remained the same size. To be sure, this is what generally happens when one eats cake; but Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way.
So she set to work, and very soon finished off the cake.

That particular cake had a delayed reaction, and you can read the book to see what kind of a nuisance it produced. But once Alice is more or less in charge of her size she can make herself exactly right to go visiting all the really strange creatures who live in Wonderland.

They are really too many to mention, but there is the Cheshire Cat:

...and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.
'Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin,' thought Alice; 'but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!'

There is, of course, the mad tea-party of the Hatter and the March Hare and the Dormouse:

'Take some more tea,' the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
'I've had nothing yet,' Alice replied in an offended tone: 'so I ca'n't take more.'
'You mean you ca'n't take less,' said the Hatter: 'it's very easy to take more than nothing.'
And there is that croquet game:

Alice thought she had never seen such a curious croquet-ground in her life: it was all ridges and furrows: the croquet balls were live hedgehogs, and the mallets live flamingoes, and the soldiers had to double themselves up and stand on their hands and feet, to make the arches.
The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo: she succeeded in getting its body tucked away, comfortably enough, under her arm, with its legs hanging down, but generally, just as she had got its neck nicely straightened out, and was going to give the hedgehog a blow with its head, it would twist itself round and look up in her face ...
The game is played against the formidable Queen of Hearts:

'Off with her head!'

I think you will love this book. All the characters are so silly, and take themselves so seriously. All you have to do is keep up with Alice as she explores Wonderland.

Notes for older readers

'Curiouser and curiouser!' cried Alice

Did you ever try to have a conversation with someone, and realize half-way through that they come from another planet and there is absolutely no point of contact between you? Perhaps there are times when most of your conversations are like that, say, at school or at home?

Well, you are in good company. Alice feels a bit like that when she goes to Wonderland. But she does come from the real world, and so does Lewis Carroll, and I think, if you read Alice's Adventures, you will be able to identify with Alice's dilemmas:

'This here young lady,' said the Gryphon, 'she wants for to know your history, she do.'
'I'll tell it her,' said the Mock Turtle in a deep, hollow tone. 'Sit down, both of you, and don't speak a word till I've finished.'
So they sat down, and nobody spoke for some minutes. Alice thought to herself 'I don't see how he can ever finish, if he doesn't begin.' But she waited patiently.
'Once,' said the Mock Turtle at last, with a deep sigh, 'I was a real Turtle.'
These words were followed by a very long silence, broken only by an occasional exclamation of 'Hjckrrh!' from the Gryphon, and the constant heavy sobbing of the Mock Turtle. Alice was very nearly getting up and saying 'Thank you, Sir, for your interesting story,' but she could not help thinking there must be more to come, so she sat still and said nothing.

Poor Alice. There are plenty of occasions in this book when she is relying on her common-sense to get her through a difficult moment.

In fact, Alice's caution is exemplary:

'I dare say you're wondering why I don't put my arm round your waist,' the duchess said, after a pause: 'the reason is, that I'm doubtful about the temper of your flamingo. Shall I try the experiment?'
'He might bite,' Alice cautiously replied, not feeling at all anxious to have the experiment tried.
'Very true,' said the Duchess: 'flamingoes and mustard both bite. And the moral of that is - 'Birds of a feather flock together.''
'Only mustard isn't a bird,' Alice remarked.
'Right, as usual,' said the Duchess: what a clear way you have of putting things!'

She copes very well, doesn't she?

You can take any scene in this book. It will work for young children on a simple level because it is highly visual, and silly. And it will work for more mature readers because you can appreciate the wit, as well as the visual jokes.

And just where do these visual images come from? They are so fantastic, and potentially frightening, that they seem to me like hallucinations. Did Lewis Carroll visit an opium den? I think, when Sherlock Holmes visited an opium den, he smoked his measure in a clay pipe, but what exactly does the Caterpillar have in his hookah? Further, just what is the Caterpillar sitting on? Magic mushroom it certainly is because it does all kinds of strange things for Alice when she tries it. The way her neck grows so long that the pigeon thinks she is a serpent, is quite eerie. And the Cheshire Cat, fading away until just the grin remains ...

I wouldn't like you to make the mistake of thinking that Alice is just for younger readers. This book is a masterpiece because you can keep going back to it and re-interpreting it. Use it as a resource book for life, it won't let you down!

Oh, and it's full of brilliant quotes:

'Begin at the beginning,' the King said, very gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'

What can I read next?

If you enjoy this book, there is another one about Alice:

  • Through the Looking-Glass

Younger readers might also like to look at these two books by John Masefield:

And Stephen Elboz sets his stories in a magical world where anything can happen:

Or you could look at Alan Temperley:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland features in these lists: