Personal Best: Alice in Wonderland

"Alice in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll

Published September 30, 1996 8:54AM (EDT)

no work of art so thrills us, or possesses the power to enter our souls deeply and perhaps even irreversibly, as the "first" of its kind. The luminous books of our childhood will remain the luminous books of our lives.

For me, it was Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass," a Christmas gift from my grandmother when I was 8 years old. First of all, I was enchanted by the book as a physical object, for there were few books in our rural household: both Alice tales were published in a single, wonderful volume (Grosset & Dunlap, 1946) with reproductions of the famous illustrations by John Tenniel, almost as fascinating to me as the tales themselves. There was a dreamlike cover showing Alice amid the comical-grotesque Carroll creations that, to an adult eye, bear a disturbing kinship with the comical-grotesque creations of Hieronymus Bosch, and this cover, too, was endlessly fascinating. In my memory, this first important book of my life was quite large, about the size of what we call today a coffee-table book, and heavy; but when I investigate -- for of course I still have the book in my 19th-century British bookcase, along with "The Hunting of the Snark," Lewis Carroll's "Bedside Book," and other Carroll titles -- I discover to my surprise that it measures only 6 1/2 by 9 inches! A quite ordinary-sized book after all.

What is the perennial appeal of the Alice books? If you could transpose yourself into a girl of 8, in 1946, in a farming community in upstate New York north of Buffalo, imagine the excitement of opening so beautiful a book to read a story in which a girl of about your age is the heroine; imagine the excitement of being taken along with Alice, who talks to herself continually, just like you, whose signature phrase is "Curiouser and curiouser," on her fantastic yet somehow plausible adventure down the rabbit hole, and into the Wonderland world. It would not have occurred to me even to suspect that the "children's tale" was in brilliant ways coded to be read by adults and was in fact an English classic, a universally acclaimed intellectual tour de force and what might be described as a psychological/anthropological dissection of Victorian England. It seems not to have occurred to me that the child-Alice of drawing rooms, servants, tea and crumpets and chess, was of a distinctly different background than my own. I must have been the ideal reader: credulous, unjudging, eager, thrilled. I knew only that I believed in Alice, absolutely.

The influence of the "Alice" books on my inner life is surely incalculable. I'd more or less memorized them as a child from repeated readings. (I've subsequently written on the subject, and have several times taught "Alice" in university courses.) At any time, in any place, appropriate or otherwise, including even listening as I'm being introduced to give readings or lectures, and often in social or professional gatherings, the Alice-voice rises to consciousness and I hear "Curiouser and curiouser" -- "Who cares for you? You're nothing but a pack of cards!" -- "Twas brillig and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;/All mimsy were the borogoves,/And the mome raths outgrabe" -- "Take care of yourself! Something's going to happen!" Impossible to know if a fictitious character has provided me with a "voice," or whether my natural voice was nearly identical with Alice's.

To descend down a rabbit hole, to push through a mirror in a drawing room, to enter that "other world" of the imagination -- this is Alice's destiny, as it might be said to be our collective destiny, if only we value it and cultivate it. For the artist of any kind, the experience is life itself. What is most wonderful about the "Alice" tales, for a child reader at least, is that though they contain nightmare material, and are, intermittently, really quite frightening, Alice triumphs in the end; she retains a fundamental reason, fair-mindedness and sense of justice, as well as a necessary sense of humor, and at the end of both adventures she "wakes" to her real life about which we know nothing other than that she has a sister and there are several kittens in the household. Not for Alice, our Alice, the fate of children in the crueler of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, for Alice is the self's very obduracy, forever innocent, and blessed.

By Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is the author of many novels, including, most recently, "Starr Bright Will Be With You Soon."

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