FOR A 132-YEAR-OLD prim little English girl, Alice in Wonderland is surprisingly alive and literarily ubiquitous. Alice continues to preside, an often sinister muse, over modern fictional wonderlands, from the anonymous 1970s teen-drugs-and-sex shocker "Go Ask Alice" to A. M. Homes' recent attempt to represent the inner life of a pedophile, "The End of Alice." So up-to-date is Alice that you can even find her on the Web, in "gender-free pronoun" English, a linguistic innovation as bizarre as any of Carroll's own: "So ey was considering in eir own mind (as well as ey could, for the hot day made em feel very sleepy and stupid) whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by em."
This strange, if politically dutiful, attempt to liberate Alice from the bonds of gender paradoxically suggests the basis of her continuing appeal: Like the Victorians, 20th century readers thrill to the spectacle of imperiled little-girlhood, the essence of vulnerability. If there has ever been a time and a place more voyeuristically fascinated than Victorian England by the doomed innocence represented by little girls, it would have to be the contemporary U.S. Like the Victorians, we think of "innocence" as the opposite of "sex." Like the Victorians, we believe that little girls are asexual and therefore incarnate innocence. And like the Victorians, we are both fascinated and appalled by the spectacle of little girls' inevitable development into agents or objects of sexual desire. As testimony to our obsession with the sexual vulnerability of little girls, we have JonBenet Ramsey and faces on milk cartons; the Victorians had the "white slave trade" (the rumored kidnapping and sale of little girls into prostitution abroad) and Lewis Carroll.
True, there's no sex or prurience apparent in "Alice in Wonderland." Alice is as determinedly pre-pubescent as Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz," with her bouncing braids and breasts bound flat. The grown-ups who menace Alice -- even those who take human form, like the Queen of Hearts -- are easily destroyed. "You're nothing but a pack of cards!" Alice screams triumphantly at the end of the book before waking up, safe and sound, beside her sister. And we, too, feel safe and sound with Alice: To celebrate her innocence is to assure ourselves of our own; to cheer her adventures is to declare our solidarity with the spontaneous anti-authoritarianism of the child.
Carroll himself, who sometimes photographed little girls in the nude, revealing or imparting a disconcertingly sexual shimmer, probably knew better -- that "girlish innocence" is a grown-up fairy tale, and one we often seem to construct solely in order to fantasize its destruction. To keep Alice's comic innocence from producing tragic results, Carroll quarantines her in Wonderland, protected by the quick reversals of dream-logic and her magical ability to overcome, as needed, one of the major disadvantages of childhood -- small stature. Even so, sinister voices do whisper throughout Alice's adventures. In "The Walrus and the Carpenter," the long, mock-tragic poem in "Through the Looking Glass," the young oysters disregard one of the primary childhood cautions -- never talk to strangers -- to walk with the walrus and the carpenter along the beech. The oysters wind up eaten, every one, while the walrus and the carpenter weep hypocritical tears over their dinner. ("'I weep for you,' the Walrus said:/'I deeply sympathize.'/With sobs and tears he sorted out/those of the largest size.")
But Wonderland's most dangerous specter is not the predatory stranger, or even the reader who thrills guiltily to tales of predation, but the forthright curiosity of Alice herself. Unlike the oysters, she knows the rules. Before accepting the invitation of a bottle to "Drink Me," she makes sure it's not marked "Poison." Having obtained this rather minimal assurance, however, she goes on to partake eagerly of every size-altering substance she is offered, not to mention taking advice from disappearing cats, smoking caterpillars and cracked eggs. In fact, she enters into the hallucinatory logic of Wonderland and its size-altering potions with the gusto of a college freshman discovering the mind-bending possibilities of dope. The faint menace of her foolhardiness and her surroundings prevent Alice from developing the saccharine poisoning that can afflict icons of girlish innocence (think Shirley Temple).
It was the saccharine, not the acid, that inspired the best-known 20th century Alice of all: the golden-haired, blue-frocked heroine of Walt Disney's 1951 animated film "Alice in Wonderland." Disney launched Alice's career as an emblem of perky innocence, an animated Doris Day for the elementary school set. The Disney Alice is pert, but passive; an observer, not an adventurer. The things we remember from her story -- the Cheshire Cat fading around his grin, the Caterpillar seated on his mushroom smoking his hookah -- happen to, not because of, her. This Alice is the feminine version of that icon of all-American boyhood, Tom Sawyer. We remember Tom for his Yankee ingenuity (getting his friends to whitewash the fence while he lolls about), Alice for her dedication to the rules. "I don't think they play at all fairly," she complains of the Queen's croquet ground, as she tucks under her arm the flamingo that serves as her mallet, "and they don't seem to have any rules in particular." The Disney "Alice" reinforces a suspicion that boys are truly American (laconic but ingenious), and girls are merely English (verbally adept but conformist).
The Disney film was so square that it could, with no sense of transgression, depict its Alice nibbling on a "magic mushroom" and conversing with a hookah-toking caterpillar -- a perfect emblem of the '50s later celebrated nostalgically (in movies like "Grease") as the decade of Good Clean Fun. The culture of the '60s, by contrast, provided do-it-yourself rabbit-holes and established Wonderland as part of the psychedelic scenery. The Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick celebrated Alice as an intrepid pharmaceutical explorer, a drug culture heroine: "One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small/And the ones that mother gives you/Don't do anything at all/Go ask Alice, when she's 10 feet tall."
This Alice had lost her innocence but maintained her comic ability to mock the pretensions of the grown-up -- now recast as the straight -- world. But retrospect, as Alice would not have been surprised to learn, arrives faster and faster. By 1973, a mere six years later, Slick's triumphantly transgressive Alice had given way to the sensationalism of "Go Ask Alice," the anonymous morality tale of a teenage girl's drug-induced demise, complete with scenes of teen sex that thrilled generations of middle-school kids to whom (I speak from experience) the moral was of secondary interest. As banal in her depravity as Disney's golden-haired girl was in her innocence, this Alice fulfilled the tragic threat always lurking in Wonderland: The next metamorphosis may be irreversible.
So Alice has aged since she emerged from the pen of her creator (Carroll, whose reversible metamorphoses expressed his wish that little girls remain eternally little, would have been horrified) and her repertoire of adventures is somewhat larger. But she continues to inhabit simultaneously the comic and the tragic potentials of girlish innocence -- escaping a dull suburban future (with the assistance of hash brownies) in Alison Habens' hilarious 1985 novel "Dreamhouse" and navigating the modern wonderland of an eating-disorder clinic in Stephanie Grant's "Passion of Alice" (1995).
The delicate balance these Alices maintain between innocence and transgression, comedy and pathos, voyeur and victim collapses completely in A. M. Homes' psychological thriller "The End of Alice" (1996). Homes gives us two Alice heroines, one (so named) just pre- and one (anonymous) just post-pubescent, along with a confessedly pedophilic male narrator, telling his story from prison. Both heroines attempt to navigate the wonderland of incipient sexuality on their own terms. The younger, who courts the attention of the narrator, ends up dead; the elder, a college freshman who indulges her own dubious infatuation with a 12-year-old boy and develops an epistolary relationship with the narrator, ends up humiliated and haunted.
In its own way, "The End of Alice" is as moralistic as its square older cousin, "Go Ask Alice." ("Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it," as Carroll's tiresome duchess remarks.) We are all, Homes implies, both victim and voyeur, courting, longing for and sharing the pedophile's touch -- the reader impatient for the gory details of the narrator's story, as well as the two heroines who think they can harness his desire. What passes for innocence is merely a kind of corrupt boredom; comedy lies only in the abrupt reversals of victimization. The anonymous college girl's conclusion could apply to any one of the characters in the novel (as well as to the reader herself): "Despite my best efforts, I am always the one who gets fucked."
Certainly this grim conclusion is -- as Homes' title implies -- one logical outcome of the story of imperiled childhood, and particularly of imperiled girlhood. Luckily, we are not required to accept it as the only one. The world is no more full of pedophiles than it is of golden-haired Alices. And surely a little adult voyeurism is understandable. After all, children are not only small and cute, but also, at least in our imaginations, larger than life. They are bundles of potential -- physical as well as mental -- while we ourselves have dwindled into the confines of the actual.
In "Through the Looking Glass," Tweedledee shows Alice the sleeping Red King and tells her: "You're only a sort of thing in his dream!" Upset by the thought of not being "real," Alice afterwards tries to puzzle it out: "He was part of my dream, of course -- but then I was part of his dream, too!" Children dream adults, and adults dream children; like all relationships based on fantasy and projection, this one has the potential for both humor and horror. It's Alice's ability to express the humor and the horror that accounts for her long and successful career as a little girl.