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Through the Looking Glass

Published in 1871, as a sequel to build on the success of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Through the Looking Glass has remained a popular, intriguing and enthralling classic of Victorian literature "for children". Today, perhaps coloured by our knowledge of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson's life and background, we might regard Looking Glass as a less innocent, even sinister or suspect work, especially when viewed through post-Freudian eyes. Wonderland might appear to be a work for children, yet it has also been a source of interest and speculation for linguists, philosophers and generations of artists, including the Surrealists. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein found a great deal in the Alice books to back up his speculations into language, truth and logic, and, in its implications, the book can be seen to anticipate the theories of Structuralism and post-Structuralism. As a way of starting our discussions consider the following two contrasting comments on Wonderland. The first is from Peter Coveney's masterly study of literature and childhood, The Image of Childhood:

Alice remains the vehicle for Carroll's sensitive commentary. But the tone is perceptibly sharper. The humour is more sardonic. There is more merciless, embittered ridicule. The dream takes on a quality of horror. The note of frustration is struck more insistently... It is as if Carroll in a more self-conscious way then ever in Wonderland turns aside from his own fantasy; as if he remains regretfully and painfully awake in his own dream. This may account for the savagery of much of the humour, such as in The Walrus and the Carpenter. Alice is subjected to a type of subtle cruelty in a way quite alien to the earlier book. The episode in the railway carriage has all the horror of a sadistic nightmare. If life for Carroll was indeed a 'dream', the dream is evidently only too often in Through the Looking Glass Dodgson's own personal nightmare. With only the slightest susceptibility to the analysis of literature in psychological terms, it would be difficult not to se both works as psychological fantasies. They are clearly the works of a neurotic genius. The initial rabbit-hole seems to serve as either a birth or copulative symbol. Dodgson's obsession with little girls was both sexual and sexually morbid. His own insistence on the purity of his interest has perhaps a telling, even a morbid undertone. But with Carroll's art the neurosis is the irrelevance. Even in the clear references one feels to the neurosis, especially in Through the Looking Glass, one senses the extraordinary power of artistic sublimation that Carroll brought to the achievement of the two books.

Contrast this with the commentary of Duncan Fallowell, in Makers of Nineteenth Century Culture:

This work [the Alice books] is the characteristic attempt to enter the dream world - and it succeeds utterly. Part poet, part logician, Lewis Carroll was better adapted to this tale than any comparable writer and the outcome is an autonomous creation free from the folksiness of the Brothers Grimm, the sentimental realism of Hans Andersen, or the tendency towards inconsequential whimsy which one finds in Edward Lear. Carroll is a precursor of Surrealism (Aragon translated him) and Absurdism (their humour is his invention), hence the enormous increase in his status among intellectuals since the Great War. The ages of Freud and Jung transformed the Alice books from a children's story into something profoundly mysterious, and there is no doubt that the title 'children's author' has always been incorrect, despite Dodgson's own modest intentions ('I meant nothing but nonsense'' he said). None the less, it is true that to notice, for example, that the trial of the Knave of Hearts is father to Kafka's The Trial, or that Humpty-Dumpty's 'portmanteau' language is the prototype of the punning technique of [James Joyce's modernist novel] Finnegan's Wake (dubbed 'supperjabberwocky' by Anthony Burgess...), does not really get one very far. It throws some light on Kafka and Joyce but none at all on Carroll whose creations always remain gleefully superior to this kind of exercise.

...the Alice books defy explication, because they travel with us from childhood, changing as we change, comforting, disturbing, each aspect acting as the foil for the other, and in that tension we are spellbound.... Like minor deities these characters move mischievously in a clatter of laughter between our world and their own, and the chief of them is Alice herself, sensitive and robust, one of literature's archetypal figures. She returns us to the uncyncical state of wondrous curiosity associated with childhood and, like a genuine goddess, leads us into strange, eternal places without leading us astray.

Which of these two perspectives do you prefer? Do they both have something interesting and useful to say about the book? How much is the difference between the two perspectives one of temperament, of taking more or less seriously?

 Once we start looking at the novel it soon becomes clear that there are a number of things which we can pick up on. I've identified these, and I would like you to use them as the basis for your group discussions:
(i)The book is prefaced with a chessboard and the dramatis personae presented as chess pieces. Why do you think Carroll introduced this? He picks up on the chess metaphor in various places in the story (Alice becoming Queen, or the countryside arranged as chess squares), and is emphatic that the chess puzzle is "correctly worked out, as far as the moves are concerned", and that the final 'checkmate' of the Red King will be found "to be strictly in accordance with the laws of the game". This last phrase might be more telling than it appears: moves in chess only make sense within the terms of the "laws of the game", a basic Structuralist point that something is only meaningful (or logical) within the terms of the structure (the "game") of which it is a part. The emphasis on games was, for the philosopher Wittgenstein, the most insightful dimension of the book as a whole: for him language only means something in relation to the language "game" of which it is a part, and it is important to know what "language or logic game" one is playing - we'll return to this in (iv) below.
(ii)The prefatory verse ("Child of the pure unclouded brow"). How do you read this? Is it charming or unsettling: Peter Coveney believes that it "ominously" sets the mood of the whole book, which is concluded by the final poem about dreams, further evidence of a neurotic inability to accept reality, the "fantasy of childhood created by the obsessive dreamer, by a psyche dreamily withdrawn from life". Is this a form of "escapism" (remember Week 1) and, if so, is it positive or negative "escapism"? How does it related to Victorian fantasies of childhood?
(iii)The opening chapter. Here Alice plays with the kittens. What do you make of this episode? Remember that the novel ends with Alice suggesting that she might have fallen asleep, or might have fallen into one of the kittens' dreams: what do you think? Is it real or fantasy, or is that a silly question to ask? When Alice enters Wonderland she does so through a mirror - any significance to this (remember that the issue of appearance and reality is pronounced throughout the work). You might also notice that, in terms of dimension and time, the novel gets "curiouser and curiouser", with Alice and the other characters changing size and appearance at random.
(iv)In the garden of talking flowers (Chapter 2) we have our first introduction to the punning, wordplay and general concern with language (and identity) which runs throughout the novel. Do you notice anything about the treatment of language in the novel as a whole. You might also look at Chapter 3 (when Alice can't remember her name, and therefore isn't sure who she is), or the King's discussion about meeting "Nobody" in Chapter 7, or the discussion with the Red Queen in Chapter 9 ('It's too late to correct it,' said the Red Queen: 'when you've once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences.'). Most importantly, look at the discussion between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Chapter 6, particularly Humpty's remarks about games and mastering language ('The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'). One of the principles which is explored in the novel as a whole is whether or not language is simply a tool which we "use", or is it rather a system (arbitrarily defined, in which things mean what they mean because they don't mean something else). These might sound like academic issues, but they have profound implications for the way in which we think about identity (who we are, who we say we are, and what or who others say we are), meaning (can things "mean" anything? what does it mean to "mean"?), and the "world" outside of language.
(v)In Chapter 9 the Red Queen tells Alice to "speak when she's spoken to", to which Alice points out that if everyone did that no-one would ever speak! This sort of moment leads us to another dimension of the book, the extent to which it is burlesquing established authority, eg. Kings and "rulers" (who make rules of games), of education and established wisdom. All these established "truisms" are explored, interrogated and turned upside down in the zany world of Wonderland. Would you agree that Through the Looking Glass really does provide a sardonic, even critical or subversive view on Victorian society, on education and established wisdom as regards childhood and what children know or should know. Consider these comments from Penelope Lively: "there is a further sense in which it is possible to see them as a commentary on Victorian society and especially on the middle class child's ambivalent position within it. Carroll himself said that he saw the red Queen as the epitome of all governesses, and Alice's relationship with many others - the White Rabbit, the Duchess - seems to reflect the curious relationship in which the Victorian child found herself with regard to servants, who were adults, and yet not adults with the same status as her parents and their friends". In the upside-down world of Wonderland we are taken into parentless territory, away from the certainties of orthodox or established wisdom, where things and events are either arbitrary, or governed by arbitrary principles. Do you find this to be significant, or is this just taking the "fantasy" too seriously?
(vi)Finally, Dreams (and nightmares). Coveney remarks that "Alice in Wonderland has the claustrophobic atmosphere of a children's Kafka", and there are plenty of nightmarish qualities to some of the experiences in Looking Glass (eg. the train carriage episode, or the Queen who turns into a sheep, in Chapter 5). What do you think is the significance of dreaming within the book as a whole. Consider Tweedledum's remarks about dreams in Chapter 4, or the remarks about dreams at the beginning of Chapter 8, or the final chapters, where Alice asks whose dream was it? You might also look at the final verse, "Life, what is it but a dream", and see ways in which you find this significant.

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