“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, by Lewis Carroll, has attracted a great deal of critical attention since it was first published in 1865, much of it centred on the hidden meanings and allusions that it might contain. There are, for example, many references to people who were known to the author’s original audience of the three daughters of Henry Liddell, the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who used the pen name of Lewis Carroll, was a talented mathematician and logician who incorporated many verbal and logical tricks in his writing, and untangling these has given pleasure to a host of commentators ever since.
However, the thought that has occurred to me is that “Alice” can be read as a hidden attack on the Church of England, and possibly on Christianity as a whole. I do not know if this thought has been expressed elsewhere or if I am the first person to have spotted the signs – the latter seems unlikely somehow. I doubt very much if I have stumbled upon something that nobody has noticed or suggested before! A far more probable scenario is that this interpretation has been going the rounds for decades but I have simply not been well-read enough to have found it.
The key to this thought is Alice’s experience, early in the book, of eating and drinking things that change her size so that she can get through a door into a beautiful garden. She has already had the experience of falling down a rabbit hole into a strange new world. This struck me as being akin to the Christian idea of being “born again”, with the rabbit hole representing a birth canal, and the eating and drinking being symbolic of the bread and wine of holy communion. The beautiful garden is akin to the Garden of Eden.
Access to the garden is not easy, and indeed this is not achieved by Alice until after she has met many of the best known characters in the book, including the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter. Likewise, the progress of the Christian convert is not supposed to be without its difficulties, and many experiences that both help and hinder can be expected before arrival in the “Promised Land”.
Other episodes in the book can also be regarded as Christian symbols, notably the trial in the final chapter that can be likened to the last judgment in the Book of Revelation.
Why do I say that “Alice in Wonderland” is an attack on the Church rather than an allegory in favour of it? This is because of the remark made quite early in the book by the Cheshire cat that this is a world in which everyone is mad. Even Alice is mad: “You must be”, said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Once in the garden, Alice is in a nightmare world rather than a paradise. Despite the “bright flower-beds and cool fountains”, the roses are being repainted because they are the wrong colour and the world is governed by a queen who orders executions at the slightest excuse. A mad game of croquet is organised from which Alice is happy to escape to the relative serenity of the Mock Turtle’s world of verbal dexterity in which things almost make sense, but not quite.
In other words, if this world is symbolic of the Church of England after a convert has entered it, then it is a world of oppression alternating with nonsense in which language is twisted into shapes for which it was never designed.
Of course, “Alice” is a book designed for the amusement of children, which is why the underlying meaning that I have suggested is not made explicit. Nevertheless, I maintain that it is there all the same.
The question must then be asked as to why Dodgson might have wanted to express his doubts in this way, and that leads to the further question of why he might have had such doubts in the first place.
Dodgson was a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford. As the name might suggest, Christ Church was a religious foundation. Indeed, the college chapel doubles as the Anglican Cathedral of the Oxford Diocese and the head of the college is also the dean of the cathedral and must therefore be an ordained priest in the Church of England.
In Dodgson’s time, all resident staff members were expected to take holy orders. Dodgson took deacon’s orders in 1861 and should have proceeded to take priest’s orders a year later. However, he did not do so, and needed the express permission of Dean Liddell in order to keep his job. Various reasons have been suggested as to why Dodgson refused to become a priest, and one of those is that he was having serious doubts about the validity of Anglicanism.
It is known that Dodgson was interested in “alternative” forms of religious experience, such as Theosophy, and that he also underwent a personal crisis in the early 1860s in which he experienced a profound sense of guilt, the reasons for which are another source of debate. Whatever the cause, he would have had good reason to want to express his doubts about the Church of England in ways that were clear to him but not so to other people, particularly children.
Just at the time when he was having all these doubts, and appealing to Dean Liddell to be excused the next stage towards the Anglican priesthood, he was enjoying trips up the river with the Dean’s children and telling them stories about a strange world that one could only enter after “communion” with magic substances.
A coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe not! As I said above, it is quite possible that this account of the underlying meaning of “Alice” is common knowledge in some quarters. If not, I hereby claim to have made a fresh contribution to the understanding of “Alice in Wonderland”!