Week 15: Through the Looking-Glass

Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Background Reading

Charles Dodgson, Lewis Carroll, and Alice

The Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was an Oxford lecturer in mathematics who published his literary works under the pen name Lewis Carroll. The way that he came up with this name demonstrates the playful attitude towards names and words that you will find in all of his writings: he started with his first and middle names, Charles Lutwidge, and turned them into Latin, Carolus Lodovicus, and then inverted this name and put it back into English: Lewis Carroll.

Dodgson was born in 1832, the son of a clergyman (this makes him a younger contemporary of Dickens, who was born in 1812). In 1850, when he was 18 years old, Dodgson went to Oxford University and enrolled as a student. He lived in Oxford for the rest of his life, based at Christ Church College where he became a lecturer in Mathematics. Dodgson died in 1898, at the age of 66. There were many events in 1998 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of his death.

The Dean of Christ Church was Henry Liddell, a famous scholar of Greek. Anybody who has ever studied Greek is acquainted with Professor Liddell, since he was the author of the Greek-English dictionary that is still used by all Greek students; it comes in three sizes: the little Liddell, the middle Liddell, and the big Liddell.

Dodgson became friends with Liddell and with his three daughters, one of whom was named Alice. You can look at some photographs of Alice and her sisters taken during this time. Dodgson was a pioneering photographer, having bought his first camera in 1856. (In 1851, the "Collodion" process made photography dramatically more practical than it had been previously.)

The Alice Books

On July 4 1862, Dodgson went on a picnic with Alice and her two sisters, and he composed the first version of Alice's adventures when Alice, who was ten years old at the time, said to him: "Tell us a story." Two years later, in 1864, Dodgson gave a handwritten and illustrated manuscript of the story to Alice as a Christmas present. This manuscript version of the book with Dodgson's illustrations was later published in a facsimile version in 1885; you can see that many of the ideas for Tenniel's illustrations were originally developed by Dodgson, who was an accomplished artist.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was then issued by Macmillan Publishers in 1865, with the famous illustrations by John Tenniel that you will see when reading this unit. The story of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland concerns the adventures of a little girl, Alice, who wanders into a strange land filled with talking animals, like the White Rabbit, and magical objects, such as the Queen of Hearts and the pack of cards who are her subjects. Then, in 1871, Dodgson published a sequel, called Through the Looking Glass. This is the book you will be reading this week.

In Through the Looking Glass , Alice crosses through to the other side of a mirror and finds another strange world, this time inhabited by a set of animated chess pieces. In the plot of this story, Alice's goal is to reach the other end of the chessboard and be crowned a queen. There are some famous characters and incidents in Through the Looking Glass that you might be familiar with, such as Tweedledum and Tweedledee and Humpty-Dumpty. The poem "Jabberwocky" also appears in this book.

Although Dodgson wrote the "Alice" books for children, there is an incredible quantity of wordplay, paradox and parody in these books which are not exactly easy to read! In order to accommodate truly young readers, Dodgson published a "simplified" version in 1899 called The Nursery Alice. The illustrations for this book were done in color, and the text was completely rewritten to accommodate younger readers. Here, for example, is how Dodgson describes the White Rabbit in The Nursery Alice:

"Oh dear, oh dear!" said the Rabbit. "I shall be too late!" What would it be too late for, I wonder? Well, you see, it had to go and visit the Duchess (you'll see a picture of the Duchess, soon, sitting in her kitchen): and the Duchess was a very cross old lady: and the Rabbit knew she'd be very angry indeed if he kept her waiting. So the poor thing was as frightened as frightened could be (Don't you see how he's trembling? Just shake the book a little, from side to side, and you'll soon see him tremble), because he thought the Duchess would have his head cut off, for a punishment.

Some of you have done "children's versions" of stories for your assignments in this class; if so, you might enjoy taking a look at this alternate version of Alice's adventures to see how Dodgson changed his own story with small children in mind!

Games and Riddles

Dodgson also composed all kinds of puzzles and riddles, such as the following riddle about three sisters and their cat (probably also composed for the Liddell sisters and their cat, Dinah). Here the sisters are feeding fish to the cat: sole, salmon, and herring. Why on earth does the cat not like herring? That is the riddle!

Three sisters at breakfast were feeding the cat,
The first gave it sole--Puss was grateful for that:
The next gave it salmon--which Puss thought a treat:
The third gave it herring--which Puss wouldn't eat.
(Explain the conduct of the cat.)

You will see that Dodgson was oddly interested in riddles and puns having to do with fish. There will be poems about fish and oysters and even haddocks' eyes in the readings for this week (and by the end of the book, Alice herself will comment about all the fish poems she has heard!).

As a mathematician, Dodgson also created "symbolic logic games" for children to play, with a game board and pieces that allow you to work out syllogisms using the principles of symbolic logic. The syllogisms start off in a simple form:

Babies are illogical;
Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile;
Illogical persons are despised.
Answer: Babies cannot manage crocodiles.

The syllogisms get more and more lengthy, which makes them seem more and more absurd:

The only animals in this house are cats;
Every animal is suitable for a pet, that loves to gaze at the moon;
When I detest an animal, I avoid it;
No animals are carnivorous, unless they prowl at night;
No cat fails to kill mice;
No animals ever take to me, except what are in this house;
Kangaroos are not suitable for pets;
None but carnivora kill mice;
I detest animals that do not take to me;
Animals, that prowl at night, always love to gaze at the moon.
Answer: I always avoid a kangaroo.

Dodgson's games and puzzles are still of interest, and he is famous world-wide as the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, but the work that he did for his "real" job, as a professor of mathematics, is almost entirely forgotten! If you are curious (curiosity is the key ingredient to Alice's adventures!), here are the titles of some of his works on mathematics: A Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry (1860), The Formulae of Plane Trigonometry (1861), Condensation of Determinants (1866), and Curiosa Mathematica: A New Theory of Parallels (1888).

Film Versions of Alice

Yes, there is a Disney animated version of Alice from 1951, and it is probably most famous for its hot-pink and purple rendering of the Cheshire Cat character.

But if you are looking for a really good film version of Alice, I highly recommend a 1933 film directed by Norman McLeod, who is best known as a director of Marx Brothers films, such as Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. Directing Marx Brothers movies is great preparation for directing a film version of Alice in Wonderland. The film combines both the Wonderland and Looking-Glass adventures and it stars, among others, Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, W.C. Fields as Humpty-Dumpty, and Gary Cooper as the White Knight. It's a great movie, even though it's now over 70 years old!

The 1985 film Dreamchild is about Alice Liddell as an adult and her memories of her childhood.

The Alice Books as Frametales

As with A Christmas Carol last week, the Alice books are not frametales in the traditional sense. But after all the examples of frametales that you have seen this semester, you will be able to detect ways in which Through the Looking Glass borrows some of the same strategies as a frametale book. The story begins with Alice, and she is the central character of the frametale (and you will also see get some hints here and there of how Alice herself tells the story later to her sister). She is magically transported into another world, in this case the "mirror" world that is just on the other side of the looking-glass (mirror).

Unlike characters like Ulysses or Aeneas or Dante who go on journeys to another world, Alice has no guide at all, and she finds the whole experience very confusing. She does, however, have a goal. The Looking-Glass world is set up like a chess board and it is inhabited by chess pieces. Alice knows how the game of chess is played and she knows that she can become a Queen if only she can get to the other side of the chessboard. If you have read Alice in Wonderland you will remember that Wonderland is inhabited by a pack of cards, but there is no game being played, so Alice does not really have a goal in Wonderland the way she does in the Looking-Glass world.

Another similarity between A Christmas Carol and the Alice books is the way the author uses the motif of the "dream" as a way to explain the supernatural journey. It is a matter of imagination. Scrooge was not someone who exercised his imagination, but Dickens definitely leaves open the possibility that Scrooge himself dreamed up Marley and all the Spirits (remember how the final Spirit transformed into a bedpost at the very end?). Alice, on the other hand, is an incredibly imaginative child and it seems quite clear that her adventures in Wonderland and through the Looking-Glass are dreams that she has. In the modern world, we might not believe as much in the powers of magic or the supernatural, but we are definitely aware of the weirdness of dreams and how dreams can seem very real while you are inside them. In Through the Looking-Glass Alice has to ask herself whether she is dreaming... and she even has to ask herself whether she is just a character in someone else's dream! It's that kind of eerie question that made the Alice books an important subtext for the Matrix movies, which used the character of Alice to challenge some of our most basic assumptions about what it means to be alive and what it means to be dreaming. Pay attention to all the references to sleeping and dreaming in the stories this week - it's an important part of how the Alice books create stories within stories, and make you ask yourself: just who is telling the story of my life anyway?

That salmon and sole Puss should think very grand
Is no such remarkable thing.
For more of these dainties Puss took up her stand;
But when the third sister stretched out her fair hand
Pray why should Puss swallow her ring?


Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: December 6, 2006 0:02 AM