Is Lewis Carroll’s tale really about sex, drugs, and colonialism? Some say yes. Others argue it’s about eating disorders or the Wars of the Roses. Hephzibah Anderson takes a look. By Hephzibah Anderson 31 May 2016 To fully experience what it means to vanish down a rabbit hole, just ask the internet about hidden messages in the book that coined the term, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s fantastical tale of magic cakes and secret doors, grinning cats and warbling turtles, has never been out of print since it was first published. Over the course of a century and a half, it’s inspired films, paintings, a ballet and computer games. There’s even a neurological syndrome named after it. Yet its most voluminous by- product by far is alternate readings. Delve into the writings of generations of critics, scholars and bloggers, and this beloved bedtime classic becomes variously an allegory on drug culture, a parable of British colonisation, and the story of a heroine with a bad case of penis envy. With the waning of Victorian prudery and the birth of psychoanalytical theory, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandseemed a good deal less innocent The book began life humbly, as entertainment for 10-year- old Alice Liddell and her sisters as they boated on the Thames with one Charles Dodgson. It proved such a hit that Alice persuaded Dodgson to transcribe it, which he duly did – using the nom de plume Lewis Carroll. Alice was the daughter of the dean of Christ Church, the Oxford college where Dodgson taught mathematics, and she wasn’t the only young girl he befriended. To the 21st Century mind, there is something that makes one deeply uneasy about this scenario. Though there is no evidence of anything untoward in Dodgson’s relationships, it’s hard not to view as suspect a grown man who enjoyed having his young playmates sit on his lap and pose for photographs, often under-dressed. Advertisement “I can die happy now” – When Alex met his idols… Our ultimate Rolling Stones Fan of London was pretty excited to find out he was coming to London for an exclusive look at Exhibitionism, but what he didn’t expect was to meet his idols! Discover London’s music scene With the waning of Victorian prudery and the birth of psychoanalytical theory, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland seemed a good deal less innocent. Re-examining the text, critics found plenty of gynaecological imagery, from the rabbit hole itself to the curtain that she must push aside. Locks and keys were seen as symbolic of coitus, and the caterpillar – well, wasn’t he just a bit… phallic? Inevitably, some saw penis envy in the text, rendering Alice’s extending neck a kind of copycat erection. And then there’s the fanning that she does before she starts to shrink, and the salt water that laps her chin once she’s mere inches tall – both acquire a decidedly masturbatory glossing. Far out More nuanced readings have viewed Alice’s journey as being less about sex per se and more about a girl’s progress through childhood and puberty into adulthood. Our heroine feels uncomfortable in her body, which undergoes a series of extreme changes; her sense of her self becomes destabilised, leaving her uncertain of her own identity; she butts heads with authority and strives to understand seemingly arbitrary rules, the games that people around her play, and even death. Famed literary scholar William Empson got especially carried away, declaring that Alice is “a father in getting down the hole, a foetus at the bottom, and can only be born by becoming a mother and producing her own amniotic fluid”. There is no concrete evidence that Carroll ever experimented with mind-altering drugs Of course, sometimes a caterpillar smoking a hookah is just that – especially when he’s flanked by a magical mushroom. Since the 1960s, drug-lovers have read Alice’s antics as one big trip. The lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit did a fair bit to cement the association: “Remember what the Dormouse said / Feed your head, feed your head”. From its heat-addled opening scene, there is a psychedelic vibe – besides all those pills, time moves erratically, and the grinning Cheshire Cat is here one minute, gone the next. One of Dodgson’s own favourite authors was Thomas De Quincey of Confessions of an English Opium Eater fame, but though he dabbled in homeopathic cold remedies, there is no concrete evidence that he ever experimented with mind- altering drugs. Still, the druggy associations endure, as a line from The Matrix shows: “You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Of cabbages and kings But it’s not all sex and drugs. Another strand of criticism views Alice as a political allegory. When our heroine leaps after the White Rabbit, she ends up in a place that, for all its zany, disconcerting strangeness, is ruled over by a quick- tempered queen – Dodgson reputedly had mixed feelings about Queen Victoria even though she loved his book – and has a shambolic legal system, much like Victorian Britain. Perhaps Alice is a parable of eating disorders or a satire of the Wars of the Roses And how does Alice act in this strange land? Befuddled by the natives’ way of doing things, she tries to impose her own values with very nearly calamitous results. Couldn’t the novel therefore be an allegory for colonisation? There’s also the question of The Walrus and the Carpenter, the poem that Tweedledum and Tweedledee recite to Alice. According to some interpretations, the carpenter is Jesus and the walrus Peter, with the oysters as disciples. Others insist that it’s about Empire, with the walrus and the carpenter representing England, and the oysters its colonies. Even J.B. Priestley weighed into the debate, suggesting that the walrus and the carpenter are instead archetypes of two different types of politician. To peruse the wild and wacky theories that successive generations have dreamt up concerning the ‘true’ meaning of Alice’s adventures is to understand how changing social mores can radically alter a text. Of course, it’s a testament to the work’s essential timelessness that each era has been able to read its own fads and preoccupations into the story. And on the debate rages. Alice is a parable of eating disorders, a cautionary tale about the then new-fangled symbolic algebra, a satire of the Wars of the Roses. In the wacky realm of rival theories, we all become as confounded as Alice. In his day job, Charles Dodgson lectured on mathematics, and it’s little wonder that his stories are teeming with arithmetical and geometrical allusions. Alice is confronted with a series of puzzles from the Mad Hatter’s riddle to the Queen’s croquet game, but try as she might to solve them, they invariably turn out to have little purpose and no answer. Though Dodson was a logician, Wonderland is a realm in which illogic rules. And maybe that’s where the ultimate message of his exuberantly inventive book lies: the world is a mad place in which expectations are often frustrated. Rather than look for meaning we’d do better to simply delight in the ride. This story is a part of BBC Britain – a series focused on exploring this extraordinary island, one story at a time. Readers outside of the UK can see every BBC Britain story by heading to the Britain homepage; you also can see our latest stories by following us on Facebook and Twitter. If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter. And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday. 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To fully experience what it means to vanish down a rabbit
hole, just ask the internet about hidden messages in the
book that coined the term, Alice’s Adventures in
Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s fantastical tale of magic cakes
and secret doors, grinning cats and warbling turtles, has
never been out of print since it was first published. Over the
course of a century and a half, it’s inspired films, paintings, a
ballet and computer games. There’s even a neurological
syndrome named after it. Yet its most voluminous by-
product by far is alternate readings. Delve into the writings
of generations of critics, scholars and bloggers, and this
beloved bedtime classic becomes variously an allegory on
drug culture, a parable of British colonisation, and the story
of a heroine with a bad case of penis envy.
With the waning of Victorian prudery and the birth of
psychoanalytical theory, Alice’s Adventures in
Wonderlandseemed a good deal less innocent
The book began life humbly, as entertainment for 10-year-
old Alice Liddell and her sisters as they boated on the
Thames with one Charles Dodgson. It proved such a hit that
Alice persuaded Dodgson to transcribe it, which he duly did
– using the nom de plume Lewis Carroll. Alice was the
daughter of the dean of Christ Church, the Oxford college
where Dodgson taught mathematics, and she wasn’t the only
young girl he befriended. To the 21st Century mind, there is
something that makes one deeply uneasy about this
scenario. Though there is no evidence of anything untoward
in Dodgson’s relationships, it’s hard not to view as suspect a
grown man who enjoyed having his young playmates sit on
his lap and pose for photographs, often under-dressed.
Advertisement
“I can die happy now” – When Alex met his idols…
Our ultimate Rolling Stones Fan of London was pretty
excited to find out he was coming to London for an exclusive
look at Exhibitionism, but what he didn’t expect was to meet
his idols!
Discover London’s music scene
With the waning of Victorian prudery and the birth of
psychoanalytical theory, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
seemed a good deal less innocent. Re-examining the text,
critics found plenty of gynaecological imagery, from the
rabbit hole itself to the curtain that she must push aside.
Locks and keys were seen as symbolic of coitus, and the
caterpillar – well, wasn’t he just a bit… phallic? Inevitably,
some saw penis envy in the text, rendering Alice’s extending
neck a kind of copycat erection. And then there’s the fanning
that she does before she starts to shrink, and the salt water
that laps her chin once she’s mere inches tall – both acquire
a decidedly masturbatory glossing.
Far out
More nuanced readings have viewed Alice’s journey as being
less about sex per se and more about a girl’s progress
through childhood and puberty into adulthood. Our heroine
feels uncomfortable in her body, which undergoes a series
of extreme changes; her sense of her self becomes
destabilised, leaving her uncertain of her own identity; she
butts heads with authority and strives to understand
seemingly arbitrary rules, the games that people around her
play, and even death.
Famed literary scholar William Empson got especially
carried away, declaring that Alice is “a father in getting down
the hole, a foetus at the bottom, and can only be born by
becoming a mother and producing her own amniotic fluid”.
There is no concrete evidence that Carroll ever
experimented with mind-altering drugs
Of course, sometimes a caterpillar smoking a hookah is just
that – especially when he’s flanked by a magical mushroom.
Since the 1960s, drug-lovers have read Alice’s antics as one
big trip. The lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit did a
fair bit to cement the association: “Remember what the
Dormouse said / Feed your head, feed your head”. From its
heat-addled opening scene, there is a psychedelic vibe –
besides all those pills, time moves erratically, and the
grinning Cheshire Cat is here one minute, gone the next.
One of Dodgson’s own favourite authors was Thomas De
Quincey of Confessions of an English Opium Eater fame, but
though he dabbled in homeopathic cold remedies, there is
no concrete evidence that he ever experimented with mind-
altering drugs. Still, the druggy associations endure, as a line
from The Matrix shows: “You take the blue pill, the story
ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you
want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in
Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole
goes.”
Of cabbages and kings
But it’s not all sex and drugs. Another strand of criticism
views Alice as a political allegory. When our heroine leaps
after the White Rabbit, she ends up in a place that, for all its
zany, disconcerting strangeness, is ruled over by a quick-
tempered queen – Dodgson reputedly had mixed feelings
about Queen Victoria even though she loved his book – and
has a shambolic legal system, much like Victorian Britain.
Perhaps Alice is a parable of eating disorders or a satire
of the Wars of the Roses
And how does Alice act in this strange land? Befuddled by
the natives’ way of doing things, she tries to impose her own
values with very nearly calamitous results. Couldn’t the
novel therefore be an allegory for colonisation?
There’s also the question of The Walrus and the Carpenter,
the poem that Tweedledum and Tweedledee recite to Alice.
According to some interpretations, the carpenter is Jesus
and the walrus Peter, with the oysters as disciples. Others
insist that it’s about Empire, with the walrus and the
carpenter representing England, and the oysters its colonies.
Even J.B. Priestley weighed into the debate, suggesting that
the walrus and the carpenter are instead archetypes of two
different types of politician.
To peruse the wild and wacky theories that successive
generations have dreamt up concerning the ‘true’ meaning
of Alice’s adventures is to understand how changing social
mores can radically alter a text. Of course, it’s a testament to
the work’s essential timelessness that each era has been
able to read its own fads and preoccupations into the story.
And on the debate rages. Alice is a parable of eating
disorders, a cautionary tale about the then new-fangled
symbolic algebra, a satire of the Wars of the Roses. In the
wacky realm of rival theories, we all become as confounded
as Alice.
In his day job, Charles Dodgson lectured on mathematics,
and it’s little wonder that his stories are teeming with
arithmetical and geometrical allusions. Alice is confronted
with a series of puzzles from the Mad Hatter’s riddle to the
Queen’s croquet game, but try as she might to solve them,
they invariably turn out to have little purpose and no
answer. Though Dodson was a logician, Wonderland is a
realm in which illogic rules. And maybe that’s where the
ultimate message of his exuberantly inventive book lies: the
world is a mad place in which expectations are often
frustrated. Rather than look for meaning we’d do better to
simply delight in the ride.
This story is a part of BBC Britain – a series focused on
exploring this extraordinary island, one story at a time.
Readers outside of the UK can see every BBC Britain story
by heading to the Britain homepage; you also can see our
latest stories by following us on Facebook and Twitter.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else
you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to
our Facebook page or message us on Twitte

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