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Through The Looking Glass – A Spotlight on Victorian Society

Among all the magical, otherworldly characters children’s literature has immortalized over the ages – be it the eccentric renowned chocolate genius Willy Wonka or Peter Pan – the child who never grew up, Young Alice in her prim, blue and white English frock, navigating her way down the rabbit hole and beyond the looking glass remains undoubtedly iconic. Lewis Carroll has now become synonymous as a purveyor of nonsense literature. A deeper understanding of the plot’s delightful whimsy however reveals much method to the madness of Carroll’s apparently nonsense verse. Fantasy always hinges on the truth of mundane realities, a familiar frame of reference. By employing the ingenious Looking Glass metaphor to turn the world upside down, Carroll is curiously probing the reader’s and the culturally conditioned Alice’s preconceived notions and understanding of the ways of the world- especially in the context of 19th century England.

While the narrative is cloaked in ample ambiguity regarding the true nature of Alice’s journey through the Looking Glass world, the narrative opens and closes in a typically 19h century bourgeoisie, English household where the reader ascertains from the apparently harmless role-playing of the innocent Alice reprimanding her cats how unchecked austere governesses disseminated punishment for falling short of expected attitudes. The Red Queen is the emblematic English governess and is the essence of all power figures in England – constantly criticising and undermining Alice. However, while the Red Queen is a frightening symbol of, it is a hostility that does not warrant any consequences. The real world offered no such safe haven- the errant child was thought to be “born evil” and punitive measures including caning, smacking ,making children stand for hours at length and even locking them in isolation for being “naughty” was the norm.

The pedantic nature of fact finding cartography is parodied as Alice is determined to climb the hilltop “to see the garden far better”. The political implications of the ethnographical survey customs for better governance of conquered territories clearly permeates in Alice’s Victorian sensibilities. The agency of the young girl in the absence of parental control also echoes the colonial gaze and instinct of conquering unclaimed uncharted virgin lands as one’s own.

Children’s psyche and pedagogy was deeply entrenched in all encompassing didacticism and social mores. Children’s literature was an exercise in thinly veiled lessons inside and outside the study rooms- children were “to be seen and not heard”. Critic Gillian Avery is of the opinion “during the decade of 1840 to 1850 the literary fairy tale as opposed to the rewriting of the traditional tale was established…in most of these stories the chief character is reformed after indulging in the particular fault the book deprecates.” To brand the looking glass world as idyllic pastures of unrestricted escapades will be severely discounting the nightmarish horrors of this world. Despite the many challenging, unwelcome impediments Alice emerges a queen- power and agency that Victorian society considers ludicrous for the ‘pawn’ or the child figure. This is the true rift marking the real world from the Looking glass world- she can assume positions of any real consequence in a fictitious world alone. Carroll does not play into any moral ideals for the child nor does he conform to the accepted notion of the ‘angel in the house’ deeply integrated with the pantheistic idea of creation. Alice’s constant questioning of her own identity begs investigation into the role conflict with the intense debates and binaries that child rearing and pedagogy birthed.

Carroll is the staunch defender of the curious imagination of the girl child and is the omniscient creator orchestrating a mostly happy resolution for Alice. Alice is not the popular virtuous “Angel in the House” heroine of the times, neither is she overly mischievous, playful or the reformed ‘naughty’ heroine who learns a bitter lesson on her ungainly un-ladylike activities. Contradicting the then ubiquitous mold of the young boy adventurer, both the Alice books chronicle the young English girl’s quest to freedom and taking charge.

The Red Queen exclaims with context to the real world-” A slow sort of country!…here you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place “ and the propensity towards a fast paced mechanical world surfaces. The ticket is larger than the travelers and their “ time is worth a thousand pounds a minute !”. The incident at the train is fraught with reduction of the human ethos and a nod to the devaluation ushered by the Industrial age. In the rapidly emerging mechanical world, mass production has taken over all semblance of individual innovation and agency – Alice thought to herself, ‘There is no use in speaking’ ….but to her great surprise they all thought in chorus “”. The Victorian obsession with time and money looms large, and so does the peculiar obsession with geometrical exactness- Darwinian theories have promoted the necessity of empiricism as the Guard examined Alice “first through a telescope, then through a microscope and then through an opera-glass”. Alice must conform to this strange new plane or perish- the Victorian society’s fixation on “survival of the fittest”. The ridiculous commodification of time reverberates the Red Queen’s and in turn, the Victorian society’s preoccupation with the railway, the factories, the precision of machines and so on.

The fact that language is inherently arbitrary is a theme the logician in Carroll deftly plays with the arbitrariness of language in his masterstroke Jabberwocky which remains a masterstroke of applying portmanteau nonce words from which Alice derives a pseudo meaning – “it fills my head with ideas!”. The humongously popular Humpty Dumpty serves to amplify this motif as he launches into a fruitless attempt to reconcile Jabberwocky to the outlines of syntactic rules. His dreary poem does not ignite Alice’s imagination the way Jabberwocky did. Carroll lampoons the critics of his day who are unable to reconcile with change and try to pigeon hole creative endeavours to their own definitions through the narcissistic mould of the egg shaped Humpty Dumpty . When Alice traverses the woods of no names with the fawn it is the lack of formal naming and identities that bolsters a friendship – safe passage through the forest marks the return to labels and fear of hostility- perhaps Carroll is suggesting how the tool intrinsically meant for facilitating communication may , in fact be debilitating. It is evident that language is more a tool of human convenience and imposition than any true correlation to the named object and fits into the Victorian society’s anxieties about empiricism and compulsive instinct for appropriate labelling.

The war motif surfaces through various symbols- Carroll deploys ostensible satire in conjuring the battle of the Lion and the Unicorn- it serves as the dual motif of the political agendas straining Britain( the Lion) and Scotland ( the Unicorn) or between the ideologies of Gladstone and Disraeli, burning political questions of the time. In the intrinsically selfish idea of the battle between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, we realise how the battles are fought over trivialities. In a Lacanian perspective the twins are two halves of the same being just as the child who conceives his own mirror image to be another although they do not conceive themselves as such. The basic infantilism of adult behaviour is played out for laughs, just as the instinctive propensity for violence and destruction is sublimated through fun and games. While the game of chess shows linearity in Alice’s journey from pawn to a deserving Queen, it is also infused with militaristic ethos ( with positions marked pawns, kings bishops etc. ) and conveys the larger interpretation of game playing inherently bearing the marks of violence. The Tale of the Carpenter and the Walrus, although conventionally the fairy tale aesthetic of Children’s literature bears out how the true estimate of the world cannot be realised in the exactness of black and white. The White Queen too fits into this regressive schema of “moving backwards”. It is through Alice’s interaction with all these infantile creatures that we see her grow into accepted conditions of adulthood. She plays handmaiden to the White Queen in “a- dressing “ her, enlists extraordinary diplomacy in greeting Tweedledee and Tweedledum, patiently accepts the masculine Humpty Dumpty’s idiosyncratic haughtiness ( reminiscent of jargon heavy profundity of critics ) and is gently nurturing to the White Knight and sensitive to his despair.

Throughout the novel it is Alice the girl child heading towards maturity. As she traverses the bridge between innocence and experience, she adequately produces the mature understanding and responses society demands of its young women. The episode with the White Knight is emblematic of the one of the last vestiges of childhood that is guaranteed to give way to adulthood and loss of innocence. The White Knight has been alluded to be a rather self deprecating representative of the author himself. He is a bumbling figure armed with oddities and might even be seen as a simpleton whose inventions ultimately fail. This might be the closest Carroll is accessible to the reader through his own fiction. With the gentle satire of Wordswroth’s ‘Resolution and Independence’, another nod to then contemporary models of behaviour, Carroll’s genius is at play in deconstructing the narcissistic traditions that is reflected in his own age of mechanic relationships.

The White Knight resembles Carroll all the more in his comic pathos of futile engagements to stretch his time with the young Alice. Multiple approaches abound in the critical circles regarding Carroll’s inherent anxiety over inevitable ageing , his inability to effectively deal with the adult world and his friends growing up. Freudian concepts have been associated with Carroll’s unique relationship to his young girl friends. The intense debates ultimately come to one unanimous decision- there can be no one note method of interpreting the uniquely individual wide eyed Alice’s adventures and how they will enjoy sway over children and adults alike for ages to come.

– Bipasha Bhowmick

Picture Credits: rollingstone.com



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