A story that was strange and wonderful even more so in its own time, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, a pseudonym for Charles Dodgson, is an elaborate fantastical story describing the dream-time adventures of Lewis’ child friend Alice Liddell. Working within this disjointed dream-like quality, Lewis succeeds in critiquing various writers and normative poetry of the period through his nonsense verse. The parody functions as a critique of the conventions at the time and an expression of Carroll’s unique sense of humour.
Some have suggested that the Alice books are a political satire for the War of Roses, citing the painting of the white rose bushes red, and the queen ordering an execution due to a rose being the “wrong colour”, as evidence of this theory (Encyclopaedia.com, 2008). Others claim that this same incident Alice in Wonderland is an expression of Carol’s questionable sexual interests and read Freudian symbols into the red roses being a symbol of menstrual blood and youthful vigour (Hemmings, 2007). However, most critics agree that Alice in Wonderland is filled with puns, parody and inside jokes, defying the conventions of children’s literature at the time with its vivid images and the empowerment of the main character Alice. It gives her independence and rationality far beyond that usually bestowed on the child in Victorian times.
The parody functions as a gentle critique of Victorian morality and poetry in Carroll’s life time and is a reflection of the conflict he experienced in his sexual deviance and the image of him society constructed in order to make him more sexually acceptable as a universal “child saviour” type of figure. The second Alice book, Through the Looking Glass, also pokes fun at several religious hymns and poems for children which were written to evoke a religious fervour and innocence in the child, conveniently complying with the Victorian sentiments of purity and innocence in the child.
Parodying several poems at the time such as “How doth the little busy bee” by Isaac Watts, the English theologian and hymn-writer, Carroll pokes fun at the original poem with his “How doth the little crocodile” (Carroll and Gardner, 2000). He ridicules the Victorian idea that good children occupy themselves in works of labour or of skill and idle hands will be tempted by Satan. The constant busyness of the bee is mimicked by the crocodile in Carroll’s poem, who also goes about his work merrily with a cheerful demeanour. But doing so, he eats the fish he welcomes with his paws, a subtle reference to the theme of death. This nonsense poem attempts to tear down the religious reformation of the child into a symbol of purity. As a man who understood children exceptionally well; Carroll lets the humour and playfulness of the child’s mind come to life in this poem. Other such poems that ridicule the religious importance in poetry are “You are old father William”, a nonsense poem which mimics the style of Robert Southey’s “The old man’s comforts and how he gained them”.
In direct contrast to these playful nonsense poems, “Speak roughly”, the lullaby the ugly Duchess croons to her pig baby, is once again a reflection of the death jokes in Alice. It is a strikingly close contradiction of “Speak Gently” by G. W. Langford or David Bates and suggests that this may be a reality for some children and the Victorians are simply idyllic and ignorant of the depth there is to a child’s life and the many trials and tribulations they experience. As a man who enjoyed the company of children, Lewis had a high opinion of the innocence of these girl-children, but also of their mental maturity and ability to see things that adults didn’t. For example, one child friend talks of how Carroll asked her whether she would still be moving her right hand in her reflection in the looking glass, and she answered, if I were on the other side of the glass then yes (Carroll and Gardner, 2000). This unique way of looking at the world that opens up a myriad of possibilities is something that both Carroll and his child-friends possessed and is what drew them together. In “Speak roughly”, it reinforces the idea that the adult characters in the story are unreliable and irresponsible. The Ugly Duchess, Red Queen, White Queen, Mad Hatter, and most other adult characters are irrational and strange, making Alice, the child, the more reasonable and mature character in the novel. In parodying this inverted relationship, Carroll suggests that children see more than adults do and have greater insight into the world, like his special child friend Alice.
Why is a Raven Like a Writing-Desk?
While other parody devices exist in the story such as the caucus race, inside jokes and puns on names of Carroll’s close friends and acquaintances, and the illustrations by Tenniel, the main devices that Carroll uses to parody ideals and values that existed in his life time are the poems. The Hatter’s poem parodies the first verse of the still well-known children’s poem “Twinkle twinkle little star” with the words ‘twinkle twinkle little bat/ how I wonder what you’re at!’ (Carroll and Gardner, 2000). Although a lot of the parodies in the text are about ideas and normative ideas known to the general public who were Carroll’s contemporaries and were easily recognisable as nonsense versions of the original, others, like “twinkle twinkle little bat” are simply inside jokes for the amusement of Carroll and his friends circle. The burlesque is a playful joke on Bartholomew Price, a mathematics professor at Oxford who was known by the nickname “the Bat” because his lectures flew right over the heads of his students. These inside jokes reflect the origins of the Alice story, which was first told orally, solely to amuse his child friends, the three Liddell girls, and so contained many personal references to them (Carroll and Gardner, 2000).
Similarly, the mock turtle’s song also parodies the first line of “the spider and the fly” by Mary Howitt with “Will you walk a little faster? Said the whiting to the snail”. The burlesque of “The sluggard” also serves to amuse the child readers with the rather sudden death joke about the Owl and the Panther sharing a pie only to have the Owl eaten at the end. While these poems may surprise the adult reader, and jokes about death were not common in children’s stories then, or now, Carroll had great insight into the child’s mind and was able to see the humour of these playful jests to eat or be eaten. “Turtle soup” on the other hand, also functions as an inside joke to amuse his first audience, the Liddell girls, who once sang “Beautiful Star” to Carroll, which is what he based the tune and meter on. Most of the parody poems are in Alice in Wonderland but this technique continues in Through the Looking Glass with ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’, a parody of ‘The Dream of Eugene Aram’ by Thomas Hood; the White Knight’s song ‘A-sitting on a gate’ which parodies Wordsworth’s poem about the leech-gatherer; and the Red Queen’s lullaby ‘Hush-a-by Lady in Alice’s lap!” which is a burlesque of ‘Hush a by baby’. The great nonsense verse of Through the Looking Glass, The Jabberwocky, is filled with made-up words and parodies the German ballad “The Shepherd of the Giant Mountains” and may have been partly based on a local poem “Lambton Worm”. Its whimsical playful nature complements Alice’s dreamscape. Holding a mirror to the poem to read it, it plays with another one of Carroll’s key ideas which is the inverted world (Carroll and Gardner, 2000).
But the poems are not the only expressions of parody in the Alice books. The illustrations by Tenniel play a large part in supporting Carroll’s ideas with his illustrations following the text above and beyond the meaning of the words. Political satire is also prominent in Carroll’s work, with the caucus race a parody of politicians. The term ‘caucus’ was used in England by one party to insult an opposing party, hence the caucus race is a symbol of the incompetence of the politicians, running around in circles and getting nowhere at the end (Carroll and Garder, 2000). This is complemented by Tenniel’s illustrations of the animals which are quite similar to his political cartoons which were widely viewed by Carroll’s readers. The lion and the unicorn in Through the Looking Glass in particular, are assumed to be caricatures representing Gladstone and Disraeli fighting. This functions as a comic device, amusing the reader and letting them share in a private laugh with the author. The allusions to Carroll’s own friends circle also functions in the same way, but these private jokes are limited to a select circle of his friends who know whom he is referring to, such as the Dodo, Duck, Lory and Eaglet which are the animals in the pool of Alice’s tears. These are codes for Charles Dodgson, Reverend Duckworth, Lorina Liddell and Edith Liddell. The mouse too, may have been a parody of Miss. Prickett, the Liddell girls’ governess (Carroll and Gardner, 2000) and functions as a reproof of the Victorian ideals.
The parody in Alice in Wonderland works well because it functions as both a connection to Carroll’s contemporary’s general knowledge of politics and popular children’s poems and hymns, and also as humour, as it either makes reference to them or pokes fun at them. It attracts both adult and child reader to the story as it is able to function on so many different levels as playful light humour and witty rhymes that attract the younger audience. But it can also be read into on a much deeper level by adults who wish to read into his critique of Victorian conventions. Carroll loved to create patterns and rhymes, a mathematics professor and writer of children’s stories, the poems appear to be an enthusiastic spouting of ideas, patterns and pure enjoyment of his own literary genius (Woolf, 2010). Carroll’s poem parodies have become to some extent more famous than the original poems, and they work effectively in building the random dream-like quality of the narrative. The disjointedness of the poems and its nonsensical contradictions complement the erratic surreal characters and situations in Alice’s dream, capturing that dream-time experience we are all so familiar with yet struggle to remember when we wake up.
Carroll’s use of parody in the Alice books functions as an overarching parody of the real world. The unreliability of adult characters in the novel who act in irrational ways and the inversion of facts and mirrored norms question the ideology of the Victorian era. It enables the author to reach a wide group of readers, appealing to both their sense of humour and identification with the ideas and literature his contemporaries were familiar with but also a deep-rooted examination of their beliefs and tacit knowledge.
Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter
Carroll, Lewis., and Gardner, Martin. The Annotated Alice: Alice’s adventures in Wonderland & Through the looking glass. New York: Norton, (2000)
Hemmings, Robert. A Taste of Nostalgia: Children’s books from the Golden Age – Carroll, Grahame, and Milne. Storrs: 2007.
Woolf, Jenny. The mystery of Lewis Carroll: understanding the author of Alice in Wonderland. Times Literary Supplement, 7 May 2010, 9. (2010)