As the Royal Mint releases new Wonderland-inspired coins, Alice-themed tea rooms open across the USA, and the V&A reveals its latest rabbit-hole exhibition. it’s time to ask why Wonderland continues to beguile a world under lockdown? Is it our desire to tumble down a rabbit hole into a world which promises escapism?
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the fictional world appears wonderfully devoid of consequences. Alice plummets from great heights, near-drowns in tears and yet somehow manages to avoid injury. When the Queen of Hearts barks vehement threats of executions, the Gryphon reassures Alice: “It’s all her fancy, that: they never executes nobody, you know.” Nobody dies in Wonderland, Carroll reveals, and Alice can roam its world in peace, free from the threat of danger.
In Wonderland, where the White Rabbit and Mad Hatter are dreadfully conscious of time, fretting “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!” and warning “If you knew Time as well as I do…you wouldn’t talk about wasting it”, Alice appears blissfully immune to the passage of time. Time is the thing Alice must “beat…when learn[ing] music”, it’s not a pressure as it is for the other characters. Perhaps the freedom Alice experiences contributes to the joy of reading the book. We can escape to a world that has all the consequences of a dream and simply leave, as Alice does, when it becomes too strange.
Yet, the Alice books are not always joyful affairs. Through the Looking-Glass, particularly, demonstrates Alice’s increasing lack of control. The sequel has Carroll’s characters move like pieces on a chessboard and Alice is the “Pawn” of the game. She rushes through the story, trying to reach “the Eighth Square before it gets dark!” Humpty Dumpty informs her she’s already “too late”, switching the script and making Alice the one who struggles to keep up with time. Where, in the first book, Alice experiences relative freedom, in the second, she’s under pressure and in a struggle for her own autonomy.
So, is there something about Alice, in this time particularly, that warrants a re-read of Carroll’s classics?
In this pandemic existence, people are experiencing both the pressure of restrictions and the desire for relative freedom. We both seek the autonomy of Alice roaming dream-like in Wonderland, and feel the pressure she experienced in Through the Looking-Glass. The Alice books tap into the disorienting feelings of pandemic-living: the unusual dreams, the confusions surrounding time, the desire for escape, and the constant anxiety. Carroll presents an anxious, surreal existence, caught between a keen desire for freedom and a fear of losing control. The threat of death, and the worry of how to grow up in such a world, permeate the story of a child discovering a strange new reality.
The Alice books can be turned to as a piece of escapism, a distraction from the pressure and restrictions of the now. Alternatively, they could be viewed as a warped lens into our own world in which Carroll is one of few authors willing to admit just how strange and bewildering our existence can be.