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Friday, February 11, 2011

Alice in Wonderland V -- Absurdities in Interpreting Alice

Lewis Carroll, self portrait
From Martin Gardner's prefatory notes in his The Annotated Alice, the Definitive Edition:

There are two types of notes I have done my best to avoid, not because they are difficult to do or should not be done, but because they are so exceedingly easy to do that any clever reader can write them out for himself.  I refer to allegorical and psychoanalytic exegesis.  Like Homer, the Bible, and other great works of fantasy, the Alice books lend themselves readily to any type of symbolic interpretation--political, metaphysical, or Freudian.  Some learned commentaries of this sort are hilarious.  Shane Leslie, for instance, writing on "Lewis Carroll and the Oxford Movement" (in the London Mercury, July 1933), finds in Alice a secret history of the religious controversies of Victorian England.  The jar of orange marmalade, for example, is a symbol of Protestantism (William of Orange; get it?).  The battle of the White and Red Knights is the famous clash of Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.  The blue caterpillar is Benjamin Jowett, the White Queen is Cardinal John Henry Newman, the Red Queen is Cardinal Henry Manning, the Cheshire Cat is Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, and the Jabberwock "can only be a fearsome representation of the British view of the Papacy..."

Martin Gardner
In recent years the trend has naturally been toward psychoanalytic interpretations.  Alexander Woollcott once expressed relief that the Freudians had left Alice's dreams unexplored; but that was twenty years ago and now, alas, we are all amateur head-shrinkers.  We do not have to be told what it means to tumble down a rabbit hole or curl up inside a tiny house with one foot up the chimney.  The rub is that any work of nonsense abounds with so many inviting symbols that you can start with any assumption you please about the author and easily build up an impressive case for it.  Consider, for example, the scene in which Alice seizes the end of the White King's pencil and begins scribbling for him.  In five minutes one can invent six different interpretations.  Whether Carroll's unconscious had any of them in mind, however, is an altogether dubious matter.

Obviously the beggars the question, Is my current interpretive reading then even worth the time to write up and post or the bits and bites to store it?

Here's how I look at it: the "hilarious" commentaries mentioned above seem take no consideration (and I don't know how they could and yet be conscionably made at all) for the life and other writings/interests of Lewis Carroll.  I've already written at length (likely too much so) about my own and personal justifications for taking the particular bent that I am on the books, but I think I think I also need to be clear that I am only doing so with the utmost effort to ensure that anything I put out there at least fits within the possibilities proffered by the man's character.


  1. I agree, but didn't you say before that you think that a good interpretation doesn't always have to be what the author meant by it?

  2. Calling me on the carpet, eh? I think there's a blurry line between an interpretation that fits the text and could be in line with author intent, even if it's not or not provable and interpretation that is definitely and provably not what the author would have ever considered. The "protestantism" interpretation mentioned above is, by Gardner's assertion, funny, because while it's certainly interested and even fascinating that it does fit, there's no way Carroll would have intended it--it's just that far out of his character.

    What do you think?

  3. I agree that it's a fine line. I don't think that the Freudian stuff is actually that crazy, though. Because the Freudian elements would be, by their nature, subconscious, so it could just as easily sneak into his writing as in a dream. I don't know. What do you think?

  4. I've got some issues with Freudian literary analysis. And I guess part of this is my general aversion to bandwagons. Freudian analysis, by nature, of course applies anywhere. We can never discount it (at least the most thoughtful and well-applied Freudian analysis), because we can never fully recognize what's going on in someone else's head, or even our own, for that matter. Problem 1 is that the vast majority of Freudian analysis is entirely inexpert; my 2nd is that generally Freudian analysis is so (to my understanding) overly preoccupied with sex. It's like those horrible "that's what she said" jokes. It's so easy to ascribe absolutely anywhere. On the flipside, like it or not, we are all, collectively, very much sexual creatures--duh, or we'd die out! I'm not a Freud expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I get tired of the binary nature of his proponents (at least the amateur ones): either it's sex or it's repression, both of which boil down to a maintenance of sexual preoccupation. Does this apply to Carroll? Of course it does. He was also human. My problem with it here in Carroll's case is the vulgar assumption that since Freud = sex and Carroll had a "thing" for little girls that he must have been a pervert, and that makes me angry. He wasn't. (And I think I'm straying from the point now.) Anyway, yes, I think Freudian interpretation always applies, and Gardner alludes to as much in the sentence immediately after the end of the above quotation: "More pertinent is the fact that Carroll was interested in psychic phenomena and automatic writing, and the hypothesis must not be ruled out that it is only by accident that a pencil in this scene is shaped the way it is." Just the fact that Carroll was a proponent of the Romantics' preferred automatic writing practically shouts "FREUD, GET OVER HERE, MAN!" So I guess it just boils down to my loathing of the inaccuracy with which Freud is applied.

    Hmm. That was off the cuff. Did it make sense?

  5. Yeah. Like you, I have a VERY rudimentary knowledge of the field, but from what I understand, Freud is a bit of a zealot on the sexuality point within Freudianism, if that even makes sense. I'm pretty convinced that at least I have subconscious urges that are driving me to do things, but I'm not sure that all of those are sexual, and I think that there are some "Freudians" who (there, you taught me) recognize that. I'd really like to learn more about the field, but it's a subject that I'm reluctant to study because I think that there's a good chance that I could absolutely loathe it.

  6. ...which is the very reason I've generally steered clear of it!

  7. A sage decision!

    Also, I just got a German word for my comment response, although I've lost it with this edit. "Machen": to do or make. I don't know if that helps your count.

  8. I'll put it in my new list. That's a really cool one.

  9. my bad--i didn't actually read the post but the self-portrait resembles the caterpillar. am i the only one that thinks that?

  10. That's interesting, Katie. Tenniel and Carroll were not exactly friends--in fact, they had some pretty spectacular arguments. Yes, I see the similarity, and it would be just like Tenniel to take such a subtle swing at him, because it's pretty recognizable that Carroll did not pain the Caterpillar in a favorable light.


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