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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Alice in Wonderland VIII -- chapter 5: ADULTS ARE ALL WONDERFUL MONSTERS

While they skipped the quintessential "You are Old Father William," the scene with the caterpillar is, I think, one of the best moments in Disney's animated Alice in Wonderland.

Carroll said that the nose and
chin of the Caterpillar are actually
two of his legs; I don't know what
Tenniel might have said about it.
  1. As seen in the previous chapter, Alice has constant problems with the "adult" creatures in Wonderland, and as said in a comment for that chapter, I believe Wonderland is indicative of Alice's, or any kid's, experience navigating the world of adults, and not that world as an adult will see it, but as as child sees it.
  2. Alice's inability to recite poetry "correctly:" is it an issue of simple forgetfulness, a general lack of self control on her part, or the influence of the place upon her?
  3. Robert Southey's "The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them" is below (Southey also wrote "Goldilocks and the Three Bears").
  4. Is there any deeper connection between the poem and Alice/Carroll/the narrative than the Caterpillar's apparently random request?
  5. If the creatures of Wonderland are parallels for stuffy old grownups, why are they so easily offended?  Along those same lines, what of its advice, "Keep your temper"?
  6. Does the caterpillar read Alice's mind when it says, "Of the mushroom," regardless of Carroll's belief that mind-reading and telekinesis were real?
  7. Puzzle: how might Alice guarantee that she gets one piece from each side of the mushroom?
  8. Her growth (both up and down) indicate that her changes are not always proportional.
  9. What do you make, if anything, of Alice the Serpent?  And what of Alice's truthfulness, which always gets her in trouble here?
  10. I wonder if Carroll's efforts to demean adults through his descriptions of them in the book (because if they're all adults, then so is the pigeon, and, excuse me, but the pigeon is an idiot: "but if they do, why, then they're a kind of serpent") are meant to show how very dissimilar he is to them, as if he's working mightily to denounce his obvious participation in their exclusive club.

The Old Man's Comforts
and How He Gained Them
by Robert Southey

You are old, Father William the young man cried,
     The few locks which are left you are grey;
You are hale, Father William, a hearty old man,
     Now tell me the reason, I pray.
In the days of my youth, Father William replied,
     I remember’d that youth would fly fast,
And abused not my health and my vigour at first,
     That I never might need them at last.
You are old, Father William, the young man cried,
     And pleasures with youth pass away;
And yet you lament not the days that are gone,
     Now tell me the reason, I pray.
In the days of my youth, Father William replied,
     I remember’d that youth could not last;
I thought of the future, whatever I did,
     That I never might grieve for the past.
You are old, Father William, the young man cried,
     And life must be hastening away;
You are cheerful, and love to converse upon death,
     Now tell me the reason, I pray.
I am cheerful, young man, Father William replied,
     Let the cause thy attention engage;
In the days of my youth I remember’d my God!
      And He hath not forgotten my age.


  1. 2. The last, I think.
    4. I'd like to hear what you think with regard to the narrative. As far as the poem, I think it's typical of Carroll. The book's very iconoclastic. Typically, especially then I would imagine, we respect old people, and he makes light of them.
    5. I think that it mocks the many unnecessary graces and the etiquette of society.
    6. Does he read her mind or her expression?
    7. Not sure. I would just take two pieces that are polar opposites.
    8. Yep, I noticed that, too. So I was wrong.
    9. Alice's frankness is totally contrary to the ways of adults, who, as I said earlier use many sometimes unnecessary means of etiquette. When these are violated, they feel snubbed, even if what was said was perhaps all not that bad. What I find most interesting about the serpent scene is the utilitarian definition of the bird. "Anyone who eats my eggs is effectively a serpent." Well, that's one way to classify it! And to the bird, it's a much more useful classification than species.
    10. No, no, no! The pigeon is not an idiot! The pigeon is expressing a more relevant truth. But yes, he does have a habit of demeaning them, and I think you're right on track.

  2. 2. I agree.
    4. I think it's just a repetition of Carroll's distaste for grownups. Why not act like kids all the time, and no matter how old you are? Is that "deeper?" Not really. Mostly, I just really love, and have always loved, this poem; it's really fun to read out loud.
    5. I agree, but I think there's a simpler element here, too. While I didn't have such a problem with my students--after all, they're older, and no matter how I claimed otherwise, they weren't MY kids, not like my KIDS--I find myself falling easily into a very short temper with my children and even getting offended at their common lack of, what I think they should have, gratitude or other "proper" responses. I OFTEN have to remind myself, hey, they're just kids; and what kind of a grownup and I turning out to be?
    6. I think Carroll might actually be giving the grownups a little bit of credit here. Kids, mine and students alike, are often AMAZED at what I can predict from what they're intending, thinking, or about to say. It's not so hard: I've been there, after all. That and kids, to a pretty significant degree, are my business. I'm not the only one, and I expect Carroll would have been quite capable of this sort of "mind reading."
    7. Yes.
    9. That's a really clear way to put it. I couldn't quite articulate it. Thanks!
    10. Okay. I'll concede that the pigeon is not an idiot--at least not altogether, and not compared, I guess, to others down here. Thankfully the pigeon's actual intelligence or whatever doesn't alter my point.

  3. Yeah, I had to defend the pigeon. I thought that the pigeon was fairly clever in a roundabout way.

  4. Okay, so I've been thinking the past fifteen minutes or so. Maybe I've been reading this wrong all these years (quite likely, and always the best reason to read anything again): are the adults indeed idiots, generally, or are they simply incompatible, socially, with Alice and children? I am, of course, curious about what you think at this point, but this is a question I want to hold on to. Honestly, I think that perhaps on the Queen is the idiot, but I'm keeping an open mind about her as well.

  5. It's a good question. My take has always been something like this: The adults aren't idiots, but society corrupts them. Everything that "maturity" roots out is what Carroll loves. And the only way to recover it causes one to appear mad, as Alice does to the rest of the characters in Wonderland. Of course, the irony is that the reader understands all of THEM to be mad.

  6. Of course, as we're seeing through Alice's eyes. This is a good perspective. I've never given the "adults" any benefit.


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