One day, on a summer’s afternoon, a young Oxonian mathematical lecturer and his friend were taking some of the children of the Dean (his boss) out for a rowing trip on the Isis. To pass the time, the mathematician, Charles Dodgson, began to tell a rather silly story to the kids about a fantastical adventure that might happen to them – or, at least, to his favourite of them, young Alice. But Dodgson had a rather hyperactive mind – he was so constantly inventing things, from an electoral system (Dodgson’s Method) to a steering mechanism for a tricycle, to a device for making it easier to read books sideways, to a double-sided adhesive, to a forerunner of Scrabble, that one of the things he felt the need to invent was a cipher system to make it easier to write down inventions in the middle of the night without having to light a lamp. With that sort of mind, perhaps it’s no surprise that his mind may have wandered from the narrative task at hand – and so, little echoes of his day-job perhaps filtered through in the heat haze over the river, making his story unusually odd.
One of Dodgson’s long-term interests was logic – he later invented a board game to symbolise and teach logical inferences, and one of his last publications was a textbook for a new approach to symbolic logic – and while his professional interest lay no doubt in the mathematical side of the topic, he appears to have been troubled (or at least tickled) by broader, more fundamental questions about the philosophy of logic. Something about the foundations of philosophical logic just didn’t sit right with him; indeed, one of Dodgson’s most lasting contributions has been an article he wrote for the prestigious philosophical journal Mind, in preparation for his symbolic logic book, in which he poses a troubling paradox (in the form of a Platonic dialogue between Achilles and a tortoise, the two heroes of one of Zeno’s pardoxes) that appears to strike at the heart of the concept of deduction itself* – it’s one of those problems that has never really been taken seriously, but that has never quite gone away either, and that has sporadically spurred quite notable philosophers to reconsider it, from Bertrand Russell’s original ‘first step’ to addressing it, through to Simon Blackburn in a centenary article for the same journal. Dodgson thus seems to have regarded logic from two sides: on the one hand, qua mathematics lecturer, he probably admired its rigour and wished more people would understand and employ it (witness his board game idea); but at the same time, privately, he seems to have had his doubts. In this dual mood, Dodgson sprinkled his story to Alice – as adults are wont to do – with little things to make her think, and that might perhaps help him think through some problems at the same time.
Alice loved it. She begged Dodgson to write the story down, and, reluctantly, he did so. But he wasn’t sure: was this really something worth reading? Now, as it turned out, Dodgson wasn’t the first to have the idea of attempting to convey philosophical theories through the medium of a “fairy tale”. George MacDonald had published his first masterpiece, Phantastes, perhaps the seminal work of all modern fantasy (and an allegory of Romanticist Christian faith), only a few years before (The Princess and the Goblin would follow a decade later). If anyone could tell Dodgson if his little nonsense story had some lasting value, it was surely MacDonald. And – mirabile dictu! – the two men were actually friends. MacDonald had taken up residence in Hastings, where Dodgson periodically visited his aunts, and at some point Dodgson had sought help for his life-long stammer from a homeopathic doctor who knew MacDonald well. Though the loquacious MacDonald and the cripplingly shy Dodgson seemed superficially as different as two intellectual men could be, the doctor had seen a likeness in them and had brought the two men together. They had become good friends, Dodgson quickly becoming a favourite with MacDonald’s children, and undoubtedly MacDonald’s inspiration was brewing in Dodgson’s peculiar imagination as he told his tale to another friend’s daughter, young Alice. Phantastes, after all, sees its hero chasing a ‘white lady’ through a narrow tunnel into the ground, and eventually encountering there a ‘white rabbit’. Indeed, less than a week after telling his story to Alice, Dodgson was accompanying MacDonald to his publisher with the final manuscript of his latest fantasy story, ‘The Light Princess’. Carroll in turn brought his manuscript to MacDonald and asked his opinion, but it wasn’t MacDonald’s opinion he received: instead, MacDonald’s wife read the story to their children, who enthusiastically demanded another 60,000 volumes of the same. That was good enough for Dodgson. Mindful of not sullying his academic reputation with children’s nonsense, he fell back on a word-play pseudonym he’d devised some years earlier, ‘Lewis Carroll’ (an inverted translation of his given names, Charles Lutwidge, into Latin and back into English (Charles>Carolus>Carroll, Lutwidge>Ludovicus>Lewis)), and published – to overwhelming commercial success.
[[OK, let’s get this out of the way: Dodgson’s awkwardness and oddness, his popularity with (and affection for) children, his lack of well-publicised sexual affairs, his overwhelming feelings of guilt and worthlessness, an apparent sudden rupture between him and Alice’s family, and the fact that his diary entries from the years when he knew Alice are mysteriously missing, combined with his almost obsessive fondness for painting and photographing naked young girls, have for a long time convinced many people that the beloved children’s author was a paedophile, and that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was born not out of some innocent entertainment but as part of a campaign of sexual abuse and grooming directed at the young girl. Undoubtedly, this is possible. It would fit the evidence.
But more recently, others have questioned this easy assumption. His artwork, which seems so damning to modern eyes, was in no way unusual for the child-cult of the Victorian era – a time in which naked young girls were so uncontroversial a symbol of innocence and joy that they were one of the most popular subjects of Christmas cards. His evident strangeness may now more sympathetically be seen as just a non-neurotypical mind that should not be shocking or alarming in a professional mathematician and inveterate inventor. Perhaps today we’d simply say that he fell somewhere on the spectrum. And is it surprising if a somewhat odd man, shy, with a stammer, perhaps not entirely comfortable with the niceties of adult social interaction, might find it a relief to spend time in the simpler company of his friends’ children? Perhaps a lack of girlfriends was just a sign of a somewhat asexual nature – or just a sign that he struggled to get dates? More recent researchers have suggested in fact that he may have had liaisons with adult women, but that – given his position as a teacher, a church deacon, and a children’s author, all while being an unmarried man, his friends and family may actively have covered up evidence of such affairs and intentionally presented this image of him as an innocent, child-obsessed celibate, in order to preserve his reputation, not realising what this may suggest to more cynical later generations. Indeed, it’s been suggestion that the sudden break with Alice’s family may have been the result of a different love affair – not with Alice, but with her elder sister, or indeed even with her mother. If he was indeed caught sleeping with his boss’s wife, that would certainly explain the ‘rupture’… as for his removing parts of his diary and his feelings of guilt – well, there are a great many reasons for that. After all, it’s not as though he were a happy man, clearly suffering from depression in later life, not to mention suspected of epilepsy or a similar neurological condition. A religiously-intense feeling of worthlessness could be a symptom of either a psychological or a neurological condition – or, of course, Dodgson could have accurately known himself to have been an utter bastard in any number of other private ways than paedophilia.
So the alternative, innocent hypothesis seems just as plausible as the accusation. It’s true that, were Dodgson alive today, you’d probably want him thoroughly vetted before being given a job at a primary school – he’s the sort of person about whom people knowingly say “oh, yes, well I’m not surprised…” when they appear on the news facing trial. But that doesn’t actually mean he was guilty of anything. Given that nothing concrete can be proven, that innocent explanations appear perfectly viable, and that everyone remotely connected to the situation is long since dead, I’d prefer to lay the suspicions of later readers to one side and not have them affect my experience of his writing…]]
Unfortunately, it’s hard not to escape the thought that Dodgson’s novel is rather misshelved today. It’s a classic of children’s literature… but in truth, its primary interest is as a philosophical call-to-arms. Dodgson does not appear to be attempting to advance any specific theory; rather, the novel is built around a long series of philosopical aphorisms (in the technical sense – darts to sting the reader into thinking). Strikingly, most of these aphorisms concern issues that would later pre-occupy Ludwig Wittgenstein. Indeed, the “mad hatter’s tea party” section in particular reads suspiciously like a time-traveller’s memory of having read the early chapters of the Philosophical Investigations.
One recurring concern is the confusion of, as Wittgenstein phrases it, criteria and symptoms. A criterion indicates the truth of something by definition, while a symptom does so only empirically; but the language treats both of these the same, and in many cases it is not clear whether a particular thing ought to be considered a symptom or a criterion – as Wittgenstein points out, in the history of medicine many indications once treated as symptoms have come to be regarded as criteria, while many criteria are now considered only symptoms. It’s easy, therefore, to become confused, and, accordingly, Alice repeatedly mistakes a symptom for a criterion. When deciding to drink from a bottle, for instance, she reasons that, from what she’s been taught, drinking poison is a bad idea, and that poison comes in bottles with a ‘poison’ label, but that the bottle in question lacks such a label, so its contents are safe to drink. [A warning label is a symptom of being poisonous, but it is not a necessary criterion!] Likewise, finding herself in a pool of her own tears, she thinks for a moment that she is in the sea – and if she is in the sea, she can simply return home by train. [For a Victorian child of the holidaying class, being at the seaside is a symptom of having travelled by train – but not a sufficient criterion!] And again (these examples all just from the opening chapters), Alice worries that she has become stupid, and that she will therefore have no toys to play with – since she regards stupidity as a criterion of poor education, which she regards as a criterion of low class, which she regards as a criterion of material poverty. In fact, these things are, at most, only symptoms.
More generally, most of the novel revolves around characters, often Alice, acting as, in a way, holy fools – innocents who take things at face value to demonstrate underlying complexities. In particular, Dodgson is clearly fascinated, like Wittgenstein, by the ways in which language, and superficial reasoning based upon language, fails to reflect differences in underlying semantics. Like Wittgenstein, and indeed Russell, he wishes to point out that just because you can ask a question doesn’t mean that the question makes sense – and just because two things are treated the same in the syntax of the language, doesn’t mean they can be treated the same in the syntax of logic.
Take, for example, the famous section in which a “Cheshire cat” disappears, a bit at a time, leaving only its grin. It’s a memorable moment in children’s literature. But it also has a the form of a classic philosophical thought-experiment. When Alice comments that it’s common to see a cat without a grin, but that she’s never before seen a grin without a cat, what Dodgson is getting at is that while ‘cat’ and ‘grin’ are linguistically-syntactically equivalent nouns (a grammatical sentence with one will remain grammatical with another), they are not, seemingly, logically-syntactically equivalent (a logically coherent proposition with one with not necessarily remain coherent with the other). The cat, that is, is an object, or a substance, while the grin is an action, a state, or a property – you cannot have a grin without a grinner. To put it another way: English, unlike many languages, allows a sentence like “the cat is grinning”, with an agent and an action, to be unproblematically transformed into “the cat has a grin”, with seemingly two ‘objects’. We are often taught that nouns are ‘object words’ and verbs are ‘action words’, as though ‘noun’ and ‘verb’ were semantic categories; but of course, as Dodgson is pointing out, this is not true in the slightest.
[of course, later philosophers like Whitehead and Ramsay would in turn attack the assumptions of this aphorism, by arguing either that all ‘objects’, like cats, are really actions or events, or that ‘objects’, like cats, do not exist, except nominally as bearers of properties like grins.]
Similarly, another repeating concern is the question that would later become associated (through Russell’s polemic) with Meinong: are non-existing things real? [if not, how can they have, or not have, certain properties? If they don’t have properties, how can some things we say about them be true, and others false?] So Alice wonders about what candle flames are like when they’ve been put out, and about classic paradoxes of change and identity (such as: is she the same person she was yesterday? If not, who is she? Or was she? What happened to the old Alice and where did the new Alice come from?). And the change questions also raise a classic Wittgenstein (and Nietzsche) issue: how can consistency be measured, or obedience to a rule or standard, without being sure that the standard of measurement is itself consistent? But how can a standard of measurement be known to be consistent, unless it is itself being measured by another, more authoritative, standard (which then is susceptible to the same objection?). So Alice puts her hand on her head to judge whether she is becoming taller or shorter, in exactly the same way that, for example, Wittgenstein characterises the attempts of those who believe they can describe their own internal feelings through a consistent ‘private language’.
These are just a few snippets of Dodgson’s pervasive concerns. They’re amusing and thought-provoking, for the philosophically-inclined reader (which, fortunately, includes many if not most children).
But what about the rest? Is it actually a good novel?
There, unfortunately, Dodgson is rather less accomplished.
The character of Alice, isn’t. She has very little actual characterisation, and primarily her characterisation is as a narcissistic, wittering simpleton, who spews forth enthusiastic but pointless rivers of words about whatever’s on whatever nugatory jot passes for her mind. So, for example, she spends the early chapters offending and frightening small talking animals by obsessively telling them how her cat loves eating animals like them.
I guess I can see what he’s doing. Young children often find it hilarious when they’re affectionately mocked by someone they trust, and I guess Dodgson is just poking fun at the real Alice’s enthusiasm and derailing speech. But it’s a difficult thing to gauge in the abstract, and by doing it so bluntly, and in such a public forum, it kind of feels as though we’re watching a grown man bullying a girl who can’t fight back (because she’s a child, because this is a novel, and because she’s dead). It also, of course, is intensely irritating, and almost never funny. Doubtless, in that regard, the passage of time has not been kind – “what a Victorian gentleman finds it hilarious to imagine a middle-class Victorian young girl to say” and “what a modern audience will laugh at” are two very different things.
[and specifically: the hilarity of ‘misremembered’ but otherwise banal doggerel lyrics to popular banal doggerel songs and poems of the 1850s was evidentally much greater in 1860 than today. Carroll does have a knack for a memorable line, and a few snippets of doggerel are memorable in their way – particularly the famous last verse of “Will you walk a little faster”, but by and large these pop culture parodies are a waste of wordcount for the modern reader.]
It should also be said that Dodgson does not have any knack whatsoever for realistic or compelling dialogue, or indeed prose in general. While there are a few pithy lines of description, most of the memorable lines in the novel are found in intentionally-unrealistic witty dialogue. Which is fair enough in its own right, of course; but it does rather leave the impression of a chocolate chip biscuit made by someone with a large supply of chocolate chips but only the vaguest concept of biscuit. The good bits are there, but it would be nice if there were some sort of enjoyable linking material holding them together.
Because if you’re looking for linking material, don’t look at the plot. The plot is just that a sequence of events occured. The events themselves make either no sense, or only metaphorical sense, and the sequence as a whole is more or less random, with no broader significance or narrative arc. Which I suppose is no great suprise coming from a ‘story’ that’s just what some guy with a bit of heatstroke one day mumbled stream-of-consciousness-style to entertain a listening child.
What this all means is that, while the nostalgic adult reader may recall a whole bunch of moments from the novel, she is likely to find that the thing itself, in real rather than remembered form, is something of a chore to hack through – many of the best lines would work better if transplanted to a genre such as ‘demotivational posters’ or ‘witty postcards’, if only these options had been available to Carroll at the time. That’s not meant to be entirely disparaging, by the way. Of course aphorisms like “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” – “How do you know I’m mad?” – “You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here” are great in their way, pithy and memorable and iconic, and help to illustrate a common fallacy in thinking. [two, actually – circular reasoning, and, again, confusion of symptoms with criteria]. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the novel that contains them is a good novel!
[the nostalgic reader is also likely to discover, incidentally that many of the most iconic moments from this novel aren’t actually from this novel at all, but from its sequel, Through the Looking Glass…]
In sum, then…
Adrenaline: 1/5. There is very little sense of plot progression at all, and no sense of jeopardy. This is not an exciting novel, unless you’re five.
Emotion: 1/5. There is very little emotional dimension to this novel; and what emotion there is (Alice being upset at being the wrong size, for instance) is almost entirely enervated by the mannered and remote style and the lack of any strong characterisation.
Thought: 4/5. The novel continually – almost literally continually – is raising thought-provoking paradoxes. The thoughts they provoke are brief and superficial – they’re questions, not answers – but they are thoughts.
Beauty: 4/5. On the one hand, Dodgson’s prose isn’t great. On the other hand, it’s not awful, and it’s enriched by an indubitable stock of beautiful quips, witticisms, proverbs and aphorisms.
Craft: 2/5. Dodgson is witty, with an eye for paradox and an ear for a catchphrase. But he shows little skill in crafting characters, speeches (as a general rule, the quality of each utterance here is inversely proportional to its length!), scenes, or arcs. I get the feeling – a biased feeling, given what I know of the rest of his output – that his talents would better equip him to be a poet than a novelist.
Endearingness: 3/5. There are memorable, likeable moments, and when he’s on form Dodgson is fun to listen to. But when he’s just running on to fill the gaps, he’s irritating and frankly boorish.
Originality: 5/5. Nonsense is surprisingly hard to write – good nonsense needs depth, or else it too quickly becomes repetitive. Dodgson does have some depth, and some imagination too, and as a result his sequence of unfortunate events is utterly distinctive.
Overall: 4/7. NOT BAD. I find myself, appropriately enough, in two minds. On the one hand, I want to say that this is a bad book, but one with redeeming features. When I think about the process of reading it, tolerating long sections for a rewarding aphorism in a sea of words, that’s what I think. On the other hand, I want to say that this is actually a good book. Particular when I think just about the memorable, and frankly beautiful good lines, which after all are what I’ll remember longest. So perhaps, overall, it’s fair to split the difference and call this, on average, ‘not bad’. An unusual sort of ‘not bad’…