Two Levels: Lewis Carroll's Alice Books as Children's Literature and Adult Fiction

Bachelor Thesis, 2007

39 Pages, Grade: 2,5




1. Lewis Carroll’s Life and its Impact on the Alice Books

2. Lewis Carroll and England in the Victorian Age
2.1 Technical Advances in the Alice Books
2.2 Mid-Victorian British Education in the Alice Books
2.3 Politics in the Alice Books
2.4 Culture, Customs and Victorian Items in the Alice Books
2.4.1 Games and Toys
2.4.2 Poems and Songs
2.4.3 Victorian Customs and Culture

3. Lewis Carroll’s Use of Language in the Alice Books
3.1 Nonsense
3.2 Lewis Carroll’s Linguistic Means of Creating Nonsense
3.2.1 Metalanguage and Metalogic in the Alice Books
3.2.2 Lexical Ambiguity
3.2.3 Nonce-Terms, Neologisms and Nonsense-Verses



List of Sources

In Gedenken an meinen Vater, Jan Schweke, der mich den Umgang mit Sprache lehrte.

Meiner Mutter, die mich in meinen Entscheidungen auf diesem ersten Weg zur Selbstständigkeit immer unterstützt und so dazu beigetragen hat, mich zu dem Menschen zu machen, der ich heute bin.

Außerdem meiner kleinen Schwester.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“– so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

Lewis Carroll

Motto: Lewis Carroll. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” The Complete Illustrated Lewis Carroll. All of Lewis Carroll’s Stories, Verses, Puzzles, Acrostics, ‘Phantasmagoria’ and other Comic Writings illustrated by John Tenniel.

Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1996, 64-5.


When Charles Lutwidge Dodgson decided to publish his tale Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 under the pen name Lewis Carroll, he could not have known that this little girl’s great experiences in Wonderland and also in the land behind the mirror in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There[1], published nearly a decade later, would become so popular. Meant as presents for two of his child-friends both books developed to a reading pleasure for children as well as for adults. Numerous theater plays and film adaptations of Alice’s story definitely show its fantastic impact that it has maintained until today.

However, besides different film versions there are of course also different interpretations of the tale itself. The availability of different readings in their collectivity suggests that the Alice books can be understood virtually completely only by adults in reference to these diverse and numerous aspects, which will be proven during the following examination.

In the subsequent B.A.-thesis I will point out various factors which indicate that Carroll’s Alice is not only a book for children, if not entirely meant for adults. The allusions to the author’s own life as well as Victorian culture and especially Carroll’s use of words and language for example require a preoccupation with these criteria which children generally would not show. Furthermore, adults have a completely different horizon of expectations when reading any piece of literature. This set of cultural standards, assumptions, and principles shape the way in which the reader evaluates and comprehends a book. “Such ‘horizons’ are subject to historical change, so that later generations of readers may see a very different range of meanings in the same work, and revalue it accordingly.” (Baldick 116) Thus, we have to distinguish between the books’ value as children’s literature in the Victorian era when the book was written and first published, children’s literature today as well as adult fiction then and today. Concerning the distinction between children and adults as readers Liede (173) states:

Wie lange Alice noch als Kinder buch weiterleben wird, ist schwer zu sagen, da Carrolls Spiel mit der Bildung ein bestimmtes Wissen verlangt, das sich bei den modernen Schultypen später ergibt als im letzten Jahrhundert, sodaß [sic.] das Lesealter heraufgesetzt wird.

Consequently, besides the reading age, the age of comprehension and also of appreciation is raised. Thus, when I talk about ‘adults’ as a possible target audience, I generally mean those adults that are willing to deal with different aspects of Carroll’s Alice books in order to understand and to appreciate the many references. I believe that adults are able to deal with literature in a way that children are not. Based on the fact that children often are not disposed and evidently not prepared enough to engage in any literary analysis in that form, I will deliberately omit those children who would understand and who would be willing to analyze. I tend to those adults that recognize wordplays, have a basic knowledge of history and therefore the period in which Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass; those adults who scrutinize the events in both books so as to identify parallels pertaining to real life. The following paper will therefore be a composition of a number of diverse references and allusions and certain ways of interpreting them. These criteria will support my argumentation that Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are suited for adults in a more profound way than they are for children. Again, I want to make clear that there are as well those adults who would not be able to grasp the play on words or cultural constituents of that time. Likewise, there are also children that certainly would understand these elements and are glad to rejoice in the puns that Carroll presents.

This B.A.-thesis is structured as follows: The first part of my paper will deal with the biographical background as well as the role that Carroll’s life played for his Alice books. I will not account for a complete biography of his life, as on the one hand, this would go far beyond the scope of this paper. On the other hand, not all of the stages of Carroll’s lifetime are relevant to justify the suitability of his Alice books for adults. Nonetheless, a number of biographical facts are to be kept in mind. Except for autobiographies the author is not necessarily the narrator (cf. Meyer 53 ff.). Yet, the author always writes about himself in a way and he may even project his ideas, opinions and wishes onto his work or onto his protagonists (cf. Hein 90)[2].

The second part of this paper will treat certain references Carroll makes in both tales about little Alice that go beyond those to his life. This chapter will concentrate on those references that require a close look at the Victorian age or more precisely a number of historical and political, technical, educational just as cultural and customary component parts, whereas the latter two are closely linked. I will point out the different levels of symbolism and analyze them to back up my argumentation.

The third part will be concerned with the type of literature we are dealing with when reading Alice. Here the first section will resemble a short literary introduction of the genre of nonsense-literature and the conclusions that can be drawn from it. The second and more extensive segment will examine Carroll’s use of language.

These different criteria will help to establish a result on the question whether Carroll’s Alice books are to be considered children’s literature or adult fiction. Many of these elements that enable variable interpretations are related to one another or have certain influences on each other as they combine given aspects and only then unfold their full impression. Some are preliminary stages or enhancements of others. Nevertheless, it should be considered that Carroll may already have intended some of these interpretations while writing the books, whereas he never even meant other considerations to be read in such a way.

I will close my thesis with an epilogue in which I will recapitulate the major arguments of my analysis and come to a conclusion on the quality of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Finally, the epilogue will be followed by a summary of my observation which is titled “Zusammenfassung” and written in German to meet the examination regulations for B.A.-theses at the Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-Universität Greifswald.

1. Lewis Carroll’s Life and its Impact on the Alice Books

On a summer day in July of 1862, thirty years old mathematics professor Charles Lutwidge Dodgson went on a boat trip on the river Thames. With him were his friend and colleague Reverend Robinson Duckworth as well as the three little daughters of the dean of Oxford’s Christ Church College, Lorina, Edith and Alice Liddell. To entertain the girls, the two men invented funny stories (cf. Kleinspehn 46 f.). The imaginative tutor Dodgson told them the story of a little girl named Alice that followed a white rabbit into a hole in the earth and fell into an entirely new world. There she met strange animals and other truly fabulous creatures and found herself in unknown surroundings altogether.

The party of five just wanted to pause and savor their picnic on the banks of the Thames, hearing more about Alice’s adventures, when a horrible thunder-storm closed in on them. The grownup men then agreed on bringing the girls along the road to see a mutual friend, since there was no use in taking the boat to get back home in a windstorm like that. So they all found accommodation with a friend until the storm was over and the Liddell-sisters could be brought home safe and sound (cf. Kleinspehn ibid.).

Dodgson generally enjoyed the company of children, especially of little girls. He did not like boys as much, unless they had sisters that he wanted to get to know (cf. Kleinspehn 104). He rejoiced in the girls’ liveliness, innocence and beauty (cf. Kleinspehn 105). Lorina, Edith and especially Alice were happy about the magical stories that the young tutor could tell them, so their parents agreed with their rather regular gatherings (cf. Kleinspehn 47 ff.).

It definitely was the boating experience in the summer of 1862 and not just any reunion with his many child-friends, however, which particularly inspired mathematician and logician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson to continue dreaming up little Alice’s adventures in a world beneath our own. Yet, his love and affection for the three Liddell-sisters in general and for Alice in particular is not only expressed in the same name of his favorite child-friend and the protagonist in his most famous tale. It was Alice who asked her adult-friend to write down all the curious tales. Dodgson therefore thought out an entire adventure about little Alice in the wonderful land inhabited by talking animals and marvelous beings. He planned on writing it out and giving it to the real Alice as a Christmas present the same year. However, he did not manage to finish it until February of 1863, though, when he finally gave his favorite little friend a handwritten manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (cf. Kleinspehn 50 ff.)

In 1865 he finally published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (cf. Carroll 1996 xiii) under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. By then he had changed the original manuscript in many ways, edited and added, shortened and modified it to make it appealing for the public. In that way he removed certain sequences, for instance, that directly referred to experiences connecting Carroll with the Liddell-sisters and which would hence most certainly only be understood by the attendees of their meetings. He wanted to fulfill the expectations and peak the interest of other readers, too (cf. Gardner 32).

Even though his pen name already existed in 1856, when Carroll was named tutor at Christ Church College and met Alice Liddell for the first time (cf. Kleinspehn 145), he now was very “careful to distinguish between Charles Dodgson, the Oxford mathematician, and Lewis Carroll, writer of children’s books.” (Gardner 19, cf. Liede 174)

For all that he did not refrain from alluding to the real life ideals that inspired his story. Evidence for this can be taken directly from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The first remark on the summer afternoon of 1862 is already made in the poem which is positioned even before Alice’s Adventures begin. Carroll here speaks of the “golden afternoon” (AW 11) on which the trip took place. Already he indicates references to the three sisters. Naming the three girls “Prima”, “Secunda” and “Tertia” (AW ibid.) and at the same time giving information about their nature, he leaves almost no doubt about these three sisters in the poem corresponding to the actual Liddell-sisters. Prima stands for Lorina, the oldest of the sisters, who he also describes as being “imperious” (AW ibid.). Secunda, representing Alice, the second-born, is “gentler” (AW ibid.) and Tertia who is meant to be the youngest sister Edith is presented as being an inquisitive and alert little girl who “interrupts the tale not more than once a minute” (AW ibid.) (Cf. Gardner 287 f.).

However, this first poem is not the only reference to Carroll’s muses. The poem positioned ahead of the first chapter in Through the Looking-Glass as well as the poem with which the author closes this adventure likewise recall the boat trip. Even though the second book Through the Looking-Glass was inspired by another Alice, namely Alice Raikes[3] in 1868 (cf. Kleinspehn 81 f.), the experience with the Liddell-sisters seems to serve as his main inspiration. Supplementary to the mere reminiscence of the boat expedition, Carroll here uses literary means to remind of his favorite child-friend. By arranging the verses of the poem in such a systematic way, the initial letters of his poem’s verses spell the first real Alice’s full name, Alice Pleasance Liddell (cf. LG 250).[4]

Moreover, the above mentioned boat tour instantly reminds of the chapters III and IV in the Adventures.

Alice, who has just fallen into a world dissimilar to her own, starts to cry at the rapid changes of her size. Because of her momentary huge body height her tears form a great puddle of water. As she shrinks again she can manage to swim through the waters when she makes acquaintance with a number of animals (cf. AW II-III 27-37).

It was high time to go, for the pool was getting quite crowded with birds and animals that had fallen into it: there was a Duck and a Dodo, a Lory and an Eaglet, and several other curious creatures. Alice led the way and the whole party swam to the shore.

(AW II 30)

The characters presented in this episode allude to the participants of the boat trip in the summer of 1862 and therefore to real life models. The capitalization of the rather biological identification of their species adds to this allusion as it makes them actual personalities instead of merely animals. In reference to this boat trip Alice is of course Alice Liddell, whereas the Duck is a representation of Carroll’s friend Robinson Duckworth who accompanied the rowing boat excursion. The Dodo personifies Dodgson himself, as the similarity between the two names suggests (cf. Gardner 28, Hildebrandt 33). Another indicator for Carroll’s identification with the Dodo is a speech disorder the author has acquired due to his delayed linguistic development in his early childhood. He could only abdicate this speech disorder, a severe stutter, in the presence of children. His stammer is reckoned to be the chief cause for his language awareness that he regularly expresses in his works (cf. Kleinspehn 18 f.). This stammering may have “made him pronounce his name Dodo-Dodgson” (Gardner 28), which shows a direct link to the Adventures. The Lory stands for the oldest of the Liddell-sisters, Lorina. This is made clear in the following extract:

Indeed, she [Alice, J.S.] had quite a long argument with the Lory, who at last turned sulky, and who would only say, “I’m older than you, and must know better.”

(AW III 31)

Once again, Lorina’s commanding character, which is already introduced in the preliminary poem, is emphasized. The reference to the Lory being older than Alice furthermore serves as proof of that thesis. The Eaglet thus personifies Edith, the smallest and youngest sister (cf. Gardner ibid.)

Another sequence regarding the Liddell-sisters occurs at the “Mad Tea-Party” (cf. AW VII 68-76). The Dormouse tells the story about the “three little sisters […], and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well –” (AW VII 73). “Elsie” is a play on the sound of Lorina’s initials. If abbreviated, her surnames Lorina Charlotte show the letters ‘L.C.’. Read out loud, the initial letters sound just like “Elsie”. “Lacie” on the other hand is an anagram[5] of “Alice”. The designation of these two girls already pinpoints Carroll’s generally playful usage of language throughout his creations. I will tend to the matter of the writer’s language use and style later on in the course of my paper. The third sister living in a treacle-well is “Tillie”. “Tillie” is again a reference to Edith Liddell whose family nickname was “Matilda” (cf. Gardner 80, Hildebrandt 33).

Yet Carroll’s references to his life as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson are not only limited to the three Liddell-sisters. Dinah, the fictitious Alice’s cat that is introduced in the first book and has given birth to two kittens in the second one, also has ties to real life. The Liddell-family’s two cats were named “Villikens and Dinah” (Gardner 14). By giving his heroine’s pet cat the name of the original Alice’s cat Carroll fuses together imagination and actual experiences, as he does with all his allusions.

Similar to the origination of his first tale Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll’s initiation for writing his second Alice -publication was a little girl who was also named Alice. The author met Alice Raikes in 1868 when visiting his uncle (cf. Kleinspehn 81). Kleinspehn describes the first encounter as follows:

Er lud sie ein, mit ihm zusammen etwas sehr Rätselhaftes anzusehen, und führte sie in den großen Wohnraum voller Möbel und einem großen Spiegel in der Ecke. In einem Brief an die «Times» erinnert sich die spätere Mrs. Wilson Fox noch im Jahre 1932 an diese Begegnung: «‹Jetzt›, sagte er und gab mir eine Apfelsine, ‹sag mir zuerst, in welcher Hand du sie hast.› - ‹In der rechten›, sagte ich. ‹Nun›, sagte er ‹geh dort hinüber und stell dich vor den Spiegel und erzähle mir, in welcher Hand das kleine Mädchen, das du dort siehst, sie hält.› Nachdem ich einen Augenblick überrascht hingeschaut hatte, sagte ich ‹In der linken Hand.› - ‹Genau›, sagte er, ‹und wie erklärst du dir das?› Ich konnte es nicht erklären, aber da ich sah, daß [sic.] eine Lösung von mir erwartet wurde, wagte ich es: ‹Wenn ich auf der anderen Seite des Spiegels wäre, wäre dann die Apfelsine nicht immer noch in meiner rechten Hand?› Ich erinnere mich noch an sein Lachen. ‹Gut gemacht, kleine Alice›, sagte er. ‹Das war die beste Antwort, die ich bisher gehört habe›» […] Diese Episode brachte ihn auf die entscheidende Idee für Alice hinter den Spiegeln.

(Kleinspehn 82)

The second part of Alice’s great experiences was publicized in 1872 (cf. Carroll 1996 xiii).

In addition to his private life and the regular meetings with his little girl friends, the writer alludes to his work life, too. In 1850, Carroll registered in Oxford, where his father had gone to school as well. He enrolled in mathematics, but also in theology and classic literature. After achieving his first academic examination at Christ Church College in Oxford in 1855, Carroll started teaching mathematics (cf. Kleinspehn 26-34).

Vierundfünfzig seiner sechsundsechzig Lebensjahre (1832-1898), die bis auf die ersten fünf in die Regierungszeit Königin Victorias fallen, hat Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in der Schule verbracht, siebenundvierzig davon allein in Christ Church (Oxford). Die Schule ist Dodgsons Welt.

(Liede 174)

Thus, a certain bonding with this systematic entity at the university (cf. Kleinspehn 30) does not seem astonishing. With his use of the Gryphon in Alice’s Adventures he establishes an indirect relationship to his school. In the chapters about the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon (cf. AW IX-X 86-103) Carroll draws a special picture of the Gryphon. According to the ancient lore, gryphons are mythical creatures whose body is that of a lion but who have the head and front claws of an eagle (cf. Borrmann 132), likewise presented in John Tenniel’s illustration (cf. AW IX 91). “Der Greif gibt zweifellos eine imposante und furchteinflößende [sic.] Erscheinung ab, weshalb er ein beliebter Gegenstand von Wappen und Insignien der Macht wurde. […] Im allgemeinen [sic.] stand er für das Sinnbild Christi.“ (Borrmann ibid.) When Alice meets this fabulous being for the first time it is “lying fast asleep in the sun” (AW ibid.), some time later the Queen calls it a “lazy thing” (AW ibid.) and when introduced to Alice it sleepily rubs its eyes (cf. AW ibid). In opposition to the traditional, mythical symbol of a gryphon being protective and mighty, the reader here encounters a tired and rather slow, but very polite creature. As I found out in Gardner (98), a gryphon, or griffin, is the emblem of Oxford’s Trinity College[6]. Moreover, Carroll’s good friend Robinson Duckworth who also took part in the already mentioned rowing boat trip was employed at the Trinity College in Oxford (cf. Kleinspehn 46). So, aside from alluding to his colleague, Carroll is in this sequence also expressing pride and loyalty for Christ Church College by picturing the in other respects so alert and patronizing gryphon of Trinity College as in fact being quite dreary.

Nonetheless, not only aspects of Carroll’s life and work as a grown man are indirectly conveyed. He also expresses memories of his childhood. With seven sisters and being the only son in the family, Carroll grew up in a predominantly female environment (cf. Kleinspehn 15).


[1] In the text I will sometimes refer to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as the Adventures or Alice’s Adventures. References to Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There will sometimes be given as The Looking-Glass in the text. All following citations of the primary text Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in the course of this paper are noted with the abbreviation AW, the chapter from which is cited in Roman numerals and the page number in parentheses. Citations of the primary text Through the Looking-Glass will likewise be annotated with the abbreviation LG as well as the chapter and the page number in parentheses.

Both works were published in Carroll, Lewis. The Complete Illustrated Lewis Carroll. All of Lewis Carroll’s Stories, Verses, Puzzles, Acrostics, ‘Phantasmagoria’ and other Comic Writings illustrated by John Tenniel. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1996.

[2] „Autoren wissen, daß [sic.] sie, was und wie immer sie schreiben, vor allem über sich schreiben. Mit ihrem Blick auf den Gegenstand ihrer Arbeit offenbaren sie vor allem sich selbst.“

Hein, Christoph. „Die Zensur ist überlebt, nutzlos, paradox, menschen- und volksfeindlich, ungesetzlich und strafbar.“Als Kind habe ich Stalin gesehen. Essais und Reden. Berlin und Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1992, 90.

[3] Concerning Alice Raikes’ role for Carroll’s second Alice book Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There I will go into detail later on in this chapter.

[4] Carroll here uses a literary instrument called ‘acrostic’. An acrostic is “a poem in which the initial letters of each line can be read down the page to spell either an alphabet, a name (often that of […] a loved one), or some other concealed message.” (Baldick 2) Further analysis on Carroll’s use of language and linguistic means will be given in chapter 3.

[5] An anagram is a word or phrase – in this case a name – that results from the reordering of the letters of one word or more. Cf. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 74.

In the following, I will abbreviate the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as SOED.

[6] The emblem can be seen at ‹›

Excerpt out of 39 pages


Two Levels: Lewis Carroll's Alice Books as Children's Literature and Adult Fiction
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
621 KB
Levels, Lewis, Carroll, Alice, Books, Children, Literature, Adult, Fiction
Quote paper
Jessica Schweke (Author), 2007, Two Levels: Lewis Carroll's Alice Books as Children's Literature and Adult Fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Two Levels: Lewis Carroll's Alice Books as Children's Literature and Adult Fiction

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free