Alice in Wonderland and Puberty

I physically wrestled my husband for a copy of one of the Harry Potter books.  It came in the mail the day of its release (I can’t remember which book it was), and he immediately wanted to turn to the end and find out who had died and what had happened.  I tried to stop him.  Knowing the end before the beginning ruins a book.  I failed because he was a champion wrestler in high school, but we compromised and he did not share the information he learned with me.

This is why reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (published in 1865 and number 29 on the BBC list) may have been a waste of my time.  I don’t like to know what happens before I read.  Lewis Carroll’s most famous book isn’t horribly written or worth skipping, but Disney’s animated version of it is so complete that reading it seems superfluous.  I like to allow the plot to unfold before me as I go.  This is where I find pleasure in reading.  It’s the thrill of learning what will happen next.

So, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was somewhat ruined before I began because I knew what would happen.  There are a few scenes in the book that are not included in the movie, but overall the plot is the same in the Disney version.  Now, despite knowing what was coming, I found some value in the book.

From Wikimedia Commons

The theme I noticed most prominently is the difficult change from childhood to adulthood.  Wonderland tends to represent the innocence of childhood.  It is a carefree and fun-loving time, and it is also a confusing time, where not everything makes sense, but innocence smoothes this over.  However, childhood must come to an end for everybody with puberty.  Alice seems to be going through this dreaded change, as in her adventures she is constantly growing from big to small and back again.  During these unexpected growth spurts, Alice is “shedding gallons of tears” (24).  Sound familiar?  If you’ve ever been a teenage girl, it should.  Hey, if you’re a woman it should!   I know I shed gallons of tears on occasion, and usually these occasions include hormones.

As Alice continues her day, she proclaims to the Pigeon, “I’m a little girl” (62).  However, she says this “doubtfully, as she remembered the number of changes she had gone through, that day” (62-63).  This is probably the strongest proof that Lewis Carroll’s tale is a metaphor for growing up.  It is a confusing time when one doesn’t quite know if they are still a child or yet an adult.

We sometimes have this conversation in my college English class:  When do you know that you’re an adult?  Students often cite the fact that they can vote when they are 18 or drink when they are 21.  Older students tend to focus more on the responsibility that comes with being an adult.  If you pay a mortgage, support a family, or live on your own, you must be an adult.  I’m not sure what the right answer is, but I remember feeling like I had finally reached adulthood when I became a mother.  I wasn’t necessarily more mature or adult-like because of that event, but I did take on more responsibility than I ever had.

The other evidence for this tale being a bildungsroman is the end when Alice wakes up.  Yes, it has all been a dream, and Alice’s older sister is the one who wakes Alice from her adventure.  The sister remembers her own visits to Wonderland and thinks fondly about how Alice will “be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago” (144).  It is here that we know Wonderland represents childhood, but it also seems to represent sympathy for childhood.  Being a child is what should make adults good parents or role models for children.  Having been there and done that should engender a sense of empathy and tolerance for the follies of youth.  Alice’s sister certainly possesses this feeling, but how many of us do?

Jessie Willcox Smith illustration (1923) from Wikimedia Commons

One of the most confusing lines of the book is from the Duchess, who is always finding the moral in every object or occurrence.  When Alice speaks to her of mustard and they try to classify it – Bird? Mineral? Vegetable? – the Duchess concludes: “Be what you would seem to be . . . Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others than what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise” (105).  Whew!  This sentence reminds me of student writing in which I would write “AWK” or “run-on” in the margin.  I’m sure Strunk and White would have something to say about the clarity of this statement.

I’m not sure that I would read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to my daughter.  What we are reading instead to address the changes that will inevitably occur in puberty is The Care and Keeping of You by the American Girl company.  Of the American Girls, Molly has always been my favorite.  I’m not sure why.  It may be her brown hair or her freckles, which we share.  It may be her somewhat modern story and the victory garden she keeps.  She was my first American Girl doll and remains my favorite.  However, my new favorite American girl book is The Care and Keeping of You.

This book is amazing.  It covers everything a girl going from childhood to womanhood needs to know.  It allows me, as a parent, to talk about issues with my daughter that may not come up at the dinner table or that may be awkward to approach.  I’ve always heard that you should talk with kids about issues some five years before they happen.  This makes sense to me, and thanks to this book, we are addressing those issues.  Some of the knowledge, such as menstruation, has been unwelcome to my daughter, but we can’t hide our heads in the sand and pretend it will never happen.

We also can’t allow our daughters to be like Alice and to swim and dream through confusion and tears when facing these changes.  Instead of dreaming about a Wonderland that is fading, I want my daughter to be excited about what her life holds in the future and to feel comfortable talking to me about it, instead of dreaming about it alone.

So, I’m not sure that I missed anything by not having read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland sooner.  I do admire Lewis Carroll (whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) and his great talent for nonsense and imagination.  I suppose he was the Dr. Seuss of his time.  But when it comes to puberty, I want my daughter to hear it from me (with the help of great, serious, and informative books written at a tween’s level), rather than from Dr. Seuss.  Puberty shouldn’t be a confusing riddle, although I suppose that can’t be completely helped.


14 thoughts on “Alice in Wonderland and Puberty

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  1. My youngest daughter loves Alice in Wonderland, but that is simply because she is a child and enjoys the silliness of it. My oldest daughter used that wonderful book The Care and Keeping of You. But you are right all must be filtered through an amazing parent. Thanks for sharing!

  2. So, I had a student who sent me a link about the ways English teachers get books wrong and this was one of the books. Everyone always says it’s about drugs (which of course it isn’t because Lewis Carroll was not a child of the 60’s), but apparently, according to this website, it’s about math. Carroll was upset that the professors at Oxford were starting to introduce imaginary numbers into math and other sorts of complex concepts and he thought it would lead to Satan! I don’t know if it’s true, but I thought it was an really interesting interpretation of the story.

      1. It’s true, Emily. Carroll was a mathematician and a logician and his tales are full of puzzles and nonsense — testing the limits of language and seeing how much one can make out of nothing. You seem to have missed this — perhaps because of the Disney lead-in.

  3. Interesting look at Alice – I’ve loved the book for years and never thought about it like that. Thanks for the recommendation for the Care and Keeping book – I will have to check that one out!

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