Alice in process…

Instead of the question “Who is Alice?” there are now paths leading to what Alice might come to be…

10 Oct 2010

Interview with Marina Warner about Alice

Kiersten Essenpreis

How do the Alice books show Carroll’s closeness to children?

Lewis Carroll was very famous for having an enormous number of “child friends”, as he called them. He’s been criticised for that because people suspected him of having the wrong kind of interests, but at the time it was fairly well tolerated – there was no whisper of scandal against him, and he took a lot of photographs of the children. He also became very interested in children who were on the stage – he campaigned for them to have better conditions and was worried that they didn’t go to school. So he had a philanthropic interest in children as well as his own child-like identification and deep sympathy with them.

But the area in the books that shows he really understands children is his complete interest in food: the jam tarts, the tea party, the treacle wells, the honey. It just never stops all the way through! Then there are the jokes, like the mock turtle soup, and the lobster quadrille. He certainly had his eyes on the readers’ stomachs. He obviously enjoyed food himself because he introduced tea into the common room of his college at Oxford and organised the menus.

I noticed when I was writing about him that there were just so many images of cakes and puddings – he had a really sweet tooth. This lends itself to the comic characters, even like Humpty Dumpty, who’s an egg, but he’s more like a chocolate egg than an egg with a yolk. There’s a feeling all the time of fun, tea party food.

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How does Carroll bring Wonderland to life?

One of the devices that Carroll uses is metamorphosis, or transformation – part of the vocabulary of Wonderland. He uses it to wonderful effect. Alice changes shape, but there are also all these talking creatures, like the caterpillar smoking on his mushroom, Humpty Dumpty, and the walrus and the carpenter. These are metamorphic creatures – they’re halfway between animals and people. Each of them is vividly rendered so you really have a sense of their character. You would have it even without the illustrations but of course Tenniel’s illustrations were very much directed by Carroll who drew the first drawings of Alice himself and led Tenniel to create those characters in that unforgettable way.

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Do the surreal, dream-like parts of Alice have Freudian meanings?

There’s an edition of the Alice books called The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner and it’s annotated in Freudian terms. It’s very convincing and successful but I’m not such a thorough-going believer in psychoanalysis that I think it’s the only meaning. For me, Freud is another way of telling a story and you can certainly imagine that some of the ordeals and encounters that Alice has have Freudian meanings. The descent into the rabbit hole and her quite aggressive and hostile encounters with adults have elements that you can certainly psychoanalyse. But I don’t think it limits the meanings.

The symbols used have some relationship to tradition but Carroll’s not a traditional symbolist at all, which is one of the reasons why Alice In Wonderland is not really a fairytale. There are no castles, or ogres, it’s not “once upon a time long ago in a faraway land”. It’s now, in Alice’s house, and in her garden, and it’s the result of a dream that takes place in the present tense on the river in Oxford. We know where we are, we’re not in a strange place. But that familiar place opens into the strange.

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Although Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is not a fairytale, 
has Carroll made Alice a typical fairytale heroine?

She’s got elements of the quester figure, and some elements of the trickster figure, if you’re being archetypal about it. She’s certainly a quester because she goes through a series of ordeals and she returns, but she returns with no treasure or a prince. It doesn’t conform to the structural characteristics of fairytale, where you arrive at recognition and have risen to high status, like with Dick Whittington, or with Cinderella marrying a prince.

Alice is already fine, she’s a wonderful, feisty, spirited little girl with a very clear mind who sees through a lot of the nonsense and absurdity of what she encounters. She doesn’t particularly change. She’s been through a lot but she doesn’t actually arrive at a different place. She really just gets back, possibly a little wiser about the outside world. Carroll is on her side.

The whole thing is a bit of a parody of the pious literature that was being written for children at the time because she doesn’t learn through her ordeals to be a good and better person. Carroll is not interested in that. He is interested in the mischief, spirit and independence of mind of the children and he really puts that forward in the books.

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Why are stories important?

Because they give us materials to think with. We need the characters and emotions and states of mind that fiction gives us to negotiate our way through our own lives. Alice In Wonderland is a very good example because it gives us the wonderful protection of laughter – for example at the end, when the trial takes place, and Alice says, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” This dreadful kangaroo trial is going on like many trials in countries that are tyranised and oppressed and there is no rule of law. But Carroll makes fun of it. It’s satirical and light and lively.

The other thing that one should never lose sight of is that life is very boring or tedious and hard, and I’m a great believer in escapism. You can feel well, and you can feel better if you are entertained. Getting lost in a book or a story someone is telling has the effect of distracting us from our little wrongs and our difficulties.

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What are your icons of England?

I teach at the University of Essex, and I was very struck when I first started driving there by the way the light clears over the estuary as you get near. As you get out of London and near the east coast the light lifts and you can really see how Constable and Gainsborough painted that landscape. I have become very interested in that kind of painting of landscape and how it shows the human hand at work on the lie of the trees and fields. So I’d say that Constable’s painting of an elm tree would be one of my icons.

But I’m very interested in people, too. I’m interested in the traffic that came through those rivers. People set out for the Americas for the first time from rivers like the Blackwater Estuary. The East India Company adventurers set out from there. So I think Tilbury Docks would be my icon. Tilbury Docks under a wuthering sky. A grey, English sky, with light coming off the water.

Marina Warner is a prize-winning writer of fiction, criticism and history. Among her influential works are novels, short stories and children’s books, as well as studies of female myths, symbols, folklore and fairytale. ICONS spoke to her about Lewis Carroll and the 'Alice' books.

‘My critical and historical books and essays explore different figures in myth and fairy tale and the art and literature they have inspired, from my early studies of the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc to more recent work on the Arabian Nights. My fiction runs parallel to this, as I often draw on mythic or other imaginary predecessors to translate them into contemporary significance to re-vision them. Stories come from the past but speak to the present (if you taste the dragon’s blood and can hear what they say). I need to write stories as well as deconstruct and analyse them because I don’t want to damage the mysterious flight of imagination at the core of storytelling, the part that escapes what is called rational understanding. I hope, I believe that literature can be ‘strong enough to help’, to borrow Seamus Heaney’s wonderful comment about poetry.’

Kiersten Essenpreis

Interview found at ICONS.a portrait of England

Marina Warner site HERE

Kiersten Essenpreis site HERE

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