On Literary Censorship: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland
The curiouser and curiouser life of one little girl’s favorite story, and what adults found there…
I like to consider myself something of a student on Alice in Wonderland and its myriad adaptations. I can’t rightly say “Expert”, exactly, because there seems always to be something new to be taken from each new form, but at any rate I have made it a personal project to seek out and dissect what it is about Alice that makes it such a rich playground for the weird and terrifying, when it began life as little more than a story told to one little girl and her sisters during a boat trip. The answer for its appeal may lie in part in the reasons for its banning.
Originally published — and immediately successful — in 1865, it does not seem to have come under critical fire until the 20th century. In 1931, for example, it was banned in China because, much like Winnie the Pooh, its use of anthropomorphic animals was an “offense to God”. Meanwhile in the US, it was banned in the ’60s (and periodically ever afterward) for supposedly promoting drug use thanks to the hookah-smoking caterpillar and his instructions to consume the size-altering mushroom. Perhaps strangest of all was the incident of its banning across all New Hampshire public schools in 1900 for “promoting masturbation and sexual fantasies”. Fantastical as the story may be, there is no textual evidence to support such a claim; it probably had more to do with Charles Dodgson’s personal life than anything else. I’m not one to speculate too deeply into the lives of people I have no way of knowing, but his relationship with the Liddell family (the Alice for whom Alice was written), his love of portrait photography and young female subjects, and his mysterious eventual banning from the Liddell house are all fairly common knowledge. As far as I have been able to gather, however, Alice Liddell and her sisters never bore Dodgson any ill will nor accused him of any untoward activity.
Nevertheless, each of these threads have followed the story across its plethora of adaptations. You can’t rightly have any version of Alice in Wonderland without the talking animals or the body-altering snacks, though because most truly faithful adaptations leave Alice at her textual age of seven and a half, any drug use encouragement is little more than a projection on the part of the audience. As far as Alice is concerned, she is merely in a dream world which occasionally demands she change her size if she wishes to navigate it successfully. At its heart, Alice in Wonderland is both an exercise in fantasy and imagination and a story rife with anxiety. Alice spends almost her entire journey worrying at various points that she or someone around her might either die or simply “snuff out like a candle” and cease to exist. Never mind her struggle to understand the creatures’ ouroboros logic when they ask her questions or speak only in riddles or threats, as soon as she tumbles down the rabbit hole and finds a marmalade jar she worries that if she were to drop it while she fell she would accidentally murder someone!
For all the casual sprinkling of violence (and the Red Queen’s ever-constant threat of beheading) it does not ever seem to have been banned for anything other than the above-mentioned. Exposing children to a little casual murder in a fantasy land seems a-okay, so long as no one smokes a pipe while they’re at it. Given the way books we have discussed in the past have been policed at even the whiffest of whiffs of darkness I hardly think anyone reading this book and crusading for its banishment accepted the darker elements as things children actually express (though, as I’ve mentioned before, show me a child who’s not at least a little one-foot-into-horror). Rather, if we chose to examine the reasons behind why such things as an adult woman demanding beheadings and a child worrying about witnessing or causing manslaughter and/or homicide (not to mention the frequent mentions of Dinah the cat’s eating habits, most of which the creatures of Wonderland would fall prey to) slipped the radar of those who profess to protect the children, it could be that on their sliding scales, drug use is ever so slightly more dangerous, somehow. Or, as with such things as Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, they may not have ever made it past Tenniel’s illustrations.
Still, Alice in Wonderland is a fantastic example of a young girl trying to cope with the impending anxieties of adulthood and the encroachment of a world with rules she has yet to fully understand. Her concern for her shifting ability to remember things correctly, her joy in scolding herself when she cries at her constantly shifting proportions, and her attitude as she confronts a woman whose army is “nothing but a pack of cards” are all perfectly normal concerns faced in both puberty and adulthood. As she is but seven, however, they take on a somewhat intangible quality of things she is vaguely aware she will have to face in her future, though she does not fully understand them now. Her sister’s hope that she may retain her vivid imagination into adulthood as a kind of protection against the dullness of the world while Alice herself wanders off to tea time is the final word of the novel, and indeed it is adult anxieties that have fueled most Alice adaptations.
Not for nothing, Alice seems to have found its most comfortable home within the horror genre. From films to video games to name-drops in songs, she is constantly placed in traumatic situations and must fight her way out of an unfamiliar and demanding world if she wants to survive. Something about a little girl navigating a strange land in pursuit of a little white rabbit seems to have proven exceptionally fertile ground for exorcising people’s anxieties. Some of my personal favorite storylines are American McGee’s Alice video game series, which finds our heroine escaping from an asylum, recovering memories, and fighting the demons who wish to lay waste to Wonderland with knife and berserker mode in hand, and Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 Czech film, Alice, which framed the story less as a fairy tale and more as a dream and focused more on the dark undercurrent flowing through Carroll’s text.
Indeed, not since Disney’s ’50s animated musical version has there seemed to be any true interest in mining the story for any positively palatable messages. There’s nothing scarier than the unknowable landscape of someone else’s imagination, particularly the fertile ones of children who have nothing to lose in imagining their monsters with incalculable ferocity. Those brave enough to confront that truth head on have provided some of the most unique adaptations of an already curiously enchanting text. It’s one thing to tell Alice’s story directly and with a colorful bow wrapped around it; it’s another beast altogether to approach it from underground and through the looking glass in order to find its true depths. On my shelves alone I have a retelling in which Wonderland is rampant with zombies, a version where Alice escapes an asylum, an annotated version, and an anniversary edition illustrated by Dali, not to mention those floating in my kindle-space. I’ve even written one where she must escape the rule of a traveling sideshow.
As with all adaptations, of course, there is a level of projection brought in to any Alice retelling (and, I would argue, to its bannings). Dodgson was known to exercise his mathematical muscles through just such nonsense riddles as run through Wonderland and certainly he never intended to encourage anyone to do drugs. One of the most commonly googled questions when doing research on the novel seems to be “what drug was Lewis Carroll on”…the answer to which is maybe laudanum but nothing that was not widely available to everyone at the time, and certainly nothing thought to be particularly scandalous. Alice could just as easily function as one of the “pleasant little stories” she remembers reading, as she ponders whether or not to drink the first bottle, that warned of children being injured in variously grievous ways for touching hot pokers or drinking bottles marked “poison”. According to the introductory material in the Barnes & Noble Classics edition I read the most, Carroll may not have even written it down had Alice Liddell not pestered him to over the summer he told it.
No matter what we bring to it, Alice in Wonderland has more than proved its staying power both as an artistic work and as a frame through which we may understand the world. In addition to more adaptations than you can throw a jar of marmalade at, there is also a rare medical condition called “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome” which causes the subject to experience distortions in the perception of their body, coordination, and/or surroundings. Perhaps it should not be surprising that a work with such a strong cultural hold to this day would bleed into other fields of human experience, but how many books do you know that can claim to have music, movies, and medical conditions under their belts?