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Deconstructing Alice

Since all my time is taken up with school, I'm going to be posting some of the things I'm being forced to write for my courses. Several of these will be applying different literary criticism techniques to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: and Through the Looking Glass. This was assigned - for the record I hate this story and am no fan of Carroll.


            Our concept of reality, especially as it relates to language, involves definition through difference. We develop the meaning of words/things largely via the perceived gap
between it and another word/thing. Deconstruction holds that any word, all words, in fact, have a “multiplicity” of meanings and that there is actually “a ceaseless play of language” at work (Parker 87). And rather than destroying meaning, Deconstruction actually “gives it many meanings” (Parker 88). The main thing Deconstruction is attempting to destroy, is a binary view. Deconstruction seeks to expand the possibilities beyond up and down, hot and cold, left and right. Lewis Carroll could easily be called the king of nonsense, and within
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland we see this demonstrated clearly and repeatedly. The entire story, in fact, is an otherwise typically sensible girl finding herself in a place filled with events and things which make no sense, conventionally, so that she seems the oddity in this realm. In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland there is plenty of evidence for a binary view that the story is about reality vs. fantasy, or sense vs. nonsense. But viewing it through the lens of deconstruction, the sense vs. nonsense paradigm does not hold up. Taking just the Mock Turtle episode as an example, sense vs nonsense as the overriding point of the story is undone by the fact that the puns of the Mock Turtle are plainly understandable to the reader, two thirds of the participants in the scene consider the entire conversation normal, and in the end, the only real nonsense is ignorance.

            In the story of Alice meeting with the Mock Turtle we see a lot of puns and wordplay. This is true of other places in the overall story, but the puns in this story are laced close together so that they are both easy to catch, and too rapid for Alice to respond to individually. This allows them to hit the reader with the same sense of normality with which they are being conveyed to Alice. When Alice asks, “Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” and the Mock Turtle replies, “because he taught us” (Carroll 144), the reader, whether adult or child, immediately gets the implied joke. The same is true for the Mock turtles references to being taught “Reeling and Writhing” for reading and writing, “Ambition” for addition, “Distraction” for subtraction, “Uglification” for multiplication, “Derision” for division, “Mystery” for history, “Seaography” for geography, “Laughing and Grief” for Latin and Greek, etc. (Carroll 145-46). The joke is also obvious in the assertion that they are called lessons “because they lessen from day to day” (Carroll 146). Therefore, though they are the ‘wrong’ words, how can they really be considered nonsense if they and the joke they represent are understood perfectly by the reader?

            Secondly, two thirds of the participants in the conversation take the whole thing as completely normal. Therefore, Alice is the ‘odd-man-out’ in a perfectly typical rendition of how school operates in Wonderland. The Mock Turtle calls Alice “dull” for not understanding why they called the instructing Turtle a Tortoise (Carroll 144). The Gryphon calls her a “simpleton” for not knowing what “uglification” is (Carroll 145). Though the content of the conversation itself is atypical for the reader, they are made to feel, as is Alice, that the conversation is indeed normal and if they fail to comprehend it, the fault is theirs. While the words used may seem strange for the reader, the sense that any lack of understand on your part is your fault is a perfectly normal sensation within human interaction (at any age, but probably especially for children). Therefore, this entire ‘nonsensical’ story actually creates a familiar feeling for the reader.

            At the end of all these puns and demonstrations of wordplay by Carroll, the reader comes to the point where the Mock Turtle is explaining the structure of the classes. Day one was ten hours, day two was nine hours, etc. Alice calls it a curious plan, to which the Gryphon replies, “That’s the reason they’re called lessons, … because they lessen from day to day.” The text then goes on to say, “[t]his was quite a new idea to Alice” so she “thought it over a little while” before saying, “[t]hen the eleventh day must have been a holiday?” The Mock Turtle replied, [o]f course it was” (Carroll 146). In this scene we have Alice grasping the concept of the Mock Turtle’s story fully, and following the Wonderland logic to its point of completion. For this she is rewarded with the affirmation that she got it right, as opposed to being called dull or a simpleton. In doing this, Alice, and the reader, have made sense of the ‘nonsense’ and are now no longer ignorant. They not only have gained the knowledge of how something in Wonderland functions, they have both gained the ability to apply the principle of ‘nonsense’ logic enough to understand something which only makes sense within Wonderland.

A structuralist binary view of Wonderland, both the story and the place, might be that it is meant to examine the structural pattern of sense vs. nonsense. Wonderland is a realm of nonsense where nothing functions like it does in normal life. It is, in many ways, a contrary place – the antithesis of the real world – I binary opposite of normal life. Alice is written as a signifier herself of Victorian convention. Rules, hierarchy, class, education, norms, and the status quo are all valuable in Alice’s worldview – all of which are challenged by her visit to Wonderland. But in looking at the story told by the Mock Turtle one sees that the reader is meant to be in on the jokes. The reader is meant to understand the puns and the wordplay, as well as see parallels between the ‘nonsense’ subjects of school in Wonderland and the ‘sensical’ subjects taught in Victorian England. Therefore, if the reader is supposed to understand the ‘nonsense’ and follow the ‘logic’ of Wonderland, where is the binary opposition? Could the reader not see in the school subjects familiar to them, and the unfamiliar subjects taught in Wonderland, an example of the arbitrary nature of what one generation thinks the next needs to learn? Is teaching multiplication really more logical than teaching uglification? And if one seems silly, why doesn’t the other? Through the lens of deconstruction it seems possible that Alice in Wonderland is less about sense vs. nonsense, and more that everything is both sensible and nonsensical.


Works Cited

Carroll, Lewis, and Richard Kelly. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: and, Through the

Looking-Glass. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2015.

Parker, Robert D. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies.

New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.





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