Often considered “the greatest revolution in nursery literature” (Lochhead 117) by literary critics and art historians alike, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) presents a famously puzzling story. Perhaps even more puzzling than the story itself, however, is the paradoxical way Carroll’s words interact with Tenniel’s engravings. The story communicates the idea that perception is reality, yet only Tenniel’s visual interpretation accompanies the story. The mere existence of Tenniel’s illustrations then contradicts the story’s central message: because everyone has their own interpretation of their environment and the events taking place in that environment, absolute truth simply does not exist.
Carroll establishes the philosophy that reality is a personal construction unique to each and every person throughout Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice miscommunicates with nearly every character she encounters during her journey. She makes assumptions about what they mean and thereby gets confused. One example of this happens when she thinks the dormouse means “well” as in “water well” in his story of the three sisters, but instead he meant it as the adverb (Carroll 46)). The people and animals she meets also misunderstand her and, more often than not, her words scare or offend them. Then Alice and the other characters begin to quibble, as she does with the aforementioned dormouse. It quickly becomes a predictable pattern. Alice and the other characters quarrel because each one tries to impose her own perception upon the other without recognizing that more than one perception of a person, word, situation or anything can occur. In “Chapter II: The Pool of Tears,” for instance, Alice meets a mouse and starts talking to him in French after he does not respond to anything she says in English. The first words she blurts, however, are “Où est ma chatte?” (Carroll 14). When the mouse leaps away, Alice immediately apologizes and begins talking about the terrier who lives in her neighborhood. Again, this startles the mouse. It had not occurred to Alice that the mere mention of a cat or dog would frighten any mouse because she was thinking purely from her point of view. In her mind, cats, such as her pet Dinah, are “dear quiet thing[s]” (Carroll 14). Dogs are “nice,” “useful,” and “bright-eyed” creatures that fetch things, sit up at commands, and hunt mice (Carroll 15). They are not menacing predators, as the mouse views them, yet Alice tries to convince the mouse of a different “reality.” Alice experiences further challenges in her dealings with the caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire-Cat, and the duchess, among other characters.
As Alice does with the characters she meets throughout her adventures, Tenniel essentially forces his view point upon the reader because his illustrations portray the story from his individual perspective. He drew Alice, for example, according to his own vision of the type of little girl who would embark on such an odyssey. After all, Carroll never makes any comments upon Alice’s physical appearance during the story, except in saying that she does not have “ringlets” like her classmate Ada (Carroll 11). He also comments upon when Alice’s body changes sizes, such as when she nibbles the mushroom the caterpillar gives her (Carroll 33). Yet Tenniel assigns Alice long, fair hair, soulful eyes, rosebud lips, and every other aspect of her appearance based upon how he pictured her while reading the story. While she does exhibit a classic Gothic Victorian look and therefore reflects the aesthetics of her time, Alice remains Tenniel’s unique vision. To emphasize that the illustrations are Tenniel’s exclusive perception, consider this: Tenniel’s depiction of Alice bothered Carroll (Nieres 194) because they deviated from this own mental image. Carroll wanted a sweet, cheerful Alice like the one he drew in his draft of the book; Tenniel gave him a somber one.
Therefore, Tenniel’s engravings do not represent a complete and objective look at what Alice experiences during her travels. They constitute only one version of reality. Tenniel specifically chose to illustrate certain characters and events, while excluding others. He depicts some of the following characters or scenes: the White Rabbit checking his watch (Carroll 5); Alice peeking at the little door (Carroll 7); Alice picking up the bottle labeled ‘Drink Me’ (Carroll 8); Alice opening up like a huge telescope (Carroll 10); Alice as a giant watching the White Rabbit run past her (12); Alice floating above her sea of tears (Carroll 14); Alice swimming with the mouse (Carroll 15); the party of animals crowded around the mouse (Carroll 16); the Dodo handing a thimble to Alice, as the other animals look on (Carroll 18); Alice again as a gain but this time cramped in the White Rabbit’s cottage (Carroll 22); Alice’s huge hand reaching for the White Rabbit (24); Bill the Lizard shooting out of the White Rabbit’s chimney (Carroll 25); Alice taunting the enormous puppy with a stick (Carroll 26); Alice observing the caterpillar smoking hookah as he sits on top of a mushroom (Carroll 28); Father William standing on his head before the young man (Carroll 29); Father William performing a back-somersault for the young man (30); Father William and the young man around the dinner table (Carroll 31); Father William balancing an eel on his nose for the young man (Carroll 32); and several more. In total, over forty of Tenniel’s illustrations complement Carroll’s story.
The question is why he selected those scenes and not others. What about those particular characters and events interested him intellectually or touched him emotionally? Was it merely a matter of convenience—perhaps he felt more artistically capable of drawing certain figures more than others? How much did Carroll influence Tenniel during his engraving process? (Apparently neither man left notes concerning this aspect of their collaboration (Nieres 196.)) There is infinite space for speculation. In her essay, “Tenniel: The Logic behind his Interpretation of the Alice Books,” Isabelle Nieres states that:
“John Tenniel read the story with an artist’s eye, looking for a promising angle, constantly alert to such opportunities for inventive imagery as the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle, or material for caricature such as the Duchess, the Hatter or the Queen…As did Carroll [in his original hand-written draft], [Tenniel] alternates full-page illustrations with illustrations embedded in the text, achieving better balance between the actions of the story than did Carroll…” (Nieres 196).
This, of course, is a highly objective statement that does not truly explain what made Tenniel choose to illustrate one event over another. That is because it is not a question that can be scientifically answered. Perception is a fluid organism, comprised of multiples schemas, and influenced by everything a person sees, hears touches, tastes, and smells. All that is certain regarding the way Tenniel’s engravings enhance the text is this: had he chosen different scenes to illustrate, the story simply would not read the same. As it stands, though, the reader only sees pockets of Alice’s land, thereby making her adventure seem even more wondrous and mysterious because of what remains unseen. The rest is left to the reader’s imagination.
Yet the images running through the reader’s head as she reads the story likely do not match up with Tenniel’s style. In fact, if the reader went through a picture-free version of the story, it is impossible that the exact same aesthetic Tenniel created would run through her mind. A modern reader, circa 2009, would not necessarily interpret Alice as a little Victorian girl, for example, but perhaps a hyper-sexed tween sporting a mini-skirt. If Carroll had truly wanted his readers to become aware of their unique perspectives, perhaps he should have made the book interactive and left blank spaces for them to illustrate the story themselves. (Of course to his credit, Carroll was not familiar with postmodern conventions so the thought likely never entered his mind.) After all, there are numerous ways to picture and interpret the story—or any story, for that matter. It is a case of what Per Aage Brandt calls ‘negative semiosis’: “Active, negative semiosis destabilizes meta-belief [belief in belief]and induces an ‘infinite interpretation,’ activates an emergency rule of non-relevance or perplexity, contradictory to the first rule, and widening the scope of possible devices for decoding” (Brandt 27). Most young children would likely accept Alice’s adventures at face value while older children and adults would likely try to understand what the story means on an allegorical level. Regardless of how the reader interprets the enigmatic story, no two interpretations will match up exactly, even with Tenniel’s pictures influencing readers’ thoughts.
Alice’s catchphrase of “Curiouser and curiouser” (Carroll 10) aptly describes the interplay between word and image in Lewis Carroll’s and John Tenniel’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. While the text advocates the importance of personal perception and understanding the points of views of others, the illustrations sunder such openness to possibilities and co-existing realities. They try to impose their own interpretation of the story upon the reader. But, as Alice’s journey would have the reader believe, the world is full of multiple truths, where, unlike Tenniel’s illustrations, few things are black and white. If readers are expected to apply the lessons that Alice learns throughout her adventures, they should be allowed to create their own vision of the little girl’s journey and the characters she meets along the way—and they will.
Brand, Per Aage. “Curiouser and Curiouser—A Brief Analysis of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Research in Text Theory: Semiotics and Linguistics in Alice’s Worlds. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1994.
Carroll, Lewis. Tenniel, John. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carroll. New York: Avenel Books, 1982.
Lochhead, Marion. Their First Ten Years: Victorian Childhood. London: John Murray, 1956.
Nieres, Isabelle. “Tenniel: The Logic Behind his Interpretation of the Alice Books.” Research in Text Theory: Semiotics and Linguistics in Alice’s Worlds. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1994.