There are some books that one should read only as a child because they sit better with those who are still impressionable. Then there are stories that are written for children but can only truly be appreciated by adults. Alice in Wonderland is one such book. The first time I read it I was in kindergarten. Back then, I felt like it was a regular magical story about a young girl who has a colorful dream. Like every other kid who read it, I was fairly surprised and disappointed to find that it was just a dream. Reading it again as an adult, knowing how it ends, I am in love with the metaphors and the little nuggets of worldly wisdom disguised as childish humor.
Alice is the embodiment of childish innocence. In contrast, her sister, to whom she excitedly relates her dream in the end, is nearly an adult—and more somber for it. She ruefully acknowledges that Alice will grow up to be a woman and Wonderland will be tucked away in some corner of her mind.
In the backdrop of Alice’s innocent young mind, Carroll paints pictures from real life but in funny, quirky shapes and colors. On the outside it looks exactly like something a child would dream up. But to grown-up eyes, it seems wretchedly familiar. I’m not sure if Lewis Carroll intended for readers to find symbolism in this book. It’s possible he really was just writing it for a pre-teen audience and inadvertently put some satire in there. But a great book is like a mirror: you often find exactly what you wish to find in it.
As for me, I imagined the whole rabbit hole saga to be a metaphor for introspection. Alice falls so slowly down the famed rabbit hole that she can pick books off the walls, flip through them, and put them back. When she finally lands, she is in a long hallway with numerous doors that are all locked.
Falling forever and landing nowhere is exactly what an introspective spiral feels like.
Throughout the book Alice drinks potions and eats mushrooms and literally grows and shrinks countless times. It’s a dream, so of course, she doesn’t think it’s odd after a while. Several times she is induced by one or more of the many strange characters to ask herself, “Who am I?” This brilliant metaphor for an identity crisis and personal growth is so prominent, it makes you wonder why this book is not reclassified as “for all ages”.
The various characters created by Alice’s sleeping brain are fantastical but accurate depictions of the kinds of people we know in real life. There’s the Hatter and the Hare, deep thinkers who are misunderstood and branded as “mad.” The Mock Turtle (of mock turtle soup), whose greatest sorrow is that he has no sorrow. And of course, the Queen of Hearts, who likes to execute anyone who ever annoys her. The world has probably seen too many leaders like the Queen and misjudged too many revolutionary thinkers like the Hatter.
The best part of the novel is quite possibly the trial at the end. It is a satirical take on how justice is served, or is often not served, as the case is in our society. If people like the Queen had their way it would probably be “sentence first, verdict afterwards!” Underneath the surreal nonsense, it depicts how prejudice, unfair treatment of witnesses, and misrepresentation of facts are often a large part of court trials. Reading this chapter makes you think that Carroll was frustrated with the judicial system and thought it was a farce. The style in which it is written suggests that it was a cathartic exercise for himself.
Whether Carroll wanted adults to enjoy his book or not, he scattered enough of his brilliant thoughts and ideas about people and society all over the story to engage mature readers. Like all great classics, it is still relevant and has something for people in every stage of life.