Curiouser and Curiouser

Thoughts of a Victorian literature scholar on the 150th anniversary of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

Susan Zieger

Susan Zieger

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” has been a staple of children’s literature for 150 years. It remains the subject of scholarly debate over references to drug use, gender and sexuality, and mathematical controversies in 19th century England, as does the relationship of the author (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) with the young girl who inspired the entertaining tale, Alice Lidell.

As the Nov. 26 anniversary of the book’s publication in 1865 approaches, Susan Zieger, associate professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, is available to discuss a variety of topics related to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Among the topics Zieger can discuss are:

Alice as feminist heroine

Alice is a feminist heroine who challenges gender norms. She is also a sexual rebel. By growing and shrinking and changing shape, she defies the usual path of biological growth from girlhood to adult womanhood. This unpredictable physical morphing can be seen as a metaphor for transgendered physical and identity experimentation. Alice’s sexuality is also relevant to Dodgson’s relations with her real-life inspiration, Alice Lidell. Whether or not his feelings toward her were sexual, they were certainly sentimental. Oxford academic men routinely sought the company of little girls, who were thought to be morally pure and thus inspiring.

Mathematical controversies

Dodgson was against the new trend of symbolic algebra. He was a mathematical literalist, and several of Alice’s famous quips reflect his commitment to reality-based math.

Alice and mind-altering drugs

Dodgson did not take hallucinogenic drugs; that interpretation came in the late 1960s, after the 100th anniversary of the text. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” appealed to ‘60s counterculturalists, influencing the anonymously authored “Go Ask Alice” (1971) and Grace Slick’s song “White Rabbit.” “The song played a significant role in the ‘FM revolution’ pioneered by KSAN in San Francisco, which encouraged sustained, attentive listening to layers of sound and meaning, often in an altered mental state,” Zieger wrote in a 2006 essay published in Genre, “Queering the Drug Diary: Go Ask Alice and Its Victorial Genealogies.”

Zieger specializes in 19th century British and related literatures, with a special interest in the novel and mass culture. She is the author of “Inventing the Addict: Drugs, Race, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century British and American Literature” (University of Massachusetts Press), and wrote the Los Angeles Review of Books review of the Princeton University Press art edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” illustrated by Salvador Dalí.

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