In grade school, one of my favorite teachers finished lessons each day by reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the class. I would sit cross-legged on the rug and listen, laughing at the silliness along with my classmates. It was our favorite time of day. The story became something intriguingly alive to my childhood mind. The bossy teacher who always shushed us in the halls became the Queen of Hearts. “Off with their heads!” she would yell when we ran too fast in the hallways.
There was no logic behind the rules that restricted our fun. All the adults were mad, just like the grinning Cheshire Cat said.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a work of children’s fantasy that follows Alice after she finds herself down a rabbit hole, lost in Wonderland. She wanders from place to place, meeting bizarre creatures and people, such as the Mad Hatter who invites her to tea, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar and a deck of cards acting as soldiers for their King and Queen of Hearts. As her adventure continues, it becomes clearer and clearer to Alice that all the inhabitants of this strange place have a backwards sense of what’s real, confusing her with their preposterous logic.
When I recently returned to the pages of Wonderland, I realized that I had put on a new mask of adulthood. I found the story winding me down a different path than I remembered. Suddenly and unexpectedly, it felt even more real than the pretend wanderings of my childhood imagination. I couldn’t put it down. That afternoon, the madness of Wonderland re-invaded my mind, drawing me into an altered version of the grownup reality I now believed in.
Wonderland still felt whimsical in the way you would expect from a world invented in a sleeping child’s mind, but its ridiculousness hit much closer to home this time around. I felt like its jokes and silliness had become more self-conscious. Without warning, Alice’s journey through Wonderland made sense of an on-going struggle of my own – understanding the gap between sense and nonsense in this ever uncomfortable reality fondly called “adulting.”
Reading with a new lens, I was charmed and disarmed by Lewis Carroll’s witty wordplay and talent for making meaning out of gibberish. Carroll mocks our odd habit of jumbling meaning through our many expressions or jargons, poking fun at the complexity of the words we use to mix up simple meanings.
The Cheshire Cat’s aloof embrace of irrationality felt as liberating as it did frightening when he commented, “we’re all mad here.” Sensibility is not necessary, or even possible when playing by the rules of his world. I couldn’t help but notice a contrast between this relaxed outlook and the norms that I’m used to. Here in the real world, we agree to follow more unforgiving and, let’s be honest, duller rules.
Caroll pinpoints the power children have in their ability to view a playful reality that is lost on adults. I saw the characters as caricatures of what adults look like to a child who tries her hardest to understand and mimic them, but can make little sense out of the reasons behind what they do – just as they appeared to me when I was first introduced to Alice’s adventures in Elementary School.
The hookah-smoking Caterpillar asked a prudent question, “who are you?” Alice’s inability to answer him encapsulates my own struggle to answer that same query. As a recent graduate of University, I face the endless and daunting questions about what’s next.
Rereading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was wonderful and worthwhile, both for its clever, pun-ish quips, and for the incredible self-reflection it offered me as I continue to bump into misunderstandings and confusions about creating my own answer to the question Who are you?
Upon my return to Wonderland I found that, unlike Alice, I don’t believe I ever truly left.