I read Lewis Caroll’s ‘Wonderland’ books as a child and enjoyed but never really quite understood them. They seem, on the surface, to be meaningless nonsense (They probably aren’t, Dodgson was a mathematician) and perhaps even just mad, drug-induced ramblings (They probably aren’t, Dodgson was an Anglican Deacon). But last year, I read the book again as part of a literature course and found a veritable ‘wonderland’ of treasures with my new adult eyes. Mathematical puzzles, brilliantly constructed scenes, fanciful allusions and hilariously insidious uses of language for humor. I found it hard to pick one topic to write on but in the end, I chose the topic of food and its role in Wonderland, something which jumped out at me while I was hungry and reading the 7th chapter of the book while waiting for a train to London in Oxford Station. The idea of wonderland as a digestive system is an original interpretation I have not come across anywhere else and if there are any of Mr. Dodgson’s fans who see as I see, your comments are welcome.
Food and Changing in Wonderland
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Caroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) seems to express the entire new world of Wonderland in terms of food and appetite1. Throughout the book, there are constant references to food (Eating and drinking things alter her size2, There is a Mad Tea Party3, The subject of a theft are the Queens Tarts4, etc.) and indeed the entire structure of Wonderland may be viewed as a large digestive system. The Rabbit hole5 can be seen as a mouth and esophagus. The Pools of Tears6 conjures up images of food items floating in stomach fluid. Her constant movement from one compartment to another (room, garden, croquet grounds) may be viewed as the passage of a food item from one part of a digestive system to another (Stomach, small intestine, large intestine, etc.) and in the end, when she is attacked by a swarm of cards in court, it conjures up images of something being consumed or absorbed. She is then ‘expelled’ from Wonderland back to reality. In parts of the book as well, Alice expresses a fear of being eaten7 – as though Caroll wanted to remind us that this is, structurally, a story of her consumption.
It is unclear whether this is a key theme of the story or if Caroll simply referenced food subconsciously. It could also be present because he knew mentioning eating and food would appeal to children at that age due to their preoccupation with size and oral fixations8. But there is no doubt that in the Wonderland he created, eating is powerful and associated with change – just as things are constantly changing while being digested in a stomach.
In fact, considering that Caroll was born in 1832, and that during the 1830’s and 1840’s, there was a shortage of food in Victorian Britain9, we see that food was very important during Caroll’s own childhood. Therefore it makes some sort of sense that he would somehow project that aspect of his own childhood memories strongly into this children’s fantasy as well.
- Carina Garland, ‘Curious Appetites: Food, Desire, Gender and Subjectivity in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Texts’, The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 32, No.1 (The John Hopkins University Press, 2008) p.22
- Lewis Carroll (1865). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (University of Adelaide copy). Chapters 1, 2, 5, 11.
- (As above) Chapter 7
- (As above) Chapter 11
- (As above) Chapter 1
- (As above) Chapter 2
- (As above) Chapter 4
- Lois Drawmer: The Dysmorphic Bodies of Alice in Wonderland. http://inter-disciplinary.net/ati/Monsters/M2/drawmer%20paper.pdf
- Dan Ratner. Victorian Hunger and Malnutrition in Alice in Wonderland (Brown University, 1995). http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/carroll/ratner1.html