Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) is the pseudonym of the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodson, an English writer and mathematician who is perhaps most famous for his much acclaimed books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. One of the most intriguing aspects of his writing is the relative suspension of time that occurs as is evident in how Alice and other characters continue to react to one another without consequence. In other words, there appears to be little attention to the temporal dimension of a cause-and-effect relationship. This is further evident in that little time actually passes in the time from when Alice begins her adventure to when she returns home.
From the beginning of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll introduces a dimension of time. As Alice falls asleep and enters her dream, she observes an extraordinary white rabbit that she follows in part because she is curious about a rabbit who keeps time, especially with an oversized pocket watch. As she enters the rabbit hole and begins falling, she begins to question how long and how far she has fallen. She finally gives in and claims she will just see where she lands. Carroll’s oblique commentary on Victorian society, and to some degree our own, is based on a cultural tendency to become preoccupied with how long a task takes instead of with the task itself and the end result.
Dream-induced stories offer us a fantasy and with that a suspension of how ordinal time is kept. Although Alice appears concerned with having to get back—her cat Dinah may miss her—she enters Wonderland by falling asleep with little awareness of how much time has passed. The timekeepers become integrated into the story in a way that offers the possibilities of traversing the time-space barrier. In the case of Alice, she is in a world where un-birthdays are celebrated, where tea time is any time, and where rabbits—creatures we would normally think of as devoid of time-related concerns—are timekeepers. The White Rabbit, as he is known, even carries a large pocket watch to continually remind him of his lateness.
Carroll recalls the afternoon that inspired this writing as one that spun on forever—as if he had lost track of time—“all in a golden afternoon.” He continues, “the why of this book cannot and need not be put into words.” It is arguable that Carroll wrote Alice to suspend his mind from his everyday work in mathematics. He kept these two worlds separate and reacted harshly whenever asked to comment on the other aspect of his life when not in that context.
Carroll dismissed many of the interpretations of his work, calling for children’s minds and dreams to be the true interpreters of his work. Children have very little sense of time and rely on an innate sense of enjoyment to engage in their pastimes and activities. Yet elements of time are evident in how his characters come to life and often perform a satirical narrative of contemporary society. Culturally, we become socialized by the clock and rely on it as an instrument that ends up determining our pleasures and pastime activities. Carroll’s readers enter a world where the opposite of what is expected occurs. For example, in Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty explains the idea of un-birthdays on 364 days of the year—allowing individuals not to have to wait a year between celebrations. Instead, time is not relevant for when celebrations can occur, opening up the option for celebrations to occur without anticipation of or waiting for a specific calendar event.
Given that Carroll neglected to embrace interpretations of his work, his writing remains a topic of interpretation among literary, political, cultural, social, and philosophical scholars. He opened up a world of intrigue by offering a realistic environment that exists in Alice’s dreamlike state. As past and present generations have, future generations will continue to look on his work as wondrous literature that offers much for contemporary culture to interpret.
See also Dreams; Time in Novels; Tale of Rip Van Winkle; Relativity of Time
Carroll, L. (1865). Alice’s adventures underground. London: Dover.
Carroll, L. (1995). The complete, fully illustrated works. New York: Gramercy Books.
Carroll, L., Gardner, M., & Tenniel, J. (1999). The annotated Alice: The definitive edition. New York: Norton.
Hudson, D. (1995). Lewis Carroll. London: Constable.