Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

“The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was cerainly English.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 25, 2010

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
and
Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There,
by Lewis Carroll

I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I was really small, and forgot  everything about it, almost. I remembered the story of a rat prosecuting a cat written in the shape of a rat’s tail, Alice picking up a bottle on her way down the rabbit-hole, and the Mad Tea-Party. I also remember that I didn’t read the second book because I’d got bored. Having just read both books today, I can say with confidence that my child-self had much the same tastes I do; those three things are the exact things that stay with me from the first book. One mistake little Ronak made, however, was to stop reading, a mistake even this big Ronak almost made, for the second book is a truly beautiful one.

The two books, as you undoubtedly know, is a series of encounters with anthropomorphised animals — not exclusively animals, though, we even get cards and chess pieces and, believe it or not, ideas — that happen when a) Alice follows a rabbit nervous about the time down a rabbithole into Wonderland and b) Alice walks through a mirror into Looking-Glass land. Also, we learn that of the Cheshire Cat, who is a cat who always grins.

I loved the first half of the first book. The driving force behind everything seemed to be to challenge Alice’s preconceived notions of reality in every possible way, and it worked,  reaching its peak in a tea-party with a Mad Hatter, a March Hare, and a Dormouse.

‘Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. ‘I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.
‘There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.
‘Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.
‘It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.
‘I didn’t know it was YOUR table,’ said Alice; ‘it’s laid for a great many more than three.’
‘Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.
‘You should learn not to make personal remarks,’ Alice said with some severity; ‘it’s very rude.’
The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he SAID was, ‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’
‘Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. ‘I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. — I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud. ‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.
‘Exactly so,’ said Alice.
‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.
‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.’
‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’
‘You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, ‘that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’
‘You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, ‘that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’
‘It IS the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn’t much.

Sorry for the length of the excerpt, but it’s hard to both convey the charm and not cut off abruptly at the same time.

Well, as I’ve already said, from here it goes downhill; there’s the entrance of the Queen of Hearts, who’s just annoying. While every other character makes complex existential statements, her oddness is limited to ordering executions. And there’s a gryphon and a mock turtle — the latter learnt in school, among other similar things, “the different branches of Arithmetic–Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision” –, the vignette involving whom is unfortunately marred by substandard poetry. And, finally, there’s a courtroom sequence which acts as a pathetic stand-in (think, as a description of the problem, the Queen of Hearts) for a climax and end.

The second book is much of the same thing, except the momentum carries through to the end; Carroll is obviously much surer of his structure and form here. Everything is better integrated, and the queens (red and white) who take centre-stage for rather long actually have worthy dialogues, making this a beautiful book.

Incidentally, the Cheshire Cat can appear and disappear, and it doesn’t even need to pop, or fade, in and out of view; it can disappear from one end to the other.

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5 Responses to ““The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was cerainly English.””

  1. S M Rana said

    Thanks for this and excerpt which saves me the effort of having to see the film or read the book ever again. Wish everything could be reduced to this size.

  2. I know the second book is very satirical in tone (e.g. Carroll, who was a math tutor at Oxford, makes fun of English professors in the persona of Humpty Dumpty, who “makes sense” of the gibberish in the poem “Jabberwocky”), but have not had the chance to read either book. Interesting tidbits: Lewis Carroll wrote while standing up, and he also pursued photography as a passion.

  3. SM:
    The books have not been reduced to this size. I only convey a negligible fraction of everything in the book. Put it down to lack of reviewing skills.

    LD:
    You’re not the only one who’s been pointing out things like this. A couple of other people who, unlike me, read annottated editions said that I probably missed a lot.
    A short visit to WIkipedia cements your point:

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,'” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
    Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again.
    “They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

  4. An interesting article – its good to be reminded of how precious these book are. I saw the 3D film this week – what an experience. Not a lot to do with the book, but surprisingly beguiling.

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