Charles Dodgson and the British Imperial Imagination
(real name Charles Dodgson) was a clergyman and mathematician. His delightful Alice In Wonderland
is a feat of mythic imagination and fantasy that conjures an absurd vision of an alternate possible world, while also providing a biting satire of British culture, in the tradition of Gulliver’s Travels
by Jonathan Swift.
Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole is the trigger for an imaginative flight of fancy about the structure of the world. Alice fears that she may fall through the middle of the planet to Australia, where people walk on their heads. This spatial referencing for Wonderland is important as a link to the colonial and imperial imagination of Victorian England. The pace of change and development of empire is such that traditional verities are thrown into radical doubt, and the possibility can be entertained of a journey through the looking glass to a land of wonder down under (like the journey from Kansas to Oz).
Each of the characters in Alice in Wonderland
can be assessed as social satire. Old Father William references the imaginary Australian spatial framework by standing on his head to guarantee his health. The impotent bullying by the Queen, the languid dream of the caterpillar, the madness of the hatter and hare, the card soldiers, and Alice as a quizzical rational person who takes all at face value, each is amusing because it touches a cultural nerve.
The British Empire in its age of confidence almost thought that all things might be possible through science and industry and military might. Dodgson takes this cultural pride to an absurd logical conclusion, where chemical potions can rapidly change the size of objects and where the treasures of nature, such as flamingos and hedgehogs, are instruments for pleasure in an absurd game of croquet, like indulgent ancient Romans collecting rarities from the far corners of the earth.
Humpty Dumpty is perhaps the most imperial satirical fool of all. His assertion that words mean what he wants them to mean is rather like the colonial settler, seeking to construct a new world in ignorance and defiance of established reality. Dodgson uses this parable as the occasion for wry logical observations about the absurdity of popular psychology.
The popularity of Alice in Wonderland
reflects the power of the vivid imaginative fantasy world of whimsy that Dodgson created, as an alternate myth to the orthodox imperial pride in British accomplishment. There is a self-deprecation, deflating the imperial orthodoxy with its surface blindness to the stupidity and confusion of Britain’s growth. Looking back to Swift, and forward to the Goons and Monty Python, Dodgson voices a British self-doubt which was actually rather prophetic, in that the house of cards of empire eventually proved highly vulnerable.