Bayley's Claims about "Alice"

Article excerpt


Melanie Bayley, a doctoral candidate in Victorian literature, has recently authored two articles (References 1 and 2) claiming that Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" was Charles Dodgson's attempt to satirize the "new mathematics" of his day. We disagree completely with her thesis. Some of Bayley's specifics:

(1) The episode from "Alice" of "Pig and Pepper" according to Bayley "parodies the principle of continuity, a bizarre concept from projective geometry which was introduced in the mid-19th century from France.... This principle involves the idea that one shape can bend and stretch into another ... a circle is the same as an ellipse or a parabola (the curve of the Cheshire cat's grin)."

(2) Alice's exchange with the Caterpillar, says Bayley "parodies the first purely symbolic system of algebra, proposed in the mid-19th century by Augustus DeMorgan, a London math professor."

(3) The Mad Tea Party claims Bayley "should be read t-party with t being the mathematical symbol for time" and "Dodgson has the Hatter, the Hare and the Dormouse stuck going round and round the tea table to reflect the way in which Hamilton used what he called quaternions."

The vast Carrollian scholarship still continues. Martin Gardner had added a new More Annotated Alice (Reference 3) in 1990 to his popular and highly acclaimed earlier editions and John Fisher, a BBC TV producer and magician, edited a collection of Carrollian mathematics, puzzles and games gleaned from the diaries and letters of Dodgson in 1973 (Reference 4). Fisher wrote there what we consider a telling Afterword: "This volume has been an attempt to bring forward some of the magic and fun of Lewis Carroll (that has been) smothered by the spate of serious criticism and analysis of the author and his work that has gushed forth in recent years. Academics, often earnestly seizing upon the Alice books as a coat-hanger for their own fantasies, have variously interpreted Carroll's representation of Alice Liddell as pastoral swain and phallic symbol, as Jungian anima and the first acid-head in children's literature; have laid bare the books themselves as allegories of philosophical systems and Darwinian evolution, of the Oxford Movement and Victorian toilet training."

Several months ago we decided to let two old friends, both expert on "Alice" to weigh in on Bayley's thesis. Exact copies of their replies follow.

 MARTIN GARDNER Norman, Oklahoma
SOLOMON W. GOLOMB Los Angeles, California
                                            * MARTIN GARDNER
                                            Windsor Gardens, Room 216
                                            750 Canadian Trails Drive
                                                  Norman, OK 73072
                                                   (405) 329 8845
Dear Jerry:
      I agree that Bayley's piece about the Alice movie was filled
with dubious assertions. Her strangest remark was that the parabola is
topologically the same as a circle. Now it's true that a parabola
is an ellipse with it foci an infinite distance apart, so if we consider
the parabola a closed curve at infinity it is a closed curve, but I
doubt if many mathematicians would think it topologically equivalent to
a closed curve. …