Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

(Un)Surprises Uncovered: A Reply to Jennifer Geer, Jean-Jacques Lecercle, and Michael Mendelson*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

(Un)Surprises Uncovered: A Reply to Jennifer Geer, Jean-Jacques Lecercle, and Michael Mendelson*

Article excerpt

I was like a child, constantly wondering, and surprised at nothing.

George MacDonald, Lilith 17

I am deUghted at the responses to my article on (un)surprises in Lewis Carroll's AZfce-books and would like to thank Jennifer Geer, JeanJacques Lecercle, and Michael Mendelson for entering into a critical debate with me.

The three responses all seem to, at least partly, look at the topic from a psychological perspective. Jennifer Geer regards AUce's attitude as reactions to the famiUar, and the unfamiliar, respectively; Jean-Jacques Lecercle assumes that AUce's being surprised or unsurprised goes back to schizophrenia (281); and Michael Mendelson sees the Alicebooks as stories of developmental growth (cf. 298). I only agree with some of these readings and would like to emphasize the concept(s) of play that underUe the structure of the Alice-books.

In the books, AUce enters worlds of play: games are being played throughout - among the most obvious examples in Wonderland are the Caucus Race (ch. 3), the game of Croquet (ch. 8) and the appearance of playing-cards all the way through the concluding chapters; Through the Looking-Glass is even based on a game of chess. Within these game worlds, psychology and psychological reactions are deliberately being played with. Alice's reactions are therefore not to be read as mimetic instances; rather, they are psychological elements which are deflated by their transformation into various play moves. The attempt to read the Alice-books as a kind of Bildungsroman which derives its raison d'être from the psychological development of its protagonist is therefore inappropriate: play in these narratives is not an element of psychology, but psychology becomes an element of play. The child's psychology becomes relevant in so far as play is one of the most important activities of children.

The overall playful mode influences and affects Alice's reactions, her surprises, and her 'unsurprises/ The first instance of surprise occurs, however, even before the issue of Alice's reactions arises, namely in the difference between the framing poems and the tales of Alice's adventures within the worlds she enters: expectations as to (sentimental or psychological) readings are being subverted, and the text itself points this out from the very beginning.

The Framing Poems

Jennifer Geer writes that the "frames soften the adventures' surprises by employing images and poetic conventions that would have been familiar to Carroll's nineteenth-century readers" (268). I couldn't agree with her more in stating that Carroll draws on a literary tradition in the framing poems of the AZice-books. Not only does he refer to the topos of idealised memories of the "golden afternoon" (WL 3),1 but the overall nostalgic tone and even the rhyme scheme are reminiscent of a particular type of poetry which was fashionable in the nineteenth century.2

It is precisely in this that the framing poems are so very different from the tales proper. Whereas in the poems the speaker expresses longing and nostalgia, the tone in the tales is sometimes threatening and bewildering, sometimes playful and funny but it is never nostalgic.3 This difference in tone leads to some tension between the framing poems and the actual tales, as the frame sets up certain expectations regarding the story that is to follow, which are then upset.

Let me Ulustrate this point with a specific example. In the fourth stanza of the poem introducing WL, the speaker writes: "The dream child moving through a land/ [. . .] In friendly chat with bird or beast" (21-23).4 Yet, Alice hardly ever finds herself "in friendly chat" with any of the creatures she meets in the course of her wanderings. Her conversations with them are irritating and confusing but rarely friendly - the only exceptions being her encounter with the White Knight in LG, who bears features of CarroU himself (cf. Gardner 247n2), and her meeting with the Fawn in the wood where things have no names (and then only because the Fawn does not recognize her as a potentially threatening "human child"). …

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