Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass is often seen by scholars as a less successful novel than its more celebrated companion piece, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Critics have interpreted Looking-Glass as the more controlled and less spontaneous of the two works, more the product of Dodgson the mathematical logician and Oxford lecturer than Carroll the story-teller. Thus, although it has been assigned a higher place than either of the critically disparaged Sylvie and Bruno books (1889 and 1893), it has been unfavorably compared with its companion novel since its publication, as Elizabeth A. Cripps notes in her article "Alice and the Reviewers":

There was general agreement, among those who considered the question, that Through the Looking-Glass was not so good as its predecessor. The reasons given for this varied. It was perhaps too contrived — "Mr. Carroll makes rather too much use here of the Red and White pieces in the game of chess" — or not so inventive. Possibly the expectations raised by Alice's Adventures were so high that no sequel could hope to meet them adequately. (40)

In "Escape Through the Looking-Glass" (1945), Florence Becker Lennon calls the novel a "masterpiece — only a shade less than Wonderland" (Lennon 66), but then adds that "it already exudes the ripe flavor of approaching decay and disintegration into the cruel (on paper) and unusual Mr. Dodgson and the sentimental-religious Louisa Caroline, as one of the Oxford parodists signed 'The Vulture and the Husbandman'" (66). Harold Bloom takes a similar position in his introduction to Lewis Carroll (1987): "The movement from 'You're nothing but a pack of cards!' to 'I can't stand this any longer!' is a fair representation of the relative aesthetic decline the reader experiences as she goes from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Through the Looking-Glass. Had the first book never existed, our regard for the second would be unique and immense, which is only another way of admiring how the first Alice narrative is able to avoid any human affect as mundane as bitterness" (5-6). However, the sardonic tone that runs throughout Looking-Glass is central to its thematic complexity, and the notion that it lacks the spontaneity or freshness of its predecessor should not in itself be a source of criticism.

Fortunately, Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass has also been recognized for its surprising radicalism despite being very much a literary product of its time. Although it is by no means considered a feminist work in the way that other Victorian novels have been re-appraised by contemporary critics, Through the Looking-Glass is nevertheless recognized for its keen understanding of Alice's predicament, most notably in her discovery that "being a Queen...offers neither the security of attachment nor the sovereignty of freedom to which she refers in her opening words to the White Knight: `I don't want to be anybody's prisoner. I want to be a Queen'" (Rackin 28). As Susan A. Walsh argues in "Darling Mothers, Devilish Queens: The Divided Woman in Victorian Fantasy" (1987), Carroll shows how Alice is ultimately a prisoner of her inability to change the frustrating game in which she finds herself because her only models of behavior are the helpless but amiable White Queen and the responsible but mean-tempered Red Queen:

By the end of both Wonderland books a beleaguered Alice has had enough and summarily shatters the dream worlds by withdrawing belief in the system of relationships they espouse...Even though she recognizes the artificial quality of this maddening disorder, that these games...are constructs of culture and not of nature, Alice can not exert control from the outside because the "inside" dictates the terms of what she must control. As a world-spinner she may exercise the creator's prerogative to destroy her fictions but not, ultimately, to invest them with forms other than those provided by nineteenth-century convention. (34)

The subversive irony of Carroll's novel, of course, is that while it appears to have the happily-ever-after ending of a traditional children's story, Alice's promotion to a Queen only comes to represent the crowning moment of her powerlessness. The bitterness that is engendered throughout Alice's frustrating quest and which culminates during the coronation feast gives the novel its insurgent tone. Indeed, Harold Bloom's earlier criticism of the novel's bitterness is qualified by his admission that this is perhaps what gives the novel its modern appeal: "Bitterness keeps breaking in as we read Through the Looking-Glass, which may explain how weirdly and perpetually contemporary this second and somewhat lesser work now seems" (6).

Carroll's novel shows its modernism (and to a certain extent, its postmodernism) in a number of other ways: if the author's mathematical forays into the realm of symbolic logic make his work a natural precursor to Bertrand Russell's and Alfred North Whitehead's Principia Mathematica (1910-1913), and his interest in the possibilities of language look forward to Joyce, then his fascination with sign systems in the Alice books makes him a forerunner to contemporary approaches to the field of semiotics:

Carroll's concerns extend beyond the explication of communication functions to probe the provocative semiotic question argued by Humpty Dumpty: "who is to be master?" we over the signs we manipulate, or the signs over us through the subtle pressures exerted by convention and conditioning? In Carroll's universe, the "masters" of signification are poets, logicians, and madmen. Through his use of imagery and parable to illustrate his humorous exposé of the problems of semiosis, Carroll reveals a profound concern with underlying epistemological issues which anticipate neo-Kantian and Saussurian approaches to that branch of science known as "semiotic." (Mandelker 102)

Finally, Carroll's use of nested structures in making Alice a pawn within a game within a pair of conflicting dreams looks forward to twentieth-century writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar, who manipulate traditional linear narrative structures and invest them with topological complexity.

All of these things should be carefully considered before unfairly dismissing Looking-Glass as a curious, but essentially derivative, follow-up to Alice in Wonderland.

References

Bloom, Harold, ed. Lewis Carroll. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Cripps, Elizabeth A. "Alice and the Reviewers." Children's Literature 11 (1983): 32-48.

Lennon, Florence Becker. "Escape Through the Looking-Glass." Aspects of Alice. Ed. Robert Phillips. New York: Vanguard, 1971. 66-79.

Mandelker, Amy. "The Mushroom and the Egg: Lewis Carroll's Alice as an Otherwordly Introduction to Semiotics." Canadian-American Slavic Studies 22 (1988): 101-14.

Rackin, Donald. "Love and Death in Carroll's Alice's." Lewis Carroll. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 111-27.

Walsh, Susan A. "Darling Mothers, Devilish Queens: The Divided Woman in Victorian Fantasy." Victorian Newsletter 72 (1987): 32-36.


Victorian Web Overview Lewis Carroll

Last modified 23 October 2002