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  • Writer's pictureRyan M Armstrong

Wonderland keeps us laughing at authority figures

Photo by nappy: https://twitter.com/nappystock

By Jay Kroeger, OSU 2026

Ryan Armstrong occasionally features outstanding student papers like this one.


The local time is 8:00 PM and you are tucking your kid in after a long day of fingerpainting and Curious George.  Now comes the obligatory story that you will read on autopilot so you can go watch something imbecilic your wife picked out on one of your dozens of streaming apps.

Surveying the motley collection of children’s books that had been sitting in some distant relative’s attic for half a century before being unceremoniously dumped on your porch at the baby shower, you mindlessly pluck one from the shelf. The book is relatively small, and its white cover has begun to yellow from its lengthy hibernation in a cardboard box. The title is familiar and resides in the same brainspace as Peter Pan and Narnia and all the other fantastical stories from a time before the world went and got itself in a big damn hurry. So you open the weathered book with your expectations set on low and begin to read the crisp, tan pages of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland aloud to your drowsy offspring. Soon, you begin to realize that something is a little off. Why doesn’t this feel like all the other story books you read at bedtime? I mean there are potions and magic cake and talking animals, but it all feels wrong. There sure is a lot more arguing in this book than you remember. The Wonderland setting takes a backseat to its pedantic and sometimes blatantly annoying denizens. Your haze turns to focus, your voice trails off, and you find yourself inexplicably captivated by the weird creatures and their snarky arguments with this inquisitive little girl. You read on and between the lines. These characters feel like people you know. How is it that you don’t even know what a mock turtle is and yet you feel the same about it as you have felt your whole life towards your bosses, your coaches, your teachers, and that stupid cop who sits under the overpass? They don’t sound like this except that they sound exactly like this. Reading and rereading every encounter and taking long pauses in between to pull from your memory those times that people stole your sense of wonder. You have only a few pages left when you hear your name called and snap out of your trance and look over to see your wife by the door with a puzzled expression on her face. Your kid? Asleep. The time? 1:00 Am. Unsure of exactly what just happened, you quietly get up and turn the light off and head to bed, taking the book with you.

 

When Lewis Carroll first wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I do not think he envisioned it as the timeless classic it has become. So, what exactly makes it timeless? The answer to that question is simple: Royalty and talking animals. The themes of childlike wonder and self-discovery are apparent, and to go along with them are caricatures of authority figures in Victorian children’s lives. The funny part is the reason the caricatures are so timeless is because they can be applied just as easily to people today. Just look at three iconic characters from the book and you’ll see that it does not take long to connect them to people in your life or from your youth.


The first whimsical creature we encounter in the story is the white rabbit. From the start, the rabbit is visibly worried and hurrying as fast as he can. And that summarizes his personality. He is constantly disappearing and agonizing over the Queen's demands. With the Industrial Revolution came an obsession with efficiency and consequently, time. This translated into Victorian society at large and part of common manners and etiquette was being timely and

never late. In this way, the white rabbit is the embodiment of this. As you most likely have surmised by now, this is a sentiment that has not entirely died off. Everyone knows someone like this. They are always late for something and if they aren’t, they are anxious about being late for something else. This is usually one you can point right back at yourself at one time or another.


Probably the most obvious example of satirizing common Victorian Archetypes is the Duchess. Oh boy, where to begin? When we first meet the Duchess, she is seen to have two apparent core qualities. That of being dismissive, and that of being abusive. She is downright rude to Alice. A lot of her personality can be summarized by this quote “everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” This type of moral hypocrisy was commonplace in Victorian society. The Duchess is condescending and an awful person but insists on morals. How can someone claim that morals are so important but be a total hag to be around? Now that really needs no explanation as to its modern application, be it your teacher or your mother-in-law. Yet her actions can be applied to the larger picture as well. A bit of historical analysis can make the satire stick out like that mole next to Christian Bale’s right eye. One of the things best remembered by people about Victorian Society was its emphasis on morality. Yet elsewhere in the rapidly expanding British Empire, was famine, subjugation, and genocide. Ever read Heart of Darkness? Not to mention child labor and poverty among the working class. The disconnect between conceptual morality and a person’s interactions with others is one that pretty much has always and will always be able to be observed, just as is the disconnect between a society’s values and its systemic evils.


John Tenniel's Gryphon and Mock Turtle as seen in the initial publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

So, what exactly is a Mock Turtle? Well in the book, it is a menagerie of animal parts consisting of the head and hooves of a cow and a turtle shell.  Much like the Cheshire Cat, the name “Mock Turtle” is a form of wordplay. Turtle soup was a delicacy in Victorian England and as a stand-in, people ate “mock turtle soup”, which was made with a calf’s head. This would probably be funny if you lived then but now its just a fun bit of trivia.  Lewis Carroll was an academic and taught at Christ Church College, so naturally he probably had co-workers he liked and disliked. As you listen to the turtle, he comes off as pedantic and is insistent on how much he knows. Additionally, he is overly sentimental and anguishes over his past life as an actual turtle. Think of him as a crotchety old man who perpetually lives in the past and whose identity relies on being wiser than the youth of the day. Sound familiar? Lewis Carroll probably had some people in mind when he wrote about Mr. Mock Turtle.


Our daily lives and newsfeed are full of absurdities and contradictions. Sometimes, to make us feel better, we need someone to point at them, and then we can all laugh at them together. When we are laughing at the same thing people were a hundred and fifty years ago, we feel just a little more connected to everyone. As you head back in to work or school where the real-life Duchesses and mock turtles are, maybe chuckle instead of sigh.


Some of the images in this post were AI generated.

 

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