This lesson explores the vision of childhood created by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland. Students begin by looking at Carroll's photographs of the real Alice for whom Carroll imagined his story. They then compare the image of childhood that he captured on film with images of children in our culture. Next, students read Alice in Wonderland with special attention to the illustrations that Carroll had made for his book, and explore the relationship between words and pictures by creating an Alice illustration of their own. For contrast, students compare Carroll's vision of childhood with that presented by the Romantic poet William Blake in his illuminated Songs of Innocence and Experience. Finally, students consider the interplay of image and text in their own favorite children's literature and how the vision of childhood presented there compares to their experiences as children.
What vision of childhood did Lewis Carroll portray in his famous Alice stories, and how did the culture of Victorianism influence that vision?
Charles Dodgson was born on January 27, 1832. He lived his life and eventually died on January 14, 1898. "Lewis Carroll" was born on March 1, 1856, and is still very much alive. (Karoline Leach, "Lewis Carroll: A Myth in the Making," via the EDSITEment-reviewed Victorian Web)
Lewis Carroll, of course, is Dodgson's pseudonym, the name associated with the wonderful tales of Alice and her adventures. The teacher of this lesson might review this brief biography of Dodgson at the EDSITEment-reviewed Victorian Web. The biography details some known facts—as well as thoughtful speculation—about Dodgson's upbringing, his employment as a mathematical lecturer at Oxford, and his eventual friendship with a new Dean of Christ Church, Henry Liddell, his wife, and three daughters—including Alice—that led to the now legendary afternoon in which he sketched out the framework for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Though Dodgson had published under the name Lewis Carroll before Alice's Adventures was released in 1865, it was then that the persona of Lewis Carroll was truly born. Dodgson continued to write until his death from pneumonia in 1898, increasing the legend of "Lewis Carroll" and further obscuring Dodgson's true life from fans and biographers.
This lesson plan discusses views of Victorian childhood, as detailed by LuAnn Walthe ("The Victorian Invention of Childhood"), at Victorian Web:
On the one hand the child was the source of hope, of virtue, or emotion: along with the angelic wife, he was the repository of family values which seemed otherwise to be disappearing from an increasingly secular world.... But at the same time, and of course much less obviously, the child was a hardship, an obstacle to adult pleasure, and a reminder of one's baser self. He might be innocent, untainted by sexual knowledge, uncorrupted by the world of business, free from the agony of religious doubt; yet he was also potentially wicked and needed constant guidance and discipline.
Portraying images of childhood, then, tended toward two somewhat contradictory perspectives:
First, is the need to emphasize childhood adversity, to portray oneself as not having been spoiled by overindulgence, even, in some cases, to have deserved hardship. Second, and in conflict with this, is the desire to present childhood as an Edenic, blissful state, a time of past blessedness, a world completely different from the grating present.
Carroll's Alice stories illustrate this combination of childhood adversity and Edenic bliss. Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, reviewed in Activity 3, also nicely illustrates a kind of tension between the idyllic lifestyle and those marked by hardship. Notably, however, Blake's vision focuses less often on childish wickedness and more often focuses on societal problems that plague and hamper children's growth. A review of potential differences between the visions of Blake and Carroll is the focus of Activity 3. For more background on the "myth of childhood" in the Victorian era, visit the Victorian Web essays on Beginnings, Myths of Childhood, and Autobiography and Childhood as a Personal Myth in Autobiography. For the final activity on William Blake, the following biography and textual history of the Songs of Innocence and Experience may prove useful:
Victorian Web also has background information on the illustrator for the Alice stories, John Tenniel. Carroll was very much involved in the process and viewed the illustrations as an extension of his fiction. Many of the illustrations by John Tenniel from the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are available at Victorian Web (note: there are three pages of images—click on “Next Section” at the bottom of the page for the next page of images.) For additional background on John Tenniel, Victorian Web provides An Overview of the illustrator as well as a critical discussions Representing Alice: John Tenneil's Collaboration with Charles Dodgson and The Textual Alice and the Alice of Illustration.
Charles Dodgson's handwritten manuscript, "Alice's Adventures Underground", the first version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with his 37 illustrations is available through the British Library Online Gallery website. This includes an audio introduction and a video celebration "Alice" recently held at the Library. (To view The Original Alice click on that link at the bottom of the Virtual Book "Turning the Pages" Guide.)
Finally, Victorian Web has many articles detailing the background, social context, and cultural history surrounding the publication of Lewis Carroll's Alice stories. This list includes a link to an interactive Hyper-Concordance that allows full-text searches of the Alice books.
For additional background visit the Alice in Wonderland resources from the Tate Liverpool Museum is available though EDSITEment-reviewed Tate Liverpool: Alice in Wonderland Exhibition. This is the first exhibition of its kind to explore how Lewis Carroll’s stories have influenced the visual arts, inspiring generations of artists. It provides insight into the creation of the novels and the inspiration they have provided for artists through the decades. Go Down the Rabbit Hole through a Wondermind interactive for a learning experience that mixes art with science available from Tate Kids.
Whether they have read Alice in Wonderland or not, most students will probably have some familiarity with the story. Begin by having them talk about their thoughts, memories, and knowledge of Lewis Carroll's classic story. Do they know when it was written? What do they know about the author? From what they know of her, does Alice seem like a "real" child to them? Do they identify with the character and her experiences?
Explain to students that Alice in Wonderland began as an improvised story told to a real little girl named Alice Liddell by a man named Charles Dodgson, which was the real name of Lewis Carroll. Provide a brief introduction to Carroll's life and his relationship with Alice Liddell, drawing on the resources available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Victorian Web website, including:
Discuss the vision of childhood that Carroll offers in his photographs. How does it compare to students' impressions of the world of Alice in Wonderland? Is this childhood as it appears to an adult or as children see it? Is it realistic? fantastic? sentimental?
To sharpen students' awareness of the image of childhood Carroll captured on film, have them compare his photographs to present-day images of children. Ask them to describe advertisements that feature children, such as those familiar from catalogs for children's clothing, and the visions of childhood offered by television and film. Again, consider whether these reflect an adult or a child's point of view. What sort of story do these images tell about being a kid today? As students prepare to read Alice in Wonderland, ask them to keep in mind the following question:
Have students brainstorm the first question by discussing how the images portray the children. By looking at the pictures, what does it seem like childhood is like in the Victorian era? [Teacher note: refer back to the "myth of childhood" material in the Background section to remind yourself of the self-conscious portrayal of childhood in Victorian England, both for now and in preparation for Activity 3 below].
Next, have students read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with its original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel. Explain to students that Carroll closely supervised the illustrations in his book. They are not simply decorations, in other words, but part of his story, an extension of his fiction.
To see Alice and its illustrations in a different light, introduce students to The Nursery Alice, a version of the story that Carroll prepared for very young children. If time allows, allow them to play the EDSITEment Sizing Up Alice quiz game, testing their knowledge of the first few chapters. Otherwise, turn to the following questions:
Have students produce their own illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, choosing an episode or even an object described in the text. When they have finished, discuss how the process of finding a passage to illustrate and forming a visual impression based on the text opens a new perspective on the story. Note: this is useful either as an in-class or an at-home activity.
Have students brainstorm the answers to this question for 5 minutes individually or in groups and then return to share their reactions with the larger class. Students might note, for example, that it is more difficult to visually capture emotions effectively (whereas it is relatively easier for an author to write about feelings); or, students might note that the use of animals in writing and in drawing allows the author or artist to bring certain characteristics to the foreground (this would be a wonderful time to review the concept of personification).
To provide a contrast to the Victorian view of childhood behind Carroll's storytelling, have students look at the very different vision offered by the Romantic poet William Blake in his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Be sure to note to students that William Blake published these poems and images in 1789 and 1794 (Innocence and Experience, respectively; via the Blake Archive chronology). Carroll's Alice, on the other hand, was published originally in 1865. An electronic text of Songs of Innocence and Experience, with Blake's illustrations, is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed William Blake Archive.
Have students compare, for example, Blake's contrasting visions of childhood in the two poems titled "The Chimney Sweeper," one from the Songs of Innocence (plate 20) and the other from the Songs of Experience (plate 46).
Note that each 'plate' opens in an interactive window that allows zooming and panning. The "Compare" button below the image enables users to compare the versions of Blake's plates (each is distinct). On the left, below the image, a drop-down menu labeled "Show Me…" has several options for viewing, including a larger static image of the plate and a transcript of the poem (for easier reading).
Encourage your students to spend time looking at the different versions, as well as comparing each 'pair' of poems from both Innocence and Experience. Once the class reviews the two chimney sweeper poems together, break students into groups and randomly assign them a Blake poem to examine (concentrate on those directly or indirectly related to children, in keeping with the theme of the lesson plan). Some poems directly relate to children; others come across as child-like in tone or verse (such as "The Lamb" and "The Tyger," both of which share the sound of a nursery rhyme). As students read the poem and compare the images, ask them (as with the first set of poems):
Have students think about the idea of innocence, which can range from naïve (and ignorant of what is 'really' going on) to idealistic (portraying a utopia). How else would they define innocence? Discuss how the alternative visions that Blake presents compare with the vision of childhood in Alice in Wonderland. Does Carroll present a vision midway between the extremes envisioned by Blake? Or does he combine these visions to some extent by creating a fantastic world around a realistic little girl?
Have students compare a pair of illustrated texts from Carroll, Blake, or both (e.g., a selection from a Carroll book, and a single poem from Blake). Ask them to discuss thematic similarities and differences for both the text, the illustration that accompanies it, and conclude with a comparison of the portrayal of childhood in the selected text. Depending on assessment needs and time, the length of the comparison can vary from a simple in-class response paper (or oral presentation) to a lengthier at-home assignment.
Explore a related aspect of the Victorian sensibility by introducing students to the tradition of Fairy Painting that developed during the era, and to Victorian illustrations of fairy tales.
Have students look at the illustrations in their own favorite books from childhood—Dr. Seuss books, Charlotte's Web, the Little House on the Prairie series, etc. Discuss the vision of childhood presented by the authors they loved. How does that vision compare to their experiences as children? How would they change these illustrations to reflect those experiences?
The Tate Liverpool: Alice in Wonderland Exhibition contains an Educator's Pack which includes a variety of additional actviities as well as discussion questions to engage your students and extend their understanding of the story. Your students take off on further exploration when they Go Down the Rabbit Hole through a Wondermind interactive for a learning experience that mixes art with science available from Tate Kids.
1-3 class periods