Re-reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Theatre and Performance
March 3, 2020

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a global phenomenon. Written by Lewis Carroll and first published in 1865, it continues to delight, inspire and puzzle readers of all ages. To coincide with 2021’s major exhibition Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, we want to get the nation re-reading Alice!

Re-discover a classic

Although written over 150 years ago, Alice’s Adventures has a timeless appeal, transporting readers from the real to a vivid imaginary world. One summer’s day, Alice follows a white rabbit down a rabbit hole and falls into Wonderland. There, she encounters a series of strange characters and scenarios, forcing her to question her own identity and the world around her. Vivid, funny and occasionally disturbing, we follow Alice to the Mad Hatter’s tea party and the Queen of Hearts’ croquet ground via an encounter with the mysterious Cheshire Cat. After facing the King and Queen of Hearts in the courtroom, she wakes on the bank of the river, the whole adventure seemingly a dream… Now iconic in our cultural consciousness, the sequences of Alice’s Adventures were originally brought to life by John Tenniel’s illustrations and Carroll’s endlessly quotable dialogue.

“We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Illustration from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Illustration from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by John Tenniel, first published edition, 1866, p.97. National Art Library. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A looking glass to our world

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is more than just an adventure story. Woven in to the text you’ll find surreal wordplay, political and social satire, nonsensical poetry and even concepts of theoretical physics. Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was very much in tune with his own time, referencing politicians of the day like Benjamin Disraeli, to developments in mathematical logic.

Today the unanswerable riddles of the ‘Mad Tea Party’ remain a stock reference for satire; the book’s mind-altering logic has inspired contemporary science fiction like The Matrix; while the fantastical aesthetic of the original illustrations have been reinterpreted around the world, often as backdrops for festivals, theatre and live music events. But it’s the journey of Alice, one of the first female heroines in literature, that remains most relevant. Brave, curious and questioning of the world around her, Alice’s approach to navigating a strange world has become a rallying cry for empowerment.

“Who cares for you?” said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

Protesters hold a banner reading: "if Alice could do it, so could we!"
Protesters block Rondebosch Main road during a protest against President Jacob Zuma, Cape Town, 7 April 2017. © Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp

Be inspired

Whether you read it as political allegory, feminist literature or surrealist stream of consciousness, the book continues to spark new diverse Wonderlands, from fine art to video games, food to street fashion. The exhibition Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser brings together everyone from Salvador Dali to particle physicists studying what the universe is made of, via Tim Burton, Vivienne Westwood and Little Simz, to demonstrate Alice‘s power to inspire discovery and imagination.  Reading this book is a uniquely creative experience. So as you read (or re-read) it, ask yourself: what would your Wonderland be?

Alice and the Pirates ensemble
Alice and the Pirates, dress with a pair of detachable sleeves, designed by Kumiko Uehara for Baby, the Stars Shine Bright, 2011, Japan. Museum no. FE.314:1 to 3-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Let’s talk Alice! 

Download these question sheets to try with your reading group, and share your thoughts with the hashtag #BeMoreAlice

Alice in Wonderland questions for adults

Alice in Wonderland questions for kids

Buy a special edition of Alice’s Adventures with a cover design inspired by our collections at the V&A shop.

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser

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