Published in 1865, Lewis Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2011), recounts the story of Alice falling in a world that is full of nonsense and is, because of that, absurd. But, what about the ‘actual world’? Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus (2000), presents a thesis for which our world is the absurd one - if Alice is the main character of the novel, in real life it is each one of us who is the protagonist. So how is the work of Alice in Wonderland exploring absurdity and how does Alice deals with absurdity? By the reading of the book, this article attempts to enquire the ways in which it could be an example of absurdity by confronting it with Camus’s thesis of absurdity explained in his text The Myth of Sisyphus.
The chapter ‘The Pool of Tears’ is the second of the book ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. Alice is not yet accustomed to the world she fell into and the chapter commences when she is physically growing because of a cake she ate and cannot anymore see her feet and therefore begins to fantasize about sending boots by post to them since they are so far away. And, almost immediately, she realises that she is talking nonsense.
Camus declares that the absurdity of the world is realised once an individual understands that he cannot explain the world in which he is; the world becomes a stranger to the man and therefore, by this alienation, man experiences absurdity. Alice is finding herself in a new world in which nothing has any sense, and soon realises that everything she thought to know on a rational and logical basis has no appliance in Wonderland, a place where “everything contributes to spreading confusion” (Camus, 2000, p. 15). Alice, seeing that she is enormous, realises that she cannot pass through the door she wanted to open; her reaction is to cry. She cries and simultaneously tells herself to stop crying because it is absurd for a girl of those dimensions to cry. However, she stops crying only in the moment that she attempts to find an explanation and meaning to the world she has fallen into. Absurdity has not only influenced the world around her, but also herself and the way she perceives herself, thus a fundamental question comes in and she thinks: “yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? […] But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’” (Carroll, 2011, p. 42). The image she has of herself is questioned by being in Wonderland. Yet, she finds no answer to her query and begins crying again. Alice, exemplifies what Camus calls ‘the human drama’, i.e. the need of unity for man. She does it by trying to think logically through her acquired knowledge, but she does not find an answer, remaining a stranger to herself because “Between the certainty, I have of my existence and the content I try to give that assurance, the gap will never be filled.” (Camus, 2000, p. 24). The consequences are upsetting and Alice resumes crying.
Acknowledging that the world and the self cannot be explained is upsetting and is, for Camus, the real difficulty; this can be seen in Alice’s emotional reactions. In the next moment of the chapter Alice resumes her small dimensions and falls into her own tears.
Camus thinks of emotions as being both absurd and caused by absurdity. In this scene, Alice is clearly in an absurd position towards her emotions and she acknowledges it by thinking of how weird it would be to drown in her own tears. Alice, as the individual for Camus, is longing to find a unity between the world and the mind, but no unity is found. On the contrary, by this confrontation of man’s consciousness and the surrounding world, absurdity is created. Being face to face with absurdity Alice has to choose whether to continue her adventures or stop because frightened and upset by absurdity. The situation of Alice can be compared to the choice disclosed by Camus between embracing the absurd and revolting towards death or choosing death. Alice's choice is to continue her adventure. In Wonderland nothing can be explained, but she continues to explore it; she revolts to the idea of leaving the absurd world she is in. Throughout the book, Alice will never get accustomed to absurdity and will continuously be stricken by it. This causes the reader to relate to Alice’s character while it is much more complicated for the reader to identify with other characters of Wonderland as they are completely absorbed in absurdity.
Alice is not alone in Wonderland and characters around her expose the strangeness of this world. In chapter VII, ‘A Mad Tea Party’, she encounters three peculiar characters which are condemned to drink tea, i.e. the March Hare, the Hatter and the Dormouse.
Firstly, seeing that Alice wanted to sit down at their table, they claim that there is no room for another person even if the table appears to be set for more than just the three of them. Alice decides to sit down anyway, and here she is introduced to their situation which is caused by a problematic relationship between the Hatter and time (which in Wonderland is a person). Their troubled relationship has resulted in time standing still, thereof it is always tea time. The table is consequently full as there is no time to do the dishes and the characters of Wonderland do riddles to which they do not know the answer and recount nonsense stories. Like Sisyphus, the three Wonderland characters are condemned to perpetuate an action. But, is it possible to compare the characters of Wonderland with Camus’ interpretation of Sisyphus? On the one hand, Sisyphus is the absurd hero who never abandons his mission of rolling the stone up the hill; he is conscious of his fate and embraces it. He is entirely man in his rolling of the rock, his fate is his, the rock is his; Sisyphus accepts absurdity in accepting his castigation. Camus concludes that Sisyphus has to be imagined happy. On the other hand, the Hatter (character of focus because he is the one that has confronted time), seems conscious of his situation. Conscious because he acknowledges his situation and even adapts his life to it, not only by drinking tea, but also by having a watch which does not indicate time but days and years. Who needs a watch that indicates time if it is always 6 o’clock? Alice cannot understand the perspective of the Hatter because she is not in the same reality as his, but for him it is absurdly normal. The Hatter is content with his situation and while drinking tea he laughs and jokes with the other characters. Therefore, we can imagine the Hatter being happy, exactly as Sisyphus. The two characters are still alive and in the world of humans, both are absurd heroes, and as such are free.
The Wonderland characters are free by being conscious of absurdity. When Alice becomes too frustrated by the absurd situation, she quits the table but hopes that they will call her back and looks behind her in that prospect. However, the characters do not seem to be preoccupied with Alice and are attempting to put the dormouse in the teapot.
Alice is not a possible escape of their fate but a mere happening; they are embedded in their own situation and appreciate it the way it is, they accept divergences but do not hope for anything beyond what they have in the present. Here, it is possible to point out the second and third consequences of Camus’ absurdity, i.e. freedom and most living. The freedom of the Hatter is not to be defined by his future, he is the Hatter but is he really a hatter? Perhaps he is condemned to drink tea in this reality and, therefore, even if he was a hatter before, now he is just a tea drinker. However, freedom in Camus’s philosophy is exactly that, a man is free when he acts freely independently of his future and of who he will be in his future. If the Hatter decides to have a sole purpose in life which is to become a hatter he will lose his freedom for a future which he cannot control. The illusion of being free to make decisions - which are in the future - makes an individual lose the freedom he has in the present moment. Instead, the Hatter is free of his future self as he is solely focused on the moment he is living. The Hatter enjoys Alice’s visit and talks to her, but when she leaves he enjoys another present moment. The Hatter is free because he accepts the absurdity for which the future cannot be grasped. Consequently, he passionately lives for the joys of the present and, therefore, he experiences the ‘most living’ and not the ‘best living’. The Hatter does not try to have a quantitative amount of experiences and, on the contrary, his indifference for the future makes him live the present moment at its fullest and passionately; he is lucidly going through life and embraces the most living. The ‘native’ characters of Wonderland are therefore fully absorbed in absurdity and do not question themselves about it. Considering this, it is easier for the reader to empathise with Alice which is most probably closer to the reality of the readers and literature becomes a way to easily and naturally induce a reader in a more profound discourse of philosophy.
The character of Alice discovering absurdity and acknowledging its presence into the world is efficiently compared with Camus’s theory of absurdity disclosed in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. Alice enters into an absurd world and chooses to continue her adventure and stay in absurdity. By making that choice Alice impersonalises the first consequence of Camus’ absurdity which is revolt. The other characters of Wonderland, who are fully embracing absurdity, are disclosing the second and third consequences of Camus’ absurdity, namely freedom and most living. They are actively and passionately embracing the present moment. In conclusion, a philosophy work as ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ can be exemplified and as such, easier to receive, by a literature work as is ‘Alice Adventures in Wonderland’.
Camus, A. (2000). The Myth of Sisyphus (J. O’Brien, Trans.). London, UK: Penguin Books. (Original work published in 1942).
Carrol, L. (2011). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. London, UK: Penguin Books. (Original work published in 1865).
Figure 1: Reckham, A. (1905). At this, the whole pack of cards rose up into the air and came flying down upon her. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://lithub.com/20-artists-visions-of-alice-in-wonderland-from-the-last-155-years/
Figure 2, 3, 4 & 5: Tenniel, J. (2011). Illustrations in Carrol, L. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. [Illustration]. Penguin Books. (Original work published in 1865).
Figure 6: Aleliunas, R. (2021) Sisyphus. [Illustration]. Dribbble. https://dribbble.com/shots/16444549-Sisyphus