It is no accident that the grotesque style in literature tends to be prevalent in eras marked by radical change and stress. Such was the Victorian period, within which a whirl of social, economic and religious change took place that pulled the rug from underneath the British people, then struggling to find meaning in a world they no longer knew. The French revolutionaries, who guillotined the last noble head before the advent of the eighteenth century, continued to impress the British world during the Victorian age and are thought to have "certainly influenced the thought and the works of every major English author for the remainder of the eighteenth century and beyond" (DC, History). In the nineteenth century came Industrialism and, in the eyes of Victorians, its predominantly negative consequences; then, the discovery of scientific proof relating to evolution, which forced the people to question the existence of God, a solid cornerstone of British history; and the Reform Acts, a set of unprecedented laws that gave voting privileges to the deserved
These events and more uprooted all that had meaning to the Victorian, leaving him with a world of chaos, a grotesque world devoid of meaning. Lewis Carroll, greatly frustrated by this chaotic nature of existence, endlessly and futility sought for order, just as his character Alice searches for order in this grotesque Wonderland. Referring back to the above passage, Alice must learn to play croquet in this grotesque and ridiculous fashion, with flamingos as mallets and hedgehogs as balls.
The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo: she succeeded in getting its body tucked away, comfortably enough, under her arm, with its legs hanging down, but generally, just as she had got its neck nicely straightened out, and was going to give the hedgehog a blow with its head, it would twist itself round and look up in her face, with such a puzzled expression that she could not help bursting out laughing; and, when she had got its head down, and was going to begin again, it was very provoking to find that the hedgehog had unrolled itself, and was in the act of crawling away: besides all this, there was generally a ridge or a furrow in the way wherever she wanted to send the hedgehog to (Alice in Wonderland, p. 66).
Whereas the game of croquet itself possesses meaning, this absurd way of playing in Wonderland leaves Alice struggling to find order: as she finally "succeeds in getting its [the flamingo's] body tucked away, comfortably enough," it would untwist itself. And time after time, after Alice establishes and re-establishes order with one facet of the game, another would break down again into its chaotic state. These futile efforts only end in greater frustration and finally submission. Although the tone of this passage seems light and comical, its message is wholly serious. This scene, one of many in Alice in Wonderland, perhaps symbolizes the author's hopeless struggle and consequential anxiety in his quest to discern meaning in a world that has reduced itself to the chaos and perhaps the absurdity comparable to that of Wonderland.
Last updated December 1993