Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Lisbeth Zwerger (illustrator)

Our Lisbeth Zwerger appreciation tour continues, this time with a literary classic Alice in Wonderland.  And we can say at least one positive thing about Zwerger’s illustrations: they motivated me to read the book again. I don’t believe I had read Alice since high school and it was an interesting experience reading it again as an adult and in this format.

Publishers Weekly, as usual, offers a nice overview:

Zwerger’s (The Wizard of Oz) captivating cover image of the Mad Tea-Party for this edition of Carroll’s 1865 tale conveys the psychological tension of the interior artwork: Alice, at the head of an elongated table with a pristine white linen cloth, stares at the pocket watch that the March Hare is about to lower into his cup of tea. The Hare, bug-eyed, gazes out at readers while the Mad Hatter to his right, wearing a hat box, fixates on a black upturned chapeau (in lieu of a place setting), and the Dormouse between them sleeps. Across the table, an empty red mug is placed in front of a vacant green chair, and a teacup and saucer trimmed in red seems to be set for the reader. The painting conveys the way in which Zwerger brilliantly manages both to invite readers into the story and to keep them at a distance. From the heroine’s first appearance, as she falls down a well while chasing the White Rabbit, with a glimpse of orderly bookshelves at the upper left corner, Zwerger demonstrates the many layers to Alice’s journey: a cutaway view reveals that the bulk of the other “”shelves”” are the result of rats and insects tunneling underground. The supporting cast conveys the artist’s nearly sardonic perspective. The contrary caterpillar, with six of its eight arms crossed, would be at home in New York’s East Village: instead of a hookah it smokes a cigarette and sips red wine, yet–unlike Sir John Tenniel‘s sedated counterpart–this caterpillar is lucid, defiantly staring out at an Alice (and readers) absent from the scene. Zwerger’s penetrating interpretation reinvents Carroll’s situations and characters and demands a rereading of the text.

Two sentences worth noting:

  • “The painting conveys the way in which Zwerger brilliantly manages both to invite readers into the story and to keep them at a distance.”
  • “Zwerger’s penetrating interpretation reinvents Carroll’s situations and characters and demands a rereading of the text.”
Obviously, I found both of these to be true. Captivated by the illustrations I was pulled into the story again.  The illustrations are both wonderful accents to the story but also offer though provoking art along the way; they are neither intrusive nor distracting but they do help the reader to think anew about the story and the characters.

Of course, there is always the question of what does it all mean?

I will not venture into the territory of symbolism and hidden meanings.  I did however enjoy this brief discussion of the book and the art it has inspired by James Schellenberg.

At first glance, the appeal of Alice springs from the visual richness and variety of the stories. Quite apart from any perceived meaning of the plot or any level of characterization, the books can be read as a glorious gambol, an infinite feast of eye candy. Strange wondrous creatures in a fantastical land — what more could the reader ask for? Indeed, the surface flash of Alice should not be discounted, as it’s what younger readers will latch onto first. I remember reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass as a child in just this way, analogous to my child’s perspective of Gulliver’s Travels. Such books puzzled me, but I liked the way they sparked my imagination (in particular, I remember being fascinated with the scene where the Lilliputians try to tie down Gulliver, and similar scenes where Alice becomes much bigger or smaller than others). As an adult, I still crave that sense of wonder and Carroll never lets me down. Swift’s book is not so easy to re-read with the child’s perspective as an adult — Swift’s complex screed against the follies of humanity (to characterize the meaning of the book somewhat baldly) obtrudes on the consciousness. It’s trickier to discern Carroll’s intent with Alice, if there is one, and so it’s easier to enjoy the books at the most obvious level. More on the hunt for meaning in Alice in a minute.

The best part of the Alice books is Alice herself, as a fearless and inquisitive child, observant and forthright, scared at times but more often levelheaded in the face of a world which has, along with all the adults in it, been turned upside down. She remains polite while inundated with the greatest pile of nonsense and illogic ever conceived, and she wins through in the end by keeping her head (and not just in the sense of the Queen of Hearts’ threat). To my mind, she’s one of the strongest heroines in literature, a character fully deserving of her fame. In one sense, there’s nothing else in the books! As is obvious from my summary of the books, there’s not even a gesture in the direction of a normal plotline, no rising and falling action, antagonist, or w-diagram. Alice moves from one absurd encounter to another. Through the Looking Glass is ostensibly modelled on a chess game, but that does nothing to change the feel of the book. I say all this to emphasize that the books have a strong suit that trumps the lack of plot. Namely, Alice

This strikes me as just right. It is the silliness combined with the sense of wonder and exploration that fuels the book (for those not in literary studies anyway) and Alice is what carries that sense and embodies it. Cheerful, good-natured, and level headed throughout, Alice anchors the story in a world turned upside down.

So like, Schellenberg, I enjoyed Alice and the story on that most basic of levels: as a creative and entertaining story for young and old. Zwerger’s illustrations added another level of enjoyment and another reason to keep turning the pages.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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