Alice in Space: by Gillian Beer

Alice in Space: by Gillian Beer

Alice in Space offers a great deal of insight for those willing to follow the author down, down, down…

Alice in Space: by Gillian Beer

3.25 / 5

For modern readers, historical context is very nearly as important as the text itself. Without the now antiquated knowledge inherent in then-contemporary readers, many of the allusions, witticisms and parodies can be lost entirely, some 150 plus years later. With Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll, Cambridge University professor of literature Gillian Beer seeks to explore the advancements in thought swirling about as Charles Dodgson turned into Lewis Carroll and gifted the world with his Alice stories. A favorite of generations of readers young and old, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its follow-up Through the Looking Glass are peeled back layer by layer to get to the heart of myriad schools of thought affecting Carroll’s approach. It’s a heady topic that requires much from the reader an ability to wade through highly cerebral contextualization.

From Euclidean mathematics to the explorations of space within a physical and metaphysical context, Beers analyses tend to mirror her subject matter as she plunges further and further down the proverbial rabbit hole. That said, her compartmentalized approach offers readers the chance to explore not only Carroll’s academic world, but the social constructs in place at the time. Beers, in her “Puns, Punch, and Parody” chapter, leads readers through Carroll’s text to show how he appealed to his young audience and their burgeoning knowledge while also playing against Victorian expectations of language. While certainly bone dry, it’s a nonetheless fascinating glimpse into a bygone era.

For those unfamiliar with the Alice books, Beers offers enough context and insight into the numerous advancements of thought familiar to Carroll and his readers. From the Darwinian science of evolution presented in The Origin of Species to the then radical non-Euclidean approach to mathematics, elements of each find their way into Carroll’s work. In discussing the ideas of what is “possible” versus that which is “impossible,” the argument is presented that, if you can conceive of something it is then by its very nature possible. This type of playful thought and logic games play a significant role in Carroll’s work as he writes from the perspective of a child for whom the restrictive nature of so-called reality have yet to become firmly established.

Beer’s work is a thoughtful approach to the world that shaped Charles Dodgson into Lewis Carroll. While not for everyone, Alice in Space is an appealing overabundance of unraveling literary subtext. Its title’s “space” refers to the physical and metaphysical spaces explored by Carroll and his contemporaries as they pushed the boundaries of thought by questioning the status quo. Revisiting Carroll’s work after reading Beer proves an eye-opening experience for the modern reader, now more equipped to grasp the subtleties of the Carroll’s wit and subversive reliance on the absurd and playful. By no means an easy read, Alice in Space nonetheless offers a great deal of insight for those willing to follow the author down, down, down…

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