Alice: The Beauty and Importance of Illustrations

Reading this version of Alice in Wonderland after growing up on the Disney version was interesting mostly because of the art difference. However, the illustrations also made me realize just how important illustrations can be for certain audiences and genres. While reading, all I could focus on was the illustrations. It was the first time, as an adult, that I’ve read a novel with ‘pictures’ involved. Though it’s understandable that the illustrations would be so vividly different because Lewis Carroll’s novel came out in 1865 while Disney’s Alice in Wonderland came out in 1951. For example, Disney’s Alice seems more childlike, colorful, and cartoonish:

Disney’s adaption of Alice in Wonderland

Then, of course, we know about Tim Burton’s version that came out in 2010. Burton’s version was similar to Tenniel’s illustrations but Burton’s movie didn’t seem to have that same magic that Tenniel’s has:

Tim Burton’s adaption of Alice in Wonderland

Neither Disney nor Burton can mimic the same creativity that Tenniel does but they bring Alice to life in different, creative ways that can alter the way one perceives the story and art. For some, Disney may be too cartoon-like while Burton’s might be too grotesque for a novel that illuminates themes like childhood and identity. Illustrations have such strong power over the way a reader imagines a story, scene, or character. For every version of Alice is another way to see the character or story. Even Alice at the very beginning of the story questions her sister’s reading choice when she isn’t reading a book with pictures in it, reminding me that illustrations are an importance to books, especially books for children. It keeps their attention.

When Alice in Wonderland is talked about, it’s always common to hear the opinion that it’s inspired lunacy and I felt that Tenniel’s illustrations paired with Carroll’s writing truly captured this, especially the illustrations depicting Alice’s body morphing after eating or drinking strange things like on page 16. The introduction to the novel actually helped me form my opinion on the illustrations and how they are used in the novel, how they seem to help me envision what is happening. There was a sentence that said Tenniel’s illustrations “give solid, credible physiognomies and physical reality to speakers who have psychological and vocal individuality in Carroll’s text but little of the specific visual identity Tenniel’s designs confer.” Furthermore, Tenniel’s designs help elaborate Carroll’s novel where the reader can “plunge into a world of narrative distortions and nonsensical explanations.” His illustrations bring further life to Carroll’s work and I think that might be why Carroll went straight to Tenniel to do his illustrations, because he knew the man would be able to complement his writing. This edition of the novel portrays a detailed collaboration between illustrator and writer. In fact, the University of Maryland has a small section on Alice in Wonderland and the importance of Tenniel’s illustrations:

“John Tenniel, Carroll’s hand-picked illustrator of the Alice books, was able to capture the peculiar, over-the-top characters of Wonderland, incorporating both nature and humor into highly detailed illustrations which complement Carroll’s text so well. Ever since, the success of Alice’s story has been deeply connected to its artwork. Carroll’s text itself provides few visual cues about the world of Wonderland…This lack of visual description has left great scope for countless illustrators to re-imagine Wonderland.”

University of Maryland

An example of Tenniel and Carroll’s partnership adding to the novel is the illustrations involving the Mad Hatter. If Tim Burton can envision the Hatter as a taller man acted by Johnny Depp, than there’s probably several other ways the reader can imagine how the Hatter looks. Even though some of Carroll’s illustrations at the end of the book in Alice Underground come close to capturing the same magical realism aspect that Tenniel’s does, I still feel as though Tenniel’s illustrations add the most to the novel.

Alice in Wonderland is the first novel I’ve read that dealt with magical realism and I felt that this was truly accomplished by not only Carroll’s writing but Tenniel’s depiction of Carroll’s words. His accompanying illustrations entertain and instruct the younger readers, the children. For children, the novel opens a world of fantasy up where logic is not the foundation and it’s just fun. I think that’s why I find Tenniel’s illustration to just to be so fantastic, despite not being as beautiful at Disney’s version. Because Tenniel’s illustrations embrace the weird, or odd, looking and disregard logic in style. Furthermore, what I personally believe, is that Tenniel’s illustrations create a visual road map for me as a reader. His illustrations helped me easily follow the story where Carroll’s writing could not. Readers can look to the art in the novel to truly see what Carroll is describing when it comes to magical entities that are not easy to envision for some. The novel holds many surprises to the readers and allows the imagination to extend beyond the usual in some everyday books.

From Professor Despain’s Initial Post for week one, my eye got caught by the illustrations for the novel by artist Salvador Dali. I felt as though his art was more obscure and captured the lunacy that the novel is known for in a way that might the others couldn’t. I just love the color that is in some of the illustrations and though it’s not as ‘clear’ as the other examples, I felt it was a much needed example of another illustration type that aided the novel.

I think without the illustrations included in this edition, readers would lose the clear visuals Tenniel provides. There wouldn’t be the ability to literally see the magical realism happening in the novel. The illustrations in this novel aren’t just there to be ‘pictures’ but to really add something to the writing and I truly believe that Tenniel accomplished this.

Works Cited:

Alice in the Empire: Subject or Subjugated?

Empire, or its theoretical foundation, imperialism, is widely accepted as more or less the political domination of one country over another. To varying degrees this involves economic policy and results in the exploitation of people, land, and resources in the imperial territories. The British Empire was no different. At the time Lewis Carroll was writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the British Empire under Queen Victoria was unchallenged by European nations but faced constant challenges to its dominion in distant places such as India, China, and Africa. Since these threats were not European in nature they presented a unique set of challenges to the English psyche.

Meanwhile, the uncompromising nature of empire, with its attendant racist, religious, nationalist, and economic justifications, created unavoidable tension with the social and political movements of early modern Europe. This is especially true of the revolutionary political movements of America and France which were based (at least purportedly) on beliefs of equality and self-government, and later, free market capitalism. While these ideas took root elsewhere they were often the product of English minds. The English monarchy was nearly absolute and despite its begrudging dilution of the aristocratic power over time, there remained little interest on the part of the crown to cede authority to political or economic principles of the Enlightenment. It is against this social/political backdrop that Carroll sent Alice into Wonderland. Alice’s encounter with the Mad Hatter offers a glimpse into Carrol’s view of imperialism with Alice operating as the Queen’s subject or the subjugated inhabitant of a far flung territory depending  on the reader’s interpretation.

The Mad Tea Party (Wikimedia Commons)

Traditionally, Alice is interpreted as more or less the fragile, foolish, but virtuous Victorian woman lost in an un-English world she does not understand. In this interpretation, she needs to get out of Wonderland (the Empire) and back to the safety of English domesticity (where she can finish her recitations and become a good wife) before something bad happens to her. Not only does she fail to understand her experiences in Wonderland, but there is too little suggestion by Carroll that she should. Throughout the novel such instances are common, but perhaps most strikingly during the Mad Tea Party. Alice is confused by the customs of the Hatter and the Dormouse. One example is with the Hatter’s watch, which Alice notes “tells you the day of the month and doesn’t tell you what o’clock it is!” (Carrol 81). Were Alice an English aristocrat travelling abroad she might have said the same thing as she encountered Muslims or Chinese people throughout the Empire. They used different calendars and methods of timekeeping before becoming dominated by the imperial English. In the novel, these customs come across as absurdly un-English, or what Edward Said described as oriental: non-Western and assumed to be inferior. When Alice struggles to comprehend her experiences, or injects her Victorian perspective it never improves the situation. In this interpretation Carroll is suggesting that the manners and customs of Victorian England are superior and that the people, customs and institutions of the conquered territories should be replace natives and their practices.

Alternatively, as Amanda Bryan of North Carolina State suggests in Alice’s Struggle with Imperialism: Undermining the British Empire through Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Tea Party can viewed as a subversive critique of the British Empire, and one of its most powerful corporations, the tea importing British East India Company (Bryan 26). In this interpretation, Alice acts not as an English subject bewildered by the world she encounters but as the confused native of a colonial territory struggling to make sense of English customs, namely the colonial/mercantile practices of exploitation, consumption, and destruction. To understand this, consider the arrangement of the tea party as a metaphor for colonial exploitation. Since the clocks are stuck at six o’clock,  the party is perpetual and as a result, the settings are never cleaned. Since the dishes are never cleaned the only option is to move to the the next setting when the resources of the current seat are exhausted. Of course, only the Hatter, in role of colonial corporations, will get clean dishes under this practice. Alice, in the role of the oppressed, cannot make sense of the Hatter’s behavior and customs because they are foreign to her. A simple parallel could be drawn in the relationship of between the British East India Company’s relationship with India, but it can be extended to a critique of the mercantile system that underpinned the economics of imperialism in the Americas, Asia, and Africa.

Throughout Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll raises questions about empire but prefers to avoid explicit answers. At the current moment, such ambivalence is not helpful and is possibly dangerous. Imperialism, rebranded as nation-building, economic development, national defense, or another focus group tested half-truth remains a threat to the safety and sovereignty of people in developing countries. It should be treated appropriately. Inhabitants of wealthier imperialist nations such as the United States, while normally less absurd than the characters in Wonderland, still struggle to understand the customs and motivations of racial, religious, and economic out-groups. At a moment when many developed Western countries find themselves nostalgic for perceived better days gone by, there seems little benefit to interpreting empire through the lense of Alice an ideal Victorian woman exploring the Empire in an immature fit of rebellion. If Carroll was only seeking to question the assumptions and consequences of Empire, he succeeded; however, with the passage of time and an honest reading of history there is no need for subtlety in assessing the damaging consequences of empire.


Bryan, Amanda. “Alice’s Struggle With Imperialism: Undermining the British Empire through Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” p.26. <:;

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004, p. 86.