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Becoming Pawn: Alice, Arendt and the New in Narrative

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 44, Number 1, Winter 2014
pp. 1-28 | 10.1353/jnt.2014.0004

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

1. Introduction

That Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass have inspired an ever-vibrant range of responses is perhaps not so very curious. These classic texts upset some of the central tenets of mainstream narrative conventions not to mention, of course, the tradition of morally didactic children’s narratives to which they could be seen as a reaction.

Carroll’s disruption of the continuity and causality on which many fictional representations and philosophical conceptions of identity and reality have tended to rely has made his work the focus of much literary and philosophical inquiry. Around sixty adaptations, ranging from Cecil Hepworth’s silent film version in 1903 through puppet versions, rap versions, and porn versions to the most recent Tim Burton film in 2010, bear witness to the continuing appreciation of Carroll’s story also from the field of cultural production. In addition, intertextual references to the Alice books are ever present, far too numerous to count, and decidedly disparate including, to pick a couple of random but well appreciated examples, Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic 1967 rock song “White Rabbit” and the Wachowski brothers’ postmodern The Matrix (the homage of which is returned in Burton’s recent film). One could imagine a point of exhaustion with this trope and with the interpretative possibilities it can yield but this seems to be far from the case. Instead, the Alice phenomenon has reached another stage. With the arrival of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, I argue in this essay, the challenges of narrativity that Carroll’s original nonsense texts pose have taken a 180-degree turn and we find ourselves looking back at the texts from the vantage point of causality, continuity, and even predictability. This new adaptation—postmodern, neogothic, and Burtonized as it is—places Alice in an Underland where predictability rather than unpredictability is the main concern. While the riches of Alice-adaptations would offer unique opportunities of discussing the role of narrative in the different national and temporal context of their making, this essay focuses on what it perceives to be two extremes, Carroll’s original texts and Burton’s film. The comparison of the two, we will see, brings out some important implications of the role of narrative structures on perceptions of free will and the capacity to act.

Hollywoodized almost beyond recognition, Burton’s adaptation of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland poses two very important questions. The first one constitutes one of the lines that have made it from the original work into this film version and comes in the shape of a riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” This question provides us with a context from which to analyze the purpose of asking questions for which we have no answers. Asking questions that have no answers is important because it potentially opens up space for what we truly cannot expect—space that cannot be predicted based on what has come before. Having been the object of considerable enquiry, the question actually received an “answer” in a new preface to a later version of Carroll’s Alice (“Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!”), but as Martin Gardner notes and as Carroll’s nonsensical reply suggests, this question was never intended to come with an answer (95).

The second question that Burton’s film asks may at least initially seem more fundamental: Is Alice “the” Alice? This question concerns the difference between possibility and potential and the politics of product versus process. Becoming Alice in Burton’s adaptation has opposite implications to becoming Alice in Carroll’s original text. Gilles Deleuze notes how Carroll’s books undermine “the permanence of savoir”—Alice is “swept away by the verbs,” and has to let go of the continuity of her own, as well as the world’s, identity (5). Alice’s lesson is to learn to accept and even affirm that neither events nor her own role in them can be predicted. For Burton’s Alice, on the other hand, the challenge is rather to learn to accept her role in what is a predetermined...

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