The Influence of Lewis Carroll's Life on His Work

by Brady - 1998

    Many aspects of Lewis Carroll's life influenced his writing. Some of these aspects include his mathematical background and logical disposition, interest in and photography of little girls, abnormal eating habits, dual personality, sleeping difficulties, Victorian lifestyle, and neglected childhood. These characteristics of his life are reflected in his literature, including in his most well-known novel, “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland”.

    Carroll was always an extremely logical man, constantly inventing more effective methods to complete a task. He invented the Nyctograph, for taking notes in bed at night and devised unique memory aids. He wrote a letter to Charles Babbage advising him on how to improve his calculating machine. Carroll also improved the hectograph, the Hammond Type-Writer, and Edison's electric pen. At one of his dinner parties, Carroll drew up a plan of the seating arrangements and who would be escorting whom, and listed the numerous advantages of his new seating method.

    Carroll invented a rule for finding a day of the week for any date, rules for wining in betting, more fair elimination rules for tennis tournaments, improved systems of parliamentary representation, and a scale for measuring liquor. He thought up many card, croquet, and word games including games of logic, Synergies, and Doublets, which is similar to a modern form of Scrabble. Carroll excelled in origami, enjoyed chess, and invented a travel chessboard. He also ordered five different sizes of notepaper so he would have the right size for each letter.

    In addition to practicing logic through his many inventions, he also did so through mathematics. Although he was an average student in secondary school, he was the valedictorian of Final Mathematical School. In 1855, he began teaching as a Mathematical Lecturer at the University of Oxford. In 1881, a year before he proposed a cut in his own salary, he resigned from mathematic lectureship so he could devote his full time to writing and mathematical studies. One of Carroll's good friends observed about Carroll's communication “ 'all the while there seemed to be an odd logical sequence, almost impelling your assent to most unexpected conclusions' ” (Cohen, 285).

    As in life, Carroll was extremely logical in his literature. He wrote many mathematical treatises including The Fifth Book, Euclid and His Modern Rivals, Euclid, Books I and II, Curiosa Mathematica, Part I : A New Theory of Parallels, and Curiosa Mathematica Part III: Pillow Problems. His fiction novels were full of elements of logic, such as cards, chess, and mirror reversals. The appearance of chess and croquet in Carroll's writing is due to his own interest and participation in these activities. Carroll's characters consistently ignored the commonly understood to reach a more logical conclusion. In Through the Looking Glass when the King asks Alice to look down the road to see who's coming, this type of logic is used by the King:

    “Just look down the road and tell me if you can see either of them.”

    “I see nobody on the road” said Alice.

    “I only wish I had such eyes to see Nobody! And at such a distance too!” (Bloom, 96).

    One of the few things that engaged Carroll was young girls. He frequently had them over for tea, more than he had adults over, and enjoyed photographing them. The subjects were often nude, but his close acquaintances insist it was an innocent passion. His niece commented:

    “ 'He...seemed almost quivering with delight at the prospect of playing with four or five little girls' ” (Cohen, 284). “He had an odd, and of course frustrated, love for little girls -- in part identifying with them, in part substituting 'child friends' for more difficult and responsible adult relationships” (Lennon, 223). Carroll became particularly fond of one eleven year old girl, Alice Liddell, the daughter of the dean of Oxford. He wrote the Alice stories for her, hence the name of the main character in those tales.

    Carroll's interest in young girls is mirrored through the identity of many of the protagonists in his writing. Most of Carroll's main character's are little girls. In Alice's Adventure's in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the protagonist is a seven year old girl. In Sylvie and Bruno, one of the main characters, Sylvie, is a young girl. Also, there is a certain amount of innocence radiated from the characters who are young girls unlike the young boys. This is exemplified in the contrasting identities the heroine Sylvie and mischievous Bruno in Sylvie and Bruno.

    Carroll was known to have an obsessively negative association with eating which could have been drawn from his neurosis. Carroll wrote to Mrs. Mayhem, one of his child friend's mothers, “ 'Even when I have time, I always decline luncheons. I have no appetite for a meal at that time, and perhaps you will sympathize with my dislike for sitting to watch others eat and drink' ” (Cohen, 291). In another letter he wrote “ 'Please don't make any difference, for me, in your family bill of fare. Dinner parties have too many courses for me. Even our daily High Table is much more than I care for' ” (Cohen, 292). Once, Carroll took a young friend to dinner and said “ 'Please be careful, because she eats a great deal too much already' ” (Auerbach, 38). Carroll wrote to a child's mother “ ' My dinner is about 7. My child-guest usually helps me with it (having, in fact, two dinners a day)...I have nothing more but milk, water, and biscuits' ” (Cohen, 292). Carroll's nephew wrote “ 'the health appetites of his [Carroll's] young friends filled him with horror and even alarm' ” (Auerbach, 38).

    Carroll's obsession with eating is reflected in his literature. Food is commonly accentuated, most of the time in a negative connotation, as in the Alice tales. The consequence of Alice eating and drinking is a change in her size. The Knave of Hearts is put on trial for allegedly stealing the Queen's tarts, with a proposed penalty of beheading. Also, The consequence of the Duchess cooking with too much pepper is everyone continually sneezing. At the mad tea party, Alice inquires about food in a story that the Dormouse is telling:

    “What did they live on?” asked Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking. “They lived on treacle” said the Dormouse...

    “They couldn't have done that, you know,” Alice gently remarked; “they'd have been very ill.”

    “So they were,” said the Dormouse; “very ill.” (Carroll, 75).

    Alice also comments:

    “Maybe it is pepper that makes people hot-tempered,” she went on, very much pleased at having found out a new kind of rule, “and vinegar that them sour--and camomile that makes them bitter” (Carroll, 93).

    Eating is also emphasized in other ways. Eating is associated with sin by the means that a garden, in which a serpent is present, represents the Garden of Eden. Alice, therefore represents Eve when she desires to eat the Queen's tarts while there, even though she knows its wrong. Also, most poems and songs in his writing revolve around the theme of predator and prey. Furthermore, the Chesire Cat's grin is the first part of him to appear and last part of him to disappear, therefore focusing on the mouth. Carroll's cartoon, “The Rectory Umbrella” displays a family eating a meal of extremely irrational proportions. In another of his illustrations, he exhibits a man eating a whole plum-pudding.

    A dual personality was present in Carroll's own life beginning when he started writing under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. He was born Charles Dodgson, and was a reverend with a conservative personality before he began writing. His pseudonym first appeared when The Train was published in 1856. Along with the new name, he assumed a new personality. No longer very conservative or religious, Carroll became very liberal, always looking to change things for the better, and began questioning religion because of the contradictions it had with logic. “his split personality seems earned. If he was a double man, it was for the best of reasons: he saw twice as much as other people did” (Gopnik, 90).

    Many others noticed Carroll's opposing identities. Alice Liddell recalled that he always wore black clergyman's clothes in Oxford, but, when he took out on the river, he used to wear white flannel trousers. He also replaced his black top-hat with a hard white straw hat on these occasions (Cohen, 284).

    Another Oxford don, Lionel A. Tollemache, recalled two contrasting impressions of Charles's style of conversation.

    Similar to his own duality, many opposing identities are present in Carroll's literature. In Through the Looking Glass, Tweedledee and Tweedledum are twins who constantly contradict each other's opinion. In Alice's Adventure's in Wonderland, the animals have opposing identities. Alice's cat Dinah is predatory, while the Wonderland animals are victimous. When Alice falls down the rabbit hole, top and bottom become one. At one point, Alice pretends to be two people, speaking in two different voices.

    She also plans to assume other's identities when she says:

    I shall only look up and say, “Who am I, then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I'll come up: if not, I'll stay down here till I'm somebody else” (Bloom, 99).

    At a trial, Alice assumes the positions of juror, jury, and witness at the trail. During a croquet game, Alice undertakes the roles of punisher and punished. First, she accuses the Queen of cheating, and then Alice cheats herself and boxes her own ears for it.

    Carroll had sleeping difficulties and possibly insomnia which was in his writing. Inventions to keep him busy at night, including the Nyctograph, support this assumption. These sleeping problems are reflected in his literature. There is an emphasis on sleep in the Alice stories, at the mad tea party, the dormouse can't stay awake, and in both of her tales, Alice is dreaming. The title of Carroll's last mathematical treatise, mentioned earlier, is Curiosa Mathematica Part III: Pillow Problems, which alludes to his sleeping troubles.

    Carroll lived during the Victorian era, which influenced his writing. Queen Victoria reigned during this time period, so female dominance is displayed in Carroll's writing. In the Alice stories, the Queen of Hearts overcomes the King both in size and power. Also, the Duchess overpowers her husband and is in control of the household. Carroll aged during an era characteristic of punctuality. This is reflected in the White Rabbit's extremely paranoid reaction to his lateness, in which he repeatedly says “I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date.” The Victorian time period was also characteristic of a rigid class structure. This is displayed in his writing when Alice regularly insults the Wonderland creatures, especially the smaller ones.

    Carroll had a somewhat neglected childhood, which influenced his writing. The cause of this neglection was the birth of four other siblings before he was six, leading to a loss of attention for himself. “Neither Charles Dodgson or Lewis Carroll had many good things to say about babies. 'Throw them away.' 'Tie them in knots and send them into the wilderness.' 'Roast them well and serve them as appetizers for the main meal.' His negative experience with babies is reflected in Alice's Adventure's in Wonderland when the Duchess's baby is a nuisance because it cries so much, and then it turns into a pig and is left in the woods.

    Lewis Carroll was a very eccentric man, both in his life and his writing. It is apparent that his chief interests were logic and little girls. Such a shy and erratic man is one of the most often quoted, second only to the Bible and Shakespeare. He is the author of one of the most popular novels, both to children and adults alike. Adults enjoy it for its logical humor, but it is children who possibly understand his work the best, and perhaps rightfully so, as Carroll understood little girls best. Many of the unique episodes in his literature can be attributed to similar experiences he encountered in his life.


Bloom, Harold, ed. Lewis Carroll. New York: Chelsea Hose Publishers, 1987.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, Publishers, 1998.

Cohen, Morton. Lewis Carroll. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Gopnik, Adam. “A Critic at Large”. The New Yorker, Oct. 9, 1997, pg. 82-90.

Green, Roger Lancelyn, ed. The Diaries of Lewis Carroll, Volume I. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Green, Roger Lancelyn, ed. The Diaries of Lewis Carroll, Volume II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Lennon, Florence Becker. The Life of Lewis Carroll. New York: Collier Books, 1962.