And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.
~ Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, 131
Upon the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, the reviewer for the Illustrated Times described Lewis Carroll's fanciful text as "too extravagantly absurd to produce more diversion than disappointment and irritation." (1) According to the reviewer, the "grotesque objects" that Alice encounters serve merely to "prove the author to possess a most fertile imagination." Yet these imaginative elements, which the reviewer finds "grotesque" and "extravagantly absurd" (Phillips 7), emerge only within the context of Alice's dream. It is during the dream that Alice argues with a rabbit, cries a pool of tears, meets a vanishing Cheshire cat, experiences alarming changes in size, and plays croquet using flamingos as mallets (69, 30, 66, 54-55, 81). While awake, her adventures are limited to such pleasant, but unremarkable activities as reading books, taking naps, and drinking tea (19, 117).
Since the talking animals and rapid growth spurts are confined to dreamland (66, 54), the narrative is, in fact, entirely plausible. The problem, then, is not that Carroll's text is absurdly unrealistic, but that dreams occupy the majority of it. This dreamland absurdity dominates the narrative, relegating the waking world to the status of a framing device. In the Signet Classic edition, approximately 106 of 109 pages depict Alice's dream, and afterward, the daydreams of her older sister occupy nearly 2 of the remaining 3 pages (9-118).
The "disappointment and irritation" of the Illustrated Times reviewer echoes the reaction typically attendant upon discovering that a narrative has been "only a dream" or "just a dream" (Phillips 7). (2) Readers tend to accept the premise that the fictional dream is, at best, a redundant, symbolic reflection of the fictional waking world or, at worst, part of a sort of narrative bait and switch. This assumption likely underlies the Illustrated Times reviewer's critique. This common trivialization hinges on the premise that the dream is an inferior substitute for waking life, even if both the dream and the waking life are fictional.
Although Carroll depicts the world of the dream in a fanciful light, he does not trivialize it. Such expressions as "only a dream" or "just a dream" are conspicuously absent at the end of Wonderland. Alice does not express even a tinge of disappointment upon discovering that her adventures have all been a dream. She reflects positively on her experience in Wonderland, "thinking ... as well she might, what a wonderful dream it had been" (117). In fact, she is "very tired of" her usual diversions and can find "nothing [of interest] to do" in the waking world (19). Wonderland's sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), frames the literary dream in similarly positive terms and devotes the majority of its...