“ ‘All right,’ said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly,…

…beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.”

Image: “Alice meets the Caterpillar” Illustration for the fifth chapter of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865). John Tenniel provided 42 wood engraved illustrations.

Kjeldgaard, Alison, “Exploring Narrative Time, Circular Temporalities, and Growth in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan” (2009). ECLS Student Scholarship:

“…As temporal beings, we are constituted as far-reaching projections of the past and future, losing the present moment in simultaneous anticipation of the future and retrospection of the past. This mentality allows us to situate ourselves temporally, finding ourselves in between a beginning and an end. Contemporary narrative theorist Mark Currie in his book About Time introduces the idea that narrative time “lives its experience as if it were recorded in the preterit tense” conceiving of “future actions as things that will make good stories and good memories”. In other words, narrative constantly puts present moments (for the reader) into the past by anticipating their significance in the larger narrative temporal structure. In this way, the past, present, and future are inextricably connected in the same mental structure.

Victorians were obsessed with this notion; philosophers like Carlyle constantly attempted to record their age in the preterit tense, trying to conceive of how their future actions will determine where they stand in history. This was particularly difficult since the Victorians stood at such a transitional point: they watched the ideals of the Romantics fade into the past, and the industrialization of the modern world become clearer on the horizon. In his book, The Victorian Frame of Mind, contemporary historian Walter Houghton shrewdly says, “although all ages are ages of transition” never before had a society “thought of their own time as an era of change from the past to the future”. This statement exposes the basis of Victorian ideological focus: time, and their place in it.

Written at the beginning and the end of the Victorian age, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan explore what happens when the past, present, and future structuring of time breaks down, converting it into the familiar narrative structure of beginning, middle, and end…

…Alice and Wendy, coming from the Victorian age of transition, find the characters’ inability to structure time into a beginning and end frustrating; their time spent in the imaginary worlds becomes an incessant journey to find progression in a world where it does not exist. The characters do not look for meaning in their movements, have no desire to find an ending, and therefore cannot move progressively. Alice and Wendy, however, naturally anticipate that an ending will follow the beginning of a story…

The Victorians were on a similar journey to find a distinctive path into their future wanting to situate themselves in the new industrial world that had suddenly changed their landscape and way of living. In his book, The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode deems this state of living between the beginning and end as “in the middest,” or in constant transition. In tune with the feeling of the Victorians, he says, “there is a period which does not properly belong…to the saeculum preceding it”. Indeed, the anxiety that the Victorians felt with their industrial society was that they did not “properly belong.” Kermode theorizes that this is why cultures predict apocalypses: in order to resituate themselves in an unfamiliar time period, the culture needs to be able to restructure both a beginning and an end. Indeed, just as Kermode theorizes, the Victorians found relief from disorientation in their prediction of an approaching apocalypse…

…though time itself continues, proved through Alice’s linear movement through Wonderland and her growth at the end of the novel, the characters in Wonderland cannot progress. As Alice rushes after the White Rabbit, she encounters broken clocks, circular questions, and circular movements of character bodies. Like a broken record, the characters repeat their questions and actions without understanding that they have already asked or performed them. Ironically, they become the physical embodiment of a clock without actually progressing themselves. For example, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party will never end, and the Caterpillar will never turn into a butterfly…”

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