Posted by: kate m. | December 11, 2021

Sex, Drugs, & Pretty Pictures: Alice in Wonderland’s Illicit Origin Rumors and Artistic Interpretations

“Alice’s Evidence” by Salvador Dali, image source: https://mymodernmet.com/salvador-dali-alice-in-wonderland/

A few patrons at my local library might have overheard a bit of an unusual discussion when I picked up The Annotated Alice: My partner was with me and asked, “I don’t think I read that when I was younger; it’s about drugs, right?” My response was, “I definitely read it when I was younger, but don’t remember much. It doesn’t have anyone doing drugs, but I think it made people want to get high. Might have pedophilia in it, though.” 

On the drive home, I flipped through the book, and with each illustration I was immediately reminded of my first experience reading Alice as a child. Tenniel’s images brought back those memories in a way the text did not. (As an English major, I feel legally obligated to note that without Carroll’s visually exhilarative writing, the images wouldn’t exist.)

I came across the novel’s last paragraph, which begins, “Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood…” I let out an “eugh!” at her riper years. Did Lewis Carroll know that 156 years later, using the word “ripe” in this context screams “R. Kelly” and you don’t want to be compared to R. Kelly? No, he did not. Nevertheless, there’s both academic research, investigative journalism, and opinionated bloggers who debate whether or not Carroll was a pedophile. Despite all this material, there seems to be a lack of concrete evidence to adequately support either side. 

As far as drugs go, Alice’s association with drug use is so ingrained in our society that the subject has its own article on the National Institute of Health’s website. Appearing in 2010 on the federal government’s website, the author reminds readers that LSD didn’t exist during Carroll’s time and, of course,  “Lewis Carroll’s writing is much too imaginative and clever to be done by someone on drugs.”

The fact that the US government felt obliged to weigh in on the topic of Alice and drugs as recently as 2010  is a reminder that debating Alice’s meaning is almost as much of a cultural phenomenon as the story itself. 

In 1969, Salvador Dali illustrated an edition of Alice in Wonderland. His surrealist interpretations are gorgeous (in my opinion) and have a loopy, dream-like quality that strikes me as appropriate for 1969, and that Alice fits seamlessly into. There is a bit of interesting overlap, as many believe Dali must have been a drug user, which he denied, and his sexuality, like Carroll’s, was enigmatic. 

In 1996, there was a bit of an “Alice-ish” uproar when director Baz Lurhmann applied his extroverted style to an interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Mercutio both take ecstasy; Juliet initiates sex with Romeo (in the play she’s 13-years-old); and the soundtrack is dark, moody, and loud mid-90s alternative rock. The combination of “sex, drugs, and rock music” resulting in criticism sounds satiricial, not something that actually happened. 

Because Alice’s primary audience is often children, that factors into the vehement denials of its potential relationship to sex and drugs. But reading the text, and looking at  the artwork it inspired, is a worthwhile adventure in itself.


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