Charles Dodgson and Lewis Carroll: A Double Life

Charles Dodgson

by Bryce Melton

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a mathematics lecturer at the University of Oxford from 1855 to his death in 1898.  He taught and wrote on the subjects of geometry and mathematical logic, and although he was popular with students and colleagues, but didn’t make any noteworthy contributions to the field.

Lewis Carroll is the renowned author of classics in the nonsense genre, including the famous Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. His work has resonated through generations of child and adult fans and has been adapted to both theater, television, and film.

What do these two men have in common?  During his tenure at Oxford, Dodgson met the family of then-dean Henry Liddell and began spending time with his wife and helping her with the children, particularly the three daughters, Lorina, Edith, and Alice Liddell.  It was during a rowing trip with the children that Dodgson began to invent a fantastical tale involving the youngest sister, Alice and her adventures “under the ground.” The book was published by his pen name, Lewis Carroll.

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Alice Liddell, the girl who was the inspiration for Alice

 

Yes, the world famous author and nobody mathematician are the same guy: An Oxford don of mathematical logic ended up writing about execution-happy queens, disappearing cats, and hookah smoking caterpillars. Contrary to popular belief, his writing was not influenced by LSD or any other drug, it came about a different way. For starters, Dodgson was by no means a dry don of mathematics.  While math concepts came easily to him, he never found their study satisfying; so where he could, he applied his knowledge to topics that interested him, such as politics, tennis, cryptography, and puzzle games.  He also pursued different interests altogether, such as photography and writing – in fact, Dodgson began writing long before he began studying math, contributing to various magazines and gaining a bit of success. Yet, he never really considered himself a worthy writer until later in his career.  As a result, much of his creative work is not math related; but his studies in that field underpin his most memorable pieces.

Many of the nonsensical events and conversations involving Alice are examples of mathematical concepts in a literary form.  In Wonderland, Alice is told by the Mock Turtle that his lessons were ten hours the first day, nine on the second, and so on.  Realizing the wordplay on lesson as a decreasing series, Alice then correctly remarks that the 11th day must have been a holiday.  In Through the Looking Glass, Dodgson creates a plot that follows a game of chess, and includes the chess layout with a list of moves at the beginning of the book for explanation.  In the same story, Dodgson breaches the realm of metaphysics by introducing the possibility that either the sleeping Red King is a part of Alice’s dream or that Alice is a part of his dream.  He then ends the book by asking the reader whose dream they thought it was.

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Though the Alice books were financially lucrative in his lifetime, Dodgson remained at Oxford, teaching a subject which he didn’t seem to like to his dying day.  No doubt his day job helped him to bend logic in ways that were appealing to his readers, but why didn’t he just bring that knowledge with him to a full-time writing career?  Maybe he struggled with accepting his creative work as worthy of his full attention, or maybe he was content to be the living embodiment of his own nonsensical writing.

read full text of Dodgson’s original manuscript Alice Underground here.

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