A Dream That Tells The Truth: Alice in Wonderland

Culture, Film, Media — By on March 16, 2010 at 8:50 am
Alice in Wonderland offers a fanciful study in dreaming that provokes the question of whether Wonderland is merely a dream from which we may at any time awaken. What makes the film great, though, is the follow-up question as to whether it being a dream even matters. At its core, Alice in Wonderland provokes us to consider a dream that tells the truth.
“Curious-er and curious-er:” This is the heartbeat of life in Wonderland. At the outset of her foray into this strange world, Alice is obliged to contemplate her powers of observation, to question whether what she is seeing is real or just a figment of her imagination. Alice is quickly drawn into the curious nature of her environment, which to her is uncanny, like something forgotten and yet remembered, something foreign and yet revelatory. The Mad Hatter helps us resolve these paradoxes when he says to Alice, “Well, if I’m part of your dream, and I’m half mad, that means that you must be half-mad to have dreamt me up!” In this we come to understand that Wonderland is a dream that tells Alice something true about herself. The path to this self-knowledge, however, is perilous, and the film does not equivocate in expressing Alice’s risk of losing herself in the dream. Even so, Alice—and the viewerare exhorted to find their “muchness,” or a courage of imagination, and to be willing to dream nonetheless.

One of the more fascinating themes of the film, and the culmination of the dream motif, is in the “Oraculum,” a scroll that shows what will happen during each day of Wonderland, past, present, and future. The Oraculum is fascinating because of its allusion to a long-standing tradition of dream-theory. In the middle ages, a philosopher named Macrobius wrote a treatise about dreams, categorizing them according to their varying characteristics. One such category was termed “Oraculum”—from the same roots as our term ‘oracle’—and referred to a dream that tells accurate information of the future. As such, when the film refers to this idea, it is making the provocative claim to its modern audience that not all dreams are fictions. In the world of the film, prophecy is portrayed as a type of dreaming, but a dream that tells true things about the world.

A film that dwells so much on dreams would be incomplete if it didn’t include something about what it means to wake up. For Alice, the departure from Wonderland brings her back into ‘the real world.’ This is where the film is at its most profound. Alice takes what she has learned about herself and the world during her time in Wonderland and lets it meaningfully inform how she thinks and acts. It is in this that the film vindicates the fanciful and pays homage to the positive impact that wonder can have. Without spoiling the plot, the film ends with the sentiment that all the greatest people of history were dreamers, were half-mad, were willing to live with one foot in our world and one in Wonderland.

Alice in Wonderland is about how the imagination can tell us truth; it is a dream that shows us something real. It joins a respectable tradition of Christian thinkers who thought that our imaginations are a gift, something that can teach us and add to our joy. To put it simply, Alice in Wonderland helps us to practice wonderment, to see the seemingly impossible beauty in the world around us.



  • http://www.dismantledthoughts.com Renee Bolinger

    Nice insight- I didn’t catch the significance of the name of the Oraculum. I wonder though what is the significance of Alice’s inability to escape the dream? The film seems to emphasize that though she considers Wonderland merely a product of her mind, none of the usual tricks work. Also there’s the line of realization, where Alice states “they weren’t dreams… they were memories!” I don’t know what to make of that, unless possibly the story is arguing that the proper way of responding to a dream is to treat it as a real past, like memories.

  • Hayden Butler

    Renee,

    I viewed Alice’s inability to “wake” herself as a suggestion that Wonderland is, in fact, not a dream in the “figment-of-my-imagination” sense. Even if it were, however, there is that line by the Mad Hatter to consider, and the implication that even if Wonderland is a pure fiction, it still tells Alice something true.

    Oh! And the memories motif slipped my mind. I’m off to think about that now…

  • T.A.Carroll

    I like the point about the Oraculum and especially the place of the creative imagination. I worry, however, that interpreting Wonderland as dream does an injustice to the story. The transport in and out of Underland argues for the reality of parallel worlds which, while they may also appear in dreams (indeed nightmares), are themselves ‘true worlds’. This (like magical realism) asks for the belief in the impossible (at least six time before breakfast), not just a greater evaluation of dream and imagination.

  • Hayden Butler

    Timothy,

    I may not have been overt about this, but I completely agree with your concern for the preservation of parallel worlds. In fact, much of the point of my comments was to move away from a pejorative view of dreaming (i.e. seeing them as non-realities) so to help people understand just how excellent an idea Wonderland is. I think that wonderland is a dream insofar as it is that very occupation of the impossible, but that it accesses reality and has bearing on other worlds.

    In short, I agree with you.

  • http://www.aangamik.net/ Elayne Tuholski

    What a post!! Very informative also easy to understand. Looking for more such posts!! Do you have a twitter or a facebook?
    I recommended it on digg. The only thing that it’s missing is a bit of speed, the pictures are appearing slowly. Anyway thank you for this blog.