The Morbidity of Morals

How many of us have ever invested any time in the reading of the Children’s and Household Tales or far more recognizable to modern readers the Tales of the Brothers Grimm? Not to be mistaken with the lighthearted and magical stories from many a modern reader’s childhood the Tales Grimm are quite morbid and on the whole, not something one would usually recommend as a good children’s story.

A very similar motif seems to be working its way into Alice. Within the first few pages there is a death joke, and this is not a singular occurrence but one that promises to be repeated throughout the story. A modern reader might wonder how such disturbing themes might be included in a children’s story, but these fables must be looked at from the perspective of the audience intended. In 17th and early 18th centuries life was hard. And children had to be taught that one must not go into the woods alone or any of the many other morals all of the stories of that era contained. They were dark and blunt because that was just how life worked and children had to be smart enough to stay alive because there often were no second chances.

Although Alice is the first children’s story to contain no moral lesson it still holds on to the darker style of writing that was still common in Carroll’s time. Aside from  obvious death references such as Alice’s thought that she would, “say nothing at all, even if [she] should fall off a house!” most disturbing is the words which follow “(which is likely very true.)”  Because of course such a fall would kill Alice leaving her unable to say anything. Then later she worries that if she drops the jar of orange marmalade it will kill someone below; there follows a passage in which Alice checks to see if the “Drink me” bottle contains poison. Her quick reading of the label cannot truly be considered a safeguard against the dangers of ingesting a poison. yet feeling assured Alice tries the liquid.  Upon tasting the mysterious substance she finds it tastes wonderful and proceeds to drink all of it.

A rather frightening prospect, no?

How many horrible things are sweet at first only to sour later?

Or often the far more insidious vices that taste sweet even as they kill you slowly. To a child this may seem a harmless scene, but a more experienced reader can easily see and understand the dangers of this situation.  At first glance you have to wonder why such a disturbing scene is even included in this whimsical story as it seems to insinuate so many darker themes. Other than attributing it to the writing of the day one can only assume that the dark symbolism and morbid humor which have allowed this children’s tale to continue to hold meaning for so many adults, was intended by Carroll as a way to give meaning to an otherwise banal and easily passed-over children’s tale.

3 Responses to “The Morbidity of Morals”

  1. Not only are the stories from the Brothers Grimm dark, nearly every cartoon and kids movie has dark themes in it.

  2. Lindsay R. Says:

    I have not read the Tales of Brothers Grimm, but after reading your blog I intend to. I have never noticed this in other children stories, but now I feel like I should go back and read some of the children’s books I have read in the past. This is very intresting to me and will remember it while I will read books to my sister.

  3. Vivian H. Says:

    While I have not read the Tales of Brother Grimm, I can relate to the points well made. Children’s books do seem to include darker themes, correlating to the time period. I find the suggestion of things starting out sweet only to turn out sour very fascinating. It is slightly disturbing when Alice finds the unknown contents of the bottle to be sweet and enjoyable. The way Carroll associates death could be his unique style of writing. While it is true many children books reference death, how many twist those concepts into scenes that lead to deeper thoughts. Many children books simply use death to enforce a simple moral lesson, but nothing more. Carroll shines a new light on the darker side of children’s stories.

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