Reviews 2017

L’Esthétique du jeu dans Alice de Lewis Carroll. [The Aesthetics of Play in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books]

L’Esthétique du jeu dans Alice de Lewis Carroll. [The Aesthetics of Play in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books]. Virginie Iché. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2015. 254 pages. £20.95 (paperback).

It takes some courage, as Jean-Jacques Lecercle points out in the Preface to Virginie Iché’s book, to publish a new study on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s most iconic text. In L’Esthétique du jeu dans Alice de Lewis Carroll [The Aesthetics of Play in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books], Iché revisits the notion of play to show that the importance of Carrollian games may have been slightly underplayed. She recounts in the "Introduction" how the young Charles Lutwidge Dodgson spent the best part of his childhood, between 1860 and 1878, inventing riddles, card games, croquet castles and board games for his brothers and sisters.

The title does not easily lend itself to translation. In French, the polysemous word "jeu" refers both to the physical activity of playing, the spirit of play, and to games and toys. Her argument is that the Alice books are one of most telling examples of interactive literature. She explores the different games and linguistic strategies, while questioning the involvement of the reader in such a codified textual set up. Are readers merely expected to read the text, or should they play the game, assuming they are familiar with the rules? The broad scope of the notion of play might initially seem daunting, but Iché provides a clear-cut methodology based mostly on linguistics, although she also draws on a range of disciplines, such as pragmatics, philosophy, sociology and critical theory.

The book is extensively argued and divided into three key chapters, "Les dispositifs ludiques" ("Playful Constructions"),"L’invitation à jouer" ("The Invitation to Play") et "Du lecteur joué au lecteur jouant" ("From The Played Reader to The Involved Reader"). The first chapter, "Les dispositifs ludiques" ("Playful Constructions"), identifies various forms of games in the Alice books. The aim of the chapter is to complete the inventory that Kathleen Blake started in her seminal book Play, Games and Sport (1974); she is one of the rare critics to see beyond the game trilogy – croquet, cards and chess – usually studied by critics. Iché refers to the frontispiece of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which regrettably does not feature in her book, to point out that the characters are allocated a dual function, as characters in the story and as cards in a game. In Through the Looking-Glass, Alice’s hybrid status is confirmed when she is depicted as a pawn on the chess-board ("White-pawn Alice") and as a little girl, "a human child." For Iché, the omnipresence of toys in the Alice books also reflects the commercialization and the consumption of games for children in the Victorian period. The Victorian reader of the Alice books took great delight in trying to identify his favourite toys among the pages.

Yet, a fictional work cannot structurally depend on the notion of playfulness simply because it features a series of games. The notion of play goes beyond the paraphernalia of the nursery. Iché borrows two opposite notions of play, ludus (wild instinctive playing) and paidia (a rule-governed form of playing) to assess what might constitute the essential aspect of playfulness. Although very promising, this analysis is not fully developed and concludes abruptly that both notions can be found in equal measures, and that the majority of Carrollian games are somewhere in between. However, the subsection on Les proliferations du jeu (The Proliferation of The rules of The Game) provides an insightful analysis on Alice’s fieldwork in Wonderland as an ethnographer and her attempts to make sense of the odd ceremonies and quirky rules taking place in her presence. Alice can then appropriate those rules and reinvent them for her own purposes. The last section offers a thorough analysis of the carnivalesque in the Alice Books and applies the notions of paidia and ludus to the works of Lewis Carroll in a much more persuasive and engaging way.

In the second part, probably the strongest section of the book, the author focuses on how games are played and the way the text reaches out to readers inviting them to join in. By exploring the way the reader initially approaches and finally enters the text via the title, the frontispiece and the liminal poem, Iché unveils Carroll’s strategy to create a series of disjunctions and ruptures. For instance, the preliminary poem prepares the reader for a traditional fairy tale, "Thus grew the tale of Wonderland" but the incipit immediately upends the reader’s expectations by presenting him with a weary protagonist on a riverbank. In addition, Iché sees in the episodic structure of the Alice books the format of a self-contained game. The tea party, the croquet game, the encounter with the Caterpillar or the Caucus race can all be read as independent chapters with their own set of rules. Her use of Deleuze’s article "Bégaya-t-il" ("He stuttered" in Essays Critical and Clinical, 1997) to show how Lewis Carroll unsettles the linguistic system is particularly successful and paves the way for the following section on nonsense, linguistic games and intertextuality.

The final section provides a rich analysis of the expectations of the reader of the Alice books using the works of Wolfgang Iser (The Implied Reader, 1972) and Michel Picard (La Lecture comme jeu, 1986). Iché observes that the reader is drawn into a narrative that almost systematically requires an addressee. Alice herself addresses her cat, and her feet, to such an extent that she finally embodies the presence of the implied reader. The second chapter explores the role of the implied reader, particularly in The Nursery Alice, suggesting that child readers are being manipulated as their progression through the text is hindered by conducive questions that provide ready-made answers for them. The same applies to the illustrations of the Alice books which direct readers instead of inviting them to participate. The final chapter of this last section concludes with a reflection on the specific role of the reader of nonsensical fiction who, according to Jean-Jacques Lecercle, "is invited to construct new rules with and against the text" (Interpretation as Pragmatics, 199, 227).

Anne Chassagnol
Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis, France

Works Cited

Blake, Kathleen. Play, Games, and Sport: The Literary Works of Lewis Carroll. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1974.

Deleuze, Gilles. Essays Critical and Clinical. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Implied Reader. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1974.

Lecercle, J.J. Interpretation as Pragmatics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

Picard, Michel. La lecture comme jeu. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1986.