Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass Wonderland, Chapter 3 Summary
A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale
Alice and the various animals that fell into the pool of tears get out of the water and gather together. They argue about the best way to get dry.
Alice has a long argument with the Lory (a kind of bird) about what to do. The Lory says that it's older than she is and knows better, but it won't say exactly how old.
Finally the Mouse decides what they should do. It calls everyone to order and makes them sit in a circle, then it starts giving a really boring history lecture. The Mouse, you see, is using the wrong definition of "dry." The lecture is "dry" in the sense of "boring," but it isn't dry in the sense of "not wet."
The still-wet animals get a little restless. The Duck starts arguing with the Mouse about the meaning of the word "it." The Mouse was talking about "it" in a fancy abstract argumentative sense, but the Duck wants it to be something concrete, like a worm or a frog. The Mouse ignores the Duck and keeps going.
The Mouse asks Alice how she's doing, and she says that she's as wet as she was at the beginning. The Dodo suggests that they do something more energetic and proposes that they have a "Caucus-race."
What's a "caucus-race," we hear you asking? Well, here's what the animals do: the Dodo marks out a circle for the racecourse, like a track. All the animals begin at different places on the course and start and stop running whenever they want. After about half an hour, the Dodo announces that the race is over.
OK, now we hear you asking another question: why is the "caucus-race" funny? Well, a caucus is a political event – you know, before an election each party has a caucus, which is just a big convention where it officially chooses candidates. So it's funny to think of a caucus as a totally random race, where everyone's running in circles instead of getting somewhere. Everyone has different advantages and disadvantages (they start at different places), and it's not clear when you're supposed to start campaigning (running). And, of course, it's totally unclear who won, or even how you would really "win."
Since nobody knows who won, the Dodo announces that everyone won and everyone should get a prize. Who has to give the prizes? Alice, of course.
Alice finds a little box of comfits (hard candy) in a tin in her pocket. Luckily, they were sealed tight and didn't get wet. She hands them around and has just enough to give one to each animal, but she doesn't have one left over for herself. The Dodo asks what else she has in her pocket, and all she's got is a thimble – a little metal cap that you put over your finger as you sew so that you don't prick yourself with the needle. It's not much of a present, but the Dodo presents it to her with a little speech. Alice stifles her laughter and tries to act serious.
The animals eat their comfits. If you can imagine feeding a lemon drop or a peppermint to a bird, you can probably guess that this is a pretty chaotic activity.
Next, the animals sit down in a circle and ask the Mouse to tell them another story. Alice reminds the Mouse that it said it would tell her its life story and explain why it hates cats and dogs.
Verse Alert: The Mouse tells its story, but Alice confuses the words tale and tail.
As the Mouse speaks, Alice imagines its tale in rhymed couplets that appear in the pattern of its curving tail. In the book, the story is printed in the tail's shape – a technique called concrete poetry.
This is only the second of many poems that are interjected in the Alice books (the first was Alice's messed-up recitation of "How doth the little" in Chapter 2), and like the rest it's mostly nonsense. Here's what the poem is about:
A cat named Fury meets a mouse.
Fury tells the mouse that he wants to put it on trial. He offers to be the prosecutor.
The mouse objects that there's no point in having a trial if they don't have a judge or a jury.
Fury says that he can be judge and jury, too, and condemn the mouse to death!
The poem stops there, because the Mouse in Wonderland realizes that Alice isn't listening to him. Alice says she knows exactly where he is – the fifth "bend" in his tale.
This just makes the Mouse angrier and it says it did not do that. Alice thinks it means there is a "knot" in the "tail" and offers to help untangle it.
Frustrated and offended, the Mouse leaves. Alice and the animals ask it to come back, but it ignores them.
Alice says that she wishes Dinah, her cat, were there to bring the Mouse back. The other animals ask her about Dinah, and Alice starts describing Dinah's mouse- and bird-catching abilities. This makes the birds uncomfortable, and they make excuses to leave.
Alice is left alone, wishing that she hadn't mentioned her cat. But she also misses Dinah and starts to cry. Then she hears footsteps in the distance.