In these two classic fantasy tales, a young girl called Alice finds herself drawn into another world where she goes through all sorts of surreal experiences from getting advice from a caterpillar to attending a lunatic tea-party to witnessing a baby turn into a pig. All in a day’s hallucination, as they say.
Because they’re so deliciously oddball, these stories feature all sorts of off-the-wall images and situations in which things are pretty confusing, or not what they seem at all. This goes for language, too, with both stories featuring a whole heap of miscommunication.
Communication between two people (or a person and a caterpillar, as the case may be) relies on both beings being on the same page. Which, in these stories, often isn’t the case. Alice may have read her brother’s Latin textbook, but neither this nor her attempts to recite poetry are of any use, since formal systems of language (the sort you’d learn in school) have no place in these alternate worlds.
This adds to the wackiness of the stories, but it also emphasizes the complexity of language and the randomness of the signifier-signified relationship. The same goes for the various poems that the characters recite: “Jabberwocky” may be a load of gobbledygook (brillig? Slithy? Borogoves? Come on, Mr. Carroll).
But we still try to interpret it—as does Alice. This underlines how ingrained the link between signifier and signified is within our minds: in short, we’re always looking for a possible signified. Even if we’re facing total nonsense.
Sources of comic misunderstanding in these stories include mixing languages and taking metaphors literally, as well as the confusion caused by homophones (words that sound alike but have different meanings, such as “flour” and “flower” or “tale” and “tail.” Try narrating a mouse’s behind appendage or baking with rose petals if you don’t believe us).
In the same way that Alice is forever growing and shrinking as she explores Wonderland (thanks to magical cakes and potions), miscommunication can come in all sorts of forms. Still, what we’re dealing with overall is a situation in which characters interpret things differently and communicate on different levels. For example, take a wobble with the “Humpty Dumpty” chapter in Through the Looking-Glass: