Alice is a seven-and-a-half-year-old little girl living in an upper-middle-class family in Victorian England. She has an older sister who's too literal-minded to play the imaginative games Alice thinks up, a cat named Dinah that she adores, and a nursemaid who looks after her.
It's interesting that we never see or hear anything about her parents. Alice never talks about them; she doesn't even call for her mom or dad (or, as a Victorian girl would have called them, her mummy and daddy) when she's frightened by the strange creatures she meets during her adventures. Even when she mentions the people she left behind in the real world, she refers to them simply as "they": "How brave they'll all think me at home" (Wonderland 1.7). This suggests that she's thinking of an entire household – parents, servants, nurse, tutor, sister, and so on – instead of just her parents. Alice's lack of attention to her family doesn't end with her parents. She doesn't even mention her sister's name, even though she talks about her cat by name all the time.
If Alice's disconnection from her family strikes you as strange, perhaps it shouldn't. Victorian children in wealthy families with nursemaids probably saw their parents only for short periods each day, unless they had mothers who wanted to be more involved in the nursery. Most of Alice's interpersonal contact is probably with her nurse and tutors or teachers. So it makes sense for her to mention Dinah, the cat, more often than her mother – she probably sees Dinah far more regularly.
Of course, Alice's stand-alone nature and the way she seems to exist on her own without much of a family or history also makes it easier to turn her into a generic heroine, and allow the readers to imagine they're in Alice's shoes.
Just what kind of a girl is Alice? Well, since she herself doesn't always seem to know, we might have a little trouble telling you. Of course, there was a real-life Alice – the little girl named Alice Liddell, one of three daughters of Dean Liddell, Lewis Carroll's colleague at Oxford. Lewis Carroll considered Alice Liddell one of his most special "child-friends" and composed the stories about Wonderland especially for her. But the Alice who is the protagonist of the stories isn't really a depiction of Alice Liddell. Instead, she is a rather flat character – a blank slate or empty vessel into which all her adventures can be poured.
Alice doesn't have too much personality or uniqueness because Carroll wants us all to be able to "see" Wonderland and Looking-Glass World through her eyes. To do this, he makes Alice almost completely transparent. She's a generic type, a stock character: the child heroine. Perhaps this is one reason that Alice has held the imagination of readers and audiences for 150 years now. We can all relate to her, because she easily transcends her historical and geographical context. It may also be the reason that illustrators, writers, playwrights, cartoonists, and filmmakers have enjoyed re-imagining Alice over the years: she remains recognizable even when she changes.
If Alice has one overriding characteristic, it's curiosity. She's ready to follow anyone anywhere, as long as they're interesting. Even when she's frightened, she can conquer her fear in order to keep exploring or to reach a goal. Alice's goals are just arbitrary ones she sets for herself – usually getting to a place that seems attractive, such as the Queen of Hearts's beautiful garden in Wonderland or the Eighth Square of the chess board in Looking-Glass World. Even the safety lessons she's learned in school and at home aren't enough to rein in her natural inclination to experiment. If there's a strange bottle around, Alice will take a swig to see what it tastes like. If there's a door, she has to get through it, even if it's tiny, locked, and labeled "no entry."
Alice's curiosity is dangerous for the same reasons that "curiosity killed the cat." (Not the Cheshire Cat, we're just talking about the proverbial cat, if you get our drift.) Alice is unthinkingly curious. We learn this about her in the first chapter of Wonderland. She goes down the rabbit hole "never once considering how in the world she was to get out again" (Wonderland 1.4). She doesn't have any particular reason for the things she does, except that she wants to find out more about the world around her. She also doesn't have any plan for dealing with the consequences of leaping or eating or opening a door.
In some ways, this makes Alice the quintessential child. After all, children learn by experimenting, not by having well-defined objectives like business executives. When they're really young, they don't even know what kind of goals they could have, because they're so innocent about the world around them. Alice isn't completely innocent. She does have some idea that she could be hurt by things around her (such as when she remembers to look for a "poison" label on the bottles she drinks from) and it does bother her that she can't get home. She is, however, ignorant – not in a negative sense, but simply because there's a whole lot that she doesn't know. This natural ignorance gives Carroll a lot of space in which to play around with the fantasy worlds of Wonderland and Looking-Glass World and their effects on both Alice and the reader.
Another relevant thing about Alice is her education. Like any good Victorian child, Alice has been subjected to lots of rote memorization of facts and poetry. Her head is stuffed with rhymes about morals and ethics, advice about being hardworking, industrious, well-behaved, and pious. She knows how to say big words, like "longitude" and "latitude," but she doesn't know what they mean. And she can recite her multiplication tables, but she can't apply them to things that happen around her.
Somehow, in Wonderland and Looking-Glass World, the things that Alice has memorized aren't much help. When she tries to recite the didactic poems that are meant to teach children sappy lessons about life, the words twist in her mouth and she finds herself reciting nonsense poems instead. When she tries to do math, the characters she meets can stump her by pausing logical conundrums or intentionally misinterpreting the terms she uses. And when she tries to apply practical knowledge – well, forget it!
So what's the point? Well, Alice is receiving the best education that money can buy in nineteenth-century England, but it's useless in the real world. This doesn't mean that Lewis Carroll thought education was useless – far from it! He was a math professor at Oxford, interested in logic puzzles and in language, and his own work and research was extremely abstract and removed from everyday life. What seems to frustrate him about the way Alice (or any Victorian child) has been educated is that they learn what to think instead of how to think: they memorize facts instead of being taught logic. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of Alice's knowledge, but she doesn't know how to reason from facts to rules (inference) or how to follow rules to their logical conclusion (deduction). Luckily, the attentive reader can learn to do these things by watching Alice's missteps – and the wacky reasoning of the characters around her.
Victorian England was full of books about children who grew and learned lessons about being moral and industrious. For example, Tom Brown's Schooldays, published eight years before Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, is the story of an upper-class boy's "adventures" at boarding school as he learns how to be a proud Victorian gentleman. Tom learns why cheating is wrong, why hard work is good, and why sports make a man of you. If you just gagged, don't worry: Lewis Carroll hated that kind of book, too. It's not that we're against working hard or that we don't condemn cheating (we sure do!), but reading about principles is, well, the nineteenth-century equivalent of the after-school special. The point being made is great, but it's not great drama – much less great comedy.
Reacting against the Victorian tendency to see children's literature as a way to teach a moral lesson, Lewis Carroll wrote a story about a little girl who simply has romping adventures. She doesn't learn lessons; she just explores the fantasy world around her, enjoying its nonsense and strangeness. Alice is what you might call static instead of dynamic. Oh, sure, she moves around in the world, but she doesn't grow or change as a person (except when she grows and shrinks in a literal sense). Alice enjoys her adventures, but they don't change the way she sees the real world. She doesn't become wiser, or learn a moral lesson, or grow up, or hit puberty, or develop in any way. She's just Alice, a little girl ready to explore a psychedelic world of the imagination. In fact, we might go so far as to claim that she's simply a pair of eyes through which we, the readers, can see all the bizarre glory of the world of the imagination.
Of course, by the time we get to the end of Through the Looking-Glass, we're starting to get little hints that Lewis Carroll is thinking a little bit about what it will be like when Alice grows up. Her movement from pawn to queen over the course of the book reminds us of the way little girls grow up to be women, and the White Knight's sorrow when she crosses the final brook suggests Carroll's own sorrow as his child-friend Alice Liddell became a woman and forgot about him.
But even though there are suggestions that something will be lost as Alice grows up, she hasn't really attained adulthood. She's not more mature in any way, and the original illustration of her as a queen – a little girl wearing an enormous crown far too heavy for her – says it all. Alice is a child playing a game about growing up, not a girl maturing into a woman. Lewis Carroll couldn't stop the real-life Alice Liddell from getting older, but he arrests his character Alice at the age of seven-and-a-half.