Study Guide

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Lewis Carroll

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Rabbit Hole

Going "down the rabbit hole" has become a common metaphor in popular culture, symbolizing everything from exploring a new world to taking drugs to delving into something unknown. (Think The Matrix, for example, where "following the white rabbit" and later choosing the "red pill" starts Neo off on a journey of philosophical realization from which he cannot return.) In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the rabbit hole is the place where it all begins. It's Alice's unthinking decision to follow the White Rabbit that leads to all of her adventures. The pop culture version of this symbol perhaps doesn't take into account the "unthinking" nature of this choice quite enough. After all, Alice's decision is pretty foolhardy; if this weren't a magical fantasyland, she'd probably be killed by the fall, and she has no idea where she's going, what she's facing, or how to get home. You may also notice that going down the rabbit hole is a one-way trip – the entry, but not the exit, to the fantasy world.

The Looking-Glass

"Looking-Glass" is the Victorian name for a mirror – since, you know, it's a piece of glass (with a foil back) that you use to look at yourself. Mirror images are reflections – reproductions, with a difference, of the real world. They're the opposite, or the backwards version, of normal things, and throughout Through the Looking-Glass Lewis Carroll will play with different kinds of reversal, reflection, and opposition. Sometimes it's time that seems to work backwards, such as when the White Queen bleeds first and then pricks her finger. Sometimes it's distance, as when Alice has to walk toward Looking-Glass House in order to get away from it. Sometimes cause and effect are themselves reversed, such as when Alice and the Red Queen have to run in order to stand still.

What's most important to notice about these different forms of reflection and reproduction is that they're not consistent. Carroll introduces each of them for a moment or scene, but they're just throwaway jokes. Alice doesn't have to run to stand still for the entire book, for example. This tells us that we're reading satire and parody, which make the most of a pun or a conceit and then let it drop, rather than science fiction, in which we'd have to worry about the consistency of the rules of this new backwards world.

Size and Growth

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice changes size constantly. When she first arrives in Wonderland, she's too large to make it through the little door into the beautiful garden; after she drinks from the mysterious bottle, she's too small to reach the key. Once she eats the special cake, she's enormous, but the White Rabbit's fan makes her small again. In the rabbit's house, another bottle of mystery cordial makes her swell up and get stuck in the room; pebbles thrown in the window turn to cakes and eating them shrinks her. At this point, Alice meets the Caterpillar, who teaches her to use pieces of mushroom to control her size – nibbling a bit from one side to get larger and a bit from the other side to get smaller. Just when we think she's finally in control of her size, she begins growing in the courtroom, getting larger and larger until she eventually realizes that the characters around her are just a pack of cards.

Why all these changes in size? What does it all mean?

Well, we have to make the obvious connection between size, age, and maturity. Even back in the real world, Alice is constantly changing in size because she's a growing girl, getting a little bigger and a little older all the time. This is an arbitrary process that she can't control; all children grow up. (Unless you're reading a different book called Peter Pan.) It's also a process that makes Lewis Carroll, who was fond of children but not of adults, nervous. Alice changes size – and changes in relation to everyone around her – because Carroll wants to show us that growing up is unpredictable, sometimes just making you feel awkward, sometimes actually putting you or others around you in danger.

In Through the Looking-Glass, Alice doesn't really change in size, although the chess pieces and game themselves grow large. However, Carroll draws our attention to her age and process of maturing. When Humpty Dumpty tells Alice, who is seven and a half, that she should have "left off at seven," he seems to be speaking Carroll's own thoughts. Couldn't she just stay a cute little girl, ready to listen to fairy tales, forever? Of course not – the only way to freeze your age in time is by dying!

Games

Chess

Through the Looking-Glass is structured like a chess game: the pieces become characters, Alice herself a pawn, and all her adventures are simply complicated dramatizations of different moves in the game. In fact, most editions of the book include a chart of the chessboard and the moves, which Lewis Carroll himself put together. As he explains in his note, the red and white pieces don't take proper turns, but otherwise the moves in the game are directly related to the moves the characters make in the book.

This explains, for example, why Alice has to cross six brooks: as a pawn, she starts in the second square and has to cross into the next six before getting "promoted" to queen. She moves through the third square rapidly on a train journey because pawns can move two squares on their first move, essentially skipping or flying through a square. The chess metaphor also explains why the Queens move so quickly and erratically, since Queens can move in any direction and in any number of squares in chess, and why the White Knight has trouble riding in a straight line, since chess Knights move in an L-shape.

If traveling on a bizarre and uncertain journey in order to become a queen instead of a pawn sounds a bit like a metaphor for growing up, well, who are we to say no? And that might also explain why the White Knight is so sad to see Alice cross over into the eighth square, where he can't follow. It's more than a little reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's own reluctance to let go of the real-life Alice Liddell when she grows up. Beyond that more specific, biographical connection, the book implies that life is just a game, full of arbitrary rules and not nearly as meaningful as we like to pretend.

Cards

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland also makes references to a game underlying the action – in this case, cards. The Queen, King, and courtiers that Alice meets are all in the suit of hearts, while, fittingly, the spades end up as gardeners and the clubs as soldiers. However, unlike Through the Looking-Glass, the first Alice book isn't structured by the moves of a game. There isn't any particular card game being "played," metaphorically or literally, behind the scenes of Alice's experience in Wonderland. Instead, the personified cards mingle with talking animals as part of the childish fantasy context. Playing cards, pet mice, wild rabbits, and housecats are all elements of Alice Liddell's everyday life that Lewis Carroll draws on to populate the fantasy world.

Croquet

Games crop up in other areas of Wonderland, too – for example, in the strange game of croquet that everyone plays in Chapter 8. In this case, instead of life resembling a game, a game comes to life. All the pieces, from the croquet hoops (soldiers) to the mallets (flamingos) to the balls (hedgehogs) are living creatures. This seems rather cruel to us today, but Carroll means for it to be funny. As the croquet game proceeds, the complexity of the situation is delightfully silly. And, of course, the croquet game is rigged, since the Queen of Hearts arrests and sentences to death anyone who might beat her. Talk about being a sore loser!

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