Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and, burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.
In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again. (Wonderland 1.3-4)
Alice's first instinct when she sees something unusual is to chase it. She doesn't think about her own safety, she doesn't concoct a plan, and she doesn't feel scared. She just feels surprised, then curious, and we're off – knowing she's going to be a fun character to follow through the adventures she's certain to have with this attitude.
"Oh, Kitty, how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I'm sure it's got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let's pretend there's a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let's pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why it's turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It'll be easy enough to get through – " (Looking-Glass 1.12)
Alice moves rapidly from curiosity, to the desire to explore, to the ability to explore. Her imagination makes possible the exploration that she craves, even when it isn't logically possible.
Soon her eye fell on a little glass box that was lying under the table: she opened it, and found in it a very small cake, on which the words "EAT ME" were beautifully marked in currants. "Well, I'll eat it," said Alice, "and if it makes me grow larger, I can reach the key; and if it makes me grow smaller, I can creep under the door: so either way I'll get into the garden, and I don't care which happens!" (Wonderland 1.22)
Not only does Alice explore the fantasy realm of Wonderland, she also explores different states of being for herself. After all, that's what all children have to do – explore a new size and a new body pretty much every day.
"It's no use talking about it," Alice said, looking up at the house and pretending it was arguing with her. "I'm not going in again yet. I know I should have to get through the Looking-glass again – back into the old room – and there'd be an end of all my adventures!"
So, resolutely turning her back upon the house, she set out once more down the path, determined to keep straight on till she got to the hill. (Looking-Glass 2.3-4)
Alice seems to have a sense that her time in the fantastic Looking-Glass World will be limited, and she's determined to explore as much as she can before she has to go home. This sense of limited time seems to imply that she won't always be able to imagine her way back there – this is a special, one-time-only adventure.
Of course the first thing to do was to make a grand survey of the country she was going to travel through. "It's something very like learning geography," thought Alice, as she stood on tiptoe in hopes of being able to see a little further. "Principal rivers – there are none. Principal mountains – I'm on the only one, but I don't think it's got any name. Principal towns – why, what are those creatures, making honey down there? They can't be bees – nobody ever saw bees a mile off, you know – " and for some time she stood silent, watching one of them that was bustling about among the flowers, poking its proboscis into them, "just as if it was a regular bee," thought Alice. (Looking-Glass 3.1)
Once again, Alice's instinct to be businesslike and organized about the process of exploration is thwarted by the strangeness of the fantasy world. Like a good Victorian explorer, she begins to make a "grand survey" of the land around her, but she's quickly distracted by how strange the insects are.
She very soon came to an open field, with a wood on the other side of it: it looked much darker than the last wood, and Alice felt a little timid about going into it. However, on second thoughts, she made up her mind to go on: "for I certainly won't go back," she thought to herself, and this was the only way to the Eighth Square. (Looking-Glass 3.63)
The refusal to turn around gives Alice the courage to explore places that seem dark and threatening.
"The first thing I've got to do," said Alice to herself, as she wandered about in the wood, "is to grow my right size again; and the second thing is to find my way into that lovely garden. I think that will be the best plan."
It sounded an excellent plan, no doubt, and very neatly and simply arranged: the only difficulty was, that she had not the smallest idea how to set about it. . . . (Wonderland 4.35-36)
Alice tries to set about her adventure in a businesslike, organized way, but it's simply not that kind of place. She's going to have to explore haphazardly, taking things as they come instead of trying to follow a prescribed path. There's a reason that it's impossible to make a map of Wonderland.
By this time she had found her way into a tidy little room with a table in the window, and on it (as she had hoped) a fan and two or three pairs of tiny white kid-gloves: she took up the fan and a pair of the gloves, and was just going to leave the room, when her eye fell upon a little bottle that stood near the looking-glass. There was no label this time with the words "DRINK ME," but nevertheless she uncorked it and put it to her lips. "I know something interesting is sure to happen," she said to herself, "whenever I eat or drink anything: so I'll just see what this bottle does." (Wonderland 4.5)
Alice's sense of adventure sometimes borders on the reckless. The author is careful to explain that Alice usually makes sure the things she eats and drinks aren't marked poison, but in this case she seems particularly careless. Isn't it likely that a bottle beside a mirror in a bedroom would be filled with cologne or some other toiletry that wouldn't be a good idea to drink?
"I only hope the boat won't tipple over!" she said to herself. "Oh, what a lovely one! Only I couldn't quite reach it." And it certainly did seem a little provoking ("almost as if it happened to be on purpose," she thought) that, though she managed to pick plenty of beautiful rushes as the boat glided by, there was always a more lovely one that she couldn't reach.
"The prettiest are always further!" she said at last, with a sigh at the obstinacy of the rushes in growing so far off, as, with flushed cheeks and dripping hair and hands, she scrambled back into her place, and began to arrange her new-found treasures.
What mattered it to her just then that the rushes had begun to fade, and to lose all their scent and beauty, from the very moment that she picked them? Even real scented rushes, you know, last only a very little while – and these, being dream-rushes, melted away almost like snow, as they lay in heaps at her feet – but Alice hardly noticed this, there were so many other curious things to think about. (Looking-Glass 5.87-89)
It's not having but collecting the rushes that is important to Alice. In one sense, this is disheartening – she's just picking them for the fun of it and doesn't care about having them. But in another sense, what she values is the process of her adventure, not the end product or some souvenir.
"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where – " said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
" – so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough." (Wonderland 6.45-50)
Alice has trouble accepting that everywhere could be somewhere. She thinks that she's open to exploring anything she comes across, but really she has expectations about what kind of place "somewhere" really is.
"But oh!" thought Alice, suddenly jumping up, "if I don't make haste, I shall have to go back through the Looking-glass, before I've seen what the rest of the house is like! Let's have a look at the garden first!" She was out of the room in a moment, and ran down stairs – or, at least, it wasn't exactly running, but a new invention for getting down stairs quickly and easily, as Alice said to herself. She just kept the tips of her fingers on the hand-rail, and floated gently down without even touching the stairs with her feet: then she floated on through the hall, and would have gone straight out at the door in the same way, if she hadn't caught hold of the door-post. (Looking-Glass 1.41)
Alice feels an incredible lightness and freedom when she enters Looking-Glass World. Yet at the back of her mind, she knows that she has to get in all the fantasy and enjoyment she can before the real world calls her back. There are strict limits on the release she can find in her imagination.
Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hole: she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head through the doorway. . . . (Wonderland 1.14)
The object of Alice's "quest" in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is freedom – getting out of the "small passage" that confines her and escaping into "the loveliest garden you ever saw." What the passage and the garden represent is up for debate, but it's no accident that Alice's freedom is represented by the natural world and the outdoors. Like most children, she hates being cooped up inside and longs to get out and explore.
She went on growing, and growing, and very soon had to kneel down on the floor: in another minute there was not even room for this, and she tried the effect of lying down with one elbow against the door, and the other arm curled round her head. Still she went on growing, and, as a last resource, she put one arm out of the window, and one foot up the chimney, and said to herself "Now I can do no more, whatever happens. What will become of me?"
Luckily for Alice, the little magic bottle had now had its full effect, and she grew no larger: still it was very uncomfortable, and, as there seemed to be no sort of chance of her ever getting out of the room again, no wonder she felt unhappy. (Wonderland 4.7-8)
Alice's feeling of confinement in this scene is created by her sudden growth spurt. Even though it's magically induced, we're starting to wonder whether the normal process of growing up might also make her feel trapped.
"Come, my head's free at last!" said Alice in a tone of delight, which changed into alarm in another moment, when she found that her shoulders were nowhere to be found: all she could see, when she looked down, was an immense length of neck, which seemed to rise like a stalk out of a sea of green leaves that lay far below her.
"What can all that green stuff be?" said Alice. "And where have my shoulders got to? And oh, my poor hands, how is it I can't see you?" She was moving about, as she spoke, but no result seemed to follow, except a little shaking among the distant green leaves. (Wonderland 5.46-47)
In this scene, Alice is free and confined at the same time. Her head has grown above everything in the world, even the rest of her body, giving a new meaning to the phrase "head in the clouds." But instead of making her feel free and exhilarated, she just feels out of touch with herself.
"There's no sort of use in knocking," said the Footman, "and that for two reasons. First, because I'm on the same side of the door as you are: secondly, because they're making such a noise inside, no one could possibly hear you." And certainly there was a most extraordinary noise going on within – a constant howling and sneezing, and every now and then a great crash, as if a dish or kettle had been broken to pieces.
"Please, then," said Alice, "how am I to get in?"
"There might be some sense in your knocking," the Footman went on, without attending to her, "if we had the door between us. For instance, if you were inside, you might knock, and I could let you out, you know." (Wonderland 6.6-8)
Being on one side of a door is a puzzling situation in Wonderland (and, later, in Looking-Glass World). Alice seems to think that she should try to get in, but the Footman suggests two other possibilities – that she might want to try to get out, or that she doesn't need to go through the door at all. Perhaps Alice's ideas about what freedom and confinement really are need some work.
Once more she found herself in the long hall, and close to the little glass table. "Now, I'll manage better this time," she said to herself, and began by taking the little golden key, and unlocking the door that led into the garden. Then she set to work nibbling at the mushroom (she had kept a piece of it in her pocket) till she was about a foot high: then she walked down the little passage: and then – she found herself at last in the beautiful garden, among the bright flower-beds and the cool fountains. (Wonderland 7.102)
Alice's escape from the hall into the garden is the result of a lot of trial and error, not to mention being in the right place, with the right things, at the right time. She's lucky enough to get a second chance at effecting her escape, and this time she's not going to squander it.
. . . she looked back once or twice, half hoping that they would call after her: the last time she saw them, they were trying to put the Dormouse into the teapot. (Wonderland 7.99)
Alice's more philosophical dilemma about trying to escape from a world that seems to shrink around her is parodied by a series of scenes in which other characters are stuffed into tiny containers. Here we see the Dormouse getting put in the teapot – which real-life Victorian children used as makeshift cages for their hibernating pet mice. (The teapots were, of course, empty of tea at the time.)
"You shan't be beheaded!" said Alice, and she put them into a large flower-pot that stood near. The three soldiers wandered about for a minute or two, looking for them, and then quietly marched off after the others. (Wonderland 8.27)
Sometimes confinement can be protective, as in this scene, where Alice saves three foolish soldiers-turned-gardeners from what seems to be certain execution by hiding them in a flowerpot. Maybe Alice's own feeling of being trapped as she grows larger (or perhaps older) is also unfair; perhaps the restrictions she feels are also for her own good.
"Here!" cried Alice, quite forgetting in the flurry of the moment how large she had grown in the last few minutes, and she jumped up in such a hurry that she tipped over the jury-box with the edge of her skirt, upsetting all the jurymen on to the heads of the crowd below, and there they lay sprawling about, reminding her very much of a globe of gold-fish she had accidentally upset the week before.
"Oh, I beg your pardon!" she exclaimed in a tone of great dismay, and began picking them up again as quickly as she could, for the accident of the gold-fish kept running in her head, and she had a vague sort of idea that they must be collected at once and put back into the jury-box, or they would die. (Wonderland 12.1-2)
Just as the goldfish have to stay in their bowl to live, people are so attached to their circumstances, customs, and forms that their entire lives seem threatened when the social order is momentarily broken – even if it's just in a wacky Wonderland way.
He looked so vexed at the idea, that Alice changed the subject hastily. "What a curious helmet you've got!" she said cheerfully. "Is that your invention too?"
The Knight looked down proudly at his helmet, which hung from the saddle. "Yes," he said, "but I've invented a better one than that – like a sugar loaf. When I used to wear it, if I fell off the horse, it always touched the ground directly. So I had a very little way to fall, you see – But there was the danger of falling into it, to be sure. That happened to me once – and the worst of it was, before I could get out again, the other White Knight came and put it on. He thought it was his own helmet."
The Knight looked so solemn about it that Alice did not dare to laugh. "I'm afraid you must have hurt him," she said in a trembling voice, "being on the top of his head."
"I had to kick him, of course," the Knight said, very seriously. "And then he took the helmet off again – but it took hours and hours to get me out. I was as fast as – as lightning, you know."
"But that's a different kind of fastness," Alice objected.
The Knight shook his head. "It was all kinds of fastness with me, I can assure you!" he said. (Looking-Glass 8.62-67)
The Knight's foolish escapades remind us that trying to be too protective of someone (even yourself) usually results in making them feel trapped instead.
. . . she had read several nice little stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts, and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them: such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; and that, if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds; and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked "poison," it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later. (Wonderland 1.16)
The tone of the book becomes extremely dry when the narrator starts mocking the morality tales that Victorian children had to read. You may have read this kind of story yourself – a tale that warns you about the consequences of foolish behavior with a gruesome death or outcome. The narrator is scornful of this kind of story, and we can tell that he would never torture Alice just to make a didactic point.
"I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?" she said aloud. "I must be getting somewhere near the center of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think –" (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the school-room, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) "– yes, that's about the right distance – but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I've got to?" (Alice had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say.) (Wonderland 1.8)
Alice is a diligent student and makes every attempt to practice her learning. Yet everything she knows about geography is either muddled or useless in Wonderland; none of her book learning has given her practical skills for finding her way.
"Perhaps it doesn't understand English," thought Alice. "I daresay it's a French mouse, come over with William the Conqueror." (For, with all her knowledge of history, Alice had no very clear notion of how long ago anything had happened.) (Wonderland 2.16)
Practical and theoretical knowledge are contrasted once again. Alice may know about "history" but she doesn't know "how long ago anything had happened." Yet if she truly mastered the theory, she'd have practical knowledge, too.
"Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with," the Mock Turtle replied; "and then the different branches of Arithmetic – Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision." (Wonderland 9.73)
As we're sure you've guessed, these are parodies of the subjects you learned in school: reading, writing, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Yet all the things listed in the parody are things we learn in school too – competing for grades teaches us ambition, there are plenty of things to distract us as we study, we learn to mock and deride one another, and so on.
"I went to the Classical master, though. He was an old crab, he was."
"I never went to him," the Mock Turtle said with a sigh. "He taught Laughing and Grief, they used to say." (Wonderland 9.82-83)
The things the Mock Turtle learned in school are parodies of what a good Victorian child would have learned. Unlike most American schools today, pretty much every nineteenth-century British school would have taught classics – Latin ("Laughing") and Greek ("Grief") language and literature. The puns are based on the fact that Latin is an easier language to learn than Greek (grief).
"I've been to a day-school, too," said Alice. "You needn't be so proud as all that."
"With extras?" asked the Mock Turtle, a little anxiously.
"Yes," said Alice: "we learned French and music."
"And washing?" said the Mock Turtle.
"Certainly not!" said Alice indignantly.
"Ah! Then yours wasn't a really good school," said the Mock Turtle in a tone of great relief. "Now, at ours, they had, at the end of the bill, 'French, music, and washing – extra.'" (Wonderland 9.64-69)
As the annotations to any good edition of the book will tell you, the Mock Turtle is confusing the fees for extra subjects at boarding school with the fee they charge for doing your laundry. His rationale seems to be that anything you pay for makes you more educated. But we know that (unfortunately) it takes more than buying a lesson to really learn it.
"And how many hours a day did you do lessons?" said Alice, in a hurry to change the subject.
"Ten hours the first day," said the Mock Turtle: "nine the next, and so on."
"What a curious plan!" exclaimed Alice.
"That's the reason they're called lessons," the Gryphon remarked: "because they lessen from day to day." (Wonderland 9.85-88)
Don't we just wish they did!
"What else had you to learn?"
"Well, there was Mystery," the Mock Turtle replied, counting off the subjects on his flappers – "Mystery, ancient and modern, with Seaography: then Drawling – the Drawling-master was an old conger-eel, that used to come once a week: he taught us Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils." (Wonderland 9.78-79)
OK, "Mystery" is history, "Seaography" is geography, "Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils" are drawing, sketching, and painting in oils. Of all these, we're most amused by "Mystery," since so many of the things that have happened over the course of human history are bizarre, ridiculous, or inexplicable.
Here the Red Queen began again. "Can you answer useful questions?" she said. "How is bread made?"
"I know that!" Alice cried eagerly. "You take some flour – "
"Where do you pick the flower?" the White Queen asked. 'In a garden or in the hedges?"
"Well, it isn't picked at all," Alice explained: "it's ground – "
"How many acres of ground?" said the White Queen. "You mustn't leave out so many things." (Looking-Glass 9.43-47)
This reminds us of those thought exercises where you imagine being stranded on a desert island. Even though we're advanced 21st century people, few of us would be able to make all the things we want or need. The queens quiz Alice on her practical knowledge and quickly show her how much explanation and skill is necessary for something relatively simple, like making bread.
"Can you do Addition?" the White Queen asked. "What's one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one?"
"I don't know," said Alice. "I lost count."
"She can't do Addition," the Red Queen interrupted. "Can you do Subtraction? Take nine from eight."
"Nine from eight I can't, you know," Alice replied very readily: "but – "
"She can't do Substraction," said the White Queen. "Can you do Division? Divide a loaf by a knife – what's the answer to that?"
"I suppose – " Alice was beginning, but the Red Queen answered for her. "Bread-and-butter, of course." (Looking-Glass 9.20-27)
Alice's carefully learned mathematical skills are foiled by the riddles of the Red Queen. But it's not just Alice: even the White Queen, who calls subtraction "Substraction," has trouble.
"We gave you the opportunity of doing it," the Red Queen remarked: "but I daresay you've not had many lessons in manners yet?"
"Manners are not taught in lessons," said Alice. "Lessons teach you to do sums, and things of that sort."
Alice separates intellectual from moral lessons – and people still debate what role schooling should play in one's moral or humanistic education. What do you think?
"It seems very pretty," she said when she had finished it, "but it's rather hard to understand!" (You see she didn't like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn't make it out at all.) "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don't know exactly what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate – " (Looking-Glass 1.40)
What Alice seems to be describing is the way that language can give you an emotional sense of something even when you don't understand all the specific details. In this case, after reading "Jabberwocky," she feels the gist of the poem – a man killed a monster – even though she couldn't define any of the actual words. This suggests that language has several levels; we could call them, for example, denotation (the dictionary definition of a word, its exact meaning) and connotation (the feeling and implications of a word). Alice also uses the influence of context to infer the meaning of the words in the poem.
"Would it be of any use, now," thought Alice, "to speak to this mouse? Everything is so out-of-the-way down here, that I should think it very likely it can talk: at any rate, there's no harm in trying." So she began: "O Mouse, do you know the way out of this pool? I am very tired of swimming about here, O Mouse!" (Alice thought this must be the right way of speaking to a mouse: she had never done such a thing before, but she remembered having seen, in her brother's Latin Grammar, "A mouse – of a mouse – to a mouse – a mouse – O mouse!") (Wonderland 2.15)
Alice's humorous misapplication of her brother's Latin textbook is the first indication that the ways of communicating she's learned in school aren't going to be much help to her in Wonderland – although they are good for a laugh.
The Red Queen shook her head. "You may call it 'nonsense' if you like," she said, "but I've heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!" (Looking-Glass 2.58)
Maybe the real joke here is that dictionaries aren't particularly sensible anyway. After all, there's no scientific law that says a sound should mean a specific thing – all the rules of language are arbitrary.
"In that case," said the Dodo solemnly, rising to its feet, "I move that the meeting adjourn, for the immediate adoption of more energetic remedies – "
"Speak English!" said the Eaglet. "I don't know the meaning of half those long words, and, what's more, I don't believe you do either!" (Wonderland 3.14-15)
The Eaglet objects to making language too complicated; there's no need, after all, to put obstacles in the way of understanding one another. The Dodo, Lewis Carroll's own self-parody (a play on the way he would stutter his real name "Do-Do-Dodgson"), likes using flowery language and fancy words, but this really isn't necessary for his audience of child readers.
"You are not attending!" said the Mouse to Alice, severely. "What are you thinking of?"
"I beg your pardon," said Alice very humbly: "you had got to the fifth bend, I think?"
"I had not!" cried the Mouse, sharply and very angrily.
"A knot!" said Alice, always ready to make herself useful, and looking anxiously about her "Oh, do let me help to undo it!" (Wonderland 3.34-37)
Before the "Who's on First?" sketch, there were the Alice books. In each line, a new misinterpretation (usually totally illogical) interferes with the communication between characters. Alice's confusion of the homophones "tale" / "tail" and "knot" / "not" is behind this comedic exchange. (Take a look at Chapter 3 to see the Mouse's "tale" pictured as a concrete poem "tail.")
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master – that's all." (Looking-Glass 6.63-65)
Humpty Dumpy believes that he can exercise total control over language. Unfortunately, as Alice realizes, if he makes words mean anything he wants, then nobody can understand him. People have to agree on shared definitions and meanings for communication to be possible.
"I meant by 'impenetrability' that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life."
"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
"When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra." (Looking-Glass 6.68-70)
Humpty Dumpty's arbitrary redefinition of a word means that he has to explain himself anyway – making the word totally irrelevant to the conversation.
"Then you should say what you mean," the March Hare went on.
"I do," Alice hastily replied; "at least – at least I mean what I say – that's the same thing, you know."
"Not the same thing a bit!" said the Hatter. "Why, you might just as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see'!"
"You might just as well say," added the March Hare, "that 'I like what I get' is the same thing as 'I get what I like'!"
"You might just as well say," added the Dormouse, which seemed to be talking in its sleep, "that 'I breathe when I sleep' is the same thing as 'I sleep when I breathe'!" (Wonderland 7.15-19)
There is, of course, a grammatical lesson here: word order is crucial to meaning in the English language. (In other languages, sometimes it's less important or not important at all, such as the Latin that Alice's brother studies.) But beyond that, there's a reminder that little differences can cause huge misunderstandings. Communicating exactly what you mean to another person is far more difficult than it first appears.
It is a very inconvenient habit of kittens (Alice had once made the remark) that, whatever you say to them, they always purr. "If they would only purr for 'yes,' and mew for 'no,' or any rule of that sort," she had said, "so that one could keep up a conversation! But how can you talk with a person if they always say the same thing?" (Looking-Glass 12.2)
Alice wants a back-and-forth communicative exchange with her kittens. Apart from the fact that this is silly, it points out the fact that communication consists of a give and take between two parties – not just a one-sided monologue.
Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter's remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. "I don't quite understand you," she said, as politely as she could. (Wonderland 7.31)
Language is meant to be a communication tool, so when it fails – or actually hinders understanding – Alice is very confused.
. . . she was quite surprised to find that she remained the same size. To be sure, this is what generally happens when one eats cake; but Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way. (Wonderland 1.23)
At first we think Wonderland is going to be the complete opposite of the "real world," but then we realize that it's more inconsistent than that.
"It was much pleasanter at home," thought poor Alice, "when one wasn't always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn't gone down that rabbit-hole – and yet – and yet – it's rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me! When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one! There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought! And when I grow up, I'll write one – but I'm grown up now," she added in a sorrowful tone: "at least there's no room to grow up any more here." (Wonderland 4.9)
Alice explicitly compares her experience in Wonderland to a fairy tale. Of course, we know that this is a meta-joke – she feels like the protagonist in a fantasy story because she is the protagonist in a fantasy story.
"How queer it seems," Alice said to herself, "to be going messages for a rabbit! I suppose Dinah'll be sending me on messages next!" And she began fancying the sort of thing that would happen: "'Miss Alice! Come here directly, and get ready for your walk!' 'Coming in a minute, nurse! But I've got to watch this mouse-hole till Dinah comes back, and see that the mouse doesn't get out.' Only I don't think," Alice went on, "that they'd let Dinah stop in the house if it began ordering people about like that!" (Wonderland 4.4)
Alice can't even imagine a complete Wonderland-style reversal of roles with her pet. She's able to imagine her cat ordering her around, but she can't extend this fantasy to cats ruling the world. Being in Wonderland is helping her imagination develop, but only to a certain extent.
So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality – the grass would be only rustling in the wind, and the pool rippling to the waving of the reeds – the rattling teacups would change to tinkling sheep-bells, and the Queen's shrill cries to the voice of the shepherd-boy – and the sneeze of the baby, the shriek of the Gryphon, and all the other queer noises, would change (she knew) to the confused clamour of the busy farm-yard – while the lowing of the cattle in the distance would take the place of the Mock Turtle's heavy sobs. (Wonderland 12.63)
Alice's sister is able to hold the real world and the fantasy world together in her mind. She also notices the correspondences that inspired her sister's adventure, and as she listens to the different sounds around her, she's able to extrapolate from them and develop Wonderland for herself. But, perhaps because she's older, she can't actually believe in this fantasy land.
"Who cares for you?" said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). "You're nothing but a pack of cards!"
At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her; she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face. (Wonderland 12.56-57)
When Alice finally figures out that the fantasy world around her is simply an elaborate card game, she's able to leave it behind. It's like the moment where you realize you're dreaming and wake yourself up.
"Now, if only you'll attend, Kitty, and not talk so much, I'll tell you all my ideas about Looking-glass House. First, there's the room you can see through the glass – that's just the same as our drawing-room, only the things go the other way. I can see all of it when I get upon a chair – all but the bit just being the fireplace. Oh! I do so wish I could see that bit! I want so much to know whether they've a fire in the winter: you never can tell, you know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too – but that may be only pretence, just to make it look as if they had a fire. Well then, the books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way: I know that, because I've held up one of our books to the glass, and then they hold up one in the other room." (Looking-Glass 1.11)
Looking-Glass World is the opposite of Alice's England, but it's also more than that. Some things in it are simply backwards – the words going the other way in the book, for example. But everything that's not directly reflected in the mirror might be different. Alice can't depend on things being the exact opposite in all cases.
Then she began looking about, and noticed that what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was as different as possible. For instance, the pictures on the wall next the fire seemed to be all alive, and the very clock on the chimney-piece (you know you can only see the back of it in the Looking-glass) had got the face of a little old man, and grinned at her. (Looking-Glass 1.14)
When Alice passes through the Looking-Glass, she immediately discovers that this world is more than just the opposite of England. In fact, the things that were out of sight in the mirror are even stranger than backwards versions of the things that she knows.
"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else – if you ran very fast for a long time as we've been doing."
"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" (Looking-Glass 2.71-72)
In this scene, we see a good example of Looking-Glass World not being the complete opposite of the real world. Because if running keeps you in the same place, wouldn't standing still help you get somewhere?
"—then you don't like all insects?" the Gnat went on, as quietly as if nothing had happened.
"I like them when they can talk," Alice said. "None of them ever talk, where I come from."
"What sort of insects do you rejoice in, where you come from?" the Gnat inquired.
"I don't rejoice in insects at all," Alice explained, "because I'm rather afraid of them – at least the large kinds. But I can tell you the names of some of them." (Looking-Glass 3.28-31)
Alice is constantly comparing things she encounters in Looking-Glass World to the things she knows at home. She's only able to understand the fantasy of her imagination in terms of things she's already familiar with. Even something prosaic and everyday, like insects, become an interesting part of her adventure.
Alice was puzzled. "In our country," she remarked, "there's only one day at a time."
The Red Queen said "That's a poor way of doing things. Now here, we mostly have days and nights two or three at a time, and sometimes in the winter we take as many as five nights together – for warmth, you know."
"Are five nights warmer than one night, then?" Alice ventured to ask.
"Five times as warm, of course."
"But they should be five times as cold, by the same rule – "
"Just so!" cried the Red Queen. "Five times as warm, and five times as cold – just as I'm five times as rich as you are, and five times as clever!"
Alice sighed and gave it up. "It's exactly like a riddle with no answer!" she thought. (Looking-Glass 9.59-65)
Every time Alice thinks she's figured out an organizing pattern for Looking-Glass World, it seems to change in some way.
She had had quite a long argument with her sister only the day before – all because Alice had begun with "Let's pretend we're kings and queens;" and her sister, who liked being very exact, had argued that they couldn't, because there were only two of them, and Alice had been reduced at last to say "Well, you can be one of them, then, and I'll be all the rest." (Looking-Glass 1.9)
Alice's slightly older sister seems to have moved beyond the ability to imagine (or perceive) the crowd of personalities inside her. Alice, however, can still play more than one role with ease.
She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it), and sometimes she scolded herself so severely as to bring tears to her eyes; and once she remembered trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself in a game of croquet she was playing against herself, for this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people. (Wonderland 1.21)
Early in the Alice books, we learn that Alice seems to have several personalities swirling around inside her. It's easy for her to pretend to be more than one person, to see both sides of an argument, and to get lost in the roles she's playing.
"No, I've made up my mind about it: if I'm Mabel, I'll stay down here! It'll be no use their putting their heads down and saying 'Come up again, dear!' I shall only look up and say, 'Who am I, then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I'll come up: if not, I'll stay down here till I'm somebody else.'" (Wonderland 2.9)
Wonderland is a place of fluctuation and change. Alice determines to let her identity keep shifting until she's happy with it, and only then to return to the "real world" where identity is static.
"I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is 'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle!" (Wonderland 2.7)
The joke, of course, is that Alice wasn't the same when she got up this morning. Everyone is a little different every morning than they were the day before, and for a growing child the change is even more obvious. This creates a crisis for Alice – if she's not the same person she used to be, does that mean she's losing her identity?
The Gnat amused itself meanwhile by humming round and round her head: at last it settled again and remarked "I suppose you don't want to lose your name?"
"No, indeed," Alice said, a little anxiously.
"And yet I don't know," the Gnat went on in a careless tone: "only think how convenient it would be if you could manage to go home without it! For instance, if the governess wanted to call you to your lessons, she would call out "Come here – ," and there she would have to leave off, because there wouldn't be any name for her to call, and of course you wouldn't have to go, you know." (Looking-Glass 3.54-56)
The Gnat imagines that, without a name, Alice also won't have a social role.
So they walked on together through the wood, Alice with her arms clasped lovingly round the soft neck of the Fawn, till they came out into another open field, and here the Fawn gave a sudden bound into the air, and shook itself free from Alice's arm. "I'm a Fawn!" it cried out in a voice of delight. "And, dear me! you're a human child!" A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes, and in another moment it had darted away at full speed.
Alice stood looking after it, almost ready to cry with vexation at having lost her dear little fellow-traveler so suddenly. "However, I know my name now," she said: "that's some comfort. Alice – Alice – I won't forget it again." (Looking-Glass 3.73-74)
As long as they're ignorant of their names, Alice and the Fawn are able to live together in peace; but when the Fawn remembers their names and identities, it also remembers that there is strife between them. The book suggests that, in some sense, all conflict comes from our insistence on putting ourselves and others into prescribed social roles.
"This must be the wood," she said thoughtfully to herself, "where things have no names. I wonder what'll become of my name when I go in? I shouldn't like to lose it at all – because they'd have to give me another, and it would be almost certain to be an ugly one. But the fun would be, trying to find the creature that had got my old name! That's just like the advertisements, you know, when people lose dogs – 'answers to the name of "Dash": had on a brass collar' – just fancy calling everything you met 'Alice,' till one of them answered! Only they wouldn't answer at all, if they were wise." (Looking-Glass 3.64)
Alice imagines that her name and her person are separate but stable things; if they became separated, the name and the identity that went with it would still exist somewhere in the world.
"He's dreaming now," said Tweedledee: "and what do you think he's dreaming about?"
Alice said "Nobody can guess that."
"Why, about you!" Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. "And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be?"
"Where I am now, of course," said Alice.
"Not you!" Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. "You'd be nowhere. Why, you're only a sort of thing in his dream!"
"If that there King was to wake," added Tweedledum, "you'd go out – bang! – just like a candle!" (Looking-Glass 4.37-42)
Alice has been assuming that the entire Looking-Glass World is something she owns, a fantasy that she came up with. Now she's faced with the possibility that she is only a character in someone else's fantasy, and she doesn't really like the idea.
"Who are you?" said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, "I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then." (Wonderland 5.2-3)
Alice doesn't know who she is because she doesn't know where she is – and because she can't remember what she's been taught, in school or beyond.
"I shouldn't know you again if we did meet," Humpty Dumpty replied in a discontented tone, giving her one of his fingers to shake: "you're so exactly like other people."
"The face is what one goes by, generally," Alice remarked in a thoughtful tone.
"That's just what I complain of," said Humpty Dumpty. "Your face is the same as everybody has – the two eyes, so – " (marking their places in the air with his thumb) "nose in the middle, mouth under. It's always the same. Now if you had the two eyes on the same side of the nose, for instance – or the mouth at the top – that would be some help." (Looking-Glass 6.111-113)
To us as readers, Alice seems individual, but to Humpty Dumpy she's "exactly like other people." Our uniqueness depends on how detailed our definitions of identity are. Alice may have two eyes on top, a nose in the middle, and a mouth underneath, but surely the specific color of her eyes or shape of her nostrils is distinctive.
"It's a great huge game of chess that's being played – all over the world --- if this is the world at all, you know. Oh, what fun it is! How I wish I was one of them! I wouldn't mind being a Pawn, if only I might join – though of course I should like to be a Queen, best."
She glanced rather shyly at the real Queen as she said this, but her companion only smiled pleasantly, and said "That's easily managed. You can be the White Queen's Pawn, if you like, as Lily's too young to play; and you're in the Second Square to begin with: when you get to the Eighth Square, you'll be a Queen – " (Looking-Glass 2.61-62)
Alice is young, but she's still old enough to play in the chess game, in contrast with the unseen Lily. Nothing makes Alice prouder than being told she's old enough for the game. Her youth is precious, but it's also important to have a certain degree of maturity.
Indeed, she had quite a long argument with the Lory, who at last turned sulky, and would only say "I'm older than you, and must know better." And this Alice would not allow, without knowing how old it was, and, as the Lory positively refused to tell its age, there was no more to be said. (Wonderland 3.2)
This is still a common argument of parents and older siblings – "I'm older than you, so I know better." But in this case, it's obvious that the Lory (a parody of real-life Alice Liddell's older sister Lorina) has just run out of good arguments, so it resorts to this lame one instead. In Wonderland, older does not mean wiser – sometimes it's exactly the opposite!
"But then," thought Alice, "shall I never get any older than I am now? That'll be a comfort, one way – never to be an old woman – but then – always to have lessons to learn! Oh, I shouldn't like that!" (Wonderland 4.10)
Perpetual youth is not only an impossibility, it doesn't even make practical sense. Would someone who was eternally young in body also be young in mind?
"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"
"In my youth," Father William replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again." (Wonderland 5, "You are old, Father William")
"You are old, Father William" parodies a famous didactic poem of the time that children had to memorize in school. In Lewis Carroll's Wonderland version, a son continually questions his father's physical prowess and stamina, suggesting that his father is an old man and ought to behave like one. But as Father William explains, there's no reason for him to act especially serious, dignified, or fragile in his old age. In fact, he's younger at heart than his son.
Just at this moment Alice felt a very curious sensation, which puzzled her a good deal until she made out what it was: she was beginning to grow larger again, and she thought at first she would get up and leave the court; but on second thoughts she decided to remain where she was as long as there was room for her.
"I wish you wouldn't squeeze so," said the Dormouse, who was sitting next to her. "I can hardly breathe."
"I can't help it," said Alice very meekly: "I'm growing."
"You've no right to grow here," said the Dormouse.
"Don't talk nonsense," said Alice more boldly: "you know you're growing too."
"Yes, but I grow at a reasonable pace," said the Dormouse: "not in that ridiculous fashion." (Wonderland 11.28-33)
Alice's sudden growth spurt is embarrassing those around her. But as she notes, she can't help growing up, and she can't control the rate at which she grows. Aging is inevitable and out of her hands.
"And that's the jury-box," thought Alice; "and those twelve creatures," (she was obliged to say "creatures," you see, because some of them were animals, and some were birds,) "I suppose they are the jurors." She said this last word two or three times over to herself, being rather proud of it: for she thought, and rightly too, that very few little girls of her age knew the meaning of it at all. However, "jurymen" would have done just as well. (Wonderland 11.4)
Alice is proud, not just of knowing something, but of knowing something unusual for a child her age. But as the narrator reminds us, her knowledge isn't especially useful, so there's no reason for her to be proud.
Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days. (Wonderland 12.63)
Alice's sister imagines childhood as part of the cycle of life. Even though Alice herself won't always be a child, she can hold on to the memory of her childish adventures and tell the story to her own children. By doing so, she'll hold on to her own "child-life" in some way.
"Well, she has the same awkward shape as you," the Rose said: "but she's redder – and her petals are shorter, I think."
"They're done up close, like a dahlia," said the Tiger-lily: "not tumbled about, like yours."
"But that's not your fault," the Rose added kindly. "You're beginning to fade, you know – and then one can't help one's petals getting a little untidy." (Looking-Glass 2.33-35)
The living flowers interpret Alice as too old, suggesting that extreme youth is the best state for people and that the onset of puberty will put her past her prime. But this interpretation is based on their misunderstanding of what type of being Alice really is, which implies that they're wrong about her fading.
"Seven years and six months!" Humpty Dumpty repeated thoughtfully. "An uncomfortable sort of age. Now if you'd asked my advice, I'd have said 'Leave off at seven' – but it's too late now."
"I never ask advice about growing," Alice said indignantly.
"Too proud?" the other enquired.
Alice felt even more indignant at this suggestion. "I mean," she said, "that one can't help growing older."
"One can't, perhaps," said Humpty Dumpty; "but two can. With proper assistance, you might have left off at seven." (Looking-Glass 6.30-34)
Humpty Dumpty wants to keep Alice young – her aging bothers him, and he suggests that, at seven and a half, she's already over the hill. We as readers, like Alice, are irritated by this suggestion – she can't stop herself from getting older, and why should she want to, anyway? Of course, there is one solution to the problem of aging: death. But that seems, well, a bit too extreme, doesn't it?
"I'm sure I didn't mean – " Alice was beginning, but the Red Queen interrupted her impatiently.
"That's just what I complain of! You should have meant! What do you suppose is the use of a child without any meaning? Even a joke should have some meaning – and a child's more important than a joke, I hope." (Looking-Glass 9.11-12)
The Red Queen suggests that Alice needs to be more meaningful – but her real problem may be that she means, and represents, too many things.
First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle . . . and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no "One, two, three, and away!", but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out "The race is over!", and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking "But who has won?"
This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it stood for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said "Everybody has won, and all must have prizes." (Wonderland 3.19-20).
The "Caucus-race" is the most strongly satirical element in the Alice books. The narrator exposes the absurdity of political machinations, which are a race that has no clear beginning or ending and gets everybody precisely nowhere.
"You couldn't have it if you did want it," the Queen said. "The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day."
"It must come sometimes to 'jam to-day,'" Alice objected.
"No, it can't," said the Queen. "It's jam every other day: to-day isn't any other day, you know." (Looking-Glass 5.16-18)
In one sense, the Queen's exactly right: it's always today, and so if something only happens yesterday and tomorrow, then in a certain way it never happens. But, even though the argument for this perspective makes sense, at the end of the day it's still an absurd way of looking at time.
"I have tasted eggs, certainly," said Alice, who was a very truthful child; "but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know."
"I don't believe it," said the Pigeon; "but if they do, why, then they're a kind of serpent: that's all I can say." (Wonderland 5.62-63)
To Alice, a name describes what a thing is; to the Pigeon, a name describes what it does.
"A cat may look at a king," said Alice. "I've read that in some book, but I don't remember where." (Wonderland 8.58)
Every time Wonderland seems to provide some kind of philosophical wisdom ("a cat may look at a king," or, in other words, "it's free to look") it's immediately undercut. Alice knows she's read this idea somewhere, but she doesn't know who said it or why it might be true.
The executioner's argument was, that you couldn't cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from: that he had never had to do such a thing before, and he wasn't going to begin at his time of life.
The King's argument was that anything that had a head could be beheaded, and that you weren't to talk nonsense.
The Queen's argument was that, if something wasn't done about it in less than no time, she'd have everybody executed, all round. (Wonderland 8.67-69)
What at first seems like a reasonable debate between the King and the Executioner is rendered ridiculous by the Queen's bloodthirsty reaction. Different points of view can coexist in discussion unless one person doesn't want to play fair – or nice.
"Tut, tut, child!" said the Duchess. "Every thing's got a moral, if only you can find it." (Wonderland 9.6)
By putting this Victorian commonplace into the mouth of the ridiculous Duchess, Lewis Carroll shows us how absurd it really is. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was one of the first major works of children's literature that placed entertainment value above moral instruction. After all, not everything does have a moral – some things are just wrong, or absurd, or ridiculous. Carroll almost anticipates existentialism here. It's a bit depressing, really, but it's saved by our laughter.
"Maybe it's always pepper that makes people hot-tempered," she went on, very much pleased at having found out a new kind of rule, "and vinegar that makes them sour – and camomile that makes them bitter – and – and barley-sugar and such things that make children sweet-tempered. I only wish people knew that: then they wouldn't be so stingy about it, you know – " (Wonderland 9.3)
As absurd as this "rule" might be, what's more absurd is the truth that people's moods may not be related to anything going on in the world around them.
Alice was glad to see that it revived him a good deal. "There's nothing like eating hay when you're faint," he remarked to her, as he munched away.
"I should think throwing cold water over you would be better," Alice suggested: " – or some sal-volatile."
"I didn't say there was nothing better," the King replied. "I said there was nothing like it." Which Alice did not venture to deny. (Looking-Glass 7.24-26)
Extreme literalism is one kind of absurdity that's very common in Wonderland and Looking-Glass World.
"This is a child!" Haigha replied eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her, and spreading out both his hands towards her in an Anglo-Saxon attitude. "We only found it to-day. It's as large as life, and twice as natural!"
"I always thought they were fabulous monsters!" said the Unicorn. "Is it alive?"
"It can talk," said Haigha solemnly.
The Unicorn looked dreamily at Alice, and said "Talk, child."
Alice could not help her lips curling up into a smile as she began: "Do you know, I always thought Unicorns were fabulous monsters, too? I never saw one alive before!"
"Well, now that we have seen each other," said the Unicorn, "if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you." (Looking-Glass 7.63-68)
Our question is: How could you not believe in someone or something standing right in front of you?
The Knight looked surprised at the question. "What does it matter where my body happens to be?" he said. "My mind goes on working all the same." (Looking-Glass 8.70)
OK, this isn't absurd; it's actually very sensible. Perhaps what is absurd is that, for most people, it's really difficult to separate what's happening to your body from what's going through your mind.
Alice replied eagerly, for she was always ready to talk about her pet: "Dinah's our cat. And she's such a capital one for catching mice, you can't think! And oh, I wish you could see her after the birds! Why, she'll eat a little bird as soon as look at it!"
This speech caused a remarkable sensation among the party. […] On various pretexts they all moved off, and Alice was soon left alone.
"I wish I hadn't mentioned Dinah!" she said to herself in a melancholy tone. "Nobody seems to like her, down here, and I'm sure she's the best cat in the world!" (Wonderland 3.45-47)
Alice's faux pas is funny at first – oops, mentioning a cat's hunting prowess to birds and a mouse! But then we realize that, since these animals can think and talk, we're really talking about murder.
"We must have a bit of a fight, but I don't care about going on long," said Tweedledum. "What's the time now?"
Tweedledee looked at his watch, and said "Half-past four."
"Let's fight till six, and then have dinner," said Tweedledum. (Looking-Glass 4.74-76)
Fighting, both verbal and physical, are assumed to be inextricable parts of life. Ridiculously, Tweedledum and Tweedledee schedule their fight so that they can fit it in before a meal. It doesn't seem to occur to them that they could not fight.
"We must burn the house down!" said the Rabbit's voice. And Alice called out, as loud as she could, "If you do, I'll set Dinah at you!" (Wonderland 4.29)
Both the Rabbit and Alice respond with radical violence to a situation that just needs some clever engineering. A few chapters ago, Alice was sad that none of the creatures she met liked the idea of her cat Dinah, but as soon as she feels threatened she's only too ready to threaten them back.
Alice did not at all like the tone of this remark, and thought it would be as well to introduce some other subject of conversation. While she was trying to fix on one, the cook took the cauldron of soup off the fire, and at once set to work throwing everything within her reach at the Duchess and the baby – the fire-irons came first; then followed a shower of saucepans, plates, and dishes. The Duchess took no notice of them even when they hit her; and the baby was howling so much already, that it was quite impossible to say whether the blows hurt it or not. (Wonderland 6.29)
The treatment of the baby at the Duchess's house is probably the most disturbing element of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The narrator seems to think that, as readers, we'll be amused by the baby's wailing and the abuse it receives. All we can say is that we're quite relieved when Alice rescues it and it turns into a pig, but we still can't forget this scene – the crying baby being shaken and hit really crosses the line.
Alice began to feel very uneasy: to be sure, she had not as yet had any dispute with the Queen, but she knew that it might happen any minute, "and then," thought she, "what would become of me? They're dreadfully fond of beheading people here: the great wonder is, that there's any one left alive!" (Wonderland 8.45)
The same could probably be said of the world at large. People are so fond of hurting each another, of war and murder and general unpleasantness, that it's amazing our species is still around. This is definitely one of Lewis Carroll's darker moments, where faith in the human race is in short supply.
The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, began screaming "Off with her head! Off with – "
"Nonsense!" said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent. (Wonderland 8.18-19)
The Queen of Hearts is bloodthirsty, and execution is the only response she has to any situation or problem that presents itself. Strangely, a single word from Alice is enough to put her in her place.
"I like the Walrus best," said Alice: "because he was a little sorry for the poor oysters."
"He ate more than the Carpenter, though," said Tweedledee. "You see he held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn't count how many he took: contrariwise."
"That was mean!" Alice said indignantly. "Then I like the Carpenter best – if he didn't eat so many as the Walrus."
"But he ate as many as he could get," said Tweedledum.
This was a puzzler. After a pause, Alice began, "Well! They were both very unpleasant characters – " (Looking-Glass 4.27-31)
Alice tries to find a way to interpret one of the two friends as innocent and the other as guilty. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, however, remind her that the Walrus and Carpenter are both complicit in the murder of the Oysters. Their violence can't be pinned on one bad person; the blame is shared.
"Who are at it again?" she ventured to ask.
"Why, the Lion and the Unicorn, of course," said the King.
"Fighting for the crown?"
"Yes, to be sure," said the King: "and the best of the joke is, that it's my crown all the while! Let's run and see them." (Looking-Glass 7.34-37)
The battle between the Lion and the Unicorn is entirely pointless, since neither of them can have the thing he's fighting for. How many real-world battles suffer from the same illogic?
"I wonder, now, what the Rules of Battle are," she said to herself, as she watched the fight, timidly peeping out from her hiding-place. "One Rule seems to be, that if one Knight hits the other, he knocks him off his horse; and, if he misses, he tumbles off himself – and another Rule seems to be that they hold their clubs with their arms, as if they were Punch and Judy – What a noise they make when they tumble! Just like a whole set of fire-irons falling into the fender! And how quiet the horses are! They let them get on and off them just as if they were tables!"
Another Rule of Battle, that Alice had not noticed, seemed to be that they always fell on their heads; and the battle ended with their both falling off in this way, side by side. When they got up again, they shook hands, and then the Red Knight mounted and galloped off.
"It was a glorious victory, wasn't it?" said the White Knight, as he came up panting. (Looking-Glass 8.10-12)
Alice can't tell the difference between victory and defeat, and neither can the reader. Claiming victory is just as arbitrary as the foolish "rules" that the Knights follow.
"Well, we must fight for her, then," said the Red Knight, as he took up his helmet (which hung from the saddle, and was something the shape of a horse's head) and put it on.
"You will observe the Rules of Battle, of course?" the White Knight remarked, putting on his helmet too.
"I always do," said the Red Knight, and they began banging away at each other with such fury that Alice got behind a tree to be out of the way of the blows. (Looking-Glass 8.7-9)
No matter how many rules there are, battle and warfare are never truly civilized as long as people are trying to kill each other. At least, that seems to be the upshot of this passage – what do you think?
Alice waited a little, half expecting to see it again, but it did not appear, and after a minute or two she walked on in the direction in which the March Hare was said to live. "I've seen hatters before," she said to herself: "the March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps, as this is May, it won't be raving mad – at least not so mad as it was in March." (Wonderland 6.69)
Alice distinguishes several degrees of madness. Apparently madness is something that can wax and wane, that ranges across a broad spectrum.
Alice didn't think that proved it at all; however, she went on: "And how do you know that you're mad?"
"To begin with," said the Cat, "a dog's not mad. You grant that?"
"I suppose so," said Alice.
"Well, then," the Cat went on, "you see, a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased. Now I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry. Therefore I'm mad."
"I call it purring, not growling," said Alice.
"Call it what you like," said the Cat. (Wonderland 6.57-62)
The Cheshire Cat reminds us that we often come up with complicated explanations for the crazy things we do to try and make them sound normal. But no matter how we try to excuse it, much of what we do is, well, mad.
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here." (Wonderland 6.53-56)
It's Alice's own streak of madness that makes it possible for her to get to Wonderland in the first place. Perhaps we as readers feel implicated, too – we wouldn't be able to follow her adventures if we didn't share her madness to some degree.
"In that direction," the Cat said, waving its right paw round, "lives a Hatter: and in that direction," waving the other paw, "lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad." (Wonderland 6.52)
Madness is a fact of life in Wonderland. No matter where you go, everyone there is crazy. This ubiquitous madness seems to make everyone equivalent in some way – the Hatter is exchangeable with the Hare because they're both mad.
"They were learning to draw," the Dormouse went on, yawning and rubbing its eyes, for it was getting very sleepy; "and they drew all manner of things – everything that begins with an M—"
"Why with an M?" said Alice.
"Why not?" said the March Hare.
Alice was silent.
The Dormouse had closed its eyes by this time, and was going off into a doze; but, on being pinched by the Hatter, it woke up again with a little shriek, and went on: " – that begins with an M, such as mouse-traps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness – you know you say things are "much of a muchness" – did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?" (Wonderland 7.91-95)
While the Dormouse lists things that can be drawn with varying success, Lewis Carroll makes his own "sketch" of something beginning with an "m" – madness.
A large rose-tree stood near the entrance of the garden: the roses growing on it were white, but there were three gardeners at it, busily painting them red. (Wonderland 8.1)
The height of madness is to pretend to be what you aren't. Instead of enjoying the white roses, or pulling out the tree and planting red roses, the gardeners simply try to paint over their mistake.
"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." (Looking-Glass 5.53-56)
While the White Queen's advice may sound mad at first, believing "six impossible things before breakfast" has become a common phrase to describe exercising one's imagination. The imagination is just another skill that can be sharpened with practice.
"I only wish I had such eyes," the King remarked in a fretful tone. "To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it's as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!" (Looking-Glass 7.8)
Interpreting turns of phrase literally is one of the ways that Lewis Carroll creates the impression of a mad, wacky fantasy world.
"Have you invented a plan for keeping the hair from being blown off?" Alice enquired.
"Not yet," said the Knight. "But I've got a plan for keeping it from falling off."
"I should like to hear it, very much."
"First you take an upright stick," said the Knight. "Then you make your hair creep up it, like a fruit-tree. Now the reason hair falls off is because it hangs down – things never fall upwards, you know. It's a plan of my own invention. You may try it if you like." (Looking-Glass 8.36-39)
The Knight's plan is crazy, but not because it wouldn't work. If you could get your hair to grow upwards, then it wouldn't fall off. It's just that making it grow upwards is impossible. Madness and impossibility are two different things in this fantasyland.
"So I wasn't dreaming, after all," she said to herself, "unless – unless we're all part of the same dream. Only I do hope it's my dream, and not the Red King's! I don't like belonging to another person's dream," she went on in a rather complaining tone: "I've a great mind to go and wake him, and see what happens!" (Looking-Glass 8.1)
At first, the question of who dreams the adventure in Looking-Glass World, Alice or the Red King, seems to have some kind of deep philosophical significance. Is she generating her own adventure, or just a character in somebody else's? But at second glance, we realize how crazy this sounds. Of course Alice is the dreamer, and of course she's in no danger if the Red King wakes up.