Study Guide

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass Themes

  • Exploration

    Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass record the adventures and exploits of one little girl through a variety of strange fantasylands. Exploration in these books is a playful romp through the nonsense-world of one's imagination. The world itself is explored, but so are the mind, language, and the limits of reason and knowledge. Exploration is always bittersweet, because it has definite limits and will come to an end all too soon. There need not be any particular goal to the voyage beyond seeing and experiencing curious things, but it helps to have an objective to journey toward, if only to make it easier to choose a path.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. What do you think Alice expects to find when she jumps down the rabbit hole? What about when she walks through the looking-glass? Would you have done either of these things in her situation? Why or why not?
    2. What do you make of Alice's impulse to be professional about her exploration – setting a goal for herself to reach in Wonderland, and attempting a geographic "survey" of Looking-Glass World? Why do you think she approaches her adventures in this organized way?
    3. Do you agree with the Cheshire Cat that it doesn't matter which way you go when you're exploring, because every direction leads somewhere eventually?
    4. Do you think Alice explores the "real world" of Victorian England in the same way that she explores Wonderland and Looking-Glass World? How might she approach England differently, and why?

    Chew on This

    Alice is able to explore Wonderland and Looking-Glass World in a more ingenuous, lighthearted way than she could explore the real world, because she feels safer and has greater independence in her imagination.

    Alice casts herself as a brave explorer venturing into new worlds that need to be described, cataloged, and systematized.

  • Identity

    Identity in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass is constantly shifting. Its instability creates anxiety and confusion, but also enables another kind of exploration. We must question what it is that really constitutes identity – names, behaviors, abilities, knowledge, beliefs, or something else. In addition, it is easy to split identities, to understand both sides of an issue or to feel like several personalities are struggling within one person. The reader, like the protagonist, must continually question her own identity and admit that she is uncertain about it in order to make progress in her quest.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Why does Alice have so much trouble explaining who she is?
    2. How is Alice's identity related to her educational experiences? Hint: think about the moments where Alice tries to recite poetry and misspeaks.
    3. Why are there so many references to Alice pretending to be or feeling like more than one person?
    4. What is more important for Alice's identity – what she can do, what she knows, or how other people react to her?

    Chew on This

    Alice's experiences in Wonderland teach her that it's more important to know what you know than to know who you are.

    Alice's experiences in Wonderland teach her that true self-knowledge comes from understanding your habits and behaviors first and labeling your identity second.

  • Language and Communication

    In the Alice books, language continually fails to provide an adequate means of communication. In fact, the complex and confusing nature of language frequently leads to miscommunication. Often this miscommunication is due to rival interpretations of the same words or sounds, such as mixing up words that sound the same but have different meanings (homophones), taking metaphors literally, or mixing different languages. In the most extreme cases, communication is impossible because one party to the conversation has a completely different idea of what is being said than the other. However, these miscommunications are the source of comedy and amusement rather than actual harm. The narrator and the reader take a special joy in the multiple meanings that can be found in language.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. In the Alice books, does language help or hinder communication?
    2. Several of the funnier moments in the Alice books come from homophone confusion – mixing up words that sound the same but mean completely different things. Choose two or three of the following homophone pairs and describe the scene(s) in which they are confused in the text: tale and tail, knot and not, porpoise and purpose, lesson and lessen, addressing and a-dressing, flower and flour, ground (verb) and ground (n.). What does each person think is being said? What is actually being said?
    3. Which characters does Alice find it most difficult to communicate with? Which characters does she find it easy to communicate with? What do the examples you find imply about the relationship between language and communication?
    4. Why is there so much recitation of poetry in the Alice books? What does Alice communicate to the people she meets by trying to recite poems?

    Chew on This

    In the Alice books, the fact that words can be interpreted in so many different ways makes communication difficult.

    Although communication is complicated in the Alice books, Humpty Dumpty's example shows that there is nothing inherently wrong with language, as long as both people in a conversation understand their words in the same way.

  • Youth

    The Alice books celebrate youth as a time when the individual is open to imaginative possibilities. Childhood is praised, not exactly as a period of innocence, but as a state in which many things are possible. Children can't help growing up, but they can refuse to grow old, and even old men can maintain a youthful outlook by preserving a spirit of nonsense and adventure. One can be either too young or too old, and the best course seems to be digging in one's heels and insisting on remaining as childlike as possible. Growth is depicted as out of one's control, but emotional growth can, perhaps, be resisted. Adulthood in these books seems almost ridiculous in contrast with youth; adults are bossy know-it-alls who like to throw their weight around and rain on the parades of the young.

    Questions About Youth

    1. We learn Alice's age, seven years and six months, in her conversations with the White Queen and with Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass. Were you surprised by her age? How old had you assumed her to be, based on her behavior before that scene?
    2. Does Alice grow, change, or develop over the course of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass?
    3. Is youth valued over age in the Alice books?
    4. Is youth always connected with numerical age, or are there other factors that seem to make people "young" or "old" at heart?

    Chew on This

    Alice's youth is the source of her imaginative capability, and the books suggest that, as she ages, her ability to conjure up fantasy worlds will diminish.

    Alice grows and changes in a variety of ways in Wonderland and Looking-Glass World, but her childlike nature doesn't depend on her size or age.

  • Education

    The Alice books both embrace and mock book learning. Frequently, the things children learn in the schoolroom are parodied as impractical or inapplicable to real life. Alice absorbs rote lessons but has trouble putting them in context or understanding their real-world applications. Yet the books also demonstrate respect for education and knowledge in the broader sense, and much of the humor is intellectual or dependent on a high level of educational attainment. The books also raise the question of how moral or practical lessons should (or should not) be integrated with more abstract academic knowledge.

    Questions About Education

    1. How has Alice been educated so far? Has her education been a success? Why or why not?
    2. What types of things does Alice know well? What types of things is she ignorant of?
    3. Considering the way that it is depicted in the Alice books, does the author consider education a useful activity or a waste of time?
    4. Would it be possible for an uneducated reader to enjoy the Alice books? What level of education or knowledge do you think is necessary for someone to appreciate the humor of these stories?

    Chew on This

    Although the Alice books mock education, they also depend on the reader's knowledge to create their comedic effects.

    Despite the nerdiness of many of the jokes in the Alice books, it's possible to enjoy the nonsense and silliness of the stories even if you don't understand all the nuances. The books are designed to appeal to people with a variety of backgrounds.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

    Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are often thought of as "philosophical" fantasies. In fact, these books offer no specific coherent philosophy of life. They do, however, have a veneer of philosophy in their approach to intellectual matters. Often this philosophical attitude is depicted through characters who seem out of touch with the real world. Many of the more philosophical-sounding statements made in the books are nonsensical and seem to poke fun at readers who try to take them too seriously. The only consistent philosophy here seems to be that life is absurd and resists a moralistic interpretation.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

    1. Alice uses the word "curious" a lot to describe things she encounters in Wonderland and Looking-Glass World. What do you think she means by this term? How does "curious" come to stand in for a series of thoughts and judgments she has about the strange things around her?
    2. Is there any consistent philosophical point of view behind the narrator of the Alice books? If so, what is it? How do think this narrator sees the world – as reasonable, unreasonable, dangerous, safe, pleasant, unpleasant, meaningful, ridiculous?
    3. What is the narrator's attitude toward morality and finding morals in real-life examples?
    4. Are there times when Wonderland or Looking-Glass World seem less absurd than the real world? Describe one such moment.

    Chew on This

    Alice's adventures show her that life itself is absurd; all that she can do is try to find enjoyment in the things around her.

    Alice has a secret craving for organization and meaning, and when the things around her are nonsensical she is irritated and frustrated.

  • Violence

    The violent moments in the Alice books stand in sharp contrast to the more lighthearted moments of fantasy. Many jokes are morbid or focus on the possibility of death. Conflict, battle, and even warfare are depicted as inevitable but pointless. People are shown to be bloodthirsty and irrational, resorting to violence even when it is clearly unnecessary. There is no attempt to make sense of violent or brutal behavior, although it is deplored and resisted. Violence and pain do not illustrate any moral point about the world; they are simply something to be noticed and avoided.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Why is there so much arbitrary violence in the Alice books? Do you think the reader is meant to find this violence humorous, or does it detract from the humor of the stories?
    2. When does Alice herself feel violent impulses? What are they, and what causes them?
    3. How does the use of anthropomorphic characters (animals that behave like people) change our reaction to the violent moments in the Alice books? For example, how does the baby's transformation into a pig in Chapter 6 of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland make the reader feel different about the child abuse in Chapter 5 (or does it)?
    4. Does violence ever have satisfactory or meaningful results in these stories? Consider the major conflicts: the Queen of Hearts and the members of her court, the battle between the Lion and the Unicorn, the joust between the Red and White Knights, and the fight between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Are any of these examples of violence productive? Can you find an implied message or moral here?

    Chew on This

    Violent moments in the Alice books are usually threats rather than actual bloodshed; they remind us of the dangers that exist in the real world, but they do not progress far enough to disrupt the fantasy story.

    Violence in the Alice books is a shocking reminder of the suffering and pain that exist without reason in the real world. Even in her imagination, Alice can't escape this fundamental truth of existence.

  • Contrasting Regions

    Throughout Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, it is only possible to understand the strangeness and curiousness of the fantasy world by comparing it to the "real world" – in this case, Victorian England. Fantasyland serves as a contrast to "real life," helping us better understand our own reality.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions

    1. Compare and contrast Victorian England, or "the real world," and Wonderland. In what ways is Wonderland completely different from reality? In what ways does it take qualities from real life to unusual extremes?
    2. Do you think that Wonderland is meant to be an parody or an allegorical representation of the "real world"? That is, is there a one-to-one correspondence between things in Wonderland and things in England? Or is Wonderland just a strange fantasy? Give details from the text to support your answer.
    3. Why is it significant that Wonderland is physically underneath England? How would you think of Wonderland differently if it were in the clouds or through a secret doorway?
    4. Brainstorm several contemporary social issues related to children and choose one that interests you the most. If he lived today, how might Lewis Carroll have treated this issue in his Alice books? What is the "Looking-Glass World" version of your issue?

    Chew on This

    Wonderland is not a direct allegory for the real world, but it does contain some episodes of allegory that add a satirical flavor to the text.

    There is nothing in Wonderland that is purely fantastic; each character or event in the fantasy world is based on something that happens or someone who exists in the real world.

  • Madness

    Madness is the explanation for just about any silly, curious, or crazy behavior in theAlice books. The reader must give in and accept a certain degree of irrationality in order to enjoy the tales. Madness is not simply the opposite of sanity; there are many degrees and types of madness, each of which deviates from the norm in a different way and to a different extent. Madness has no negative connotation; on the contrary, it seems freeing and interesting. However, madness in these books is different from foolishness, which evokes pity and compassion.

    Questions About Madness

    1. Is madness a positive or negative quality for the characters in the Alice books?
    2. The Cheshire Cat insists that Alice is mad, or she wouldn't have been able to enter Wonderland in the first place. Do you agree? Does the reader have to share in Alice's madness? Why or why not?
    3. Are there any sane characters in the Alice books? Think especially about the beginning and ending of each book.
    4. Why do you think the Mad Tea Party is one of the most famous episodes in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland?

    Chew on This

    Although the Cheshire Cat claims that all the characters in Wonderland are mad, they're actually relatively reasonable – they just have different underlying assumptions about how the world works.

    In the Alice books, "madness" is just another term used to describe things that are fantastic or imaginative.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Confinement in the Alice books is almost always literal and physical (for instance, when Alice gets stuck in the White Rabbit's house). Freedom is gained by ingenuity and imagination, which create sensations of lightness and make escape possible. However, confinement also has a protective aspect; sometimes our heroine confines others in order to shelter them from danger. This in turn makes us wonder whether there are reasonable limits on freedom that are necessary for safety. While imagination and fantasy offer escape routes, they can also introduce new and unknown dangers.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. How are freedom and confinement related to Alice's changes in size? Does growing larger make her feel more or less free? What does your answer suggest about the process of growing up?
    2. Can Alice make herself less confined, either in reality or metaphorically speaking, by using her imagination? What is the relationship between imagination and freedom?
    3. Why is there so much confinement in Wonderland? Why does Alice have to be stuck in the hall, trying to get into the garden, before she finally finds a way to reach it? Why can't her fantasy world simply begin in the beautiful garden?
    4. How do other characters' confinements – such as the dormouse getting stuffed into the teapot, the White Knight falling into his own helmet, or Tweedledee trying to shut himself in his umbrella – relate to Alice's feelings of being trapped? What do these comical examples teach us as readers?

    Chew on This

    Alice's Adventures in Wonderland depicts growing older, represented by growing larger, as an unpleasant process that creates a feeling of confinement.

    Although Alice often feels trapped when she grows larger, she also feels vulnerable when she grows smaller, suggesting that childhood is an imperfect balance of youthful freedom and adult strictures.