Through the Looking-Glass Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

It is rare for the sequel to a highly creative literary work to surpass the original, but such is the case with Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, which followed Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published six years earlier. For most readers, the two books are so closely entwined that they are considered a unit. Although joined by a common heroine and themes, the characters in the two books are quite distinct. Through the Looking-Glass is perhaps more attractive to adults than to children, for this second fantasy by Carroll (the pen name for the Oxford mathematics lecturer and tutor the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) presents an even more sophisticated puzzle about reality and logic than does the earlier story. In Through the Looking-Glass there is a conscious suggestion of the cruel questions rather more delicately presented in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The books share many characteristics: Each has twelve chapters, and both merge the fairy tale with science. Alice is seven years old in the first book and seven and a half on her second adventure. A slight shift in scene turns the pleasant outdoor summer setting of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into the more somber indoor winter stage of Through the Looking-Glass. Corresponding to the card game of the first book is chess in Through the Looking-Glass, another game that involves kings and queens. Within the chess-and-mirror framework of the looking-glass world, Carroll has, however, constructed an intricate symbolic plan unlike the seemingly spontaneous movement of Wonderland.

Although medieval and Renaissance sportsmen sometimes enjoyed chess that used human players on a giant field, Carroll seems to have been the first to use the idea in literature. (The science fiction of later ages has often employed this image.) In the game plan, Alice is a white pawn on a giant chessboard of life in which the rows of the board are separated by brooks and the columns by hedges. Alice never speaks to any piece who is not in a square beside her, as is appropriate for the pawn, who never knows what is happening except at its spot on the board. Alice remains in the queen’s field except for her last move (by which time she has become a queen), when she captures the Red Queen and shakes her into a kitten; as a result, she checkmates the Red King, who has slept throughout the game. Her behavior complements the personalities assigned to the other pieces, for each assumes the qualities of the figure it represents. As in chess, the queens are the most powerful and active beings, and the kings are impotent. Erratic and stumbling, the White Knight recalls the movement of the chess knight, which moves two squares in any direction, then again one square in a different direction, forming a sort of spastic “L.”

Critics have noted inconsistencies in the chess game, charging that the White side makes nine consecutive moves; that...

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