Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Alice’s house. The story starts and ends in the overstuffed Victorian parlor of Alice’s English home. As in Wonderland, a safe, comfortable world surrounds the sometimes threatening dream world.
Looking-Glass Land. World that Alice enters by stepping through the mirror in her home. Because the land is on the other side of the mirror, many things go by opposites. Books are printed in mirror-writing, walking directly toward an object results in leading one away from it, one must run as quickly as possible merely to stay in one place. Time can move both forward and backward, just as some chess pieces—not pawns—can move in either direction.
The world is laid out in a pattern of squares, like a chessboard whose columns are divided by hedges and whose rows are separated by small brooks. As a White Pawn in the Queen’s file, counting from the White side, Alice begins on square Q2 and proceeds to Q4, Q5, Q6, Q7, and Q8. She can see and interact with characters from her square or on adjoining squares. The book signals her chess moves with triple rows of dots.
Train. Alice covers the third square quickly, moving by railway (in chess, pawns may advance two full squares on their first move but only one square at other times). The train rushing forward is a parody of hectic, commerce-driven, modern life, in which not only is time...
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Through the Looking-Glass is set in Victorian England in the upper-middle class home of Dean Liddell in Oxford. Alice, a proper little girl, is playing with her cat Dinah and Dinah's two kittens in the drawing room when she decides to play a game of pretend about the Looking-Glass House, or the world she believes lies through the mirror. As she climbs on the mantel to investigate, the mirror turns to mist, and she finds herself in the looking-glass world, a world composed of familiar English scenes (such as riding on a train, walking in a flower garden, browsing in a shop, boating on a river) and objects (a chessboard, an umbrella, and a rattle) held together in a fluid world of dreams.
Each of the scenes also symbolizes a stage in the process of growing up. The train scene, for example, symbolizes the rapid changes Alice is going through and the shifts in her vision of the world. Thus, although the Looking-Glass World is a world of fantasy, it is rooted in familiar scenes, objects, and psychological states.
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Through the Looking-Glass combines verse with prose. Two poems, in particular, have importance outside the context of the book. "Jabberwocky," that oft-quoted and memorized nonsense poem, is a mock-heroic ballad about a battle between a young man and a Jabberwock beast. The ballad form, the story line, and the use of some regular constructions provide a conventional framework for the poem. The invented and nonsensical words, however, provide the delight in the poem. Readers try to guess the meaning of the words by feel and association; with no conclusive meaning to the words, their meaning becomes whatever readers make it.
Almost as famous is the poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter" with its lines: "The time has come, the Walrus said,/ To talk of many things:/ Of shoes and ships and sealing wax/ Of cabbages and kings." As the White Knight's poem is a parody of Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence," so "The Walrus and the Carpenter" satirizes the style of Thomas Hood's Dream, of Eugene Aram. The absurdity in this poem comes not from language but from imagery—the sun shining in the middle of the night, the oysters wearing shoes although they have no feet. Shoes, ships, wax, cabbages, and kings will not fuse into a conversation topic; nevertheless, the lines convey the meaning that the time has come to talk of wide-ranging essentials. Nonsense becomes sense.
The prose of Through the Looking- Glass similarly uses...
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Carroll's concerns about language, dominance, violence, and power are just as appropriate in the nuclear age as the Victorian era. Although some readers may recoil from Carroll's assertation that the desire to grow up includes the desire to dominate and punish, this assertion does force readers to question their own definitions of adulthood, as well as their own definitions of the loss incurred when leaving childhood behind. Alice in Wonderland, with its chaotic landscape and characters, may be more frightening, but Through the Looking-Glass is perhaps more psychologically challenging.
Through the Looking-Glass is doubly challenging because the adult figures—the Gnat, the White Knight, and the White Queen—are often impotent, unreliable, or incompetent. Ethical and social decisions are as troubling for them as for Alice. In fact, Alice often behaves more rationally and with greater determination.
For this very reason—its portrayal of the difficulties of adulthood—Through the Looking-Glass appeals to adults. Many have experienced the self-doubts of the White Knight, the regression of the White Queen, the longing to be silly like the Gnat, the desire to fight like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, or to turn a feast into a spoiled party. The book works on two different psychological levels; it dramatizes the child's concerns about growing up and the adult's anxiety about the rigors and complexities of life.
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Topics for Discussion
1. What does the train scene have to do with the process of growing up?
2. In what ways is Carroll comparing a chess game with human behavior?
3. How would you characterize the overall tone of Through the Looking- Glass??
4. Why does the Gnat cry when Alice refuses to join in his jokes?
5. Why do Tweedledum and Tweedledee fight continually?
6. Describe Humpty Dumpty's personality.
7. In what ways does the "Wool and Water" episode seem to deal with a child's fear of adult disapproval?
8. What does Alice's frantic picking of the rushes symbolize? Why does she not notice when the rushes immediately lose their scent and beauty?
9. Why does the White Knight's poem have so many titles?
10. Does Alice like the White Knight? What does he represent on her journey to adulthood?
11. Why do the flowers think that Alice is a flower? In what ways is human knowledge limited like the flower's knowledge?
12. Why does Alice's sister not appear in Through the Looking-Glass?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Describe how John Tenniel's illustrations add to the fun and meaning of Through the Looking-Glass. One critic has written, "Alice without Tenniel is no more conceivable than Alice without Carroll." Do you agree?
2. Explain how the opening and closing poems of Through the Looking-Glass relate to the story.
3. Discuss both the delight and meaning found in Carroll's word play.
4. Explain the significance of names and naming in Through the Looking-Glass.
5. Trace the two psychological patterns working through the novel: the concerns of a growing child and the self-doubts and anxieties of an adult.
6. Describe Alice's relationship with nature in her adventures, especially with the gnat and the fawn.
7. Contrast the characters of the White Knight and Humpty Dumpty.
8. Compare Through the Looking-Glass with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
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Through the Looking-Glass is a sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and differs from it in tone and substance. The main theme—what it is like to change from child to adult—remains the same. There are, however, obvious contrasts. Alice's adventure is indoors rather than out, and it is winter rather than summer. Alice's sister, with her mothering spirit, is no longer present (Alice does tell her of her adventures later). Instead, Alice mothers Dinah's kittens, who become the White and Red Queens of her dreams. In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts terrified Alice; now Alice herself seeks to become a queen, to dominate and punish (as she does the kittens).
Alice is now more self-confident and aggressive. She does not fall into the Looking-Glass world but wilfully seeks it. She identifies with the tyrannical Tiger-lily and is impressed by the power of the Red Queen. As the book goes on, the characters seem less threatening to Alice. She gains self-assurance but loses her innocence.
The atmosphere has also changed. The landscape of Through the Looking-Glass is a chessboard, and the characters move according to the rules of a precise game. In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice lived with total freedom in a disordered world; now she sees a more determined world where the Lion and Unicom, Red and White Knights, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee must fight at regular intervals. Although...
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For Further Reference
Bennet, C. L. Introduction to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. New York: Airmont, 1965. Provides background on the novels' stature and reputation.
Clark, Anne. Lewis Carroll: A Biography. New York: Schocken Books, 1979. A solid biography of Dodgson that contains interesting information about the writing and publication of his books. It does not, however, provide much critical commentary.
Empson, William. Some Versions of Pastoral. New York: New Direction, 1960. This work contains an important and very influential chapter on Alice as "swain."
Guiliano, Edward, ed. Lewis Carroll: A Celebration. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1982. This compilation of critical essays collected to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Dodgson's birth contains several important essays on Through the Looking-Glass.
Henkle, Roger B. "The Mad Hatter's World." Virginia Quarterly Review 49 (Winter 1973): 99-117. Focuses on explorations of adult life in the Alice books.
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