Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Analysis
- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland grew out of a story Carroll told to Alice Liddell. The first version of the story was much shorter and written in longhand, but Carroll later expanded it, publishing it in book form with illustrations by John Tenniel.
- One of the biggest themes in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is the loss of innocence. Alice's experiences in Wonderland force her to grow up, in part to make sense of the absurdity she witnesses.
- Lewis Carroll parodies many Victorian poems in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Most of the songs and verses included in the book are in some way inspired by these popular poems, such as those by Robert Southey, Isaac Watts, and Mary Howett.
River bank. The story opens on the bank of a river. The location is not specified, but it is presumably near Oxford, England. In a prefatory poem, Lewis Carroll recalls a boat trip he made in that region in 1862 with Alice Liddell (his model for the fictional Alice), two of Alice’s sisters, and a friend. At the village of Godstow, about three miles up a branch of the River Thames called the Isis, he first imagined and told the story that became Alice in Wonderland. The book begins and ends on the river bank, whose quiet and order are bookends surrounding a noisy and disordered dream world.
Rabbit hole. Passage through which Alice enters Wonderland. Just as Wonderland is a realm of transformation, the tunnel through which she reaches that realm is a classic symbol of birth. Much of the book unfolds against a background of symbols of gestation and birth, such as a too-small passage to a bright new world through which she can see but not pass; the pool of salt water produced by Alice’s own tears, in which she swims; the too-tight room in the rabbit’s house, where she kicks out; and her many changes in size.
Wonderland. Despite Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole and her references to being “down here,” there is no definite indication that Wonderland itself is underground. It is a parody of Victorian England from a child’s point of view: rule-bound, moralistic, and didactic, and of the Oxford town and university that Carroll knew. Often, Carroll describes no more of the setting than is minimally necessary for the action. There are no scenic descriptions of the surrounding territory, which is of no interest to either dreamers or children. In dreamlike fashion, scenes fade from one into one another in ways impossible to observe closely; the sizes of things and creatures are variable and inconsistent with one another.
Hall. Room in which Alice finds herself after falling through the rabbit hole. It is a “long, low hall,” with locked doors all around it, from which Alice peers through a fifteen-inch-high door and sees the “loveliest garden you ever saw.” In psychological terms, the desire to reach the garden can be interpreted as a longing to return to paradisal childhood innocence (or more crudely, to the womb). Conversely, it can also be interpreted as reflecting a desire to attain womanhood. Alice’s frustration at being unable at various moments to get the key, open the door, or fit through the door, is true both to the frustrations that arise in dreams and to those of children, who must often perform tasks they do not understand, tasks at which they are awkward, and tasks for which they are the wrong physical size.
White Rabbit’s house
White Rabbit’s house. Place in which Alice fetches the White Rabbit’s gloves and fan. Resenting his high-handed command, she grows so large that the room she is in becomes like a womb, a place in which there is insufficient space in which to grow up. She is thus symbolically trapped in the constricting limits of childhood—stuck in a world in which one is ordered about and has no say in one’s own affairs.
Caterpillar’s woods. With a dream’s lack of consistency, the size perfect for the White Rabbit’s house (three inches, which makes no sense for a rabbit) makes Alice as small as an insect in the surrounding forest (and the exact size of the caterpillar). Alice’s normal height—regaining which was one of her goals—seems to fit the forest, but she keeps it only briefly.
Duchess’s house. Alice must again shrink to enter the Duchess’s house, which is only four feet high. Inside she finds the perfect reversal of an orderly Victorian household and of the proper rearing of a child: pepper reigns in the cooking and the temper, children are spoken to roughly, beaten, and shaken, and cooks indulge in casual assault by saucepan. The Duchess’s baby does the opposite of what a well-reared child like Alice is trying to do: instead of growing up (becoming more civilized, socialized), it transforms into a pig.
March Hare’s house
March Hare’s house. This house, with chimneys shaped like ears and a roof thatched with fur, is larger than the Duchess’s; Alice grows to two feet in order to approach it. A table is set out in front of the house for a never-ending tea party, as Time, insulted by the Mad Hatter, will not advance past 6 o’clock. It has been speculated that the tea party is Carroll’s satire on his college dining table at Oxford, where the same people gathered every evening for the same—it may have seemed to him—inane conversation.
Queen of Heart’s garden
Queen of Heart’s garden. This can be viewed as the lovely garden of childhood, haunted by the bullying of adults. Since reaching it is Alice’s goal throughout most of the book, the garden may also represent womanhood, which can appear glorious from a child’s view, but when reached, may prove difficult and confusing. Such an interpretation may reflect Carroll’s own views on being a grown-up; he was intensely shy around other adults and preferred the company of young girls.
Mock Turtle’s shore
Mock Turtle’s shore. Small rock ledge by an otherwise undefined shore. There, nearly all that the Mock Turtle and Gryphon tell Alice has to do with fish and the sea, including their many puns and the poem/dance, “The Lobster Quadrille.”
Court. Room in which the King and Queen of Hearts try the Knave for stealing tarts. The trial over which they preside is a parody of an English courtroom, a symbol of adult, autocratic authority. Characters from throughout the book, of all sizes, come together for the finale. During the trial, Alice gradually grows larger than everyone about her, as she stands up against the kind of bullying and illogic that have pursued her throughout the book. At this point, the dream of childhood ends.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an outgrowth of Lewis Carroll’s earlier and shorter tale titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, which he based on a story he told to Alice Liddell and her two sisters during a boat trip they took in 1862. Carroll completed this story, written in longhand and illustrated with his own drawings, in 1863. In 1864, he gave the manuscript to Alice as a gift. Revised and expanded by Carroll and newly illustrated by John Tenniel, this work evolved into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland the following year.
While listening to her older sister reading aloud, Alice drifts off to sleep and begins her dream adventures. She follows a white rabbit and falls down his hole into Wonderland. Alice is constantly at odds with the creatures who inhabit this alien world and also with her own body, which shrinks when she drinks from a mysterious bottle, then grows to enormous size when she eats a small cake.
She encounters many creatures endowed with wit and cleverness, who confuse her at every turn. She meets the ugly Duchess, whose baby turns into a pig in Alice’s arms. Things are not what they seem. It is at the Duchess’ house that she first sees the unsettling Cheshire Cat, who sits in the corner grinning, with his eyes fixed on Alice. Later, the Cheshire Cat reappears on a tree branch, from which he demonstrates his ability to vanish, leaving only his eerie smile lingering in the air.
At the Mad Tea-Party, Alice must exchange witty remarks and insults with the Hatter and March Hare, an experience that further challenges her sense of time and logic. It is always six o’clock, always teatime, at this table.
The threatening nature of Wonderland is reinforced in the garden scene, dominated by the raucous Queen of Hearts, who continually shouts “Off with her head!” The threat becomes problematic, however, when the executioner is summoned to cut off the disembodied head of the Cheshire Cat.
Alice’s last adventure is at the trial of the Knave of Hearts, who is accused of stealing the Queen’s tarts. The Queen calls for the defendant to be sentenced before the jury submits its verdict, and it soon becomes clear that the law itself is on trial. Outraged at the absurd form of justice she witnesses, Alice asserts, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” With that exclamation, she annihilates Wonderland as if by magic, and she emerges from her strange dream.
In Through the Looking-Glass (which carries the subtitle And What Alice Found There), Carroll again frames his story as a dreamlike experience, but this time he presents a world that is controlled by the rules of a chess game. Alice enters the geometrical landscape, which is laid out like a chessboard, as a pawn. During her movement across the board en route to becoming a queen, she may converse only with the chess figures on adjacent squares. Among the many memorable characters she engages are the White Queen, from whom she learns the advantages of living backward in time; the battling Lion and Unicorn; the pompous Humpty Dumpty; the bullying Tweedledee and Tweedledum, who tell Alice that she is merely an object in the Red King’s dream; and the eccentric White Knight.
After Alice bids farewell to the White Knight, in a scene that may represent Carroll’s adieu to Alice Liddell as she reached puberty, Alice goes on to become queen. In terms of the chess game, the pawn has become a queen, and in human terms, Alice’s final move suggests her coming of age. It is at this point that she wakes from her dream and is left wondering who dreamed it all, herself or the Red King.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Blake, Kathleen. Play, Games, and Sport: The Literary Works of Lewis Carroll. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974. Wittily argues that the Alice books create a world of games spinning out of control. Firmly establishes their author in a Victorian context.
Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Edited by Martin Gardner. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1960. Martin Gardner’s notes in the margin alongside the text help to clarify jokes and conundrums and explain contemporary references.
Carroll, Lewis. More Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Edited by Martin Gardner. New York: Random House, 1990. Based on letters from readers of the original The Annotated Alice, as well as new research, this sequel supplements rather than revises the first book. Reprints for the first time Peter Newell’s illustrations and includes Newell’s essay on visually interpreting Alice in Wonderland.
Guiliano, Edward, ed. Lewis Carroll: A Celebration. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1982. A collection of fifteen essays, most referring to the Alice books, written to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s birth. Provides many photographs and illustrations, including Lewis Carroll’s original renderings for Alice in Wonderland.
Kelly, Richard. Lewis Carroll. Boston: Twayne, 1977. A broad critical survey of Carroll’s work. Emphasizes the humor in the Alice books.
Phillips, Edward, ed. Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll’s Dreamchild as Seen Through the Critics’ Looking-Glasses, 1865-1971. New York: Vanguard Press, 1971. A wide-ranging and often entertaining omnibus. Includes a comprehensive bibliography.