Through the Looking-Glass main character Alice standing opposite her own reflection

Through the Looking-Glass

by Lewis Carroll

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Critical Evaluation

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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 the White King is placed in an unnoticed check, the queen’s castle; and that the White Queen misses a chance to take the Red Knight. In a later explanatory note, however, Carroll said that the game is correct in relation to the moves, although the alternation of the sides is not strictly consistent, and that the “castling” of the queen is merely his phrase to indicate that they have entered the palace. Not interested in the game as an example of chess strategy, Carroll conceived of it as a learning experience for a child who was to “be” a pawn warring against all the other...

(This entire section contains 1232 words.)

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pieces controlled by an adult, an idea apparently stimulated by the chess tales Carroll had fashioned for Alice Liddell, who was learning the game. Alice, the daughter of the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, had also been the Alice whom the author had placed in Wonderland.

Arising inevitably from Carroll’s use of this structure has been the proposal that Alice is Everyman and that chess is Life. Like human beings, who exists from birth to death only vaguely comprehending the forces directing their moves, Alice never understands her experience. Indeed, none of the pieces really assimilates the total concept of the game. Even the mobile queens do not really grasp the idea that beyond the board there is a room and people who are determining the game. A person’s own reality thus becomes very unreal if the individual, like the chess pieces, has such a limited perception of the total environment.

Carroll pursues still another definition of reality when Alice confronts the Red King and is told that she exists merely as part of his dreams, not as an objective being. Upsetting to Alice is the sage advice of Tweedledum and Tweedledee that if the king were to wake, Alice would vanish like the flame of a candle. The incident recalls philosopher George Berkeley’s empirical proposal that nothing exists except as it is perceived. Alice, like Samuel Johnson—who refuted Berkeley by painfully kicking a stone—insists that she is “real” because she cries “real” tears. When she leaves the world of the looking glass and supposedly awakens, Carroll mischievously permits her to ask herself: “Which dreamed it?” His final poem apparently provides the answer in the last words: “Life, what is it but a dream?”

In examining the second structural device of the book, the mirror reversal theme (perfectly mated with chess, given that in the game the initial asymmetric arrangement of the pieces means that the opponents are mirror images of one another), readers find that Carroll has achieved another tour de force. The left-right reversals—including, for example, the Tweedle brothers, Alice’s attempt to reach the Red Queen by walking backward, memory that occurs before the event, and running to stay in the same place—are not merely mind teasers. Since the book was written, scientists have seriously proposed the existence of antimatter, which is, in effect, a mirror image of matter, just like Alice’s looking-glass milk. Again readers wonder: Which is the real matter, the real milk?

Further developing this continuing paradox are Carroll’s damaging attacks on ordinary understanding of language. Humpty Dumpty (like the Tweedles, the Lion, the Unicorn, and Wonderland’s Jack of Hearts, a nursery-rhyme character) says that ideas are formulated in one’s mind; to express them, one may use any word one pleases. Alice and the White Knight debate the difference between the name of the song and the song, between what the name is and what the name is called. The fawn becomes frightened of Alice only when it realizes she is a “child.” In these and many more incidents, Carroll explores how language works, directly and indirectly making fun of misconceptions that on one hand see language as part of a totally objective system of reality and on the other forget how language actually helps create that reality. His nonsense words and poems are his final jibe at so-called logical language, for they are no more and no less disorderly than ordinary table talk.

Like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There is a sparkling achievement. Both books reflect the incomparable vision of an alienated man who found in the world of fantasy all the delight and horror of the adult environment he was subconsciously attempting to escape.