Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There

by Lewis Carroll
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Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There abandons the fluidity and chaos of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for artifice and strict determinism. In the first book, the emphasis is upon Alice’s adventures and what happens to her on the experiential level. In the sequel, the reader accepts Alice and with detachment examines nature transformed in Looking-Glass Land’s chessboard landscape. The voyage has shifted from the Kingdom of Chaos, with its riotous motion and verbal whirlpool, to the land of stasis, where the landscape is geometrical and the chess pieces are carefully manipulated by the rules of a precise game. In Wonderland every character says and does whatever comes into his or her head, but in the Looking-Glass world life is completely determined and without choice. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Lion and the Unicorn, the Red Knight and the White Knight must fight at regular intervals, whether they want to or not. They are trapped within the linguistic web of the poems that give them life, and their recurrent actions are forever predestined.

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Whereas Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland undermines Alice’s sense of time, space, and commonsense logic, Through the Looking-Glass questions her very reality. Tweedledum and Tweedledee express the view developed by George Berkeley that all material objects, including Alice herself, are only “sorts of things” in the mind of the sleeping Red King (God). If the Red King were to awaken from his dreaming, they warn Alice, she would expire as quickly as a candle. Alice, it would seem, is a mere fiction shaped by a dreaming mind that threatens her with annihilation.

The ultimate question of what is real and what is a dream, however, is never resolved in the book. In fact, the story ends with the perplexing question of who dreamed it all—Alice or the Red King? Presumably, Alice dreamed of the King, who is dreaming of Alice, who is dreaming of the King, and the process continues. The question of dream versus reality is appropriately set forth in terms of an infinite regression through mirror facing mirror. The apprehension of reality is indefinitely deferred, and the only reality may be one’s thoughts and their well-ordered expression. Were Alice to wake the Red King she would share the Baker’s fate in The Hunting of the Snark. The cool geometry of Looking-Glass Land offers only a temporary oasis in a mutable, biological, and moral wasteland. Carroll recognized that the machinery of conventions and customs, mathematics and logic, and reality and dreams helped to define, and momentarily sustain and comfort, the frightened, imperfect, and comic adventurer.

In the final chapter, Alice rebels against the constraints of her chessboard existence. Having become Queen, she asserts her human authority against the controlling powers of the chessboard and brings both the intricate game and the story to an end. In chess terms, Alice has captured the Red Queen and checkmates the sleeping Red King. In human terms, she has matured and entered that fated condition of puberty, at which point Carroll dismisses his dreamchild once and for all from his remarkable fiction.

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