The novel is composed of twelve brief chapters; it can be read in an afternoon. Each of the brief chapters, furthermore, is divided into small, individual, almost isolated episodes. And the story begins with Alice and her sister sitting on the bank of a river reading a book which has no pictures or dialogue in it. ” . . . and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” Thus, we find many pictures and read much dialogue (although very little of it makes sense) in this novel.
After introducing us to one of the creatures in Wonderland, the Gryphon, for instance, the narrator tells us, “If you don’t know what a Gryphon is, look at the picture.” As noted earlier, Wonderland is filled with strange animals, and Alice’s encounters with these creatures, all of whom engage her in conversations, confuse her even more whenever she meets yet another inhabitant of this strange country.
Slowly losing interest in her sister’s book, Alice catches sight of a white rabbit. However, he is not merely a rabbit; he will be the “White Rabbit,” a major character in the novel. In this first paragraph, then, we learn about the protagonist, Alice, her age, her temperament, and the setting and the mood of the story. In a dream, Alice has escaped from the dull and boring and prosaic world of adulthood — a world of dull prose and pictureless experiences; she has entered what seems to be a confusing, but perpetual springtime of physical, if often terrifying, immediacy.
The White Rabbit wears a waistcoat, walks upright, speaks English, and is worrying over the time on his pocket watch. Alice follows him simply because she is very curious about him. And very soon she finds herself falling down a deep tunnel. For a few minutes, she is frightened; the experience of falling disorients her. Soon, however, she realizes that she is not falling fast; instead, she is falling in a slow, almost floating descent. As she falls, she notices that the tunnel walls are lined with cupboards, bookshelves, maps, and paintings. She takes a jar of orange marmalade off a shelf. But finding the jar empty, she replaces it on a lower shelf, as though she were trying to maintain a sense of some propriety — especially in this situation of absolute uncertainty. As she reflects on the marmalade jar, she says that had she dropped the jar, she might have killed someone below. Alice is clearly a self-reflective young girl — and she’s also relatively calm; her thinking reveals a curiously mature mind at times. But like an ordinary little girl, she feels homesick for her cat, Dinah. In that respect, she is in sharp contrast with conventional child heroines of the time. Although Alice may be curious and sometimes bewildered, she is never too nice or too naughty. But she is always aware of her class-status as a “lady.” At one point, she even fears that some of Wonderland’s creatures have confused her for a servant, as when the White Rabbit thinks that she is his housekeeper, Mary Ann, and orders Alice to fetch his gloves and fan.
Thus, in Chapter I, Carroll prepares us for Alice’s first major confrontation with absolute chaos. And note that Alice’s literal-minded reaction to the impossible is always considered absurd here in Wonderland; it is laughable, yet it is her only way of coping. As she falls through the rabbit-hole, for instance, she wonders what latitude or longitude she has arrived at. This is humorous and ridiculous because such measurements — if one stops to think about it — are meaningless words to a seven-year-old girl, and they are certainly meaningless measurements of anything underground.
In Chapter II, Alice finds herself still in the long passageway, and the White Rabbit appears and goes off into a long, low hall full of locked doors. Behind one very small door, Alice remembers that there is “the loveliest garden you ever saw” (remember, she saw this in Chapter I), but now she has drunk a liquid that has made her too large to squeeze even her head through the doorway of the garden. She wishes that she could fold herself up like a telescope and enter. This wish becomes possible when she finds a shrinking potion and a key to the door. The potion reduces her to ten inches high, but she forgets to take the key with her (!) before shrinking, and now the table is too high for her to reach the key. To any young child, this is silly and something to be laughed at, but on another level, there’s an element of fear; for children, the predictable proportions of things are important matters of survival. Yet here in Wonderland, things change — for no known reason — thus, logic has lost all its validity.
Then Alice eats a cake that she finds, and her neck shoots up until it resembles a giraffe’s. Suddenly, she is a distorted nine feet tall! Clearly, her ability to change size has been a mixed blessing. In despair, she asks, “Who in the world am I?” This is a key question.
Meanwhile, the rapid, haphazard nature of Alice’s physical and emotional changes has created a dangerous pool of tears that almost causes her to drown when she shrinks again. Why has she shrunk? She realizes that she has been holding the White Rabbit’s lost white gloves and fan — therefore, it must be the magic of the fan that is causing her to shrink to almost nothingness. She saves herself by instantly dropping the fan. But now she is desperate; in vain, she searches her mind for something to make sense out of all this illogical chaos, something like arithmetic and geography, subjects that are solid, lasting, and rational. But even they seem to be confused because no matter how much she recites their rules, nothing helps. At the close of this chapter, she is swimming desperately in a pool of her own tears, alongside a mouse and other chattering creatures that have suddenly, somehow, appeared.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is full of parody and satire. And in Chapter III, Victorian history is Carroll’s target. The mouse offers to dry the other creatures and Alice by telling them a very dry history of England. Then, Carroll attacks politics: the Dodo organizes a Caucus-race, a special race in which every participant wins a prize. Alice then learns the mouse’s sad tale as Carroll’s editor narrates it on the page in the shape of a mouse’s very narrow, S-shaped tail. The assembled, unearthly creatures cannot accept ordinary language, and so Alice experiences, again, absolute bafflement; this is linguistic and semantic disaster. Indeed, much of the humor of this chapter is based on Alice’s reactions to the collapse of three above-ground assumptions: predictable growth, an absolute distinction between animals and humans, and an identity that remains constant. We might also add to the concept of a constancy of identity a conformity of word usage. But in Wonderland, Alice’s previous identity and the very concept of a permanent identity has repeatedly been destroyed, just as the principles of above-ground are contradicted everywhere; here in Wonderland, such things as space, size, and even arithmetic are shown to have no consistent laws.
In Chapter IV, the confusion of identity continues. The White Rabbit insists that Alice fetch him his gloves and his fan. Somehow, he thinks that Alice is his servant, and Alice, instead of objecting to his confusion, passively accepts her new role, just as she would obey an adult ordering her about above-ground. On this day when everything has gone wrong, she feels absolutely defeated.
In the rabbit’s house, Alice finds and drinks another growth potion. This time, however, she becomes so enormous that she fills up the room so entirely that she can’t get out. These continuing changes in size illustrate her confused, rapid identity crisis and her continuous perplexity. After repulsing the rabbit’s manservant, young Bill, a Lizard (who is trying to evict her), Alice notices that pebbles that are being thrown at her through a window are turning into cakes. Upon eating one of them, she shrinks until she is small enough to escape the rabbit’s house and hide in a thick wood.
In Chapter V, “Advice From a Caterpillar,” Alice meets a rude Caterpillar; pompously and dogmatically, he states that she must keep her temper — which is even more confusing to her for she is a little irritable because she simply cannot make any sense in this world of Wonderland. Alice then becomes more polite, but the Caterpillar only sharpens his already very short, brusque replies. In Wonderland, there are obviously no conventional rules of etiquette. Thus, Alice’s attempt at politeness and the observance of social niceties are still frustrated attempts of hers to react as well as she can to very unconventional behavior—at least, it’s certainly unconventional according to the rules that she learned above-ground.
Later, Alice suffers another bout of “giraffe’s neck” from nibbling one side of the mushroom that the Caterpillar was sitting on. The effect of this spurt upward causes her to be mistaken for an egg-eating serpent by an angry, vicious pigeon.
In Chapters VI and VII, Alice meets the foul-tempered Duchess, a baby that slowly changes into a pig, the famous, grinning Cheshire-Cat, the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, and the very, very sleepy Dormouse. The latter three are literally trapped (although they don’t know it) in a time-warp — trapped in a perpetual time when tea is being forever served. Life is one long tea-party, and this episode is Carroll’s assault on the notion of time. At the tea-party, it is always teatime; the Mad Hatter’s watch tells the day of the year, but not the time since it is always six o’clock. At this point, it is important that you notice a key aspect of Wonderland; here, all these creatures treat Alice (and her reactions) as though she is insane — and as though they are sane! In addition, when they are not condescending to her or severely criticizing her, the creatures continually contradict her. And Alice passively presumes the fault to be hers — in almost every case — because all of the creatures act as though their madness is normal and not at all unusual. It is the logical Alice who is the queer one. The chapter ends with Alice at last entering the garden by eating more of the mushroom that the Caterpillar was sitting on. Alice is now about a foot tall.
Chapters VIII to X introduce Alice to the most grimly evil and most irrational people (and actions) in the novel. Alice meets the sovereigns of Wonderland, who display a perversely hilarious rudeness not matched by anyone except possibly by the old screaming Duchess. The garden is inhabited by playing cards (with arms and legs and heads),who are ruled over by the barbarous Queen of Hearts. The Queen’s constant refrain and response to seemingly all situations is: “Off with their heads!” This beautiful garden, Alice discovers, is the Queen’s private croquet ground, and the Queen matter-of-factly orders Alice to play croquet. Alice’s confusion now turns to fear. Then she meets the ugly Duchess again, as well as the White Rabbit, the Cheshire-Cat, and a Gryphon introduces her to a Mock Turtle, who sings her a sad tale of his mock (empty) education; then the Mock Turtle teaches her and the Gryphon a dance called the ‘Lobster-Quadrille.” Chapters XI and XII concern the trial of the Knave of Hearts. Here, Alice plays a heroic role at the trial, and she emerges from Wonderland and awakens to reality. The last two chapters represent the overthrow of Wonderland and Alice’s triumphant rebellion against the mayhem and madness that she experienced while she was lost, for awhile, in the strange world of Wonderland.
This story is characterized, first of all, by Alice’s unthinking, irrational, and heedless jumping down the rabbit-hole, an act which is at once superhuman and beyond human experience — but Alice does it. And once we accept this premise, we are ready for the rest of the absurdities of Wonderland and Alice’s attempts to understand it and, finally, to escape from it. Confusion begins almost immediately because Alice tries to use her world of knowledge from the adult world above-ground in order to understand this new world. Wonderland, however, is a lawless world of deepest, bizarre dream unconsciousness, and Alice’s journey through it is a metaphorical search for experience. What she discovers in her dream, though, is a more meaningful and terrifying world than most conscious acts of intelligence would ever lead her to. Hence, “Who in the world am I?” is Alice’s constant, confused refrain, one which people “above-ground” ask themselves many, many times throughout their lifetimes.
Throughout the story, Alice is confronted with the problem of shifting identity, as well as being confronted with the anarchy and by the cruelty of Wonderland. When Alice physically shrinks in size, she is never really small enough to hide from the disagreeable creatures that she meets; yet when she grows to adult or to even larger size, she is still not large enough to command authority. “There are things in Alice,” writes critic William Empson, “that would give Freud the creeps.” Often we find poor Alice (and she is often described as being either “poor” or “curious”) in tears over something that the adult reader finds comic. And “poor Alice” is on the verge of tears most of the time. When she rarely prepares to laugh, she is usually checked by the morbid, humorless types of creatures whom she encounters in Wonderland. Not even the smiling Cheshire-Cat is kind to her. Such a hostile breakdown of the ordinary world is never funny to the child, however comic it might appear to adults. But then Wonderland would not be so amusing to us except in terms of its sheer, unabated madness.
One of the central concerns of Alice is the subject of growing up — the anxieties and the mysteries of personal identity as one matures. When Alice finds her neck elongated, everything, in her words, becomes “queer”; again, she is uncertain who she is. As is the case with most children, Alice’s identity depends upon her control of her body. Until now, Alice’s life has been very structured; now her life shifts; it becomes fragmented until it ends with a nightmarish awakening. Throughout the novel, Alice is filled with unconscious feelings of morbidity, physical disgrace, unfairness, and bizarre feelings about bodily functions. Everywhere there is the absurd, unexplainable notion of death and the absolute meaninglessness of death and life.
Alice’s final triumph occurs when she outgrows nonsense. In response to the Queen’s cry at the Knave’s trial: “sentence first — verdict afterward,” Alice responds: “Stuff and nonsense! Who cares for you? You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” At last, Alice takes control of her life and her growth toward maturity by shattering and scattering the absurdity of the playing cards and the silly little creatures who are less rational than she is. In waking from her nightmare, she realizes that reason can oppose nonsense, and that it can — and did — win. And now that the dream of chaos is over, she can say, from her distance above-ground, “It was a curious dream,” but then she skips off thinking that — for a strange moment — what a wonderful dream it was.