As things turn out, the magic cake has a delayed effect. Suddenly, Alice’s neck shoots up like a telescope, unfurling until her head touches the ceiling. “Curiouser and curiouser!” she exclaims. But that is all she says; she isn’t angry, and her ungrammatical outburst is merely indicative of her being a surprised child. Her emotion is one of awe. That is all, and it shows her inherent self-control. However, she clearly realizes again that a serious problem is going to be her new size. And because size is related to what one eats or drinks, her concern is to eat and drink properly, but that seems almost impossible down here. One can’t trust what one reads on little signs.
Note that the extension of Alice’s neck has had an inverse effect on the other limbs of her body. Her arms now appear to be small stumps, her head seems miniscule, and, without relatively-sized shoulders or hips, her trunk resembles a frame minus any curves. In the John Tenniel illustrations (as many critics have noted), Alice appears almost phallic looking, much like a totem figure. But whatever the connotations imply about Lewis Carroll’s fantasies, they are certainly unknown to Alice. Nothing in the story suggests that the pre-pubescent heroine has any self-consciousness about her oddly elongated, phallic-looking neck.
If Alice has any serious hang-up at this point, it is related to food, because food always seems to produce trouble. Whenever Alice eats something, she becomes alienated from her body and her sense of who she is. After eating the cake, she wonders how amusing it will be to communicate by mail with her feet! Carroll is a master at reproducing the curiosity that can only surface in dreams. This is a child’s world of the Absurd, and Alice is speculating on possibilities. Then, her Victorian training checks her whimsy: “Oh dear, what nonsense I’m talking!”
In despair again because the “proper” and rational side of her has come to the fore, Alice begins to cry, and again her “super-ego — the voice of Authority — intervenes: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, a great girl like you . . . to go on crying in this way! Stop this moment, I tell you!”
There is often this two-voiced sense of herself in Alice’s soliloquies; there is the sense of propriety, as well as the voice of a separate child-self which keeps emerging, the latter growing stronger and stronger. It is the voice of a slowly, gradually maturing Alice as she becomes more adult, but note that she is very much “her own” adult as the story unfolds. At this point, of course, Alice is not aware that this shifting identity is a problem. That awareness will come later, after many more confrontations in Wonderland.
The humor that manifests itself in her talks to herself is mainly produced by her solemn attitude, when compared to her child’s attitude and reaction to whatever queer situation she finds herself in. In spite of what has happened to Alice, she tries very hard to be totally serious about it and to try and make sense out of all this nonsense. Nonetheless, the laugh is on her, for the narrator’s third-person voice always plays up Alice’s childlike, comic aspects. He makes Alice’s credibility at trying to be rational — despite her deep curiosity — ridiculous. This, of course, is the core of Carroll’s humor in the novel.
One consequence of this two-voice structure is that Alice has no terribly strong emotions either way; her responses to the creatures in Wonderland seem totally cerebral. But she tries, as we have said, to deal with them as though they were logical and thinking beings — even though they are “creatures” and although they make no sense at all.
Alice forms no lasting relationships with any of them. In fact, in the climactic last chapter, she displays inflamed anger toward the Queen of Hearts; her only real expression of sympathy is for the Knave of Hearts.
As French philosopher Henri Bergson once observed, laughter and emotions are incompatible — which is perhaps why jokes by people who laugh while telling them are seldom as funny as jokes told without expression or those which are told with deadpan expressions. And inasmuch as the mad creatures of Wonderland never laugh or ever seem amused (not even, really, the Cheshire-Cat), the comic effect of Alice’s dream becomes highly enhanced — that is, the story becomes funnier to the reader, even though at times it must seem scary to a child. But when the creatures are the saddest (the Mock Turtle, for example), or anxious (the White Rabbit), or enraged (the Queen of Hearts), or frightened (the gardeners), they seem all the more amusing and comic.
The parenthetical comments that the narrator sometimes inserts into the text greatly assist the graphic relationship between comedy and horror. The style and tone of the narrative is usually lucid, calm, a bit condescending, and even snobbish at times, but it is also loving and indulgent. And then at other times, it is distant and hostile. The writing in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, you should note, is always on the edge of hysteria. So intense is it, that the split between humanity and nature is implicit in all of Alice’s encounters with the creatures in Wonderland.
Part of the humor of cruelty — and the creatures of Wonderland are sometimes extremely cruel — is to maintain the balance between sadism and sentimentality. In this case, the split effect provides a proper tension and gives the writing a subtlety and a sober delicacy.
The double consciousness in the character of Alice is also a structural motif — a duality reflecting Alice’s regression, at times, to a small child, and then a reversal, when she becomes a stern, Victorian moralist. At times, Alice’s willfulness provides an escape from boredom. It irritates her to be corrected by creatures who sound irrational. Then, at other times, she wants to sink into the ground.
Here, Carroll sharpens the opposition of the two opposing impulses within Alice. Later, even Alice realizes that part of herself scolds and is very much like the critical creatures who live in Wonderland. Her search for true feeling and for some sanity in this strange world turns finally inward toward maturity, knowledge, and self-awareness, although she herself would (and will) not realize anything about herself unless it is involved in some sort of external experience. In order to know her true inner feelings, Alice will have to finally educate that other “scolding” Alice-voice which is confused by her estranged condition and trying always to cope with it rationally.
Alice cries until she is sitting in — what is to her — a gigantic pool of tears, even though in reality, the pool is only four inches deep. The White Rabbit reappears, bewailing his reception by the savage Duchess. Alice, with her long neck, startles him so that he drops his fan and gloves and scurries off.
Taking up the fan and gloves, Alice says: “Dear, dear! How queer everything is today!” Amid the fun, Alice is beginning to recognize something ominous; therefore, it is only natural that she tries to relate her present situation (“today”) to the rigid, secure “order” of the past. She leapt down the rabbit-hole without any thought of how she would get out, and now her adventure has already begun to fragment her old structure of living a rather ordinary, boring, uninteresting day-to-day life. This disorientation is very much like a jarring fall — which she would have had if she had actually fallen down a truly deep hole. Her old world is collapsing fast. She must simultaneously attempt to discover how to begin to understand her dream while, at the same time, try to determine how it will end. She attempts to re-establish her identity by asking herself if she could have become some other child. But her sensibility as a proper Victorian little girl and also as an intelligent, educated middle-class girl make her dismiss any of the children who come to mind. “I’m sure I can’t be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh, she knows such a very little.” Nor is Alice helped in trying to figure out who she is by recalling logical certainties — such as arithmetic. When she attempts to establish who she is by reciting her multiplication tables from one to twenty, her uncertainty only deepens: “Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is — oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate!”
Alice finds her distress unrelieved. She has no resources to help her. Wonderland is one enormous puzzle, and her solitude and alienation have now made her unsure whether or not she really exists as Alice! Her familiar, comforting world of facts and learning are no longer mentally true, and she wishes desperately for people whom she left behind to relieve her boredom. She knows that “It’ll be no use their putting their heads down and saying ‘Come up again, dear!’ I shall only look up and say, ‘Who am I, then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person. I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else.”‘
The most crucial aspect of her sanity — her permanent self-identity — seems destroyed. But her lonely cry does express her horrible loneliness: “I do wish they would put their heads down! I am so very tired of being all alone here!”
All this while, Alice has been fanning herself and has put on one of the White Rabbit’s gloves. Suddenly, she realizes that she has shrunk — and is continuing to shrink! In alarm, she drops the fan, and the shrinking stops. She realizes in horror that she might well have vanished into thin air if she had held the fan much longer.
As we have already noted, her trials have a serial nature, for no sooner has she stopped shrinking than she finds herself floating in the pool of her own tears. This is like a non-stop movie of horrors! In a single moment, she has passed from the threat of vanishing, and now she faces the prospect of drowning. Some critics have interpreted her sea of tears as a symbolic evocation of a Lethean bath from which Alice will emerge “reborn.” But Alice does not change. She swims and frolics until she is joined by a Mouse. His appearance enables Carroll to now parody one of the Victorians’ favorite pastimes in which they educated their children: by rote learning.
In a soliloquy, Alice addresses the Mouse: “Oh Mouse,” a phrase which reminds her instantly of a Latin grammar exercise in her brother’s Latin textbook: amo, amas, amat. Then she recalls the English translation rather than the Latin conjugation of the verb for love, and what follows is a confusing of a noun declension: “A mouse — of a mouse — to a mouse — a mouse — O mouse!”
All of this is absolute nonsense to the Mouse, and Alice’s attempt at further communication with the Mouse becomes further complicated when she tries to converse with the Mouse in French. Tactlessly, she chooses the phrase “Ou est ma chatte?” Of course, absurdly, the Mouse understands “cat” (chatte) in any language, and his initial apprehension of Alice quickly turns to fear and distrust. He swims away, very offended and very discomforted. Alice then realizes her blunder, but she keeps blathering away, describing her cat, Dinah. Alice is clearly out of control. And when she does fully realize the extent of her offense, she tries to switch the subject to dogs — as if dogs might make the Mouse feel any better. Her tactless bungling then becomes a predominating pattern. Nonetheless, the Mouse offers to tell her his history and why he dislikes cats and dogs, and he forgives her. Curiously, his maturity and politeness is in sharp contrast with Alice’s unthinking, cruel lapse of manners. Alice is redeemed here only by the Mouse’s having an adult sensibility. He forgives Alice because, as a child, she does not know any better. Chapter II concludes, then, with the pool of tears becoming suddenly filled with a strange menagerie of Wonderland creatures: a Duck, a Dodo, a Lory (a parrot), an Eaglet, and “several other curious creatures.”