Alice is well acquainted by now with the prime principle of Wonderland’s chaos: illogic. Yet she continues — almost by instinct — to oppose the illogical context in which she continually finds herself. Yet her experience so far should have prepared her for the possibility that the “pebble-cake” might not have reduced her size. But as eating cake had worked that way once before, she expected (logically) the same results. And, indeed, the cake produced the desired effect. Thus, it is the reader who is surprised!
Nothing has really changed, though. All of Alice’s moral precepts — order, the idea and the use of logic, and precise language — have become turned upside-down; they are now either meaningless concepts, or cruel and twisted confusions for her. In her encounter with the blue Caterpillar, for example, the destruction of her identity and her belief in ordinary language, social manners, and human superiority to animals is intensified.
“Who are you?” the Caterpillar asks her. Alice replies in a negative, defensive, and tentative way: “I — I hardly know, Sir, just at present — at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
The way that Alice responds to the Caterpillar is as significant as what she says. Compared to the other creatures that she has met, the Caterpillar is downright nasty. For him, all conventions of social etiquette have been cast away. Alice’s attempts to display respect and politeness — by addressing him as “Sir” — simply produce harsh derision and scorn. And he becomes even ruder — to the point of provocation. This is all becoming horribly frustrating! The conventions of social etiquette all seem to be working against Alice, and she has no recourse. She has no other set of standards or values. All of her training has conditioned her to simply bear impoliteness with politeness. It is not easy.
The crudity of the Caterpillar’s first question is emphasized by the narrator’s remark that such a question was not easy for Alice to answer. In the context of the dialogue, the narrator’s voice reveals a wry touch of humor. But given what Alice has just been through, the haughty question is hardly a humorous one. The question “Who are you?” can be very hostile — especially when one is addressed by a blue Caterpillar. His cold and snide observations reduce Alice’s feelings to a pathetic, suppressed anger. When he repeats his nasty question, she says in a grave, but exasperated voice: “I think you ought to tell me who you are first.” In a devastating retort, the Caterpillar says: “Why?”
It is obvious that such an exchange imposes upon Alice simply more insecurity and feelings of guilt. Yet those kinds of feelings cannot be sustained for long; all too quickly they become hostile and negative. It is all Alice can do to contain her anger. The strength of her repressed feelings is a bit amusing to the reader. Her deliberate, determined restraint reveals the secret of much of the story’s tension. Her self-control is remarkably exaggerated because Alice is a “proper little girl.”
The Caterpillar’s attitude has so frustrated her that Alice turns to leave him, but he pleads with her to come back, and after she reluctantly does, he says: “Keep your temper.”
“Is that all?” asks Alice, more angry than ever.
The Caterpillar then further outrages her. He asks her how she thinks she has changed. Alice tells him that she can’t remember things and that her size is always changing. Earlier, when she attempted to recite the very Victorian, very moralistic poem “How Doth the Little Busy Bee,” for instance, “it all came different.” In a deceptively simple form of mistranslation, Alice made a dutiful creature (the bee) become a slothful creature (a crocodile). The poem she mangles here is very much akin to what happened in Chapter II, for in that poem she kept saying: “How doth the little crocodile” — an animal who grins and eats little fish that swim into his mouth.
Carroll’s parody of “proper” Victorian, didactic children’s verses continues with the Caterpillar commanding her to recite “You Are Old, Father William.” But the Father William poem comes out just as immoral and just as altered as the crocodile/bee poem. Each subject becomes the antithesis of the correct “moral” of the “correct verse.” The Caterpillar tells Alice that her recitation is wrong because it is totally against the intent of “the true originals.” Of course, it is — and that’s what frustrates Alice so. Instead of being an old man of moderate pleasures, Father William is a lusty, scheming hedonist: He advises his son that the secret of longevity and health is an active, self-indulgent life — the very opposite of conventional wisdom on how to reach a ripe old, proper Victorian age.
At the conclusion of Alice’s verse recital, the two mutually antagonistic temperaments move to a final clash. We almost see Alice gnashing her teeth in frustration as she tells the Caterpillar that she wishes she were larger than just three inches tall. Naturally, the Caterpillar is offended by the implication that there is something wrong with being three inches tall — since that is exactly his height when he is extended on his tail.
Thus, he explodes in anger and becomes viciously insulting. Then he abruptly crawls away in a huff. Once more, we are reminded of the unceasing antipathy between Alice and the creatures of Wonderland.
Oddly enough, in spite of the blue Caterpillar’s anger, before he leaves Alice, he gives her the secret of realizing her wish. As he exits, he remarks: “One side [of the mushroom] will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.” Perplexed, Alice asks herself: “One side of what?” The clairvoyant Caterpillar says: “Of the mushroom” — just as if she had asked the question aloud. Note that neither Alice nor the Caterpillar acts as though this act of mind-reading is anything extraordinary. Each of them seems to accept mind-reading as a matter of course. Alice has obviously been so thoroughly exasperated by the bizarre shrinkages and physical distortions inflicted upon her throughout the day that the Caterpillar’s mental feat no longer impresses her. If she can converse at all with a Caterpillar, his mind-reading can’t be much more extraordinary. But, remember, the creatures of Wonderland never behave as though they are abnormal.
The mushroom has predictable effects. This time, it leaves Alice with a curving, serpentine neck. There is a curious irony at play here: The Caterpillar again provides Alice with the means of changing her size rather than simply, psychologically, “growing up.” Caterpillars, of course, emerge from a chrysalis as newborn butterflies or moths; they die, so to speak, to be reborn. Alice, however, never experiences a similar metamorphosis. In fact, she resents any notion that she is anyone other than who she has always been.
A good case here can be made that part of her objection to “growing up” is based on her fear of losing her identity. So long as she remains young Alice, she is innocent of good and evil. But with her neck suddenly slithering through the tree branches, she appears to be the embodiment of evil. In fact, a pigeon-hen immediately thinks that Alice is an egg-eating snake.
Thus, the Pigeon’s attack on Alice changes Wonderland from a pastoral garden to a primal jungle of violence and death. Alice denies that she is a serpent. “I — I’m a little girl,” she says, remembering the number of changes she has gone through during the day. “A likely story indeed!” smirks the Pigeon.
Alice is again unable to triumph at the cost of an “adult.” On the contrary, she feels compelled to assume a role as it is defined for her by others, and the Pigeon, once more, reinforces Alice’s problem of identity. Like her series of size changes, Alice’s entire existence is one gigantic question mark. Her problem is that she truly sympathizes with the Pigeon’s desire to protect the nest. Nevertheless, Alice fears that she won’t be able to prove that she is, truly, just a little girl with an extremely long neck. And the Pigeon rejects Alice’s claim — especially after she admits that Yes, she has eaten eggs. But her protests that she has no designs on these particular eggs come to nothing, and the Pigeon vehemently orders her away from the nest.
In a state of rejection, Alice desperately tries to reduce herself back to her previous size. She still has some of the Caterpillar’s mushroom, so she nibbles at pieces of it, and by a process of trial and error, she begins to be able to control her size. Thus, her success in using the mushroom to obtain the desired height shows how well she is beginning to apply the logic of size reversibility.