The Caterpillar’s nasty mood, even if he does seem nonchalant, is a subtle symbol of all the verbal chaos in Wonderland. Yet, here, in Chapter VI, that linguistic nonsense is replaced by random, violent, physical disorder in the action of the story.
Alice has come upon a house, just as a Fish-Footman delivers a letter to the Frog-Footman of the house. The letter is an invitation, which the Fish-Footman reads: “For the Duchess. An invitation from the Queen to play croquet.” In a marvelous example of Wonderland’s semantic, verbal fun, the Frog-Footman reverses the invitation: “From the Queen. An invitation for the Duchess to play croquet.” In reality, it should end with “From the Queen.”
When Alice attempts to enter the house, she finds herself further into the world of nonsense. The Frog-Footman is sitting before the door and is totally uncooperative as she knocks at the door. He replies to her every question in “absurd” reasoning — as if Alice had suddenly found herself in a Samuel Beckett play. With elegant precision, the Frog-Footman explains that her knocking on the door is useless because he can only answer the door from inside. Again, we see an illustration where the reply to a question is never addressed to the question, but to something else. Alice’s knocking on the door is “useless,” she is told, because the Frog-Footman, who opens the door from inside the house, is now outside; thus, he can’t answer her; and, in any event, the noise from inside the house would prevent the Frog-Footman from hearing her knock even if he were inside. Truly, this is the World of the Absurd.
Yet, this kind of confusion is quite normal in Wonderland; all of reality here is viewed, so to speak, on a scale of values which are completely alien to the “normal” Victorian world of Alice.
A large plate suddenly comes flying out of the house and barely misses hitting the Frog-Footman’s head. The Frog-Footman is totally oblivious to this. And his indifference to chaos is characteristic of Wonderland’s creatures and indicates to Alice that there surely must be an underlying order here. Or perhaps it involves only a fatalistic indifference. For the Caterpillar and the Frog-Footman, things have no purpose. “I shall sit here,” the Frog-Footman muses, “on and off for days and days.”
“But what am I to do?” asks Alice.
“Anything you like,” says the Frog-Footman.
The Frog-Footman’s reply to Alice’s question is idiotic nonsense, and with a child’s simplicity, Alice finds the Frog-Footman’s values totally illogical. Alice has been brought up to believe that things should be done and that they should be done with a purpose. In her world, there is order and there are schedules and tasks to be accomplished at certain times. Carroll’s method in creating the tension between these two worlds is to increase the difference in the values “above-ground” and those of Wonderland. One is, therefore, not entirely correct in relating Wonderland’s anarchy and nonsense to the creatures’ irrational behavior. Alice, in fact, is making the assumption that there is — and should be — an order here; she is trying to make logic from illogic. Wonderland is a world of illogic, and Alice, as a proper little Victorian girl, keeps trying throughout the novel to relate, logically, to these creatures — who seem like adults and who, therefore, should be logical.
The creatures’ acceptance of disorder may seem to be a parody of reality to the reader. Yet Wonderland’s chaos is not altogether unreal. Our own reality, as a historical one, is impermanent and never without some degree of ambiguity. When we consider what has been accepted as “reality” throughout the ages regarding our world and its place in the Order of Things, we see how flimsy a word “logic” can be. Indeed, Albert Einstein, the father of relativity, was deeply worried that God was “playing dice with the universe.” If Alice fails to discover a correlation between her reality above-ground and her dream, it must be because she is “inside” her dream. To put it another way, one might even say that she is trapped in an unadjustable frame of meaning. For her, there is no scale of values except the one which she brings to Wonderland. She has a strong sense of being lost and abandoned; but the creatures know where they belong, and none of them identifies with her plight. Nor are the creatures able to befriend her. Note that Alice meets no other children like herself in Wonderland. And the creatures all speak to her on the inscrutable and mysterious level of adults. Unless they direct her to do something, their utterances are quite beyond her comprehension. In that sense, in Alice’s dream, they are echoing memories of the many puzzling things that adults living above-ground have said, things that Alice did not understand.
Inside the house, Alice meets the Duchess, who nurses a crying baby. A cook, meanwhile, stirs a cauldron of soup and, indiscriminately, she shakes a pepper mill. The baby is crying, and it is sneezing, it seems, because of all the flying pepper. Next to the cook sits the Cheshire-Cat with his famous smile. The kitchen is in an absolute turmoil. But the Duchess ignores the sneezing, the crying, and the cook throwing pans. Alice watches silently as the Duchess brutally shakes and pounds the baby. The Duchess’ rudeness and cruelty is the most extreme thus far in the story; even the cook is provoked to the point of directing her pans at the Duchess. Calmly, the Duchess ignores the others’ reactions.
“If everybody minded their business,” the Duchess says, “the world would go around a deal faster than it does.”
“Which would not be an advantage,” observes Alice.
“Talking of axes,” says the Duchess, “Chop off her head!” The Duchess is abominable, and the baby bears the worst of her cruelty. While violently throwing the baby around, the Duchess sings a crude and savage lullaby:
Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.
The cook and the baby then recite a chorus to each stanza:
Wow! wow! wow!
This verse, like the others before it, is another parody of a well-known poem in Carroll’s time. Alice is rightly appalled at the lullaby’s sentiments and the Duchess’ cruelty. Every now and then, the Duchess calls the baby “Pig!” This is proof enough that the Duchess has a barbarous nature.
As the Duchess prepares to go play croquet with the Queen, she tosses the baby to Alice. Suddenly, Alice feels maternal and thinks that she must save the baby from the violent Duchess and from the crazy cook. But in the next moment, Alice finds that her sympathy is falsely placed. The baby struggles to get out of her embrace, and before Alice’s very eyes, the baby is transformed into a grunting pig.
Confident that she was doing the right thing — despite the metamorphosis that is happening before her very eyes — Alice still finds her good intentions subverted by Wonderland’s absurdities. Finally, she has no choice but to let the pig trot off, but she cannot let it go without a twinge of guilt. She considers it a handsome pig — but an ugly baby. Implicit in this observation is the assumption that “all things have a silver lining,” a very Victorian type of thought. Alice remembers children who “might do well as pigs . . . if one only knew the right way to change them.”
Alice has a new sense of self-satisfaction and superiority that has been reinforced by the contemptible behavior of the Duchess. She “saved” the pig/baby. Indeed, in the face of the rudeness she has experienced, Alice is finding that she doesn’t have to struggle so hard to remain a “lady.” All she has to do is not react to the crazy provocation that she meets. But even so, her moral superiority illustrates her painful isolation, and not even the smiling Cheshire-Cat enables her to relax for very long, for despite his wonderfully large smile, the cat has “long claws and a great many teeth.”
Just after the pig trots away, Alice notices the Cheshire-Cat sitting on a bough in a tree. Whereas the Duchess is unpleasant and threatening, the friendly Cheshire-Cat treats Alice with a measure of respect — though he is no less maddening in his response to her questions. The Cat is neither didactic nor hostile; still, he is no less inconsistent. If he doesn’t snap at her, he still confuses her. Seemingly, he is an honest cat, but Alice cannot make sense of his “honesty.” For example, when Alice asks him which way to go, he responds: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” As Alice responds that she doesn’t care, he replies: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.” He assures her that she will get somewhere if she only walks long enough; she is sure to reach the same destination regardless of the direction that she takes. Unlike the other creatures, the Cheshire-Cat does seem fair. However, he too creates frustration within Alice in exactly the very same illogical ways that adults have so often verbally confused Alice. And, in addition, his constant disappearances and reappearances are terribly distracting.
“How do you know I’m mad?” asks Alice.
“You must be or you wouldn’t have come here,” the cat says.
Alice then contradicts the cat when he claims to growl. “Call it what you like,” he says. Then, in a clairvoyant moment, he casually mentions that he’ll see Alice at the Queen’s croquet game. At this point, Alice hasn’t even been invited to the game, nor has she indicated any intention of going. But like the Frog-Footman, the Cheshire-Cat transfigures reality and anticipates events. He’s not surprised that the baby became a pig; he’s only uncertain whether Alice said “pig” or “fig.” Ultimately, his smile is his most enduring and least confusing aspect. Alice complains that his vanishing and reappearing “so suddenly” make her dizzy. She asks him not to disappear; his response is to “slow down” his disappearance so that he appears to dissolve; in the end, only his grin remains, and then it too disappears. The Cheshire-Cat’s smile is the embodiment of Wonderland’s riddle; it is as famous and as enigmatic as Mona Lisa’s smile.
Curiously, it is the Cheshire-Cat who offers Alice a “meaning” to Wonderland’s chaos. Alice’s curiosity has led her into a mad world, and she has begun to wonder if she herself is mad. She realizes that there is just a possibility that she may be mad! And the fact that Alice is, finally, not surprised at the cat’s vanishing does indicate a kind of madness on her part. And after being told that the Mad Hatter and the March Hare are also mad, Alice still insists on meeting them. In her conversation with the cat, Alice tries to come to terms with madness, but it seems that she has no choice in the matter. All roads, as it were, lead to mad people, and she seems to be one of them. The cat’s grin undermines her security in anything she hears because the connection between subject (cat) and attribute (grin) has been severed. “Well,” [Alice thought], “I’ve often seen a cat without a grin . . . but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life.”
Here is a smile without a face, without any substance — just a smile. The smile has become a nightmare of perplexity. Yet what the cat told Alice is logical; she can get somewhere by walking long enough in any direction. But it is not the answer to the question which Alice asked. Thus, the cat’s responses to her inquiries are scaled to very different values than the values above-ground in Alice’s familiar Victorian world. And looked at objectively, the Cheshire-Cat does not really accept Alice as an equal. He patronizes her gullibility as any adult might play with a child. In the end, Alice doesn’t learn anything from him.
Soon, Alice finds the house of the March Hare. Since it is May, she reasons (a wrong thing to do in Wonderland), the Hare should be “mad” only in March. She nibbles at her mushroom until she becomes taller; increasing her size gives her more self-confidence, but she still has not learned that getting smaller or larger by such means will not enable her to deal with Wonderland any better.