Linguistic assaults are very much a part of the “polite bantering” in Wonderland. Often, traumatic and verbal violence seems just about to erupt all the time, breaking through the thin veneer of civilized behavior, but it rarely does. Alice reaches the March Hare’s house in time for an outdoor tea-party. The tea-party turns out to be a very mad tea-party. In attendance are Alice, the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, and a Dormouse. All are indeed mad, except (perhaps) Alice and the sleepy Dormouse (who is only mad when he is awake). Alice has arrived just in time for tea, which is served at six o’clock. But it is always six o’clock, with no time to wash the dishes; thus, it is always tea time. In fact, the significant feature about this tea-party is that time has been frozen still. The idea of real, moving, passing time is non-existent.
The absense of time means that the Mad Tea-Party is trapped in a space without time. The world isn’t turning, hands aren’t moving around the clock, and the only “rotating” exists around the tea-party table. When the four have finished tea (although Alice gets none), they move to the next place-setting around the table. Dirty dishes accumulate, and there doesn’t seem to be any substantive food. No one even seems to be taking tea. The Mad Hatter tells Alice that the Queen has accused him of murdering his friend Time; ever since the Mad Hatter and Time had a falling out, it has always been six o’clock. It’s always tea time, and they have no time to wash the dishes between time for tea.
Alice typically does her best to cling to her own code of behavior (as always); she is still determined to “educate” the creatures to the rules of Victorian social etiquette. They protest her joining the party with cries of “No room! No room!” But Alice ignores them (she is larger now), and she sits down. The insanity of it all begins immediately when the March Hare offers her wine that doesn’t exist. Alice complains, of course, about this lack of civility in offering her some nonexistent wine. The March Hare counters that she was very rude to invite herself to their party. Her rules of etiquette completely fail her here. These creatures once again turn upside down all her principles of decorum.
“Your hair wants cutting,” the Mad Hatter interrupts her at one point.
“You should learn not to make personal remarks,” Alice says. “It’s very rude.”
Later, she violates her advice and impolitely interrupts the Mad Hatter. “Nobody asked your opinion,” she says. “Who’s making personal remarks now?” retorts the Mad Hatter.
Alice has been deflated and demoralized. The last above-ground rules of how to act and what to say seem to dissolve before her eyes. She cannot understand why they are acting this way!
Thus, the tea-party continues with endless cups of tea and a conversation of absolutely meaningless nonsense. Suddenly, the Mad Hatter asks Alice: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
At first glance, the riddle makes no sense as a logical question. And even the answer that Carroll provides elsewhere (the raven produces a few notes, all very flat, and it is never put the wrong end front) is nonsense. Presumably there should always be answers to any questions; at least, there were answers above-ground.
The Mad Tea-Party conversation repeats this miscommunication pattern like all the other absurd conversations that Alice has had with Wonderland creatures in previous chapters. She delightfully explains: “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles — I believe I can guess that.”
“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” asks the March Hare.
“Exactly so,” says Alice.
“Then you should say what you mean,” says the Hare.
Alice’s confidence is shaken: “I do,” she says, “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing you know.”
But here, of course, Alice is speaking in the context of time’s absence. There is no time. This is, even in Wonderland, “another world.”
“Why,” says the Hare, “you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!”‘ This is reverse logic — exactly right for Wonderland, but, of course, not correct above-ground.
Alice cannot make the creatures understand this, however, and finally she sighs. “I think you might do something better with time . . . than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.” To this, the Hatter replies: “If you knew Time as well as I do . . . you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.”
Time is thus suddenly personified and becomes the source of much punning and comic relief. Alice participates in this nonsense in all seriousness, saying that she has to “beat time” when she learns music, even though she has “perhaps” never spoken to “him.”
“Ah! That accounts for it,” says the Mad Hatter. “He won’t stand beating!”
Then the Mad Hatter launches into a satirical parody of another, famous children’s verse: “Twinkle, twinkle little bat!” The bat is not the shining star of the Victorian poem, but a repulsive and morbid symbol of the ugly course of events about to begin. The Mad Hatter explains that his fight with Time and accusation of murder happened the last time that he was reciting that verse. So the disaster with Time is closely related to the Mad Hatter’s distortion of the nursery rhyme. Filling his version with bats and flying tea-trays, the Mad Hatter’s rhyme increases the comic personification of Time. The Mad Hatter has animated the inanimate star as a bat and has made an inanimate object live.
The Mad Tea-Party is filled with atrocious puns in conversation. The pun is determined by the coincidence of two words that sound so alike that relevant information is muddled. And here the play on words is a way of freeing meaning from conventional definition. The Dormouse, for instance, tells a story about three sisters who lived in a treacle well and were learning to “draw” treacle (molasses). Alice asks: “But I don’t understand. Where did they draw treacle from?”
“You can draw water out of a water-well,” says the Mad Hatter, “so I should think you could draw treacle out of a treacle-well.”
“But they were in the well,” says Alice (very logically).
“Of course they were,” says the Dormouse. “Well in.”
The Dormouse’s illogic continues to frustrate Alice. Playing on words that begin with the letter M, the Dormouse describes the sisters as drawing “all manner of things — everything that begins with an M such as mousetraps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness — you know you say things are ‘much of a muchness’ — did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness!”
Alice stammers, and the Hatter cries, “Then you shouldn’t talk.”
With that rude remark, Alice storms away in disgust. She has still not succeeded in getting any closer to the reality she seeks. At the tea-party, she has not even received any tea or food. Her serving has been only a bitter course of verbal abuse and semantic teasing. Muchness indeed! The creatures are self-centered, argumentative and rude; they have violated all of the conventions of conversation that Alice has been taught to practice. All of these creatures in Wonderland have compounded the pain of Alice’s psychological loss of place and time with their nonsense and cruel teasing.
As she leaves the table, Alice notices the other two attempting to drown the Dormouse in the teapot. His ritualistic death is, at least, a seemingly logical consequence of the Mad Hatter’s ominous verse and Alice’s departure. The Dormouse should have been hibernating instead of attending parties and telling anecdotes; dunking him seems to be sort of a realistic — if an absurd — way of forcing him back to “slumber.” This will be, however, if they are successful, more than just a “slumber”; it will be death, “much of a muchness.”
The Dormouse’s fate serves as an appropriate conclusion to this chapter, for Alice enters another door and finds herself once again in the hallway with the glass table and the small doorway that leads to the beautiful garden. To try and reinforce the notion that Wonderland must have a hidden order, Alice first unlocks the door, and she then reduces her size by nibbling on a piece of the mushroom.
She has finally learned a lesson from her initial, frightening experience in Wonderland: She has been eating, drinking, and changing sizes, without thinking first.