Alice in Wonderland | Study Guide

Lewis Carroll

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Alice in Wonderland | Chapter 7 : A Mad Tea-Party | Summary

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Summary

In front of the Hatter's house, a long tea table is set under a tree. The March Hare, the Hatter, and a sleepy Dormouse are sitting at one end. They shout, "No room!"—but Alice indignantly sits down, and they have a conversation about meaning and time. The Dormouse tells Alice a story and then falls asleep at the table. Alice is so disgusted by the rudeness of the three that she leaves.

Alice reenters the long hall, takes up the golden key, and walks into the garden she's been waiting so long to visit.

Analysis

In Victorian times, many books about etiquette were published. Up until the 18th century, land ownership was the main way to amass wealth in Britain. The growth of manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution brought with it new ways to become rich. As a result, the middle classes burgeoned in the 19th century. Perceiving themselves as upwardly mobile, the newly wealthy sought to emulate the traditional upper classes by voraciously consuming manuals of good manners.

Ten years before Alice in Wonderland was published, Lewis Carroll wrote a parody of etiquette rules about eating. ("As a general rule, do not kick the shins of the opposite gentleman under the table.") His depiction of the Hatter and animals at tea returns to this topic. These characters break just about all the rules of etiquette: the March Hare offers Alice wine even though he has no wine to offer, the Dormouse falls asleep at the table, and the Hatter and the March Hare repeatedly interrupt and insult Alice. Alice tries to remind them of the rules of etiquette, but it does no good. Up until this point, Alice has tried to understand the odd speech and behavior of the characters she's met in Wonderland. In this chapter, she starts getting impatient. This is not the behavior of a traditional Victorian child heroine, who would more likely endure with patient meekness the cruelties heaped on her. Alice is too spunky for that.

Wordplay is coupled with the dream motif in this chapter, which has a basis in real-life facts and expressions. For example, hatmakers once used mercury to make felt hats. Mercury is a serious neurotoxin that can cause shaking hands, personality changes, and memory loss. "Mad as a hatter" was a common British expression. Another British expression—at least 300 years old by the time Carroll used it—was "mad as a March hare." Male hares were believed to become aggressive and excitable in March, the beginning of the breeding season. Dormice, which are endangered today, were common in Carroll's day. These hamster-like animals were strictly nocturnal and therefore drowsy during the day; they also hibernated for long periods. Victorian children sometimes had them as pets. The actions of all the animals at the tea party reflect these associations.

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