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Alice in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll

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Alice in Wonderland | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


Why does the opening of Alice in Wonderland emphasize Alice's boredom and sleepiness?

Because the reader is meant to suspect from the beginning that Alice's adventures in Wonderland are a dream, the chapter's first two paragraphs allude to her growing sleepiness. However, the narrative does not state directly that she's falling asleep. There are two reasons for this: Dreamers often accept without question the strange action and logic of their dreams, especially when they fall asleep without realizing it. Throughout the novel, Alice's calm acceptance of her bizarre adventures is very much in keeping with a dreamer's perception. And because readers don't know for sure that Alice is dreaming, her behavior is more noteworthy. As a general rule, dream action in fiction is less interesting when the reader knows for certain that what is being described is a dream. If Lewis Carroll had made it obvious that Alice was asleep, the idea of her meeting the White Rabbit would not have had much dramatic impact.

In Chapter 1 of Alice in Wonderland, Alice isn't surprised to overhear the White Rabbit talking to itself. Which of the White Rabbit's actions does surprise Alice, and why?

Alice is surprised when the White Rabbit takes out a pocket watch and looks at it, "for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat pocket" or a watch. Of course, Alice can't have seen a talking rabbit before this, either—but talking animals are common in children's books. Lewis Carroll means to emphasize from the beginning that Alice in Wonderland is more than just a conventional children's story. Not only do animals talk in Wonderland, they also wear clothes and worry about the same things humans do. In fact they often carry their emotional responses to the level of caricature; the White Rabbit's obsession with his lateness is a good example.

In Alice in Wonderland, what is the significance of Alice's reflecting in Chapter 1, "I wouldn't say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!"

Lewis Carroll is making a small joke here. Most likely, a fall from the top of a house would kill Alice, which would definitely make her unlikely to "say anything about it." This is the first of the book's many references to death, a subject Victorian children were far more familiar with than are modern children. In Victorian England, most people died at home among their families. One in six children died before the age of one year, and about one-third of children died before the age of five. (In the working class, the latter figure was 57 percent.) Mourning rituals made it very clear when a death had taken place in the family; regardless of income level, all grieving family members, children included, were expected to wear black for a year. This meant that children were constantly confronted by the fact of death whenever they went out in public. Some of the most popular Victorian-era children's books were gruesomely instructive texts about the many ways children's bad behavior or carelessness might kill them. Carroll pokes fun at this genre in Alice in Wonderland. Jumping down a rabbit hole is the first of many life-threatening risk Alice takes.

In Chapter 1 of Alice in Wonderland, Alice dreamily asks, "Do cats eat bats? Do bats eat cats?" What is the nature of this wordplay?

In his writing, Lewis Carroll commonly uses inversionthe act of turning something upside down or reversing it. Alice's questions here mark the first time inversion appears in the book. Readers will notice dozens more such references, but it is not clear why Carroll wrote so many, beyond the fact that he knew young readers would enjoy them. What is clear is that as soon as Alice jumps down the rabbit hole, her ordinary reality vanishes completely, and inversion is one aspect of her new environment. Characteristically, she is less surprised by this change than one might expect.

In Chapter 1 of Alice in Wonderland, Alice spies a beautiful garden at the end of a low passage. What is this garden's relationship to Wonderland?

Although in one sense the garden at the end of the passage is part of Wonderland, it is also set apart as its own distinct realm—a realm that is almost impossible to enter. The motif of a golden key leading to an enchanted door is a familiar device in Victorian fiction, but the story of the Garden of Eden—a lost paradise—would have been even more familiar to readers of Alice in Wonderland. What keeps Alice from getting into the beautiful garden? Her constantly changing size, for starters. First she is too big to get through the passage, and later she is too small to reach the key that opens the door. When she finally enters the garden, its beauty quickly turns bizarre. Carroll is never heavy-handed with symbolism, so the garden doesn't necessarily represent the Garden of Eden. What readers can be sure of is that the charms of the garden are always just out of reach and that it is more beautiful when it is inaccessible.

What is the origin of the crocodile poem Alice recites in Chapter 2 of Alice in Wonderland?

Memorizing poems, songs, and Bible verses was a common activity for schoolchildren in the 19th century. Throughout Alice in Wonderland, Alice tries to recite various educational poems she has learned over the years. She inevitably remembers them incorrectly and instead recites a parody written by Lewis Carroll. The crocodile poem parodies Isaac Watts's (priggish) poem "Against Idleness and Mischief," whose opening stanza begins, "How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour, / And gather honey all the day / From every opening flower!" The last stanza of the poem is "In books, or work, or healthful play, / Let my first years be passed, / That I may give for every day / Some good account at last." The replacement of the industrious bee with the slow-moving crocodile can be seen as another type of inversion—one that plays more with meaning than with sound. A crocodile couldn't be more different from a busy bee. Carroll clearly had fun parodying this kind of material, and Victorian children, seeing him skewer such preachy writing, must have felt that here, finally, was an author who was on their side.

Why does Alice in Wonderland begin with Alice commenting on how dull her sister's book is?

Although readers do not realize it at first, Lewis Carroll makes the book's first joke in the opening paragraph, which is also the opening sentence. Alice peeks at the book her sister is reading and wonders, "What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?" Carroll knows that Alice's own story—the one in the reader's hands—will be filled with conversations and pictures. He is slyly making the point that Alice in Wonderland will be much more fun than Alice's sister's book. And because books without illustrations are usually read by adults, Carroll is also making it clear that his book is for children.

At one point in Chapter 2 of Alice in Wonderland, Alice asks, "Who in the world am I?" What does this question reveal about Alice's state of mind?

When Alice asks this question, she has already endured two size changes. She is now so confused that she is not sure whether she is the same person as she was that morning. Alice is only seven, so her sense of self is not strongly developed. She thinks that changing in size might actually turn her into a different girl. Is the real Alice still in there? Her question may seem strange. Wouldn't it make more sense if she asked, "Why is this happening to me?" But Alice's struggle to define her own identity is a pivotal plot point. Her size will change 10 more times. Additionally, she will be challenged by characters who ask her unanswerable questions about herself. Over and over, she'll need to reflect on who she is—and on what causes her to be who she is. As the story progresses, Alice will gradually become more sure that she's still herself. Whatever happens, the real Alice is still in there. And she will become braver about asserting herself. She will want others to see the real Alice and to acknowledge her for who she is.

In Chapter 2 of Alice in Wonderland, Alice struggles to remember her multiplication tables and thinks, "I shall never get to twenty at that rate." Why not?

Lewis Carroll was a mathematician and loved playing around with numbers—something he does often in this book. The standard way to teach multiplication in 19th-century British schools was to have children memorize the multiplication tables up to 12. Assuming that the multiplication tables end with 12, this will be Alice's (inaccurate) progression of totals: 4 X 5 = 12 4 X 6 = 13 4 X 7 = 14 4 X 8= 15 4 X 9 = 16 4 X 10 = 17 4 X 11 = 18 4 X 12 = 19

In Chapter 2 of Alice in Wonderland, why does Alice greet the Mouse with "O Mouse"?

Lewis Carroll excelled in two subjects: mathematics and the classics. The classics—Latin and Greek language and literature—were one of the most important school subjects in 19th-century England. Well-educated boys (and sometimes girls) began learning Latin and Greek early and were expected to be fluent if they wanted to attend a good secondary school or college. Fluency might involve being able to pick up a Bible and translate a random passage into first Greek and then Latin. Beginning Latin scholars had to memorize the different ways in which a word might be used. The Latin for "to the mouse" (as in "Give the cheese to the mouse") is muri. The Latin for "of the mouse" (as in "the tail of the mouse" or "the mouse's tail") is muris. And to address a particular mouse, one would say, O mus—"O Mouse"—as Alice does.

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