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Alice in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll

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Alice in Wonderland | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Alice in Wonderland, why does Carroll portray the White Rabbit as nervous and fretful?

Lewis Carroll portrays the White Rabbit as a nervous wreck because he wants him to offer a complete contrast to Alice. "For her 'youth,' 'audacity,' 'vigor,' and 'swift directness of purpose,'" Carroll wrote in an article, "read 'elderly,' 'timid,' 'feeble,' and 'nervously shilly-shallying,' and you will get something of what I meant him to be." Alice has far more reason than the White Rabbit to be nervous. She's just fallen into a strange and unpredictable world. But the child Alice is impressively calm compared to the adult White Rabbit, whose ineffectiveness underscores Alice's competence. Alice will talk to all kinds of characters; the White Rabbit talks to almost nobody, and for the most part all he talks about is how late he is.

In Chapter 2 of Alice in Wonderland, one of the characters is the Dodo. Dodos have been extinct since 1681. Why did Carroll add one to the book's menagerie?

At the time Carroll wrote Alice, the theory of evolution was just beginning to permeate popular culture. (Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was published six years earlier.) Several Victorian novelists used evolution-related imagery in their work. In this passage, Alice and the other characters swim around in a salty pool. Then, like the earliest forms of life, they emerge from it. The Dodo, an extinct animal, is a second reminder of evolutionary theory. Carroll is not stating how he feels about evolution, just using it as an image. The Dodo is also meant to represent Carroll, whose real last name was Dodgson. A lifelong stammer made him pronounce his name "Do-Do-Dodgson."

In Chapter 3 of Alice in Wonderland, William the Conqueror is mentioned for the second time. Why does the Mouse choose to talk about this topic?

Every 19th-century British schoolchild learned that William the Conqueror had led the Norman invasion of England in 1066. As the duke of the French province Normandy, he headed an army of soldiers from France, Brittany, and Normandy. After winning the Battle of Hastings, William became king of England. The Mouse is quoting a passage from a children's schoolbook called Short Course of History. The Liddell children studied this book at home, so Alice Liddell would have seen it even if she was too young to study from it. The book must have seemed as dull to Victorian children as it would to modern children; otherwise, the Mouse would not call it "the driest thing I know." This is another of Carroll's comments on the way children were educated in Victorian Britain. He felt that making children read dull books ("without pictures or conversations") was unlikely to provide a true education.

In Chapter 3 of Alice in Wonderland, why does Alice mention her cat for the second time?

Because the Mouse has already made it clear that he doesn't want to hear about Dinah, it's surprising that Alice brings up the cat for a second time—especially when there are so many birds among her listeners. She's a polite girl; why does she make this blunder twice? Talking about Dinah is one of the few times we see Alice introducing a topic into conversation with the Wonderland characters; for the most part, she answers their questions or asks questions of her own. Perhaps she feels—surrounded as she is by talking animals—that those animals might relate to Dinah, a fellow animal. Clearly, though, Dinah is extremely important to Alice—more important than her human family, it would seem, since she never mentions wishing any of them were with her.

In Chapter 4 of Alice in Wonderland, what does the "Mary Ann" passage suggest about the Victorian attitude toward servants?

The White Rabbit becomes angry when he notices Alice, but he's not angry at Alice herself. He thinks she's his housemaid, and he can't imagine why she's not inside his house. Why should she be outside when he hasn't given her permission? Considering how nervous the White Rabbit is as a rule, his angry directive here seems to come out of nowhere. But to a Victorian gentleman, a housemaid would not have merited politeness. Housemaids were servants. A housekeeper, not the employer, oversaw a housemaid's responsibilities, and one of the housekeeper's goals was to keep the housemaid unobtrusive. Notice that Alice has no problems with this setup. She comments, "He mistook me for his housemaid," and she does not question his tone. She takes it for granted that this is how a gentleman speaks to a servant.

In Chapter 4 of Alice in Wonderland, what does the reader learn about Alice?

In Chapter 4, Alice again eats and drinks unidentified substances. Readers might expect her to be more careful the second time she runs into unidentified food and drink. However, her past experience in Wonderland has piqued her curiosity. When the drink makes her grow, she postulates that the cake will make her shrink—a reversal of what happened in Chapters 1 and 2. In effect, Alice performs a (fortunately successful) scientific experiment. This demonstrates Alice's resourcefulness and self-reliance. She has gotten into a predicament by drinking the liquid and gets herself out of it by eating one of the cakes that have morphed out of pebbles thrown by the animals in another dreamlike transformation.

Why does Carroll offer a second parody of a famous children's poem in Chapter 5 of Alice in Wonderland?

In Chapter 2, Alice hopes that reciting a poem will prove that she's still herself. If she can do it correctly—if the poem is still fixed in her memory—she'll know she stays the same girl no matter how big or small she is. In Chapter 5, at the Caterpillar's request, she recites "You Are Old, Father William," a parody on the didactic poem "The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them" by Robert Southey. Remembering the whole poem correctly is still linked to Alice's identity, but now it's another character who's trying to figure out who she is. Carroll uses the parody to make another satirical comment on Victorian mores about children and their education. In this parody, Carroll inverts conventional wisdom about virtuous living; instead of extolling a cautious life, as the original Robert Southey character does, Carroll's Father William indulges in excess in both behavior and appetite.

In Chapter 5 of Alice in Wonderland, the Caterpillar orders Alice to "come back," and she complies. Why is she so obedient?

Alice has several good reasons for doing as the Caterpillar demands. One is, as usual, curiosity—the very quality that landed her in Wonderland to start with. But there are other, more important reasons. The Caterpillar tells her that he has something important to say, and Alice realizes she needs more information about her predicament; the Caterpillar may have that information. By coming back, Alice is reminded of some good manners she seems to have forgotten: to keep her temper. Her temper is something she has a tendency to lose, and she also needs to learn to discriminate between when to remain patient and when she is justified in getting angry. Later she will meet the Queen of Hearts, who provides an excellent example of someone who ought to keep her temper. Until she meets her, though, Alice continues to have problems in this regard. The Caterpillar also gives Alice some important information about the mushroom he is sitting on, and as a result of obeying his order, she gains some control over her size.

How does Alice's experience with the Caterpillar in Wonderland reflect Carroll's assessment of what was useful (or not) in Victorian education?

Although Alice has trouble remembering poems she has learned by heart, she has no problem recalling that the Caterpillar will enter a chrysalis and turn into a butterfly. Science was clearly an aspect of Victorian education that Carroll found relevant to children's (and adults') lives. Alice sees a parallel to the changes she is going through, but the Caterpillar himself accepts his future metamorphosis as natural—which, in his case, it is. Later, Alice employs the scientific method of trial and error to determine how to use the mushroom to adjust her height. She first has to determine how best to take a fragment from each side of the perfectly round mushroom, which she does by extending her arms to either side and taking fragments that are directly opposite one another.

How does the image of the Caterpillar relate to the themes of identity and growing up in Alice in Wonderland?

The most obvious way the Caterpillar reflects the themes of identity and growing up is by being a caterpillar. As Alice points out, "When you have to turn into a chrysalis—you will someday, you know—and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel a little queer, won't you?" "Not a bit," says the Caterpillar, and we'll never know whether he was right or wrong. But Alice is really talking about her own metamorphosis and her own worries about who she is. "All I know is, it would feel very queer to me," she says. To this, the Caterpillar contemptuously replies, "You! Who are you?"—which is, of course, the exact thing Alice is wondering. Notice that when this conversation takes place, Alice and the Caterpillar are both three inches high.

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