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Alice in Wonderland | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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Why does Alice eat and drink so many unidentified substances—such as a liquid labeled "Drink me," a cake that was a pebble, and a giant mushroom—in Wonderland?

The book started as a story Carroll told to Alice Liddell and her sisters—the daughters of the dean of the college where he taught—and then wrote up as a manuscript to give to them. Carroll frequently visited the children or took them out walking or boating. It is believed that he began telling them the Alice stories on just such a boat ride along the river Cherwell. The original story may have contained a lot of references to food and drink because Carroll knew the little girls would like them. But in the first half of the 19th century, food was a desperate preoccupation in Great Britain and Ireland. Severe food shortages occurred in England from 1830 through the late 1840s; in urban areas, there were people starving in the streets. At the same time, the great potato famine in Ireland, which began in 1845, killed over a million people and caused a million more to emigrate. Alice doesn't go hungry in the book, but—like other Victorian novelists—Carroll clearly had eating and drinking on his mind.

In Chapter 5 of Alice in Wonderland, what is different about the way Alice changes size?

Alice's height has shot up and down before (and will continue to do so), but Chapter 5 is the only one in which her body changes disproportionately. When she tries a bit of the right side of the mushroom, her chin strikes her foot, meaning that her midsection and legs must almost have disappeared. A bite from the other side, and all Alice can see when she looks down is her long, snakelike neck. It makes a kind of sense that a mushroom in the woods causes Alice to change size differently from the way foods made by humans did. Carroll doesn't quite explain how the mushroom does this, nor how Alice learns to control the process. But making that process clear would have required a long and probably boring description, so it's lucky for readers that Carroll left it out.

Chapter 6 of Alice in Wonderland features an extremely unhappy infant. What does the scene suggest about how Victorian society perceived babies?

It's bad enough that the baby in this chapter is called it instead of he or she. In 19th-century England, it was the customary pronoun for animals, babies, and sometimes even small children. He and she were used for people who were old enough to be considered people. Babies weren't considered fully human yet. Although there is a certain slapstick humor in the scene, it is likely that Carroll himself was thinking about the mistreatment that many Victorian children suffered. The fact that the baby is "sneezing and howling alternately" or might be hit by a flying saucepan or fire-iron doesn't seem to bother the Duchess. She frequently shakes him violently, which could cause brain damage or even kill the baby. The "lullaby" she sings is about beating a child, not lulling him to sleep—a reference to Victorian practice of corporal punishment for children. And when she wants to get rid of the baby, she throws him at Alice just as an upper-class Victorian parent might leave a child in the care of a governess or send "it" to boarding school—an experience that Carroll himself had found distressing due, among other things, to the bullying he suffered.

What is Carroll's tone when describing the footmen's encounter at the beginning of Chapter 6 of Alice in Wonderland?

Carroll uses this encounter to comment on the footmen's superciliousness through parody. The two footmen—one a frog and the other a fish—are dressed in full livery and wear their hair in long, powdered ringlets. On the surface, they resemble footmen in Victorian upper-class houses. But the two treat each other in an exaggerated, ridiculous way, bowing so low to one another (which would not happen in real life) that their curls become entangled, causing Alice to laugh—no doubt expressing Carroll's low opinion of this false obsequity. Carroll uses sentence inversion to point out how the Frog Footman tries to bolster his status by restating the Fish Footman's announcement: "'For the Duchess. An invitation from the Queen to play croquet.' The Frog-Footman repeated, in the same solemn tone, only changing the order of the words a little, 'From the Queen. An invitation for the Duchess to play croquet.'" Finally, the Frog Footman sits down. When Alice knocks at the door, rather than doing his job and letting her in, he says it's no use and announces that he'll be sitting there for days and days. This reversal of expectation shows him to be a lazy fellow who avoids doing his job.

When the baby turns into a pig in Alice in Wonderland, what does this suggest about Carroll's attitude toward boys?

Turning a baby into a pig for no good reason is a strong indication that the author doesn't care much for boy babies. When Alice first meets the baby, he's not crying but "howling"—an animal sound. Furthermore, the Duchess and the cook show little concern for the baby's welfare. In real life, Carroll was not fond of little boys. In a letter to a girl he knew, he wrote the following jingle: "My best love to yourself,—to your Mother/My kindest regards—to your small,/Fat, impertinent, ignorant brother/My hatred—I think that is all." Notice that "mother" is capitalized and "brother" is not.

In Alice in Wonderland, what does the Cheshire Cat's conversation with Alice indicate about Carroll's view of the mentally ill?

Nineteenth-century England saw the dawn of changing attitudes toward the mentally ill. Medical science was just beginning to realize that mental illness was an illness—not a curse from God, but a condition that might be treatable. When the Cheshire Cat informs Alice that the Hatter and the March Hare are both mad, Alice reacts rather mildly: "But I don't want to go among mad people." The Cheshire Cat's response is matter-of-fact: "Oh, you can't help that. We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad." Alice doesn't say something indignant about being perfectly sane; she merely asks, "How do you know I'm mad?" Carroll may be implying that everyone is actually a little bit mad—another reason for treating the mentally ill with consideration and kindness (unlike the treatment generally meted out in Wonderland or in the mental asylums of the early 19th century). Neither Alice nor the Cheshire Cat treats her upcoming meeting with the Hatter as something to dread, and as readers will see in Chapter 7, Alice will come out of the encounter in fine shape.

In Alice in Wonderland, what distinguishes the Cheshire Cat from other characters Alice has met?

The Cheshire Cat is the only character in the book whose comments to Alice make sense—despite his claim to be mad. Moreover, the Cheshire Cat is the first Wonderland character to express real interest in what Alice has to say, even returning to ask her what happened to the Duchess's baby. He also says he will see Alice at the croquet game and does in fact meet her there. Claiming to be mad while actually acting quite sane is yet another instance of inversion. Carroll may have made the Cheshire Cat the most sensible of the Wonderland characters because the Liddell sisters really did have a cat (Dinah); this is another way in which the story drew on their experience of real life.

In Chapter 7 of Alice in Wonderland, why is Alice told there's no room at the tea party?

When they see Alice, the Hatter, March Hare, and Dormouse all shout, "No room! No room!" even though Alice can see for herself that there's plenty of room. The March Hare then offers her some wine, but there's no wine on the table. As readers will already have noticed, food and drink are loaded topics in this book. At the time Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland, England was just emerging from devastating food shortages. Carroll himself never came close to going hungry, but he could not have avoided seeing newspaper and magazine images of the starving British poor. For the decades when England didn't have enough food to go around, many people must have felt that there was "no room" at their tables. A side note: Victorian children did drink alcohol mainly because in many parts of the country, it was safer and more plentiful than clean water. Polluted pump water could sicken hundreds of people at once; alcoholic drinks didn't have that problem. Wine and beer weren't considered dangerous for children.

In Alice in Wonderland, why does the Hatter tell Alice that her hair needs cutting?

Lewis Carroll could hardly have found a better indication that the Hatter is mad. In the 19th century, hair was a "crowning glory" for both women and girls. By the time they reached their teens, many girls had hair that fell to their knees. No Victorian girl would have been told her hair needed cutting. The Hatter is being flat-out rude, but we should remember that as a hatter, he's used to assessing people's heads. The fact that he wears the hats he sells suggests that he makes only men's hats. For his customers, Alice's hair would indeed be too long; perhaps the Hatter can't help seeing long hair as anything besides overlong, even on a girl. Lewis Carroll himself was known for wearing his hair a little longer than most men, so it is possible he himself had heard this complaint from a hatter.

In Chapter 7 of Alice in Wonderland, what is the answer to the riddle the Hatter asks Alice?

The Hatter asks, "Why is a raven like a writing-desk?" Alice can't come up with an answer. When she asks what the answer is, the Hatter admits he doesn't know. Riddling was a common game in Victorian times, and asking a riddle to which he didn't know the answer was not playing by the rules. It is another example of the Hatter's poor treatment of his guest. The riddle also raises the expectations of the reader, who looks forward to another example of wordplay, one of the novel's most prominent motifs. And although the riddle is never answered in the story, it introduces wordplay on Alice's comment that she says what she means or, at least, means what she says. In a preface to the 1896 edition, Carroll suggested this answer: "Because it can produce [a] few notes, though they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front." Since then, many others have proposed possible answers, but none is as good as the question itself. Here are a few that were submitted to a magazine contest in 1991: Because a writing-desk is a rest for pens and a raven is a pest for wrens. Because they are both used to Carri-on de-composition. Because one is good for writing books and the other better for biting rooks.

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