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Alice in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll

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Alice in Wonderland | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What is the effect of Carroll's reference to "the frontispiece" in his description of the King's wig in Chapter 11 of Alice in Wonderland?

The narrator states that the King is wearing his crown over his wig, adding, "Look at the frontispiece if you want to see how he did it." By addressing the reader directly, Carroll interrupts the narrative to remind us that he, the author, is actually the speaker. Moreover, he directs the reader to stop reading and look at the illustration in the front of the book. This technique of dropping the persona of narrator and stepping out of the story to address the reader is called authorial intrusion. It was a fairly common practice in Victorian novels (think Dickens, Hardy, or Thackeray) and is still in use today.

In Chapter 12 of Alice in Wonderland, what is the significance of Rule 42?

The King reads, "Rule Forty-Two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court." Alice points out that if this is the oldest rule in the book, it should be Number One. But for unknown reasons, the number 42 was important to Carroll. He uses it in other books—including the sequel to Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking-Glass. In the Old Testament, bears kill 42 of Elisha's tormentors, and the children of Israel endure 42 stays in the desert. In the New Testament, there are 42 generations in Matthew's Gospel. In the Book of Revelation, 42 is said to be the number of months the Antichrist will rule the earth. As a member of the clergy, Carroll was probably aware of Biblical numerology. As a mathematician, he would have known that 42 has many interesting mathematical properties. Could this be why the first edition of Alice in Wonderland had 42 illustrations? Rule 42 has no apparent usefulness in the context of a trial; it does not help maintain order in the court or further the cause of justice in any way. Thus this rule seems completely arbitrary, as many rules must have seemed to Victorian (and modern) children.

In Chapter 11 of Alice in Wonderland, what do Carroll's first descriptions of the trial suggest about his view of court proceedings?

The first details Carroll provides suggest that this trial is ridiculous before it even starts. The King's wig looks uncomfortable and unbecoming. The jurors are writing their own names on their slates so that they won't forget them. When Alice comments,"Stupid things!" they write that down, too. As soon as the White Rabbit reads the charge, the King tells the jury to consider their verdict. The White Rabbit hastily tells him that they can't reach a verdict before they've heard any witnesses. The King tells the first witness (the Hatter) not to be nervous, "or I'll have you executed on the spot"—an order that couldn't possibly calm anyone down. While these details do not mean that Carroll found all court proceedings ridiculous, they do intimate that he saw plenty of room for parody—and probably for change—in the judicial system.

At the trial, Alice hears the King keep repeating "important—unimportant." What does this suggest about communication in Wonderland?

"That's very important," the King remarks at one point during the trial. The White Rabbit corrects him: "Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course." The King hastily agrees and begins to mutter, "important—unimportant" to himself, "as if he were trying which word sounded best." In other words, as if the only difference between a word and its opposite is which one sounds better. This is another instance of both inversion and wordplay. Some members of the jury write down "important"; some write "unimportant." Alice comments, "It doesn't matter a bit," and she's right. Many Wonderland characters have spoken confusingly, but by this point in the book, effective communication between the Wonderland characters is beginning to break down. The King is losing control of the court. Nonsense is turning into chaos—most likely because Alice is beginning to wake up from her dream.

In Chapter 12 of Alice in Wonderland, what is the significance of the verses the White Rabbit reads aloud?

Readers have seen plenty of parodic verses in this book, but these verses are not parodic. They're an excerpt from Carroll's earlier nonsense poem, "She's All My Fancy Painted Him." In Carroll's joking introduction, he claims that the poem was written "by the well-known author of 'Was It You or I?'" The verses are a mishmash of pronouns, impossible to understand—as if even the poem's narrator isn't sure whom he's talking about. This is another example of wordplay. Recalling how often Alice has tried to figure out who she is and whether she's still the same person, the verses seem like the perfect summary of her dilemma. But now that she has become confident about who she is, Alice has no problem announcing, "I don't believe there's an atom of meaning in it."

By the end of Alice in Wonderland, what is the most important way in which Alice has changed?

Readers watch Alice become increasingly assertive and self-reliant as the book progresses, but in Chapter 12 she reaches a new level of confidence. The fact that she's a trial witness seems to galvanize her: She repeatedly challenges the authority of the King and Queen. As the chapter begins, Alice speaks up in her own defense. But as soon as "evidence" is introduced, she begins to protest on behalf of the Knave. When the Queen says the verses prove the Knave's guilt, Alice stoutly defies her: "Why, you don't even know what they're about!" Once the verses have been read aloud, Alice says they're meaningless. When the Queen tells her to be quiet, Alice refuses. She has grown to her full size; she has nothing to fear from anyone in Wonderland.

In Alice in Wonderland, what characteristic of the Hatter has a basis in real life?

The Hatter's insanity is truest to life. Because of the nature of their trade, hatters in the 19th century often did go mad. Mercury was used to cure the felt they made into hats, which exposed them to a deadly neurotoxin. Victims of mercury poisoning suffered from "hatter's shakes," garbled speech, hallucinations, and psychosis. Actually called mad hatter disease, this condition caused its victims to be shy and irritable—both of which are characteristics of the Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, who does not speak to Alice as much as the March Hare does and who is grouchy with everyone at his tea party. Laws to protect hatmakers from mercury poisoning were not put into effect until 1898. Like many other characters and situations, Wonderland takes a truth from real life and warps it into dream.

How do Alice's movements from scene to scene in Wonderland suggest that she is dreaming?

Alice's movements from place to place are often illogical or inconsistent: When Alice reaches the end of the rabbit hole, she's in a "long hallway." When, as a giant, she creates the pool of tears, Carroll does not explain why the pool doesn't seep under the hall doors. Nor does he make it clear how a pool on a level surface can be deep enough to swim in but also have a shore. When the White Rabbit meets Alice in the hallway, he orders her to fetch his gloves and fan, pointing in the direction she should go to find his house. After running for a while, Alice "comes upon" the house, which is outside. How did she get out of the hallway? The croquet game is in a walled garden, but the Gryphon is able to lead Alice to the seashore very quickly. The Knave's trial is held in a "court of justice," which is presumably in their castle, since the King's and Queen's thrones are there. Carroll doesn't show Alice and the Gryphon reaching the castle; he just says that "when they arrive," the trial is about to begin. This is in keeping with the novel's dream motif.

How does Carroll portray women in Alice in Wonderland?

Feminist theorists are divided on Alice's characterization, but no one can doubt that the Queen is meant to be exceedingly troublesome. She's intolerant, vain, and furious at the world—a terrible ruler. Wherever she goes, chaos follows. The other two women in the book—the cook and the Duchess—are nearly as bad. The cook uses so much pepper that clouds of it float in the air, making the baby howl and sneeze, and with no warning she starts throwing heavy objects around the kitchen. The Duchess calls the baby a pig, shakes him violently, and finally throws him to Alice. All three of these women are senseless and violent. Although Alice herself defies the Victorian stereotype of the docile little girl, the other females could be seen as dreadful examples of women misusing power and sowing destruction.

What makes Alice's encounter with the Pigeon different from her meetings with other characters in Wonderland?

The Pigeon is the only character in the book who believes Alice to be dangerous. (The White Rabbit is startled when he runs into her in Chapter 2, but they don't have a conversation.) Mistaking Alice for a serpent, the Pigeon goes into a panic. She's convinced Alice will eat her eggs, and nothing Alice can say will persuade her otherwise. Alice has been mistaken for the White Rabbit's housemaid, but the Pigeon's accusation is harder to rebut. "I suppose you'll tell me next that you never tasted an egg!" she says, and when Alice confesses that she has tasted eggs, it only strengthens the Pigeon's certainty that Alice is a serpent. Earlier, Alice has wondered if she's the same girl she was when she woke up. Now she finds it hard to prove that she's even a human! None of the other characters has called that into question, and it's a further blow to Alice's sense of who she is.

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