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Alice in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll

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Alice in Wonderland | Motifs and Literary Devices


Dreams, mathematics, and science are three motifs that recur frequently in Alice in Wonderland. Carroll also returns again and again to the plot devices of inversion and reversal and to the literary technique of wordplay.


Wonderland is a dream, and characters and settings change in dreamlike ways. From the moment she arrives, Alice grows smaller and taller in response to what she eats or drinks, but at the end she grows for no reason at all. When the Duchess hands her a baby, the baby promptly turns into a pig. When she leaves the tea party, she opens a door in a tree only to find herself back in the room where she first arrived in Wonderland. In Chapter 3, the Mouse tells a tale about a Fury who puts a mouse on trial and ends up ordering the mouse's execution; later on, Alice meets the Queen of Hearts, who is very definitely a Fury and who frequently orders beheadings.

Snippets of reality morph into unreality in Wonderland, as cards become the King and Queen of Hearts and their court and a game of croquet is played with flamingos for mallets and hedgehogs for balls.


Because Carroll was a mathematics professor at the University of Oxford, it is not surprising that he engages in number play and parodies the teaching of mathematics in Alice in Wonderland. Such references to mathematics are superficial, however, in comparison to his subtle jabs at the symbolic algebra that intrigued so many of his contemporaries.

The tea party is the best example of this. In 1843 the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton came up with a way to multiply and divide the coordinates of two points in three-dimensional space; he did this by assuming a fourth dimension. He called his new system quaternion algebra. As the name implies, a quaternion comprises four elements, and according to Hamilton, time is one of these elements. Carroll used the Hatter's tea party to show what happens when time is taken out of the equation: the remaining elements are stuck in limbo, rotating aimlessly—just as the Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse rotate around the table.


Science was a popular topic in Victorian times. Whereas earlier it had been a pastime of the upper classes, science during the Victorian era was a pastime and vocation for the middle classes as well. Throughout Alice in Wonderland, there are many references to topics in the natural sciences, such as evolution, metamorphosis, and the characteristics of specific animal characters.

This motif can be seen in Alice's constant changes in size. Carroll suffered from migraines, which can leave sufferers feeling as if their bodies are changing uncontrollably in size and shape, and it is thought that the author used his own physical experiences to inform his description of Alice's predicament. (This neurological condition was dubbed Alice in Wonderland syndrome in 1955 by John Todd, an English psychiatrist.) As Alice tries to regulate her size, she uses trial and error—a very scientific approach.

Inversion and Reversal

Nothing in Wonderland is quite as expected; in fact, it's often just the opposite. The animals have a race, but they run in a circle and all stop at once. Alice, who thinks of herself as a polite little girl, is often perceived as a threat. For instance, in trying to make conversation with the Mouse, she manages to terrify the creature, and later the Pigeon mistakes Alice for a serpent trying to steal her eggs. At the tea party, the March Hare offers Alice wine even though they have no wine. In the garden, the gardeners are painting the white roses red. And in Chapter 12, when the King wants the jury to consider their verdict, the Queen of Hearts insists, "Sentence first—verdict afterwards."

Of course, some of these inversions are misinterpreted by Wonderland characters. In Chapter 6, for instance, the Cheshire Cat convinces Alice to agree that dogs are not mad and then points out, "A dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased. Now I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry. Therefore I'm mad."

Another example of inversion and reversal is Carroll's pervasive use of parody. Many of his verses are more than nonsensical or silly rewordings of well-known poems—they also undermine the original morals or messages of those poems. This is clearest in the Duchess's parody of David Bates's "Speak Gently":

Speak gently to the little child!
Its love be sure to gain;
Teach it in accents soft and mild:
It may not long remain.

Bates's moral is that a person should treat others with gentle kindness in order to receive the same in return. This moral is completely subverted in the Duchess's lullaby:

Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes;
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.


The novel is packed with puns, trick questions, and other wordplay. In Chapter 3, for instance, Alice and the animals are soaking wet after falling into the pool of Alice's tears. They wonder how they can dry off, and the Mouse decides to tell them "the driest thing I know," a lecture on William the Conqueror's conquest of England. In Chapter 7, the Hatter asks Alice, "Why is a raven like a writing-desk?" When she cannot solve the riddle, he admits he doesn't know the answer himself. When Alice finally asserts, "At least I mean what I say—that's the same thing," the animals disagree vehemently with her, and a debate about sentence grammar ensues:

"Not the same thing a bit!" said the Hatter. "You might just as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see'!"

"You might just as well say," added the March Hare, "that 'I like what I get' is the same thing as 'I get what I like'!"

"You might just as well say," added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, "that 'I breathe when I sleep' is the same thing as 'I sleep when I breathe'!"

"It IS the same thing with you," said the Hatter.
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