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Alice in Wonderland | Themes

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Alice in Wonderland is a children's book—and a nonsensical one at that—based on a story that Lewis Carroll told to three young sisters. The book is therefore not deeply bound to thematic material. It aims to entertain readers, not educate them; Alice goes on an adventure and is not burdened with matters of personal growth. Carroll's underlying concerns can be traced throughout the book, but for the most part they do not advance the plot.

Communication Breakdown

From the beginning of her stay in Wonderland, Alice finds she has trouble communicating with the creatures she meets. She says exactly the wrong thing to the Mouse, for instance, when she brings up her cat, Dinah. Communication between Alice and the others at the Hatter's tea party is fraught with trouble as well, especially because they are so rude to her. At the croquet match, the Duchess acts friendly and confiding, but her aphorisms make little sense. In general, many characters preach at Alice rather than share ideas. All these exchanges recall and parody real-world social situations in which strangers and acquaintances meet and attempt to make conversation.

Charles Dodgson, the real name of author Lewis Carroll, was a reserved man who suffered from a stammer since childhood. Although he enjoyed a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, he was all too familiar with the pitfalls inherent in the types of social situations Alice encounters in Wonderland. His parodies focus the reader's attention on the problem of breakdowns in social communication.

Growing Up (and Down)

Alice undergoes 12 changes in size while she's in Wonderland. When she's tiny, she can't reach what she needs, but when she's giant, she frightens everyone away. Like many children, she rarely feels as though she's the right size for what she wants to do. Like all children, she has no control over what happens to her body.

But then she meets the Caterpillar, who teaches her how to control her size. That's something most children would envy. Being able to choose her size is, in a way, like being able to choose her age. For the rest of the story, she chooses to stay little—until, with no warning, she grows back to her full size and has to leave Wonderland abruptly.

In the end, Alice can't escape growing up. She even matures in the course of her adventures, learning to trust her instincts more and to make informed judgments on the actions of the characters she meets—actions often frowned upon in Victorian England.

Identity

Children tend to form their identities based on those around them—their parents, their siblings, their circle of friends—and how those people view and respond to them. When Alice finds herself alone in Wonderland, she starts to question her identity. Not only does she see the world from a new perspective (quite literally, since she keeps growing and shrinking), but the creatures she meets do not respond to her as she is used to. The Pigeon, for example, sees Alice as a serpent and, like the Mouse, considers her a threat. Alice has to question herself as well, because she suddenly cannot rely on her memory. She forgets poems she previously knew by heart and can't answer questions to other characters' satisfaction, all of which she finds extremely frustrating. This leads Alice to doubt that she is still the same person she thought she was. In fact, when the Caterpillar asks who she is, she replies, "I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then."

Rules versus Good Behavior

Wonderland is full of rules that have little to do with how people should behave toward one another.

It's a challenge for Alice to make sense of the way Wonderland characters behave, and no wonder—in her world, they would be perceived as behaving badly. A strange child has landed in front of them, but no one offers to help her. They refuse to answer her questions and never ask her any questions about herself. They criticize her. The Queen threatens to behead her more than once. For the most part, the only thing about Alice that interests them is whether she can recite things from memory—a common task asked of Victorian children.

At first, Alice is startled by this rudeness but tries to remain polite. But as she progresses through Wonderland, she becomes more assertive and less concerned with appearing polite. When characters are rude, she pushes back. And it's only after she actually insults the Queen and her court that she returns home.

Self-Reliance

Alice chooses her own path when she follows the White Rabbit into Wonderland, and despite feeling utterly disoriented, she manages to hold it together. Like any seven-year-old, she breaks down from time to time, but she never despairs, and she accepts the fact that she alone is responsible for being in Wonderland.

When the Hatter and the March Hare tell Alice there's no room at the tea party, she sits down anyway; she can see for herself that there are plenty of chairs. When she decides they're being too rude, she leaves. The first time she meets the Queen of Hearts, Alice tells herself there's nothing to be afraid of. And in the trial scene, she openly disagrees with the King and Queen, at times even correcting them. She's definitely not a helpless little Victorian girl.

Victorian Society

Alice in Wonderland is full of comments on Victorian society, in which Carroll found much to criticize. He addresses topics such as how children are raised and disciplined (the Duchess and her varied reactions to her baby), the middle-class obsession with time and punctuality (the White Rabbit frantically checking his watch), and 19th-century views on mental illness (the Cheshire Cat's comments about everyone in Wonderland being "mad").

Carroll returns again and again to the one area of Victorian life with which he himself was most involved: education. Much of Victorian schooling was based on rote learning, and Alice is repeatedly asked to recite from memory, whether it is her times tables or a poem. In such situations, Carroll frequently subverts the content and parodies the task. For instance, Alice attempts to recite Isaac Watts's instructive poem "How Doth the Little Busy Bee" in Chapter 2, but instead she recites "How Doth the Little Crocodile." In Chapter 9, the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle discuss their school days with Alice, and Carroll uses wordplay to ridicule the common school subjects: "'Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,' the Mock Turtle replied; 'and then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.'"

Questions for Themes

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