Through the Looking-Glass | Study Guide

Lewis Carroll

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Through the Looking-Glass | Chapter 5 : Wool and Water | Summary



Alice catches the shawl, which belongs to the White Queen. Alice then helps straighten the White Queen's shawl and hair. In return the White Queen says she'll hire Alice as her servant and pay her "two pence a week, and jam every other day." Alice laughs and refuses the offer, adding she doesn't like jam. In the ensuing conversation, the Queen explains that "living backward" is initially confusing: effects happen before their causes. This is exemplified by the Queen crying out and wanting a bandage before she is injured.

The White Queen consoles Alice, who is sad because she is so lonely. The queen says, "Consider what a great girl you are. Consider what a long way you've come today. Consider what o'clock it is. Consider anything, only don't cry!" Her words both comfort and amuse Alice, who laughs.

The queen also advises Alice on the importance of believing: "'There's no use trying,' [Alice] said: 'one can't believe impossible things.'" The queen points out that Alice obviously hasn't had much practice, and she herself did so "for half-an-hour each day" at Alice's age. "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast," she says.

Then the shawl flies away again, but this time the Queen catches it. While the two are crossing a brook, Alice notices the Queen's voice change to a bleat.

The White Queen has transformed into a sheep, and Alice and the Sheep are in a shop. The Sheep is knitting and wearing glasses. Alice turns around and around in the shop, and suddenly, they are in a boat. The Sheep gives Alice a pair of knitting needles, which turn into oars. The Sheep continues to offer aid, this time in the way of advice: "'Feather! Feather!' the Sheep cried again, taking more needles. 'You'll be catching a crab directly.'" The Sheep makes several references to feathers and crabs, terms that relate to rowing, not to birds or crustaceans.

After their unexpected rowing trip, they are back in the shop where Alice buys an egg.


Alice's encounter with the White Queen again mixes nonsense and reality. The concept of living a life in reverse is comical. However, within this same conversation, there is a wise bit of advice to readers and to Alice herself. The queen counters Alice's feelings of loneliness by pointing out how far she's come. This simple statement can be either literal (Alice has traveled through four squares already) or figurative (Alice has overcome obstacles and succeeded in multiple ways). Those victories are worth cherishing. When combined with the notion of believing in "impossible things," this is powerful advice.

The White Queen may appear less coherent than the Red Queen, especially because of her habit of living backward, but she is a character who is in power, and functioning independently—as will be seen when the White King chooses not to rescue her from what he presumes are "enemies" in Chapter 7. Much like the interaction with Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Chapter 4, reality is mixed in with the nonsense. The White Queen offers useful advice for children, especially young girls: she has accomplished things by believing in "impossible things." Unlike the kings in the story, the queens strive and succeed. Moreover, she tells Alice to practice believing and to take stock of your victories. This mindset is powerful. Returning to the chess game aspect of the novel, it is particularly important that this advice is coming from the White Queen. In chess, she is the character in opposition to the Red Queen. As the match proceeds, Alice will also be in opposition to the Red Queen. So the character that is in the role Alice will assume—her predecessor and ally on the chess board—is advising her not to give up.

The second part of this chapter is more nonsensical. The Sheep wears glasses, sells things in a shop, and when the setting changes—in a very dreamlike way—the Sheep makes continued remarks about rowing, a sort of in-joke Alice doesn't understand. Both "feather" and "crab" are not literally meant. To feather is to turn the oar so it is parallel to the water's surface. When a rower "catches a crab," the oar is trapped in the water by the boat's momentum and the oar handle may fly backward, striking the rower in the chest.

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