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Through the Looking-Glass | Themes


Mirrors and Reversals

The theme of mirroring is central to Through the Looking-Glass. From the first mention, the idea is set that things do not function quite the same as in the real world. Alice says to the black kitten, "I wonder if they'd give you milk in there? Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn't good to drink." She begins with the idea that the rules must be different in the Looking-glass world. This is furthered when she encounters the poem, "Jabberwocky." At first, it seems to be in another language, one Alice doesn't know. She quickly realizes: "Why, it's a Looking-glass book, of course! And if I hold it up to a glass, the words will all go the right way again."

It's not only simple inversions that Alice must manage when on the opposite side of the mirror. Things are out of order in several situations. When she encounters the Unicorn and the Lion and tries to cut the cake, she's at a loss as to how to do so until the Unicorn explains: "You don't know how to manage Looking-glass cakes. Hand it round first, and cut it afterward." This reversal of order is attributable to the idea that because this is a reality on the opposite side of the looking-glass, the world is inverted—except the inversion is not consistent.

Some matters are linear. Alice has a route to the Eighth Square. The Red Queen gives Alice clear instructions on how to reach it. Yet, the inversion of order with the cake is also relevant in terms of the White Queen. She lives in reverse. Alice voices her astonishment at this: "Living backward! I never heard of such a thing!" The absurdity of that becomes readily apparent when they discuss the example of the punishment before the crime. Alice raises logical objections, but the White Queen dismisses them.

Word Meanings and Names

The theme of intrinsic meanings surfaces throughout Through the Looking-Glass. When Alice first encounters the Gnat on the train, they discuss the importance of names with regard to insects. The Gnat remarks, "What's the use of their having names if they won't answer to them?" To the Gnat's way of thinking, names are for summoning. Alice, more rationally, points out, "it's useful to the people who name them, I suppose. If not, why do things have names at all?"

When she enters the wood where names are lost, she loses her name and can't recall where she is either. She ponders, "What does it [the tree] call itself, I wonder? I do believe it's got no name—why, to be sure it hasn't!" While in this state of lapsed memory, she encounters an animal with no name she can think of. The innocence of this lack of meaning results in a friendship between Alice and the Fawn that expires when they recover their memories, and the Fawn realizes that Alice is a "human child." Names, then, are an important element of Alice's reality: they shape the way she understands herself and the beings around her.

The argument goes a step further in Alice's conversation with Humpty Dumpty. Alice asks, "Must a name mean something?" Humpty Dumpty's answer is a new reason for the existence of names, not for summoning a person or creature but for characterizing them: "my name means the shape I am—and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost."

However, despite arguing that his own name means a specific thing, or perhaps because of it, when it comes to words in general, Humpty Dumpty has an entirely different stance. He remarks, "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

The question of meaning becomes even more complicated in Humpty Dumpty's explanation as he points out that a word has multiple meanings. Alice objects here, seemingly continuing to object to the idea that one can assign not only one meaning to a word, but multiple meanings. She quibbles, "The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things." Humpty Dumpty's stance is that he "pays it extra" when he makes a word do more work.

Alice's discussions with the Gnat and Humpty Dumpty are about why a word has meaning, but in her discussions with the royals, every situation involves the royal misunderstanding Alice in a way that requires her to clarify her meaning:

"I beg your pardon?" said Alice.
"It isn't respectable to beg," said the King.
"I only meant that I didn't understand," said Alice. "Why one to come and one to go?"

Her attempt to understand the King results in his misunderstanding her meaning. This is also the case as Alice speaks to the Red Queen at the coronation. When Alice clarifies, "I'm sure I didn't mean—" the Red Queen cuts her off. She has no patience for an explanation and comments, "Even a joke should have some meaning—and a child's more important than a joke, I hope."

The questions of whether a word's meaning is set or fluid, if names themselves define a person or thing, and if clarity can be attained in conversation run throughout the whole of the novel.

Chess and Other Games

The theme of games, particularly chess, is perhaps the most prevalent of the themes in Through the Looking-Glass. Carroll believed it was important enough to clarify in the preface affixed to the 1897 printing of the book.

Alice moves across a chess board, as the plot progresses, to become queen in the "Eighth Square." Aside from the initial chess board with its miniature pieces, the Looking-glass world is set up like giant chess board. Upon seeing the world, Alice exclaims, "It's a great huge game of chess that's being played—all over the world—if this is the world at all, you know. Oh, what fun it is! How I wish I was one of them! I wouldn't mind being a Pawn, if only I might join—though of course I should like to be a Queen, best."

The theme of games is furthered as the Red Queen explains Alice's route to becoming a queen: "A pawn goes two squares in its first move, you know. So you'll go very quickly through the Third Square—by railway, I should think—and you'll find yourself in the Fourth Square in no time." This route is the one Alice follows throughout the narrative. Reminders that the story is a giant chess match continue: "Alice began to remember that she was a Pawn, and that it would soon be time for her to move." Her constant goal is "the Eighth Square."

However, chess is not the only competition readers will note in Through the Looking-Glass. There are two battles, although they are not particularly fierce. They are battles with clear rules and manners. In the case of the two knights, the agreement to observe the rules is overt, as the White Knight remarks, "You will observe the Rules of Battle, of course?" In the case of the Lion and Unicorn, the discussion of rules is less overt, but the "battle" is stopped for refreshments. In both cases, the battles are game-like, more akin to tournaments than fights.

The third "battle"—between Tweedledum and Tweedledee—is set up, but interrupted, by a crow. Alice helps the twins dress for their battle, but the arrival of the crow stops it from happening. Tweedledum shrieks, "'It's the crow!' ... and the two brothers [take] to their heels and [are] out of sight in a moment."

Assorted other word game references are scattered throughout the narrative. Alice starts to play with words in her conversation with the White King, for example. She doesn't say she's playing a game, but the White King still joins in: "'He lives on the Hill,' the King [remarks] simply, without the least idea he [is] joining in the game, while Alice [is] still hesitating for the name of a town beginning with H." While these sorts of games are not as obvious as the overall role of the chess game, there is a playfulness to these games and battles that permeates the text.

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