Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland commonly shortened to Alice in Wonderland is an 1865 novel written by English author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll.
Alice in Wonderland tells of a young girl named Alice falling through a rabbit hole into a subterranean fantasy world populated by peculiar, anthropomorphic creatures. The tale plays with logic, giving the story lasting popularity with adults as well as with children. It is considered to be one of the best examples of the literary nonsense genre.
One of the best-known and most popular works of English-language fiction, its narrative course, structure, characters, and imagery have been enormously influential in both popular culture and literature, especially in the fantasy genre.
The work has never been out of print, and it has been translated into at least 97 languages. Its ongoing legacy encompasses many adaptations for stage, screen, radio, art, theme parks, board games, and video games. Carroll published a sequel in 1871, entitled Through the Looking-Glass, and a version for young children, The Nursery “Alice“, in 1890.
“All in the golden afternoon…”
Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865, three years after Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, on 4 July, rowed up the Isis river in a boat with three young girls—a day known as the “golden afternoon,” prefaced in the novel as a poem.
The poem might be confusion or even another Alice-tale, for it turns out that a particular day was cool, cloudy, and rainy. The three girls would be the daughters of scholar Henry Liddell: Lorina Charlotte Liddell (aged 13; “Prima” in the book’s prefatory verse); Alice Pleasance Liddell (aged 10; “Secunda” in the verse); and Edith Mary Liddell (aged 8; “Tertia” in the verse).
The journey began at Folly Bridge, Oxford, and ended five miles away in the Oxfordshire village of Godstow. During the trip, Dodgson told the girls a story that featured a bored little girl named Alice who goes looking for an adventure. The girls loved it, and Alice Liddell asked Dodgson to write it down for her.
Manuscript: Alice’s Adventures Under Ground
A page from the original manuscript copy of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, 1864, held in the British Library
He would begin writing the manuscript of the story the next day, although that earliest version is lost to history.
The girls and Dodgson took another boat trip a month later when he elaborated on the plot to the story of Alice, and in November he began working on the manuscript in earnest.
To add the finishing touches he would research natural history for the animals presented in the book, and then had the book examined by other children—particularly those of George MacDonald. Though Dodgson did add his own illustrations, he would approach John Tenniel to illustrate the book for publication, telling him that the story had been well-liked by children.
On 26 November 1864, Dodgson gave Alice the handwritten manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, with illustrations by Dodgson himself, dedicating it as “A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child in Memory of a Summer’s Day“. Some, including Martin Gardner, speculate that there was an earlier version that was destroyed later by Dodgson when he wrote a more elaborate copy by hand.
Before Alice received her copy, Dodgson was already preparing it for publication and expanding the 15,500-word original to 27,500 words, most notably adding the episodes about the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Tea Party.
Chapter One – Down the Rabbit Hole
Alice, a seven-year-old girl, is feeling bored and drowsy while sitting on the riverbank with her elder sister. She notices a talking, clothed white rabbit with a pocket watch run past.
She follows it down a rabbit hole where she suddenly falls a long way to a curious hall with many locked doors of all sizes. She finds a little key to a door too small for her to fit through, but through it, she sees an attractive garden.
She then discovers a bottle on a table labeled “DRINK ME,” the contents of which cause her to shrink too small to reach the key which she had left on the table. She subsequently eats a cake labeled “EAT ME” in currants as the chapter closes.
Chapter Two – The Pool of Tears
The chapter opens with Alice growing to such a tremendous size that her head hits the ceiling. Unhappy, Alice begins to cry and her tears literally flood the hallway. Shrinking down again due to a fan she had picked up, Alice swims through her own tears and meets a Mouse, who is swimming as well.
Alice, thinking he may be a French mouse, tries to make small talk with him in elementary French. Her opening gambit ”Where is my cat? however, offends the mouse, who then tries to escape her.
Chapter Three – The Caucus Race and a Long Tale
The sea of tears becomes crowded with other animals and birds that have been swept away by the rising waters. Alice and the other animals convene on the bank and the question among them is how to get dry again. The mouse gives them a very dry lecture on William the Conqueror.
A Dodo decides that the best thing to dry them off would be a Caucus-Race, which consists of everyone running in a circle with no clear winner. Alice eventually frightens all the animals away, unwittingly, by talking about her (moderately ferocious) cat.
Chapter Four – The Rabbit Sends a Little Bill
White Rabbit appears again in search of the Duchess’s gloves and fan. Mistaking her for his maidservant, Mary Ann, Rabbit orders Alice to go into the house and retrieve them. Inside the house she finds another little bottle and drinks from it, immediately beginning to grow again.
The horrified Rabbit orders his gardener, Bill the Lizard, to climb on the roof and go down the chimney. Outside, Alice hears the voices of animals that have gathered to gawk at her giant arm. The crowd hurls pebbles at her, which turn into little cakes. Alice eats them, and they reduce her again in size.
Chapter Five – Advice from a Caterpillar
Alice comes upon a mushroom and sitting on it is a blue caterpillar smoking a hookah. Caterpillar questions Alice, who begins to admit to her current identity crisis, compounded by her inability to remember a poem.
Before crawling away, the caterpillar tells Alice that one side of the mushroom will make her taller and the other side will make her shorter. She breaks off two pieces from the mushroom. One side makes her shrink smaller than ever, while another causes her neck to grow high into the trees, where a pigeon mistakes her for a serpent.
With some effort, Alice brings herself back to her normal height. She stumbles upon a small estate and uses the mushroom to reach a more appropriate height.
Chapter Six – Pig and Pepper
A fish-footman has an invitation for the Duchess of the house, which he delivers to a frog-footman. Alice observes this transaction and, after a perplexing conversation with the frog, lets herself into the house.
The Duchess’ Cook is throwing dishes and making a soup that has too much pepper, which causes Alice, the Duchess, and her baby (but not the cook or grinning Cheshire Cat) to sneeze violently. Alice is given the baby by the Duchess and, to Alice’s surprise, the baby turns into a pig.
The Cheshire Cat appears in a tree, directing her to the March Hare’s house. He disappears but his grin remains behind to float on its own in the air prompting Alice to remark that she has often seen a cat without a grin but never a grin without a cat.
Chapter Seven – A Mad Tea-Party
Alice becomes a guest at a “mad” tea party along with the March Hare, the Hatter, and a very tired Dormouse, who falls asleep frequently only to be violently awakened moments later by the March Hare and the Hatter. The characters give Alice many riddles and stories, including the famous “why is a raven like a writing desk?.”
The Hatter reveals that they have tea all day because Time has punished him by eternally standing still at 6 PM (tea time). Alice becomes insulted and tired of being bombarded with riddles and she leaves claiming that it was the stupidest tea party that she had ever been to.
Chapter Eight – The Queen’s Croquet Ground
Alice leaves the tea party and enters the garden where she comes upon three living playing cards painting the white roses on a rose tree red because The Queen of Hearts hates white roses.
A procession of more cards, kings and queens and even the White Rabbit enters the garden. Alice then meets the King and Queen. The Queen, a figure difficult to please, introduces her signature phrase “Off with his head!” which she utters at the slightest dissatisfaction with a subject.
Alice is invited (or some might say ordered) to play a game of croquet with the Queen and the rest of her subjects but the game quickly descends into chaos. Live flamingos are used as mallets and hedgehogs as balls and Alice once again meets the Cheshire Cat.
The Queen of Hearts then orders the Cat to be beheaded, only to have her executioner complain that this is impossible since the head is all that can be seen of him. Because the cat belongs to the Duchess, the Queen is prompted to release the Duchess from prison to resolve the matter.
Chapter Nine – The Mock Turtle’s Story
The Duchess is brought to the croquet ground at Alice’s request. She ruminates on finding morals in everything around her.
The Queen of Hearts dismisses her on the threat of execution and she introduces Alice to the Gryphon, who takes her to the Mock Turtle. The Mock Turtle is very sad, even though he has no sorrow.
He tries to tell his story about how he used to be a real turtle in school, which the Gryphon interrupts so they can play a game.
Chapter Ten – Lobster Quadrille
The Mock Turtle and the Gryphon dance to the Lobster Quadrille, while Alice recites (rather incorrectly) “‘Tis the Voice of the Lobster“. The Mock Turtle sings them “Beautiful Soup” during which the Gryphon drags Alice away for an impending trial.
Chapter Eleven – Who Stole the Tarts?
Alice attends a trial whereby the Knave of Hearts is accused of stealing the Queen’s tarts. The jury is composed of various animals, including Bill the Lizard, the White Rabbit is the court’s trumpeter, and the judge is the King of Hearts.
During the proceedings, Alice finds that she is steadily growing larger. The dormouse scolds Alice and tells her she has no right to grow at such a rapid pace and take up all the air. Alice scoffs and calls the dormouse’s accusation ridiculous because everyone grows and she cannot help it.
Meanwhile, witnesses at the trial include the Hatter, who displeases and frustrates the King through his indirect answers to the questioning, and the Duchess’s cook.
Chapter Twelve – Alice’s Evidence
Alice is then called up as a witness. She accidentally knocks over the jury box with the animals inside them and the King orders the animals to be placed back into their seats before the trial continues.
The King and Queen order Alice to be gone, citing Rule 42 (“All persons more than a mile high to leave the court”), but Alice disputes their judgment and refuses to leave. She argues with the King and Queen of Hearts over the ridiculous proceedings, eventually refusing to hold her tongue, only to say, “It’s not that I was the one who stole the tarts in the first place“, in the process.
Finally, the Queen confirms that Alice was the culprit responsible of stealing the tarts after all (which automatically pardons the Knave of Hearts of his charges), and shouts, “Off with her head!“, but Alice is unafraid, calling them just a pack of cards; although Alice holds her own for a time, the card guards soon gang up and start to swarm all over her.
Alice’s sister wakes her up from a dream, brushing what turns out to be some leaves and not a shower of playing cards from Alice’s face. Alice leaves her sister on the bank to imagine all the curious happenings for herself.
Martin Gardner, along with other scholars, has shown the book to be filled with many parodies of Victorian popular culture, suggesting it belongs in spirit with W. S. Gilbert and Alfred Cellier’s Topsyturveydom.
Most of the book’s adventures may have been based on/influenced by people, situations, and buildings in Oxford and at Christ Church. For example, the “Rabbit Hole” symbolized the actual stairs in the back of the Christ Church’s main hall. A carving of a griffon and rabbit, as seen in Ripon Cathedral, where Carroll’s father was a canon, may have provided inspiration for the tale.
In the eighth chapter, three cards are painting the roses on a rose tree red, because they had accidentally planted a white-rose tree that The Queen of Hearts hates. Red roses symbolized the English House of Lancaster, while white roses symbolized their rival House of York, thus the wars between them were the Wars of the Roses.
While the book has remained in print and continually inspires new adaptations, the cultural material from which it draws has become largely specialized knowledge. Dr. Leon Coward asserts the book ‘suffers’ from “readings which reflect today’s fascination with postmodernism and psychology, rather than delving into a historically informed interpretation,” and speculates that this has been partly driven by audiences encountering the narrative through a ‘second-hand’ source, explaining:
“our impressions of the original text are based on a multiplicity of reinterpretations. We don’t necessarily realize we’re missing anything in understanding the original product, because we’re usually never dealing with the original product.”
As Carroll was a mathematician at Christ Church, it has been suggested that there are many references and mathematical concepts in both this story and Through the Looking-Glass.
Literary scholar Melanie Bayley asserted in the magazine New Scientist that Dodgson wrote Alice in Wonderland in its final form as a scathing satire on new modern mathematics that was emerging in the mid-19th century.
Examples of references to mathematics in Alice in Wonderland include:
- Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 1 (“Down the Rabbit-Hole”): in the midst of shrinking, Alice waxes philosophic concerning what final size she will end up as, perhaps “going out altogether, like a candle“; this pondering reflects the concept of a limit.
- Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 2 (“The Pool of Tears”): Alice tries to perform multiplication but produces some odd results: “Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is—oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate!” This explores the representation of numbers using different bases and positional numeral systems: 4 × 5 = 12 in base 18 notation, 4 × 6 = 13 in base 21 notation, and 4 × 7 could be 14 in base 24 notation. Continuing this sequence, going up three bases each time, the result will continue to be less than 20 in the corresponding base notation. (After 4 × 12 = 19 in Base 39, the product would be 4 × 13 = 1A in Base 42, then 1B, 1C, 1D, and so on.)
- Alice in Wonderland Chapter, 7 (“A Mad Tea-Party”): The March Hare, the Hatter, and the Dormouse give several examples in which the semantic value of a sentence A is not the same value of the converse of A (for example, “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”); in logic and mathematics, this is discussing a converse relation. Alice also ponders what it means when the changing of seats around the circular table places them back at the beginning. This is an observation of addition on the ring of integers modulo N.
- The Cheshire cat fades until it disappears entirely, leaving only its wide grin, suspended in the air, leading Alice to marvel and note that she has seen a cat without a grin, but never a grin without a cat. The deep abstraction of concepts, such as non-Euclidean geometry, abstract algebra, and the beginnings of mathematical logic, was taking over mathematics at the time Dodgson was writing. Dodgson’s delineation of the relationship between cat and grin can be taken to represent the very concept of mathematics and the number itself. For example, instead of considering two or three apples, one may easily consider the concept of ‘apple’, upon which the concepts of ‘two’ and ‘three’ may seem to depend. A far more sophisticated jump is to consider the concepts of ‘two’ and ‘three’ by themselves, just like a grin, originally seemingly dependent on the cat, separated conceptually from its physical object.
Eating and devouring
Carina Garland notes how the world is “expressed via representations of food and appetite“, naming Alice’s frequent desire for consumption (of both food and words), her ‘Curious Appetites‘.
Often, the idea of eating coincides to make gruesome images. After the riddle “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”, the Hatter claims that Alice might as well say, “I see what I eat…I eat what I see” and so the riddle’s solution, put forward by Boe Birns, could be that “A raven eats worms; a writing desk is worm-eaten“; this idea of food encapsulates the idea of life feeding on life, for the worm is being eaten and then becomes the eater – a horrific image of mortality.
Nina Auerbach discusses how the novel revolves around eating and drinking which “motivates much of her [Alice’s] behavior“, for the story is essentially about things “entering and leaving her mouth“.
The animals of Wonderland are of particular interest, for Alice’s relation to them shifts constantly because, as Lovell-Smith states, Alice’s changes in size continually reposition her in the food chain, serving as a way to make her acutely aware of the ‘eat or be eaten’ attitude that permeates Wonderland.
Reception by reviewers
The book Alice in Wonderland failed to be named in an 1888 poll of the publishing season’s most popular children’s stories.
Generally it received poor reviews, with reviewers giving more credit to Tenniel’s illustrations than to Carroll’s story. At the release of Through the Looking-Glass, the first Alice tale gained in popularity and by the end of the 19th century Sir Walter Besant wrote that Alice in Wonderland:
“was a book of that extremely rare kind which will belong to all the generations to come until the language becomes obsolete”.
In 2014, Robert McCrum named the book Alice in Wonderland “one of the best-loved in the English canon“, and called it:
“perhaps the greatest, possibly most influential, and certainly the most world-famous Victorian English fiction”.