Ever playful in word and idea, Lewis Carroll in the Alice books combines the whimsical with the instructional, carefully presenting the subtext beneath what initially seems like a young girl changing sizes in Alice in Wonderland. After landing in a hallway after her fall down the rabbit-hole, Alice opens a door at random to find a garden, which seems like an Edenic paradise to her curious self. To add to her luck, she drinks a pleasant-tasting bottle which succeeds in shrinking her to the size of the door. Unfortunately, she cannot reach the key she once held when she was larger. To express her frustration, Alice scolds herself, and here Carroll introduces a duality to her personality:

[Alice] generally gave herself very good advice (though she seldom followed it), and sometimes she scolded herself so severely as to bring tears into her eyes; and once she remembered trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself in a game of croquet she was playing against herself, for this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people. [12]

Carroll refers to Alice's charcter in the real world, where she essentially acts as a combined adult and child. As she behaves in certain ways, her elder and younger self constantly check her actions, making her more sensible and severe or getting her more curious self into trouble. In order to comment on the sometimes confusing situation of having two divergent beings in one body, Carroll chooses to show Alice as two very different-sized people: as Alice finds a cake that, upon ingestion, shoots her height to about nine feet, she feels a distance from her feet which can translate into a mature person's distance from childhood.

By separating these immature and mature selves in his novel, Carroll further illuminates the flaws of each: both Alices succeed in (to adopt a common phrase) making a mountain out of a molehill or, in this instance, a salty sea from a small puddle of teardrops. The error of the larger and smaller Alice in forgetting the key to the door unites the two selves in committing a common mistake.

Ultimately, Carroll sets the scene for Alice's development and understanding of her multiple selves. By learning to gauge each situation she encounters in Wonderland, Alice chooses the degree of civility, assertion, and determination to exhibit in each chapter. This increasing wisdom she has in dealing with characters as varied as the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, and the Cheshire Cat manifests itself figuratively in a pair of mushrooms she finds in her encounter with a smoking Caterpillar:

After a while she remembered that she still held the pieces of mushroom in her hands, and she set to work very carefuly, nibbling first at one and then at the other, and growing sometimes taller, and sometimes shorter, until she had succeeded in bringing herself down to her ususal height. [43]

So Alice finds her way into her garden in the end.


Victorian Web Overview Lewis Carroll Leading Questions

Last modified 11 March 2009