In Alice and Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, characters frequently mistake Alice as something other than a little girl. The White Rabbit mistakes her for a sort of housekeeper by the name of Mary Ann. When Alice's neck grows, a pigeon interprets as a serpent. In the Looking Glass world, the Red Queen takes her to be a volcano, the flowers in the garden see her as a fellow flower, the Sheep doesn't know whether she is a child or a teetotum, a fawn forgets that Alice is a human child, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum claim that Alice is "only a sort of thing" in the Red King's dream.

Alice offensively objects to most of these abnormal identifications. Yet, at several points in her adventures, Alice herself is uncertain if she is the little girl she has always known herself to be due to her bizarre external experiences. Unlike the characters that confidently view her as different beings, though, Alice never goes so far as to claim that she is definitively someone or something else. Instead, she questions her identity, as when chasing the White Rabbit:

"I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I?"

Alice is therefore unable to provide the Caterpillar with a straight answer later on:

"Who are you?" said the Caterpillar.

Alice replied, rather shyly, "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 changed several times since then."

Perhaps Alice's reluctance to settle upon her identity results from the way she has been raised to seek answers using logic. In contrast, the characters believe whatever is convenient to their liking, demonstrating that only nonsense exists in Wonderland and the Looking Glass world. Bothered by their lack of concern for rationality, Alice stubbornly attempts to establish her existence using reason, both when she is unable to remember her name in the Looking Glass woods as well as when she tries to prove to Tweedledee and Tweedledum that she is more than a character in the Red King's dream:

[In the Woods:] She stood silent for a minute, thinking: then she suddenly began again. `Then it really HAS happened, after all! And how, who am I? I WILL remember, if I can! I'm determined to do it!' But being determined didn't help much, and all she could say, after a great deal of puzzling, was, `L,' I KNOW it begins with L!'

[Conversation with Tweedledee and Tweedledum:]

`I AM real!' said Alice and began to cry.

`You won't make yourself a bit realler by crying,' Tweedledee remarked: `there's nothing to cry about.'

`If I wasn't real,' Alice said -- half-laughing though her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous -- `I shouldn't be able to cry.'

`I hope you don't suppose those are real tears?' Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.

What greater purpose does Alice's uncertain, elusive identity serve? On one level, this phenomenon renders names and expected roles created by society meaningless. Although labels constantly redefine Alice's exterior surface, her inner self (her thoughts, her soul) remain unchanged, suggesting that words are man's invention and arbitrarily assigned. Her changes in identity may also reflect her transformation as she transitions from childhood to womanhood, which will inevitably result in changes in the way Alice is perceived (both by herself and others).

On a philosophical level, the confusion of Alice's identity relates to the ideas of Descartes and Plato. Descartes questioned whether it was possible to prove that one is living (or dreaming) by the act of thinking. Even though Alice is convinced she is not just a character in someone else's dream, her rationality ultimately fails to prove her realness — she can only be certain that she is reasoning. Plato's cave analogy suggests that reality is not what it seems — true identity is one's soul rather than one's image, as suggested by the contrast in consistency between Alice's inner and outer selves. The nature of being is metaphysical rather than physical.

Finally, as Carroll provides several hints that his stories lack morals, there may be no meaning to Alice's unstable identity. Perhaps it is all nonsense, serving as an entertaining diversion from real life rather than a tool for education, as a contemporary critic of Carroll remarked. After all, Alice's hopes and attempts to make sense of Wonderland and the Looking Glass world end in frustration, time after time.

Questions

1. Does Alice's frustrating failure to make sense of these worlds parallel that of the reader throughout the tales — or does the reader learn to expect nonsense even as she continues to be disappointed? Did Carroll aim to discourage his readers from over-interpreting the real world — both child and adult readers?

2. Even though the characters constantly view Alice as a being other than a little girl, they nonetheless referred to as "child" frequently. Why is "child" an exception? Because everyone is a child of someone else? Or, does this repetition represent Carroll's reluctance / failure to grow up?

3. John Locke's philosophy influenced many Victorian thinkers. In his Introduction to Essay Concerning Human Understanding from 1690 he wrote:

If by this inquiry into the nature of the understanding, I can discover the powers thereof; how far they reach; to what things they are in any degree proportionate; and where they fail us, I suppose it may be of use to prevail with the busy mind of man to be more cautious in meddling with things exceeding its comprehension; to stop when it is at the utmost extent of its tether; and to sit down in a quiet ignorance of those things which, upon examination, are found to be beyond the reach of our capacities.

We should not then perhaps be so forward, out of an affectation of an universal knowledge, to raise questions, and perplex ourselves and others with disputes about things to which our understandings are not suited; and of which we cannot frame in our minds any clear or distinct conceptions, or whereof (as it has perhaps too often happened) we have not any notions at all. If we can find out how far understanding can extend its view; how far it has faculties to attain certainty; and in what cases it can only judge and guess, we may learn to content ourselves with what is attainable by us in this state.

How does Locke's argument on the limits of knowledge relate to Alice's frustrations in making sense in Wonderland? To what extent do you think Carroll would have disagreed with Locke's statements?


Victorian Web Overview Lewis Carroll Leading Questions

Last modified 11 March 2009