In an early scene of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, Alice encounters a chessboard populated by living pieces. Attempts to communicate with the pieces prove fruitless, and Alice soon comes to a startling realization:

"I don't think they can hear me," she went on, as she put her head closer down, "and I'm nearly sure they ca'n't see me. I feel somehow as if I was getting invisible--" (114)

When a pawn on the board falls down and begins wailing for the White Queen, Alice, at this point "very anxious to be of use," decides to intervene:

She hastily picked up the Queen and set her on the table by the side of her noisy little daughter.

The Queen gasped, and sat down: the rapid journey through the air had quite taken away her breath, and for a minute or two she could do nothing but hug the little Lily in silence. (114)

Although her actions terrify the Queen, Alice does not realize that interfering in the chess piece's affairs might be unwarranted, and she repeats the gesture a moment later:

Alice watched the White King as he slowly struggled up from bar to bar, till at last she said "Why, you'll be hours and hours getting to the table, at that rate. I'd far better help you, hadn't I?" But the King took no notice of the question: it was quite clear that he could neither hear her nor see her.

So Alice picked him up very gently, and lifted him across more slowly than she had lifted the Queen, that she mightn't take his breath away; but, before she put him on the table, she thought she might as well dust him a little, he was so covered in ashes. [114-15]

Once the King begins to truly panic, falling on his back in shock, Alice finally feels a modicum of self-doubt: the narrator describes her as being "a little alarmed" at her own actions. She overhears King and Queen in hushed conversation:

"The horror of that moment," the King went on, "I shall never forget!"

"You will, though," the Queen said, "if you don't make a memorandum of it." [115]

Unfortunately for the King, though, Alice lacks the moral sense to doubt herself for very long, and her desire to intervene seizes control once again:

Alice looked on with great interest as the King took an enormous memorandum-book out of his pocket, and began writing. A sudden thought struck her, and she took hold of the end of the pencil, which came some way over his shoulder, and began writing for him. [115]

Questions

1. Though Alice means to act benevolently, her paternalistic actions terrify the chess pieces. Would the King and Queen have been better off without Alice's help? Carroll intended Through the Looking-Glass as a children's book, but that does not necessarily rule out the possibility that his writing contains some poignant metaphors--even if they are unintentional. What could the encounter with the living chessboard symbolize, and does the tone of Carroll's narration imply an opinion--glorifying, mocking, etc--on Alice's intervention?

2. What does Carroll poke fun at with the line "You will, though . . . if you don't make a memorandum of it"? Why does Alice force the King to write "The White Knight is sliding down the poker. He balances very badly," and why might Carroll have deemed this image significant enough to have its own illustration?

3. Chess plays an important metaphorical role in Through the Looking-Glass. A.L. Taylor points out in "Chess and Theology in the Alice Books"(373-380), though, that Carroll's version of the game pays very little attention to the actual rules of chess, a fact that apparently "puzzled" readers enough to warrant an explanation, which Carroll provides in an 1887 preface. If today an author altered the rules of chess to the same degree Carroll did in the middle of the 19th Century, would it cause the same kind of confusion among readers? What if the modern author modified the rules of Twister or Monopoly? What might this say about chess in the mid-1800s?

4. The Oxford English Dictionary makes no mention of "ca'n't" in the origins of the contraction "can't."* Where might one find the approximate year in which "can't" first appeared in writing?

5. Carroll often has Alice speak her thoughts aloud instead of just thinking them. What might this imply about Alice, about Lewis's views on children and higher reasoning, or about storytelling in the 1800s?

*I couldn't find one, at least.


Victorian Web Overview Lewis Carroll Leading Questions

Last modified 11 March 2009