Social convention, rules of etiquette, and authority are all parodied in this passage from Through the Looking-Glass.
"You look a little shy: let me introduce you to that leg of mutton," said the Red Queen. "Alice --Mutton: Mutton --Alice." The leg of mutton got up in the dish and made a little bow to Alice, and Alice returned the bow, not knowing whether to be frightened or amused.
"May I give you a slice?" she said...
"Certainly not," the Red Queen said, very decidedly: "it isn't etiquette to cut any one you've been introduced to. Remove the joint!" And the waiters carried it off, and brought a large plum-pudding in its place.
"I won't be introduced to the pudding, please," Alice said rather hastily, "or we shall get no dinner at all." [Through the Looking-Glass, Norton Critical Edition, 200]
The banquet Alice attends as a new Queen demonstrates the strait-laced rituals of Victorian society, whose absurdities Carroll mocks. The Red Queen's introduction of Alice to the leg of mutton and her obsession with etiquette and proper manners to the point of depriving Alice of dinner are similar to the stiff formality of the manners described in Lucien O. Carpenter's Universal Dancing Master (1880). Carpenter's exhortation, "Always recognize the lady or gentleman...with becoming politeness [and] a salute or bow" is, indeed, followed to the letter by the Mutton, who, to Alice's surprise, shows the outward signs of gentlemanly gallantry but is in fact merely mimicking established procedures of protocol. The Red Queen, in thinking that the mutton must literally not be "cut" — a reference to rules on the introduction of gentlemen to ladies — comes across as shallow and narrow-minded. Here Carroll almost leads us to believe that Victorian social ritual merely entails a primness with the stiffness of a starched cravat. But he does not stop there; instead, he shows us the darker side of convention --the authority of the elite (here the Red Queen, the Pudding, and the creatures in Wonderland) to criticize rudely the child and others whom they perceive to be ignorant. For instance, the second time Alice tries to carve a slice, the Pudding reacts with characteristic Wonderland pettiness: "What impertinence! I wonder how you'd like it, if I were to cut a slice out of you, you creature!" (201)
The Pudding's rudeness, however, pales in comparison to that of the Red Queen, who is, as Robert Polhemus states, "the principal explicit authority figure in the book" (Through the Looking-Glass, Norton Critical Edition). The Queen is alternatively a straitjacketed governess type and a hypocrite with the manners of a wild animal; in the banquet scene, she sharply scolds Alice for acutely observing the boorishness of the guests, but herself eats like a "pig in a trough" (202). By characterizing the Red Queen in this manner, Carroll questions the "license to criticize" accorded to contemporary figures of authority and reduces them to platitude-spouting automatons. It is precisely the extremes of social convention and etiquette, Carroll implies, that trigger this phenomenon and have invaded Victorian society, transforming it into a farcical world of rude, hostile people reminiscent of the creatures in Wonderland.
Carroll's social commentary in Through the Looking-Glass does offer a note of hope. In the end, Alice, sick of the confusion and chaos which ensues when the tableware and candles fly around the room, finally summons the courage to challenge the Red Queen, to whom she hitherto has been relatively subservient. In shaking the Queen into a harmless kitten, Alice breaks the spell of the domineering, repressive authority figures circumscribed within conventions of etiquette and manners. If rigid social structure — taken to an extreme — pigeonholes people into specific power relations (see the instructions on the behavior of the lady and the gentleman), then stepping out of that circle to challenge harmful authority helps restore order. Only when Alice actively confronts the Red Queen can she free herself from the chaos of Wonderland.
Last modified December 1995
Last modified 8 June 2007