Illuminated initial A

lthough nonsense, parody, and humor pervade Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the characters themselves employ logic not altogether unreasonable, despite perhaps coming to conclusions that the reader, and Alice, find disagreeable. On one occasion when Alice becomes very tall, she encounters a Pigeon who mistakes her for a serpent. Alice claims to be a little girl, but the Pigeon does not believe her:

"A likely story indeed!" said the Pigeon, in a tone of the deepest contempt. "I've seen a good many little girls in my time, but never one with such a neck as that! No, no! You're a serpent; and there's no use denying it. I suppose you'll be telling me next that you never tasted an egg!"

"I have tasted eggs, certainly," said Alice, who was a very truthful child; "but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know."

"I don't believe it," said the Pigeon; "but if they do, why then they're a kind of serpent: that's all I can say."

This was such a new idea to Alice, that she was quite silent for a minute or two, which gave the Pigeon the opportunity of adding "You're looking for eggs, I know that well enough; and what does it matter to me whether you're a little girl or a serpent?" [Chapter V]

The Pigeon's logic fits the form of modus ponens, or affirming the antecedent:

If little girls eat eggs, then they are a kind of serpent (If P, then Q).

Alice (who is a little girl) eats eggs (P).

Therefore, she is a kind of serpent (Therefore, Q).

Although the argument is valid, it is not true because the premise on which the Pigeon bases it ("If little girls eat eggs, then they are a kind of serpent") is false; therefore, the argument is false. However, this still raises a question for Alice because although she knows that she is not a serpent, she still eats eggs and therefore presents as much threat to the Pigeon regardless. The text perhaps begs the philosophical conclusion of utilitarianism, which considers only the result of an action in determining its morality ("the ends justify the means").

Alice later has a similar logical conversation with the Cheshire Cat, who assures her that they are both mad. She does not accept his proof of her madness ("You must be, or you wouldn't have come here"), but asks how he knows that he is mad:

"To begin with," said the Cat, "a dog's not mad. You grant that?"

"I suppose so," said Alice.

"Well, then," the Cat went on, "you see a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased. Now I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry. Therefore I'm mad." [Chapter VI]

In his argument the Cat commits the logical fallacy of denying the antecedent:

If an animal growls when angry and wags its tail when pleased, it is not mad (If P, then Q).

I growl when pleased, and wag my tail when angry (Not P).

Therefore, I am mad (Therefore, not Q).

This is an invalid argument because, even if the premises are true, the argument does not sufficiently prove that the Cat is mad.

Two later logical questions in the novel deal with the mathematical and semantic implications of the fact that one does not need to start with anything in order to add to it, but does in order to take away from it. For example, at the mad tea party, the March Hare suggests to Alice,

"Take some more tea," the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

"I've had nothing yet," Alice replied in an offended tone: "so I ca'n't take more."

"You mean you ca'n't take less," said the Hatter: "it's very easy to take more than nothing (Chapter VII)."

Certainly, Alice can take tea without having already taken any, but taking more carries the semantic implication that she has already had some. The Hatter's comment that "you ca'n't take less [from nothing]" comes up later when the Queen orders the beheading of the Cheshire Cat. This raises some difficulty because at this point the Cheshire Cat appears as only a disembodied head:

The executioner's argument was, that you couldn't cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from: that he had never had to do such a thing before, and he wasn't going to begin at his time of life.

The King's argument was that anything that had a head could be beheaded, and that you weren't to talk nonsense. [Chapter VIII]

The executioner's logic follows the Hatter's: you can't take something (in this case, part of a body) from nothing (as there is no body). The King argues that since the Cat has a head, he can be beheaded – but beheaded from what? Alice's Adventures in Wonderland may be a children's fantasy, but it also presents some thought-provoking ideas to the older reader.

Questions

1. The matter-of-fact tone in the proposals of the above arguments enhances not only their believability to Alice but also their nonsense to the reader. How does the use of the third person improve the humor of the narration?

2. Carroll seems strongly to satirize the foundations of Victorian education in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, drawing attention to Alice's misremembered facts and recitations. Other characters also occasionally mock Alice, like in her conversation about school with the Gryphon and Mock Turtle:

"When we were still little," the Mock Turtle went on at last… "we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle – we used to call him Tortoise — "

"Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn't one?" Alice asked.

"We called him Tortoise because he taught us," said the Mock Turtle angrily. "Really you are dull!"

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself for asking such a simple question," added the Gryphon; and then they both sat silent and looked at poor Alice, who felt ready to sink into the earth. [Chapter IX]

How does the inclusion of botched logic, nonsensical facts, and other characters' belittlement of Alice disparage the state of education in Victorian England? Does Carroll suggest that day schools emphasize inappropriate subjects?

3. How did Carroll's background as a mathematician have an impact upon his writing? In an essay on Carroll, Beale writes, "Throughout his life he took great delight in puzzles and paradoxes and presented them to his child friends and many adult ones as well. With the paradoxes, he did not always supply a solution and it gave him enormous pleasure to see great minds struggling to resolve them." Were the logic problems presented in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland meant to be solved, or simply pondered for their philosophical merit?

4. Carroll presents Alice's curiosity in a positive light — did Victorians consider curiosity a positive trait in young women? Did their conception change in consideration of age? In Rossetti's "Goblin Market," written around the same time, "Curious Laura chose to linger," which eventually led to her yielding to the temptations of the Goblin men. Do these authors present different attitudes, or does the difference lie in context?

5. Many of the characters with whom Alice has philosophical conversations are animals who seem to represent adult figures. What significance does this have upon her relationship with them?


Victorian Web Overview Lewis Carroll Leading Questions

Last modified 9 March 2009