Alice at the Mad Hatter's tea party

Alice at the Mad Hatter's tea party — Illustration to the seventh chapter of Alice in Wonderland by John Tenniel. Wood-engraving by Thomas Dalziel

Tenniel here illustrates in his own wonderful way Carroll's use of two familiar expressions, "mad as a march hare" and "mad as a hatter." Large rabbits or hares run around wildly in the spring, acting differently from other times of year because spring is their mating season. During the Victorian years hatters (people who made hats) worked with mercury, a particularly toxic substance that causes certain forms of mental degeneration. Did Carroll intend anything in particular by drawing upon these familiar expressions? How does Tenniel depict madness? Does he add any twists or intonations not found in Carroll's chapter?

Is the expression Tenniel puts on Alice's face what you expect of Alice? What might any potential difference between your expectations when reading the story and Tenniel's illustration imply about the difference between word and image, verbal and visual texts?

Why, in discussing such a question, is it important for us to know that Carroll approved every detail of each illustration, often exasperating the artist with his requests for changes? [GPL].

Commentary by Leighton Carter

In Chapter VII, Alice reaches a pinnacle of Wonderland's fantastical disorder (the reader is immediately aware that Carroll uses the word "mad" in the chapter title, "A Mad Tea-Party," and therefore must be prepared for an escalation of pandemonium). Tenniel demonstrates the madness of the tea party first by means of the grotesque and then by violating precedents set in the chapter's first illustration in the third illustration. Tenniel establishes the fantastic nature of the scene in the first illustration more immediately than Carroll does in his first mention of it: "There was a table set out under a tree in front of a house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Doormouse was sitting between them fast asleep . . . (54). Alice abandons the politeness she previously exhibited when met with strange characters like the Frog-Footman and gives a disgruntled frown in the illustration. She cannot maintain the well-mannered façade required in her reality; such madness as the tea party contains breaks through it. Tenniel gives the March Hare clothes, an addition that fantastically contradicts the reason behind his name — hares are supposedly mad in March because that is their breeding season. The off-kilter crown of straw that the March Hare wears, however, may be a reminder of the animal's potential for frenzied behavior in fields. Tenniel emphasizes the natural construction of a rabbit's mouth — its lips pulled back to reveal teeth — in order to make its facial expression seem bizarre especially in comparison to its human garments. Showing the similarity between the two characters' madness, Tenniel then carries the rabbit's facial expression over to the Mad Hatter and, when combined with his protruding nose and bulging eyes, renders the human face a grotesque mishmash. [complete essay: ""Which way? Which way?": The Fantastical Inversions of Alice in Wonderland"]

Student assistants from the University Scholars Program, National University of Singapore, scanned this image and added text in 2000 under the supervision of George P. Landow. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the site and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

Last modified 24 December 2007