Alice in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland
In this short, introductory chapter we are introduced to Alice, a young girl, who is sitting on the bank of a river with her older sister. Alice is bored and a bit sleepy, but she is startled awake by a talking White Rabbit who hops by with a pocket watch.
Alice follows the rabbit down his rabbit hole, but loses him almost immediately. The hole is quite deep and Alice falls for a relatively long time. During the fall she notices that the hole is lined with cupboards filled with things. She also talks to herself as she falls. Upon reaching the bottom of the rabbit hole Alice catches up with the rabbit just long enough to see him scurry off, complaining about how late he is.
Upon turning a corner after the rabbit, Alice finds herself alone in a room of locked doors. On a glass table in the middle of the room she found a very small key which did not fit any of the doors. After some searching she discovers a very small door behind a curtain. She opens that door with the key and sees that the door leads out into a beautiful garden she wishes she could get to. However, the doorway is too small, preventing Alice from passing out into the garden. This problem is resolved when Alice turns back to the table and finds a vial of liquid on it that says "DRINK ME." The potion shrinks Alice to ten inches in height and she heads to the door only to find that it is still locked, and the key remains on the glass table now out of reach. Disappointed, Alice almost cries, but then she scolds herself as an adult might, and in effect, pulls herself together. It is at this point that Alice finds a piece of cake in a box marked "EAT ME" on the floor. Concluding that the cake will probably make her grow big, Alice eats the whole thing.
The most important thing introduced in this chapter is Alice's fluctuating sense of self. Alice, meant to be a girl of about eleven or so, is on the cusp of adolescence. But what does she want to be? If she shrinks to a child-like size to get through the doorway into what seems to be the garden of childhood, then she is too small to reach the key to open that door. She is trapped in a kind of paradox. Throughout the chapter Alice is "trying on" her adult self. She speaks in a learned manner, even when she isn't quite sure what she is speaking about, and she often creates in her own mind an adult personality to check her childish impulses.
This split personality of Alice's will become the core problem of the book. Is it more important to enjoy the nonsense of childhood unaware, or should order be imposed on one's life at the expense of some of that joy?
Ultimately, in the very opening of the book, Alice is already asking herself: "Do I want to grow up, or do I want to stay small?"
As Alice expected, at the beginning of this chapter the cake indeed does make her grow quite tall. As she is growing to adult proportions Alice begins to worry about her feet, her tiny feet, as though they were children. In this way Alice's manner of speaking becomes more adult and motherly. She decides that, in order to win favor from her now distant and small feat she shall send them Christmas presents. But while this opening paragraph begins as a very adult kind of worry it degenerates into childish hyperbole.
"Oh dear, what nonsense I am talking!" Alice scolds herself, reasserting her balance between the extremes of childhood and adulthood.
Then Alice grows to be too big for the house and, like a child, she cries in frustration. But the adult voice in Alice's head interjects, scolding her for crying when she is such a big girl. Her tears continue to fall, however, and she fills the house with a pool of tears.
At this point the White Rabbit reappears and Alice calls out to him for help, but he is too frightened by her size and he scurries away. ‘"Who in the world am I?" Ah, that's the great puzzle,' she says to her self after he is gone. (As the Rabbit leaves he forgets his white gloves and fan, which Alice picks up and keeps a hold of).
At this point Alice decides to investigate who she is, and if she is the same person that she thought she was yesterday. First she tries to catalogue all of the things she used to know to see if she still knows them. She goes from multiplication tables, to geography and then to little rhyming lessons, effectively moving backward through her schooling to the earliest things she was taught. In all cases she fails to remember.
After this Alice notices that she is shrinking again, and she shrinks back to normal size. Then she shrinks down to a size smaller than she was before, less than ten inches. She finds herself afloat in her own pool of tears and she also finds that she is sharing this pool with a mouse. She asks the mouse how she might get out of the pool. The mouse does not answer. Finally, however, Alice engages the mouse in conversation about cats. The conversation consists primarily of Alice offending the mouse by speaking well of cats (especially her cat Dinah). Then Alice tries to engage the mouse on the subject of dogs until she mentions a dog that was a good ratkiller, which enrages the mouse again.
Finally, exasperated, the mouse announces that he will tell Alice the story of why he hates both cats and dogs and leads her ashore. Alice and the mouse are followed ashore by a Dodo, a Duck, a Lory and an Eaglet who all fell into the pool while Alice and the mouse were talking.
In this chapter Carroll introduces the beginning of his argument for adulthood. The first chapter laid out the books basic question, which was: should Alice choose to remain a disordered child so that she can enjoy the laziness of a garden in summer with no worries and no responsibilities? Or, should she impose order on her life and grow up?
Her conversation with the mouse is the first of many conversations she will have in this book. While the conversations will be about many things (cats and dogs for instance) what is really going on in the conversations is the problems of politeness and civility. This will be the core of Carroll's argument that Alice SHOULD grow up and impose order on her life. If she learns to be civil and polite, for example, then she can successfully ask for help without offending anyone. This is the important first step towards growing up: learning how to be polite and how to communicate.
Alice and the assembly of birds and the mouse are all wet upon the shore. A good deal of confusion erupts over how they should get dry. Finally the Mouse decides the best way to make everyone dry is to tell a very dry story (that is, he tells an exceptionally boring story about English history). This ironic play on words, however, does little to dry anyone so a new plan is devised by the Dodo to hold what he calls a Caucus Race, where there is little or no course and everyone can start whenever they want. The whole group participates and they run and run and run until they are dry, at which point the Dodo declares the race over and everyone a winner. Then he demands that Alice award the prizes. She finds a box of snacks in her pocket and hands one piece out to each winner, though she has no prize left for herself. The Dodo asks her if she has anything else, and she produces a thimble. In a brief but solemn ceremony the birds bestow her thimble back upon her as a prize.
Now that they are dry, the Mouse tells his tale, which Alice imagines is shaped like a tail. Essentially, the tale is a short poem printed on the page in the shape of a mouse tail. Once the tale is told, Alice and the Mouse have a short fight over how the tale should have worked out. Then, once the fight has ended badly, Alice wishes aloud for Dinah to be there. All of the birds then politely ask Alice who Dinah is and, again, Alice goes on about how good Dinah is at catching and killing mice and birds. Offended and frightened, the party of animals politely excuse themselves and Alice is alone again.
Yet again, Carroll is making a case for adulthood. In the first half of the story there is this Caucus Race, essentially a game with no rules. What Alice recognizes and what Carroll hopes the reader sees is that without rules, no amount of play is really fun. It may get you dry and it may make you tired, but in the end it probably isn't much fun. Games are competitions and competitions require rules and discipline. Without the discipline of adulthood, life will start to become rather pointless, filled with empty ceremonies and meaningless accomplishments.
The second half of the chapter is in many ways a reiteration of the previous chapter. Alice perhaps recognizes that games need rules so that they make sense, but she hasn't yet learned that rules are needed for all occasions. Conversation, to be meaningful, needs rules just as a game needs rules. And in order to successfully hold a conversation a person needs boundaries. Alice has not learned that talking about ...
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