Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Chapter 5: Advice from a Caterpillar
Alice comes across a Caterpillar that is resting on top of a giant mushroom and smoking a hookah pipe. The two stare at each other in silence for a while before the Caterpillar asks Alice, “Who are you?” Alice has trouble explaining who she is to the antagonistic and contemptuous Caterpillar. Dejected, she turns to leave, but the Caterpillar calls her back to recite a poem. The Caterpillar duly notes that she recites the poem incorrectly and goes on to ask what size she would like to be. Alice states that being three inches tall is a wretched height, which insults the three-inch-tall Caterpillar. The Caterpillar crawls away in a huff, but not before telling Alice that eating one side of the mushroom will make her grow larger and eating the other side will make her grow smaller.
Alice tastes the right-hand portion of the mushroom and shrinks. She next tries part of the left-hand portion of the mushroom, and her neck grows so long that her head is above the treetops. Realizing she cannot get the other part of mushroom to her mouth, she attempts to reorient herself when a Pigeon attacks her. The Pigeon has mistaken Alice for a serpent who wants to eat its eggs. Alice assures the Pigeon that she is not a serpent, and the Pigeon skulks back to its nest, leaving Alice to nibble at the two pieces of the mushroom until she returns to her original height. Back at her proper size, Alice wanders around the forest looking for the garden when she encounters a four-foot-tall house. She decides to visit the house and eats the portion of the mushroom to reduce her size to nine inches tall.
When the Caterpillar asks Alice “Who are you,” she finds that she doesn’t know who she is anymore. The Caterpillar aggravates Alice’s uncertainty about her constantly changing size. The Caterpillar also may represent the threat of sexuality, as suggested by its phallic shape. Alice recognizes this threat when she calls attention to the Caterpillar’s impending bodily transformation, since caterpillars reach sexual maturity in butterfly form. Though she seeks guidance and compassion from the Caterpillar, she finds only further self doubt under its brusque scrutiny. Regardless, she defers to the Caterpillar’s authority, just as she did with the White Rabbit in the previous chapter. Alice’s confusion peaks when the Caterpillar seems to be able to read her thoughts, answering her unspoken question “just as if she had asked it aloud.” Her identity is so confused now that her thoughts no longer seem to be her own.
Alice has trouble reciting the poem “Father William” and finds that her inability to remember things she knows well shows the effects of Wonderland on her brain. Though the Caterpillar is a denizen of Wonderland, he has some familiarity with the poem that Alice recites, and he demonstrates his knowledge by pointing out that she has it “wrong from beginning to end.” The poem “Father William” (also known as “The Old Man’s Comforts”), by Robert Southey, is a didactic poem about the importance of living in moderation, and many Victorian children were required to memorize it. The Caterpillar proposes that Alice recite the poem to gauge how much she has changed. Alice’s mutilation of the poem occurs as a result of Wonderland’s effect on her brain. The Caterpillar’s contemptuous authoritarian presence compounds her flustered state.
The Pigeon accuses Alice of being a serpent, which causes her to doubt not only who she is but also what she is. Estranged from her old self, Alice has trouble defending herself to the Pigeon. The Pigeon reasons that since Alice exhibits key traits of a serpent, having a long neck and eating eggs, she must in fact be a serpent. Alice becomes trapped in this logic so that she becomes identified by a single action and feature. The Pigeon threatens Alice’s already shaken assumption of a stable identity.