Through the Looking-Glass
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Chess as Metaphor for Fate
Alice’s journey through Looking-Glass World is guided by a set of rigidly constructed rules that guide her along her path to a preordained conclusion. Within the framework of the chess game, Alice has little control over the trajectory of her life, and outside forces influence her choices and actions. Just as Alice exerts little control of her movement toward becoming a queen, she has no power over her inevitable maturation and acceptance of womanhood. At the beginning of the game, Alice acts as a pawn with limited perspective of the world around her. She has limited power to influence outcomes and does not fully understand the rules of the game, so an unseen hand guides her along her journey, constructing different situations and encounters that push her along toward her goal. Though she wants to become a queen, she must follow the predetermined rules of the chess game, and she frequently discovers that every step she takes toward her goal occurs because of outside forces acting upon her, such as the mysterious train ride and her rescue by the White Knight. By using the chess game as the guiding principle of the narrative, Carroll suggest that a larger force guides individuals through life and that all events are preordained. In this deterministic concept of life, free will is an illusion and individual choices are bound by rigidly determined rules and guided by an overarching, unseen force.
Language as a Means to Order the World
In Through the Looking-Glass, language has the capacity to anticipate and even cause events to happen. Alice recites nursery rhymes on several occasions, which causes Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, and the Lion and the Unicorn to perform the actions that she describes in her rhymes. Rather than recording and describing events that have already happened, words give rise to actions simply by being spoken. Tweedledum and Tweedledee’s quarrel begins only after Alice recites the rhyme about the broken rattle. Similarly, Humpty Dumpty’s fall does not happen until Alice describes the events in the classic nursery rhyme. Language covers actions in Looking-Glass World, rather than simply describing them. The flowers reinforce this principle by explaining that a tree can scare enemies away with its “bark.” In our language, there is no relationship between the bark of a dog and the bark of a tree, but in Looking-Glass World, this linguistic similarity results in a functional common ground. Trees that have bark are thus able to “bark” just as fiercely as dogs.
The Loneliness of Growing Up
Throughout her adventures, Alice feels an inescapable sense of loneliness from which she can find no relief. Before she enters Looking-Glass World, her only companions are her cats, to whom she attributes human qualities to keep her company. Once she enters Looking-Glass World, she seeks compassion and understanding from the individuals that she meets, but she is frequently disappointed. The flowers and Humpty Dumpty treat her rudely, the Red Queen is brusque, and the Fawn flees from her once it realizes that she is a human. She receives little compassion from others and often becomes sad. The one character who shows her compassion is the White Knight, who must leave her when she reaches the eighth square and must take on her role of Queen. Alice’s dreams deal with the anxieties of growing up and becoming a young woman. Since Alice believes that loneliness is an inherent part of growing up, even in her dreams she must face the transition into womanhood alone.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Many of the basic assumptions that Alice makes about her environment are reversed in Looking-Glass World. Outcomes precede events, cakes are passed out before being cut, destinations are reached by walking in the opposite direction, and characters remember the future and think best while standing on their heads. These strange phenomena challenge the way Alice thinks and in some cases expose the arbitrary nature of her understanding of her own world. Many of Alice’s experiences exist as meaningless parodies of aspects of her own familiar world back home. Alice becomes aware of a new, inverted perspective on life as she travels forward and backward through Looking-Glass World.
Alice falls asleep at the beginning of Through the Looking-Glass, just as she did at the outset of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, so that the resulting fantastical adventures occur in her dreams. The story follows Alice through the various episodes of Looking-Glass World so that we experience her adventures through her impressions of Looking-Glass House, the chess game, and her quest to become a queen. The characters and scenes that she encounters exist as a combination of her memories and impressions of the waking world and the random, illogical inventions of her dreaming mind. Carroll emphasizes the dream motif by basing some of the denizens of Looking-Glass World on individuals from the life of his real-life muse, Alice Liddell. For example, the Red Queen is based on Alice’s governess Miss Prickett, while the White Knight is closely based upon Lewis Carroll himself.
The chess game that Alice participates in becomes the organizing mechanism for her adventure in Looking-Glass World. Alice’s journey closely follows the rules of a traditional game of chess. The perspectives and movements of the individual characters correspond to the movements of their respective chess pieces. The Red and White Queens have an unlimited view of the board, since queens can move in any direction and as many spaces as they want in a single turn. The Red and White Kings can only move one space at a time in any direction, so while they have the same perspective as the queens, they have limited mobility. This limitation explains why the White King cannot follow the White Queen as she runs away from the other chessmen, since she moves “too fast.” As a pawn, Alice can only move forward once space at a time, with the exception of her first move, in which she can move two spaces. Like a pawn, Alice can only “see” one square ahead of her. When she reaches the final square and becomes a queen, she can “see” the whole board because now she has the full mobility of the queen chess piece. Alice’s move to take the Red Queen results in a checkmate of the Red King, ending the chess game and causing Alice to wake up.
Trains and train imagery appear frequently to underscore the feeling of unstoppable forward motion that governs Alice’s journey toward womanhood. The Red King’s somnolent snoring resembles a train engine, while the White Queen screams like a train whistle before she pricks her finger. Alice skips forward several spaces when she finds herself unexpectedly on a train, shooting through the forest toward her destination and mimicking Alice’s forward movement as a pawn in the chess game. The train imagery suggests the irreversible and unstoppable movement toward adulthood that Alice becomes subject to in her journey through Looking-Glass World.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The rushes that Alice pulls from the water in Chapter 5 represent dreams. Rushes are plans that grow in riverbeds and poke through the surface of the water. The rapid fading of the rushes’ sweet scene after being picked corresponds to the fleetingness of the memory of a dream after a person wakes up.
The Sleeping Red King
Tweedledum and Tweedledee tell Alice that she is only a creation of the Red King’s dream, which implies that Looking-Glass World is not a construction of Alice’s dream. The Red King becomes a divine figure who dreams up all of Alice’s adventures, fostering the idea that she does not actually have any identity or agency beyond what she is allowed in the context of the dream. The idea that we are all just aspects of the dream of a divine power comes from Bishop Berkeley, a philosopher who wrote during Carroll’s lifetime and who believed that man and the universe exist as part of God’s imagination.