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Themes

Themes

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.

More main ideas from Through the Looking-Glass

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What motif is used to convey the unstoppable forward motion of Alice’s journey toward womanhood?
Trains
Chess
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