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In this novel, Lewis Carroll, a mathematician and logician, pokes fun at the vaunted rationality of the educated Victorian elite. Its whimsical humor is drawn from a conflict between the rational ideal and the chaotic truth of the world. Alice, its protagonist, behaves as she has been taught, only to find her goals thwarted by uncooperative characters and unpredictable events. Only after she embraces Wonderland’s chaos and lets curiosity and flexibility guide her can she resolve the conflict and find her way back to her own more predictable world.
The work’s inciting incident occurs only three paragraphs in, when Alice, drowsing by a stream, sees a large white rabbit scurry past, worried about being late. “There was nothing so very remarkable about that,” the wry narrator declares, setting up the central conflict: it is impossible to apply reason and etiquette to absurd and nonsensical situations. Social decorum and rational observation matter in Alice’s real world, where she has learned what society expects of a respectable young woman. As a child in a well-off household, she has been educated to be literate and to converse charmingly, though women rarely held positions of actual influence, and she has been socialized to accept the period’s hierarchy of gender and class.
In the rising action, Alice tries to exhibit reason and to display properly deferential standards of conversation and behavior, as she has been taught. Even her musings as she falls into Wonderland sound thoughtful. “I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I’ve got to?” she asks, not because she understands these “nice grand words” but because she is trying to sound mature. Social decorum, too, is on her mind, as she avoids making messes, asks questions politely, and even tries to curtsey midair. The futility of such actions quickly becomes clear, as illustrated by her frustrating inability to fit through the door into the beautiful garden.
Alice may be out of her element during the rising action, but she soon realizes that behavior and reason must adapt when context changes. If she encounters a talking mouse, she should avoid the topic of cats. The rules of polite conversation apply, but only after she accepts the context of a world populated by sentient animals whose concerns are like those of people. If something as bizarre as an ocean of her own tears threatens her, she must accept the absurdity of the situation and swim for safety. Even so, the assault on rationality tires Alice, who cannot answer confidently when the Caterpillar asks, “Who are you?” She complains that she keeps changing sizes, “can’t remember things as [she] used to,” and offends others despite proper etiquette. Once she has a way to control her size, Alice gets back to her plan of finding the garden.
Her encounter with the insulting Duchess gives Alice a clue about happenings in the garden, but her conversation with the Cheshire Cat, an authority on Wonderland, diverts her from her goal. The Cat helps Alice understand Wonderland, where “we’re all mad,” including Alice, “or you wouldn’t have come here.” At the tea party, Alice experiences effects of this madness. Her complaints of incivility are turned against her, the Mad Hatter’s answerless riddle angers her, and she learns that Time stopped moving forward. Not even the most reliable constant, the steady ticking forward of the clock, applies in Wonderland. Similarly, the argument about language and the Dormouse’s gap-ridden tale suggest that the rules of syntax and storytelling have no place in a mad world. Time and narrative depend on predictable causality and on reliable experience, and the arbitrary treatment of these real-world constants infuriates Alice. She storms away from “the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life” and finds herself—unpredictably—back in the grand hall. The rising action has educated her in the ways of Wonderland, and she enters the garden, thinking, “I’ll manage better this time.”
Alice’s confidence is misplaced. The rule-free croquet game—with its uncooperative flamingo mallets and hedgehog balls—and the irascible Queen’s calls for everyone and everything to lose its head disturb Alice. So does the disappointing reality that what seemed a lovely garden is actually a badly painted set for the Queen’s court. For the first time in Wonderland, Alice feels fear because if not even a rose tree can avoid offending the Queen, Alice will eventually earn the Queen’s ire as well. Yet Alice’s capacity to adapt to the mad context of the garden is also on display. She waits to speak to the Cat until its ears appear, and her clever dialogue allows the Cat to escape. Alice reassures herself that the violent Queen, conciliatory King, and the court are mere objects. And she now has allies in the Cat, the White Rabbit, and even the talkative Duchess, who reminds her that “[e]verything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” Having found her way to the garden, Alice considers whether there is a moral or point to Wonderland, as in the stories she knows about well-behaved and ill-behaved children.
The novel’s nonsensical climax comes at the trial of the Knave of Hearts. Just as rational behavior and social etiquette are overturned in Wonderland, the concept of justice is assaulted during the trial. The jurors, who must write down their names to remember them, can hardly deliver an informed verdict, yet the King calls for them to do so even before witnesses are heard. By the time Alice is called to the witness stand, she has realized that she is growing again, likely foreshadowing that her time in Wonderland is coming to an end. Alice calls the King’s bluff on the evidence and declares that the idea that the sentencing should come before the verdict is “Stuff and nonsense!” The playing cards mob her, but she easily beats them away, waking herself up.
Wonderland is Alice’s dream, and she shows her intelligence and adaptability as she learns to navigate its bizarre context. The falling action offers an antidote to Wonderland’s unpredictability as Alice’s sister also dreams, “after a fashion,” of Alice as a young woman who retains the “simple and loving heart of the childhood.” The reflective final paragraphs suggest that Alice is capable of rising to meet the crises that life will bring and to make meaning from them. Carroll developed nonsensical stories—some lightly amusing, some darkly foreboding—that make up this work to delight young friends, and he ends it with the childlike sweetness of “simple joys” and “happy summer days.”