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Alice approaches a large table set under the tree outside
the March Hare’s house and comes across the Mad Hatter and the March
Hare taking tea. They rest their elbows on a sleeping Dormouse who
sits between them. They tell Alice that there is no room for her
at the table, but Alice sits anyway. The March Hare offers Alice
wine, but there is none. Alice tells the March Hare that his conduct
is uncivil, to which he rejoins that it was uncivil of her to sit
down without being invited. The Mad Hatter enters the conversation,
opining that Alice’s hair “wants cutting.” Alice admonishes his
rudeness, but he ignores her scolding and responds with a riddle:
“Why is a raven like a writing desk?” Alice attempts to answer the
riddle, which begins a big argument about semantics. After their
argument, the tea party sits in silence until the Mad Hatter asks
the March Hare the time. When he discovers that the March Hare’s
watch, which measures the day of the month, is broken, the Mad Hatter
becomes angry. He blames the March Hare for getting crumbs on the
watch when the March Hare was spreading butter on it. The March
Hare sullenly dips the watch in his tea, dejectedly remarking that
“It was the best butter.”
Alice gives up on the riddle and becomes angry with the
Mad Hatter when she discovers that he doesn’t know the answer either. She
tells him he should not waste time asking riddles that have no answers.
The Mad Hatter calmly explains that Time is a “him,” not an “it.”
He goes on to recount how Time has been upset ever since the Queen
of Hearts said the Mad Hatter was “murdering time” while he performed
a song badly. Since then, Time has stayed fixed at six o’clock,
which means that they exist in perpetual tea-time. Bored with this
line of conversation, the March Hare states that he would like to
hear a story, so they wake up the Dormouse. The Dormouse tells a
story about three sisters who live in a treacle-well, eating and
drawing treacle. Confused by the story, Alice interjects with so
many questions that the Dormouse becomes insulted. Alice continues
to ask questions until the Mad Hatter insults her and she storms
off in disgust. As she walks, she looks back at the Mad Hatter and
the March Hare as they attempt to stuff the Dormouse into a teapot.
In the wood, Alice encounters a tree with a door in it.
She enters the door and finds herself back in the great hall. Alice
goes back to the table with the key and uses the mushroom to grow
to a size that she can reach the key, then to shrink back to the
size that she can fit through the door. She goes through the door
and at last arrives at the passageway to the garden.
When Alice discovers that Time is a person and not merely
an abstract concept, she realizes that not only are social conventions inverted,
but the very ordering principles of the universe are turned upside
down. Not even time is reliable, as Alice learns that Time is not
an abstract “it” but a specific “him.” An unruly, subjective personality
replaces the indifferent mechanical precision associated with the
concept of time. Time can punish those who have offended it, and
Time has in fact punished the Mad Hatter by stopping still at six
o’clock, trapping the Mad Hatter and March Hare in a perpetual teatime.
The Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse must carry out
an endless string of pointless conversations, which may reflect
a child’s perception of what an actual English teatime was really
like. Alice must adjust her own perceptions of time, since the Mad
Hatter’s watch indicates that days are rushing by. However, the party
has not moved past the month of March, the month during which the
March Hare goes mad.
Though the tea party challenges Alice’s understanding
of the fundamental concept of time, the Mad Hatter’s answerless
riddle reaffirms Wonderland’s unusual sense of order. The riddle
seems to have no answer and exists solely to perpetuate confusion
and disorder. Some readers have suggested that the riddle does in
fact have an answer: Edgar Allen Poe “wrote on” both the subject
of a Raven and “wrote on” a physical writing desk. In Wonderland,
chaos is the ruling principle, but a strange sense of order still
exists. Though riddles need not have answers, language must retain
some kind of logic. The Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse
point out to Alice that saying what she means and meaning what she
says are not the same thing. Alice has said that she cannot take
“more” tea because she has not had any yet. However, as the Mad
Hatter points out, Alice can indeed take “more” tea even though
she has not had any, since “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
The language games at the tea party underscore the inconsistency
of Wonderland, but also imply that the ordering principles that
govern Alice’s world are just as arbitrary.