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.