While many might identify Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass as a fantasy, it better fits into the category known as literary nonsense or nonsense literature.
In the first work, Alice follows a talking rabbit into a magical world. In this world, food and drink can change your height, animals can talk, their is a Chesire Cat who can disappear and reappear individual parts of its body at will, a Mad Hatter and a March Hare hold discourse at a tea party that never ends, all of which eventually leads her to playing croquette using flamingos with a Queen whose response to anything that annoys her is to punish the offender with the threat of removing their head.
In the second work, Alice walks through a misty looking-glass after imagining what the world inside it must be like. There she encounters humpty dumpty and Tweedledee and Tweedledum (mirror images of each other). She finds herself before a huge field with squares marked out like a chess board. With the Red Queen and White Queen guiding her, she hopes to become a queen herself in the same way that a pawn can become a queen if it reaches the other side in a game of chess. In this world, things often happen in reverse or backwards.
To solve problems in this fantastical world, the reader will notice Alice often attempts to recall lessons or rely on social etiquette learned in the real world. These often fail to help her in this fantastical world and often annoy the other characters.
“Have some wine,” the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked.
“There isn’t any,” said the March Hare.
“Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,” said Alice angrily.
“It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,” said the March Hare. (94)
The March Hare has a point: Alice struggles to follow her own social etiquette. Yet, he also fails to address her criticism by deflecting with his own criticism. Carroll loves playing with language, logic, which produce much of book’s humor. Another way in which he has fun with language is by having his characters be hyper-literal in their understanding.
“I beg your pardon?” said Alice.
“It isn’t respectable to beg,” said the King.
“I only meant that I didn’t understand,” said Alice (280).
The king fails to understand the meaning of this common phrases as “I didn’t understand what you just said” and instead understands it literally. In an earlier scene, the king once again takes Alice literally when she says she sees nobody.
“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!” (279)
People can often be pedantic about language, insisting on literal meanings, literal interpretations of ideas or literary works, and on common definitions (usually the one that they prefer). These scenes help us see how ridiculous this can get when taken to an extreme. Carrol also delights in poking fun at common philosophical speculation.
In the Looking-Glass, Tweedledum and Tweedledee insist that Alice doesn’t really exist, but is only a creation of the Red King’s dream and if he should wake up she would disappear. This is a play on various metaphysical ideas. Are we just the product of someone else’s dream? Are we brains in a vat? By placing these types of speculations within the fantastical world of Wonderland and the Looking-glass, Carroll is showing that much philosophical questioning is itself nonsensical and a waste of time, no better than the imaginary illogical nonsense that makes up the world and inhabitants of Wonderland and the Looking-Glass World itself. Is it is really a serious intellectual question to consider if we are manifestations of God’s dream or a figment of someone else’s imagination?
Another common idea in philosophy and rational thinking is the importance of self-realization, understanding yourself, and engaging in meta-cognition.
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar (67).
Alice finds the question frustrating. With all the physical changes in her size, she feels like she doesn’t know who she is anymore. All her previous learning and social knowledge has proven useless in Wonderland. In this sense, she literally doesn’t know who she is anymore. Are we our society? Are we our learning? Are we what we know? Are we our physical attribute? Am I defined by the fact that I am 5’10?
As the work suggests the problem with these types of questions is that the answers may depend on our perspective. The Caterpillar will have a very different perspective than a British child. With this in mind, Alice complains about her height, but the Caterpillar gets offended due to his differing perspective.
“Are you content now?” said the Caterpillar.
“Well, I should like to be a little larger. Sir, if you wouldn’t mind,” said Alice. “three inches is such a wretched height to be.”
“It is a very good height indeed!” said the Caterpillar angrily, rearing itself upright as it spoke (it was exactly three inches high) (72).
Another example of this perspectivism is when Alice first meets the mouse in Wonderland. She keeps trying to talk to the mouse about cats and dogs, and her own cat, Dinah, but of course the mouse gets offended since from a mouse’s viewpoint cats and dogs are horrible creatures to be feared. Later, during the episode with the lion and the unicorn in Looking Glass, the two animals insist Alice must be a monster. The unicorn cannot believe she exists, just as she cannot believe a unicorn exists.
So the works show us the failure of social etiquette and traditional school learning to deal with problems in new contexts, that other beings may have different perspectives from us and thus understand the world very differently, and the silliness in what are supposed to be important philosophical questions and the way people insist on controlling language. By showing us a British girl suddenly lost in a bizarre fantastical world completely different than her own, Carroll raises the question about the arbitrariness of the social order itself and unimportance of much of what many of us hold dear. Many of the scenes specifically tackle aspects of British society or human existence more generally, such as the Mad Hatter’s Tea party is a take on British tea time, and the Red Queen with her constant cry of “off with their heads!” at the slightest provocation is both a commentary on the irrational nature of unbridled passion in general and the dangers of the fickle whims of authority. We think we live rational lives and the things we learn in school to become adults are important, but all of this would fail us if we suddenly found ourselves in a different situation. It suggests we take for granted what is rational and important in the first place, and all our assumptions and ideas about life can change if the context changes.
Both stories end by implying that Alice’s fantastical adventures may have been nothing more than a dream, a reconstituting of the real world into a fantastical shape. It was just a dream endings are usually frowned upon in good writing as it is a cheap and easy way to end a work and it invalidates all the problems and actions of the protagonist. Yet by ending his stories this way, Carroll reminds us that we cannot hide in our imaginations forever and we must return to the real world. And, of course, the real world for Alice means eventually growing up and joining the social order of the prim and proper British society. The stories then also remind us that childhood does not last forever and eventually we must grow-up. As her sister nostalgically reminds us at the end of Alice in Wonderland:
“Lastly, she [Alice’s sister] pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days (164).”
Alice’s sister struggles to picture the adventures in Wonderland that Alice describes, finding real world corollaries with each of Alice’s imaginative characters, and can only live her lost childhood vicariously through her sister and her story. As she notes in the quote above, one day Alice, too, must grow-up and no longer be able experience childish delights directly, but must do so vicariously and through stories of the past..