The Role of Mayhem in Alice in Wonderland
In Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, much of the sequence and dialogue seems chaotic and nonsensical, leaving the reader to interpret its meaning and purpose. Being that the entire story occurs within a dream, Carroll has the freedom to play with subconscious notions of existence, reality, and most pertinently, societal intercourse. Interaction plays a large part in the progression of the novel, and Alice’s prejudices and reactions demonstrate her own indoctrination concerning how that interaction should be carried out. She meets with several different characters, each with his or her own relative position in the real world (or waking world) who behave in ways disproportionate to their status. Consequently, through ridiculous monologues, insane characters, and chaotic situations, Carroll employs nonsense as a vehicle to expose the absurdity of the excessive reliance on order, conformity, and institutions inherent to society.
Throughout the majority of the novel, Alice exposes much of the absurdity in Wonderland. At other times, however, her own reactions betray hints of her own reliance on the niceties that society feels it necessary to maintain in an attempt to display order in even the simplest events. On many occasions, Alice is appalled by the lack of manners expressed by those whose titles presuppose ‘good breeding’. The two characters most notable for evoking such sentiments are the Queen of Hearts and the Duchess.
Alice first encounters the Duchess at her home, while she is nursing her baby. Alice makes an inquiry as to why the cat grins, and the Duchess tells her curtly that all cats can grin. I don’t know of any that do, Alice said very politely (Carroll 61) and the Duchess rudely replies, You don’t know very much. (61) Alice is put out by her rudeness, more because she expected more from a Duchess than because of her unkindness. She was not as bothered by the impertinence of the footman since his rank implies his ineptitude in the realm of courtesy.
On the next encounter that Alice has with the Duchess, she seems far more civil. Alice feels obliged to forgive her past offensiveness because she believes that perhaps it was only the pepper that had made her so savage… (86) The reader, however, can surmise more from her apparent duality. The rude behaviour occurred in her own home whereas her politeness is brought out when she is in the presence of the rest of society. Furthermore, it seems that fear for her life has driven the Duchess to behave more civilly, because the Queen has just made threats on her life. Though Alice may not see past the obvious, Carroll points out the incredulity of the Duchess’s duality in such a way that the reader cannot miss it.
Once Alice has had enough of the Duchess, she decides to attend the Hatter’s unending tea party. Upon entering the party, the March Hare offers Alice some wine.
Alice looked around on 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.
I didn’t know it was your table, said Alice. It’s laid for a great many more than three.
Your hair wants cutting, said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.
You should not make personal remarks, Alice said with some severity: it’s very rude. (68)
Alice is perturbed by the ease with which the Hatter and March Hare confront her, and it is evident that she is not used to being spoken to in such a way. As well, Alice is very critical of any mistakes in propriety made by others while she is not as concerned with her own errors. This excerpt of seemingly nonsensical exchange contains criticism of the mindless yet religious adherence to archaic niceties, such as those Alice does not find at the Hatter’s party. The rule of chaos rather than order frightens Alice away, so much so that is the only place that Alice visits which she leaves saying, At any rate, I’ll never go there again!
The other function that Alice has in the narrative is as an innocent who is shocked with what she is presented with. In these situations, she is the voice of reason, unhampered and untainted by society’s crafty programming.
The solemnity of the exchange between the frog footman and the liveried fish displays a profound notion of how much order is associated with even the simplest of tasks, as in the handing over of a letter. Carroll takes particular pains to express the gravity with which this is accomplished: …he handed over to the other, saying in a solemn tone, For the Duchess. An invitation from the queen to play croquet. (59) The frog footman then goes on to repeat the message in reverse order, in the same solemn tone, (59) in order not to disrupt what seems to be an almost ritualistic excursion. The nonsensical aspect of this particular encounter is exposed when Alice cannot help laughing out loud because as the two footmen bow, their curls got entangled together. (59) While this is a sacred matter for the frog and fish, the reader sees past the conventions of societal requisites and the occasion is reduced to foolishness.
The Mock Turtle’s story is an example of a reference to institutional reliance in society. When he talks about his years at school, the subjects he speaks of are ridiculous: Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with, the Mock Turtle replied; and then the different branches of Arithmetic ” Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision. (93) The apparent parallels to actual educational instruction are reading and writing, and in terms of the arithmetic, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Carroll’s choice of subjects seems nonsensical enough, tempting the reader to gloss past them, but upon closer inspection, it appears that these very subjects may have more bearing on the education that children receive in their early years.
Ambition is the soul of any capitalist society, and as such, it may be assumed that an instilling of this virtue would be advantageous. The desire of more and more profit is the result of ambition. Seen in this light, rather than being a careless use of a like sounding word to addition, Carroll seems to have been very particular in his choice.
The use of the word distraction is somewhat more elusive. Distraction can refer either to a diversion, an interruption, or a hindrance. It seems most likely (in keeping with the previous note on ambition and capitalism) that it refers to the former meaning. Diversion offers the members of a capitalistic society a way of disregarding the many injustices that spawn from an unabated and disproportionate use of resources. It is necessary in order to function with the privilege of an undisturbed conscience.
The word uglification is not an actual word, and Carroll takes the time to explain its meaning to the reader, and very tactfully, by having Alice make an inquiry to the Gryphon: You know what beautification is, I suppose? (93) it asks Alice, in a manner that suggests that it is an easily understood word. It is meant to imply the opposite of beautification. This appears to be Carroll’s way of explaining how institutions have replaced society’s former and proper notions of aestheticism, especially in accordance with art. It is his way of saying that beauty is an ideal of the past, one that has been replaced by destruction and decay.
The final subject, derision, falls appropriately along with ambition and distraction. It follows that in order to improve one’s own station in life, it is necessary to belittle others in order to arrive at that place. Derision completes the circle of degradation by implying that as a society, individualism is the dominant mentality, whereas society, as the word itself implies, should be the coming together of many to achieve mutual goals.
The first two subjects, reeling and writhing, are the two that the Mock Turtle takes for granted that everyone learns. These are a more direct, visible image of the degradation brought about by the inconsistent displacement of virtues in society.
While the nonsense of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland may seem not to have any distinct purpose, its clear, reoccurring themes denote its purposeful insights on the failings of society. Carroll manages to delve into a world of fantastical wonders and, within that world, provides the reader with an effective, convincing argument by making the mildly absurd become overtly ridiculous. His use of spontaneous, erratic characters allows the freedom to observe right from wrong in a place where those distinctions have not already been made. Alice acts as the guide, who leads expecting no more or less than the reader, and with the stubborn prejudices of a child. Carroll has successfully pointed out the errors inherent to many of the facets of life that one does not question, and leaves the reader feeling as if he or she has just awakened from the dream of presupposition.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland & Through The Looking Glass. New York: New American Library, 2000.
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