There's something a little ridiculous about trying to analyze the characters of Wonderland -- as Alice herself would agree! Alice, the protagonist of the book, is a more-or-less typical Victorian child who tumbles down a rabbit hole and finds herself in the middle of a bizarre series of adventures. Not only do logic and causality work differently in Wonderland, but all the people and animals there seem to be a little bit insane... and is Alice really any different?
The character of Alice is based on Alice Liddell, a real seven-year-old girl who was a friend of Lewis Carroll (the book's author). But it is difficult for a modern reader to try to "get inside" Alice's psychology -- both because the book was written a century ago, and because our conception of how children's minds work has changed over time. For this reason, we will find Alice's thoughts and behavior predictable in some ways and surprising in others. For instance, she is very concerned about having good manners, is always trying remember the lessons she's had in her schoolroom, and frequently gets frightened and lonely enough to burst into tears -- all things we might expect from a lost seven-year-old girl from 1865. On the other hand, when she forgets to be frightened Alice is very bold indeed: she plays practical jokes and tells painful truths, she stands up for herself even against the most powerful people, and she can easily fall into the dream-like way of thinking shared by the people Wonderland. In these aspects of Alice's behavior, we can see that Lewis Carroll understood the fearlessness, strength and curiosity that can underlie the good manners of even the shyest, most well-behaved children.
The White Rabbit
White Rabbit is a nervous, twitchy kind of person -- not surprising, given what kind of animal he is. Timid around important people (such as the Queen or the Duchess), he nonetheless seems to enjoy lording his power over people who rank lower than him (such as Alice, when he mistakes her for his housemaid Mary Anne, or poor little Bill the Lizard). With his fanatical attention to clothes and punctuality, and his appearance of doing minor jobs for important people (like following the Queen at her croquet party, or being the Herald at the Knave's trial), he is probably meant to represent a specific British type -- a nervous minor functionary, awed by powerful people and always trying to look good in front of his superiors.
The White Rabbit is not important to the plot because of anything he actually does, but because he is the person whom Alice first follows into Wonderland -- her plunge down his rabbit hole in Chapter One takes her from the real world into the dream-world below. By following him and his orders (even when he's wrong, mistaking her for his housemaid!), Alice finds her way into many adventures -- including growing into a giant inside the Rabbit's own house! But usually Alice and the Rabbit are not really making contact with each other: she follows him and he doesn't see her, she's in his house and he's outside, she's in the trial audience and he's acting as a court officer. In fact, only once, in Chapter 8, do Alice and the Rabbit actually talk to each other. Even then, all the Rabbit tells her is that the Duchess has been sentenced to death. But despite his small role, the Rabbit has become a symbol of Wonderland for a century's worth of readers.
The Caterpillar is a good example of the frustrating way in which the Wonderland creatures treat Alice -- asking her questions which make no sense, and not paying attention to her answers. (For this reason, many readers have come to believe Wonderland is meant to make us remember what the world of grown-ups seems like from the perspective of a child!)
When Alice meets the Caterpillar in chapters 4 and 5, it is sitting upon a huge mushroom, smoking a large hookah (a sort of pipe). After ignoring her for a while, it lazily begins to ask her some rather difficult metaphysical questions (most pertinently, "Who are you?"). Then it makes her recite a poem, criticizes her when she gets it wrong, and eventually simply crawls off about its own business, leaving her with only one piece of advice: that one side of its mushroom will make her bigger, and the other will make her small. The Caterpillar is notably slow and unhurried in thinking and talking -- not surprising, for a caterpillar -- and although it seems to be quite intelligent, Alice just doesn't seem to strike it as being important enough to be worthy of its attention.
Because of its mellow manner, its peculiar and obscure reasoning, and -- most notably -- its one-two combination of mushroom and hookah, the Caterpillar became a great favorite when, in the 1960s and '70s, the imagery of *Alice* was adopted by the drug counterculture. Its representation in the book's film adaptations is often notably psychedelic, and the Jefferson Airplane song "White Rabbit" paraphrases the Caterpillar's comment about its mushroom: "One pill will make you bigger/ And one pill will make you small..." With its simple but challenging questions about identity, the Caterpillar has also been viewed as a kind of guru figure, although it must be said that Alice doesn't seem to learn much from it -- except that there are questions which her own kind of logic can't answer.
When Alice first meets the Duchess, in Chapter 6, she is very rude and unpleasant -- she shakes her baby, cuts Alice off when she tries to talk, and ignores the horrible state of her house and the behavior of her Cook. But when Alice sees her again, at the Queen's croquet party in Chapter 9, the Duchess is very pleasant and insists on walking next to Alice and talking with her. Alice wonders whether the Duchess was only mean at first because of all the pepper floating around in her house. This is one possibility -- or perhaps being in jail for a while, after insulting the Queen, was good for her temper!
The Duchess is described in the book as "*very* ugly," with a sharp chin, but Tenniel's illustration of her is particularly homely. In Martin Gardener's footnotes to the annotated edition of Alice, he suggests that she was based upon a real fourteenth-century duchess named Margaretha Maltausch, known as "the ugliest woman in history," and who was the subject of a portrait which John Tenniel, the illustrator of *Alice*, probably saw.
The Cheshire Cat
The Cheshire Cat has a special place in the cast of characters Alice meets in Wonderland. Alice seems to consider it her only friend (remember that Alice likes cats, and is always bringing up her own cat Dinah), and it gives her good advice and treats her like an equal. The Cheshire Cat appears in only two chapters: it first shows up in the Duchess's house in Chapter 6, giving Alice advice on the road to the Mad Tea-Party, and then reappears in Chapter 13, at the Queen's Croquet Party, where the Queen tries to have it executed. (The Cat escapes this fate by disappearing entirely except for its grinning head, leaving the executioner flummoxed as to how he can behead an animal without a body.) But interpreters of Alice in Wonderland have always been fascinated by the Cat; to many readers, it seems to have an outsider's perspective on Wonderland in a way that no one else, except Alice, does. The crazy behavior of the Wonderland people baffles Alice, who is always trying to figure out why they do what they do; but the Cat understands that Wonderland operates on dream-logic, and that its people's actions don't make any sense. As it explains calmly to Alice in Chapter 6, "We're all mad here. You're mad. I'm mad." And it gives her perhaps the best piece of advice that a human child can have for navigating Wonderland: It doesn't much matter where you go, since, if you walk long enough, you're sure to wind up somewhere.
The Cat has a peculiar power -- its ability to fade away, leaving just a disembodied grin -- which is never well explained. Is it doing something like teleporting from place to place, or just becoming invisible? Either way, this ability makes the Cat seem to some readers even more like an intruder in Wonderland, someone who -- like the narrator, the dreamer of a dream, or the reader of a book-- exists on some meta-level, aware that he is in a story and able to pop in and out of it at will.
(Notice that the Cat, like many of the other Wonderland people and animals, is referred to as "it." This doesn't necessarily mean that the Cat isn't male -- in fact, most of the characters in Wonderland seem to be male, except for Alice, the Queen and the Duchess. The British Victorians referred to a lot more things as "it" than we do, including animals and even small children. Remember that characters like the White Rabbit and Bill the Lizard are also referred to as "it" -- and so is the Duchess's boy baby in Chapter 6!)
The Mad Tea-Party: Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Dormouse
The participants at the Mad Tea-Party -- the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse -- are among the most well-known of the Wonderland characters, even though most readers don't have a clear idea of what Carroll was referring to when he created them. Their illustrations are equally famous, and people have been arguing ever since *Alice's* first publication over just who they are supposed to be -- apparently the Mad Hatter strongly resembled Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister of England at the time. (He's also said to be a dead ringer for twentieth-century philosopher Bertrand Russell, who hadn't yet been born at the time Tenniel drew his pictures!)
For the purposes of the story, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse are just three characters -- crazy like everyone in Wonderland, and maybe a little more so than most. The Mad Hatter is a hatter -- a man who makes hats. In nineteenth-century England, the phrase "mad as a hatter" was common because hatters really did often go crazy; the chemical mercury, which was used to cure the felt of hats, can build up in the body to cause symptoms like tremors, slurred speech and psychotic hallucinations. (Presumably the Victorians weren't sure *exactly* what the problem was, or the hatters would have been more careful). A Hare is an animal like a rabbit, only somewhat larger and stronger; its mating season is in March, when the males were known to get very excitable and act crazy. A Dormouse is a British squirrel-like animal which was known for getting very sleepy during the winter months -- that's why the Dormouse keeps falling asleep at the table.
The Tea-Party chapter is filled with linguistic jokes, puns on language, and paradoxical riddles about time: in these three characters, Carroll let his peculiar mathematical sense of humor have free rein. Poor Alice, of course, is very confused, and gets angry at the participants, deciding as she leaves that it's the "stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!" Nonetheless, she's glad to see the Dormouse when she runs into him in the courtroom in Chapters 10 and 11, and she's pleased that the Mad Hatter escapes being beheaded when the King and Queen put him on trial in Chapter 10.
The King and Queen of Hearts
The Queen of Hearts is clearly the ruling power in Wonderland; the King just sort of follows behind her, looking important when he caqn ands trying to keep her from beheading everyone in the country. The personalities of these two characters is clearly visible when Alice first meets them, in Chapter 8: The Queen likes to have everything just as she orders it, from croquet-games to rose trees, and exercises her power by yelling "Off with his head!" whenever anyone offends her. The King is foolish and self-important, and rather cowardly -- he's afraid of the Cheshire Cat, for instance, and calls his wife to get rid of it -- but he's also humane enough to quietly pardon everyone whom the Queen condemns to death.
When Alice meets them again in the courtroom in Chapters 11 and 12, they are much the same --the vain King is looking very self-righteous and silly in a judge's wig, and gets irritated when the court doesn't laugh at his puns, while the Queen just wants everybody dead. Fortunately, by this time Alice has realized that the King and Queen of Hearts, as well as the Knave and the rest of their court, are really just a pack of cards. This revelation is enough to bring an end to her long, strange dream, and release Alice from Wonderland back into the world above.
The Gryphon and the Mock Turtle
The Gryphon and the Mock Turtle are two strange beasts who went to school together. When Alice meets them in Chapters 9 and 10, the Mock Turtle, which is extremely sad by nature, tells her a long-drawn-out story of its school days, weeping and sighing with grief the whole time. Later, it sings to her and demonstrates a dance called the Lobster Quadrille. It is aided by the Gryphon -- a friendly but more tough-minded animal, which speaks only a few words at a time and talks in a working-class dialect. Alice is originally introduced to the Gryphon by the Queen of Hearts, who thinks she ought to hear the Mock-Turtle's story (for reasons we can only guess), and the Gryphon later yanks Alice away to bring her to the Knave of Hearts' trial.
Both animals are fictional monsters. The Gryphon -- a word more often spelled "griffin" -- is a mythical creature with the wings and head of an eagle and the body of a lion. It goes back a long way in European and English folklore, like the dragon or the unicorn, and is often found as the symbol of a noble house or of "the union of the Church and man in Christ" (as Martin Gardner notes). Not often is it seen as a lazy, crusty beast who doesn't have a good handle on English grammar!
The Mock Turtle is a made-up animal based upon a pun. In Lewis Carroll's day, turtle soup was considered a great delicacy, but was very expensive. As a result, many people ate "mock turtle soup," which was a popular kind of beef soup flavored to taste like turtle. So the "Mock Turtle" is supposedly the animal used to make mock turtle soup -- which explains why it is always so sad! In John Tenniel's well-known illustrations of *Alice*, he emphasized the pun by drawing the Mock Turtle as being part turtle and part cow.
The Mock Turtle is one of Carroll's more memorable characters because of its profound sadness: the Turtle can barely speak without crying. The root of its misery, however, always remains unclear. As its old friend the Gryphon says, "He's got no sorrow, you know -- it's all his fancy, that." The Gryphon, in contrast to its friend, is realistic and cheerful, if not exactly friendly -- when it does talk, it doesn't say much. Lewis Carroll was a professor at England's Oxford University, and his annotator Martin Gardner suggests that the animals, with their fond reminiscences of their school days, are "obvious satires of the sentimental college alumnus, of which Oxford has always had an unusually large share."
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