The Caterpillar lazily addresses Alice, by saying “Who are YOU?” Alice explains that she doesn’t know how to answer, having recently been so many different Alices. The Caterpillar won’t accept that as an answer, so she asks him shouldn’t he tell her who HE is first. The Caterpillar doesn’t see why.
This is a very significant question for Alice, disguised as a blasé inquiry from the sleepy creature. The Caterpillar cuts right to Alice’s main insecurity, her identity.
Alice turns away, but the Caterpillar calls her back and tells her he has something important to say. He tells her to keep her temper. Alice is starting to get very angry at this hypocritical creature, but she keeps her cool and waits for him to speak again. He takes his time, smoking the hookah leisurely before asking her about how she thinks she has changed. Alice says she can’t remember rhymes and things as she ought to. So the Caterpillar asks her to recite one called “You are old, Father William”. She recites the poem, but it is not quite right. The Caterpillar says it is completely wrong.
The Caterpillar acts like a kind of wise man or teacher, but the advice he gives is off-topic and hypocritical, or involves making Alice give her thoughts rather than providing any real insight of his own. Alice’s mind continues to be as fluid and non-stable as her body.
After another long pause, the Caterpillar wants to know what size Alice would like to be. Alice says she doesn’t have a particular preference and that it’s actually the constant changing between sizes that bothers her, but when pushed she says she would like to be bigger. The Caterpillar angrily suggests that three inches is the perfect size. But like many of Wonderland’s creatures the offence is as quick to fade, and he tells Alice that one side of the mushroom will make her taller and one side will make her smaller. Then he mysteriously crawls away.
Alice’s comment that it is the shifting of sizes rather than being either small or large that causes her the most trouble is an indication of how hard it can be to get a sense of yourself when you are undergoing change—such as growing up. The Caterpillar’s offense at Alice not wanting to be his size shows how prickly other people (or animals) can be about their identity.
Alice is left to examine the mushroom. Not knowing which side is which, she puts her arms around the mushroom’s trunk and grabs a piece with each hand and tries the first sample, but it makes her shrink even further – suddenly her head is touching her feet. So she gobbles down the other piece as fast as she can and feels her head become free of her feet. But it is her neck that is growing rather than the whole of her, and soon she is looming like a giraffe over the mushroom. She can’t even see her shoulders and hands. But she finds that her neck is marvelously flexible, and she can swoop it down towards the foliage below.
The bizarre dream world of Wonderland becomes even more bizarre as Alice nearly shrinks herself away and then sprouts into a kind of girl-giraffe.
As Alice swoops, a pigeon flaps into her, calling her a serpent. She insists she isn’t a serpent, but the pigeon is chattering away, describing how it is impossible to please the serpents and everything he has tried has failed, and just as he thought he was free, one comes flying out of the sky. Alice apologizes, but tells the pigeon she is only a little girl (though she seems to hardly believe it herself). The pigeon doesn’t believe her, and is sure she is looking for eggs to eat. She says that girls do eat eggs but she isn’t looking for any and the pigeon, still quite confused, tells her to stop bothering him then.
Alice and the pigeon engage in a conversation about identity. Underlying that conversation is an argument about what makes up one’s identity. From the pigeon’s point of view, if you have a long swooping neck and like eggs then you are a serpent. Alice contends in contrast that she is a little girl, but has no way to explain why or how she is a little girl. Of course, Alice is right and the pigeon is wrong, but the exchange does point to the slipperiness of the categories we use to define ourselves to ourselves or others.
Alice remembers the mushroom, and tries eating again. Bit by bit, she transforms herself into her old size and now sets out to find the garden as she’d planned. She comes to a tiny house instead and thinks she’ll go in, but not wanting to scare the owners, she eats some of the shrinking mushroom until she is nine inches high and approaches the house.
Alice is gaining control over her transformations. She now figures out how to eat little bits of each side of the mushroom and carefully controls her shrinking to get to where she wants to. She is approaching growing and shrinking more strategically.