Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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Themes and Colors
Childhood and Adulthood Theme Icon
Dreams and Reality Theme Icon
Words, Meaning and Meaninglessness Theme Icon
The Nature of Being and Not Being Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Dreams and Reality Theme Icon

Alice in Wonderland is a dream world, full of curiousness, confusion and talking animals. Everything is a little off. This can be delightful and fund, but it can also create a menacing atmosphere that threatens to turn the story from a child’s story of adventure and nonsense to something more like a nightmare, though it never quite does tip into true nightmare.

What is perhaps even more interesting, though, is the way that the ridiculous dream world of Wonderland comments or parodies the real world. Wonderland is full of misunderstanding, of meaninglessness, of pointless races, pompous characters, maudlin stories or reminiscences without purpose, and is further full of commands from leaders that make absolutely no sense and are based on pure vanity and cluelessness. Its residents mainly just want to get by and survive and maybe have a good time. Its justice is often laughably faulty. In other words, as a child growing up might realize as the curtains on the adult and "real" world fall away, Wonderland isn't actually so different from that real world. The real world may be less exaggerated in its arbitrary rules and adult nonsense, crookedness, cowardice, and venality, but it has such traits in equal measure, and in many ways the cruelty of the real world is greater. Wonderland, then, because it is a ridiculous dream, becomes a lace where Alice can begin to navigate the real world without, yet, having to actually face that real world.

Dreams and Reality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Dreams and Reality appears in each chapter of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Dreams and Reality Quotes in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Below you will find the important quotes in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland related to the theme of Dreams and Reality.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hole: she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head though the doorway.

Related Characters: Alice
Related Symbols: The Garden
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the text, Alice has just followed the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole and has met her first Wonderland obstacle: she is too big to fit through the “rat-hole” doorway.

This moment is crucial because it establishes the absurd world of Wonderland, in which normal physical and spatial logic does not apply. Further, the portrayal of Alice as desperate, but unable, to get outside captures profound aspects of childhood: the desire to play and the restraint placed on that desire by society, whether parental rules in the “real” world or a too-small door here. (It’s also worth noting that these images are reminiscent of the romantic gardens of which Carroll’s contemporaries wrote, as well as the environments he may have been accustomed to seeing around Oxford College, where he taught—gardens where children often weren’t allowed to play.)

The fact that Alice can’t even get her head through the doorway also indicates that she tries to get through the doorway, implying a child’s wishful belief that wanting something enough can make the impossible become possible. While the tiny door is itself an absurd and illogical thing to find in a big dark hall, Alice’s inability to get through it here creates a sense that there is some logic to this world that makes sense: big things can’t pass through small openings. But moments later Alice will shrink. Thus this image of Alice beside the small door creates a sense of logical stability that the novel then immediately subverts—Alice is able to get through, and so her childish effort to get through an absurdly small door is rewarded rather than proved to be silly, as it would in the “real” world. Wonderland is a world where rules can get broken precisely in the way that a child might wish real world rules could be broken.

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Chapter 4 Quotes

“It was much pleasanter at home,' thought poor Alice, 'when one wasn't always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn't gone down that rabbit-hole--and yet--and yet--it's rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

Related Characters: Alice (speaker)
Related Symbols: Eating and Drinking, Growing and Shrinking
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

After finding another growth-inducing liquid in the White Rabbit’s house, Alice becomes trapped in the building. And, as often happens in the tale, a negative experience in Wonderland makes her yearn for her previous, simpler life.

The aspects of Wonderland that frustrate Alice are notable here: The first is “growing larger and smaller,” a process that continues to undermine her sense of identity and which brings into question her relative age and maturity level. Simply changing her physical shape does not allow her to escape the rabbit-hole or to become any mentally older or younger, reiterating that physical shifts do not correlate to mental ones. The second is “being ordered around by mice and rabbits,” an experience that inverts the authority structure of humans over animals to which she is accustomed in her “pleasanter” life. Yet even as Alice yearns for that more idyllic, more stable home, she recognizes how interesting and exciting this “rather curious” life in Wonderland can be.

These lines clarify some of the challenging but valuable lessons Alice must take from Wonderland. She must learn to interact with the animals, to be empathetic but also firm, and she must accept the uncertainty of the world and rapid changes in identity, particularly those associated with life beyond childhood.

She stretched herself up on tiptoe, and peeped over the edge of the mushroom, and her eyes immediately met those of a large caterpillar, that was sitting on the top with its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah, and taking not the smallest notice of her or of anything else.

Related Characters: Alice, The Caterpillar
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage closes the fourth chapter and serves as the transition between Alice’s encounter with an oversized puppy and her pivotal conversation with the Caterpillar. Her decision to explore the mushroom only comes after she looks around for something else to eat or drink. This plotting demonstrates, first, how Alice is gradually learning the symbolic logic of Wonderland. She knows, by now, that her dreamworld is organized around digestible objects.

By connecting the idea of a magical food with the following meeting with the Caterpillar, Carroll also seems to imply that the conversation with the Caterpillar will offer a different, non-physical form of transformation. And this preference for psychological exploration comes into focus when the Caterpillar is introduced with the “long hookah,” a symbol with several interlocking meanings. It can be interpreted as an image of Eastern cultures (about which Europeans like Carroll often fantasized), as an indication of mind-altering substances, as a sign of laziness—or as a combination of all three. The Caterpillar’s uninterested response to Alice highlights his apathetic or addled state, setting the stage for the dreamlike quality of their ensuing conversation about identity.

It is important to note, however, that no convincing evidence has surfaced regarding Carroll himself ever using mind-altering substances, despite the fact that his interest in dreams and fantastical worlds, which is clearly on display in Alice in Wonderland, is often misread as a sign that he himself was a proponent or user of psychedelics. While it may be tempting to interpret the hookah-smoking caterpillar as a symbol for drugs, it is unlikely that Carroll intended such a meaning.

Chapter 5 Quotes

'Who are YOU?' said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, 'I--I hardly know, sir, just at present-- at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.'

Related Characters: Alice (speaker), The Caterpillar (speaker)
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

The Caterpillar’s question builds on Alice’s continued anxiety about her identity. Alice has previously ruminated internally on the issue, wondering how she can be the same person when she changes size so rapidly. So when the Caterpillar voices a similar inquiry, what should be a perfunctory question—asking a new person who they are—instead becomes a deep philosophical quandary.

Alice tries to reassure herself with a set of logical assertions. When she says she knew who she “WAS” previously, she points out that identity can only be known in retrospect. And she implies that understanding a past self does not guarantee comprehension of the present. Furthermore, she cannot pinpoint the exact moments of personal development, but rather notices the incongruity between the past self and the present one. From these two ideas, she arrives at the conclusion that she “must have been changed.” The verb “must” is important here, as it shows that Alice demands that her conclusions be based on rigorous logic, not only on observation or emotion.

From this conversation, we see how Wonderland teaches Alice to find new depths in simple actions and words—and how she has begin to search for ways, both logical and illogical, to make sense of those depths.

Chapter 6 Quotes

'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: 'we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'
'How do you know I'm mad?' said Alice.
'You must be,' said the Cat, 'or you wouldn't have come here.'

Related Characters: Alice (speaker), The Cheshire Cat (speaker)
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage, one of the most quoted from Carroll’s work, comes during Alice’s interaction with Wonderland’s perplexing Cheshire Cat: a character who seems wise, yet who never conveys any real knowledge to Alice or to the reader. He functions, then, almost as a parody of the truth-teller figure we might expect at this point in a childhood adventure tale. The Cat is prompted to make his comment on universal insanity when Alice asks advice on where to go and the Cat observes that both of her options—one leads to a Hatter, one to a March Hare—will bring her into contact with mad characters.

Once again, Carroll makes a mockery of supposedly logical statements: The Cheshire Cat constructs a quick proof of Alice’s madness based on 1) All inhabitants of Wonderland are mad 2) Alice is in Wonderland 3) Therefore Alice is mad. This type of thinking recalls Alice’s own failed attempts to define identity, but here the Cheshire Cat does not cite details concerning her personal characteristics. Instead he focuses on the environment in which Alice has found herself, implying that identity is more a factor of who and what surrounds Alice, not something internal to her character.

Furthermore, the claim of universal insanity makes a broader statement on Wonderland—and on the adult world that a maturing Alice is learning how to navigate. Though she might expect it to be firmly grounded in rules and ordered systems, it is in fact highly chaotic and fundamentally unhinged. Accepting this lesson becomes another component of her emotional growth as she progresses in Wonderland.

Chapter 7 Quotes

'If you knew Time as well as I do,' said the Hatter, 'you wouldn't talk about wasting IT. It's HIM.'

Related Characters: The Mad Hatter (speaker)
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

The conversation here strays into even more existentially murky territory as the Hatter and Hare dispute Alice’s belief in one of the most basic elements of existence: time.

More specifically, the Hatter complicates the notion of time by giving it a gender and personal identity: it is possible for him to “know” Time and to claim that Time’s gender is masculine. When himself challenged by Alice, the Hatter justifies his outlandish claim by recounting how the Queen of Hearts accused him of “murdering time.” If the phrase is taken literally rather than figuratively—as phrases often are in Wonderland—this accusation would imply that for the Hatter, Time had to be a person. As a result it can be murdered, deceived, and warped, such as is the case at the tea party, where the time is always six o’clock.

Like the earlier questions posed on identity, this discussion takes a common term and renders it far more complex than Alice’s previously fixed world view had considered it to be. Again, Carroll archives this end by relying on the deep philosophy inherent in simple adages, demanding that both Alice and the reader to think more critically about just what the concept of time means.

Chapter 12 Quotes

'Who cares for you?' said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) 'You're nothing but a pack of cards!'

Related Characters: Alice (speaker)
Related Symbols: Eating and Drinking, Growing and Shrinking
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

Alice responds, here, to the Queen's favorite exclamation of “Off with her head!” and her comment causes the cards to rise up and fly at her. The fight is provoked by Alice’s increased confidence about the irrational proceedings of the trial, in which she continues to reject the false evidence and malpractice, in particular the Queen’s wish for the sentence to come before the verdict.

Alice’s maturation comes to a conclusion in these lines in several ways. She has been growing physically larger throughout the court proceedings (not based on eating anything, but rather of her own accord), and this physical enlargement is mirrored by her increased confidence. That confidence comes across in her flat-out rejection of the Queen as “nothing but a pack of cards.” Whereas before Alice took issue with specific thoughts or speeches of the Queen, here she simply rejects her as an inanimate object. This is possible because of Alice’s new size, for whereas before the cards were equally large as Alice, here they have been restored to their proper dimensions. Thus they can be seen not as threats or characters, but simply as objects.

Carroll completes this idea by making the lines serve as the transition from Alice’s dreamworld back into her reality. As the cards fly at her, Alice awakens, indicating that, having learnt all she can from Wonderland, she can now depart. These details present the dream as a space for character and personal development, in which Alice must develop the maturation and self-confidence necessary to reject mad authoritarian figures like the Queen and acquire her own moral compass.

'Oh, I've had such a curious dream!' said Alice, and she told her sister, as well as she could remember them, all these strange Adventures of hers that you have just been reading about; and when she had finished, her sister kissed her, and said, 'It WAS a curious dream, dear, certainly: but now run in to your tea; it's getting late.'

Related Characters: Alice (speaker), Alice’s Sister (speaker)
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

Alice and her sister converse just after Alice has awoken from her Wonderland experience. After recounting the dream, Alice will depart and her sister will enter a strange reverie where she too lives in the world of Wonderland images for a time—as if Alice’s storytelling gives her access to the world and its lessons.

It is notable that Alice has explained her adventures already once before to the Mock Turtle, who listened but rejected the way in which she told the story. Though Alice’s sister is more receptive, affirming the curiosity of the dream, she also quickly moves on from the tale, returning Alice to the normal rituals of waking life. This ritual, however, is “tea,” an experience that Alice has now come to see not as an ordinary, simple process, but rather one filled with the madness of Wonderland. Furthermore, Alice’s sister justices the ritual with an allusion to time—“it’s getting late”—which is the exact theme called into question by Alice’s tea with the Hatter, Hare, and Dormouse. (Remember, it was the Hatter who called time a "him," and the three had a broken timepiece stuck at six o’clock.)

Carroll’s text, then, ends on an ambiguous note. On the one hand, Alice seems to have been restored to the normal rituals of her childhood life, in which Wonderland would simply be a magical outing. The sister’s emphasis on the past tense of “WAS” highlights that interpretation. But on the other hand, the references to specific symbols in the dream imply that these symbols may have taken on new, more complicated meanings in Alice’s life. Considering Alice’s interest in how past identity defines the present self, perhaps the “WAS” should not be written off so quickly. That her sister can access Wonderland through Alice’s storytelling also implies that the tales hold the power to affect others and to apply to "real" life. Furthermore, we have the notable reintroduction of the narrative voice, here enacted through the “you” that explicitly addresses the reader. Whereas before the “I” explained the term “suppressed” to both Alice within the text and to the reader, here he refers directly to us.