Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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The Nature of Being and Not Being Theme Analysis

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Childhood and Adulthood Theme Icon
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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.
The Nature of Being and Not Being Theme Icon

Alice’s world is a philosophical puzzle. Even though she is just a child, Alice thinks and reflects deeply and comes up with some very existential problems. While in Wonderland she comes to wonder if she has become a different child completely, and lists the children she knows, trying to work out how their attributes define them as being Mabel or Ada. She then puzzles over the meaning of ‘I’. Such a fundamental question of existence and identity is huge for a child to ponder, and it casts quite an uneasy shadow over Alice’s movements through Wonderland. Her identity changes with each new scene and collection of characters, each questioning her and her authority, just as she herself does. The first thing the Caterpillar says to Alice is “Who are YOU?” and she is trying to find a consistent answer to this question the whole way through the story. Just as in life, the prospect of growing up and becoming someone different is threatening her sense of self and her vision of everything around her.

Questioning the nature of being also inevitably brings up the question of not being. In Wonderland, though absurdity and confusion abound, death still looms in a real way. Just as in Alice’s life as a well-off rather sheltered child, the idea of death is both ever present, but shadowy and distant at the same time – a constant terrifying threat that never quite materializes… yet.

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The Nature of Being and Not Being ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Nature of Being and Not Being 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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The Nature of Being and Not Being 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 The Nature of Being and Not Being.
Chapter 1 Quotes

'What a curious feeling!' said Alice; 'I must be shutting up like a telescope .'

Related Characters: Alice (speaker)
Related Symbols: Eating and Drinking, Growing and Shrinking
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Alice says this line immediately after drinking the “DRINK ME” vial that causes her to shrink down to a small enough size to pass through the rat-hole sized passage. The shrinking and growing Alice experiences in this scene (and throughout the book) bring up Carroll's themes of growing up and moving from childhood to adulthood—a disorienting change of size and even identity.

The choice of the telescope image is also interesting for several reasons. Carroll could have chosen a more traditional sentence about shrinking, but instead we have a reference to a specific scientific device. The mechanical telescope can collapse to become larger or smaller, and its main use as an instrument is to change visual scale. It takes an object far away and hardly visible and expands it so the viewer can see more clearly. So while Alice may shut up like a telescope, the telescope itself actually expands things: another experiment with scale in the illogical rules of Wonderland.

This is actually the second time the telescope image is used in this scene. When Alice is looking around for a way to enter the door, she imagines a “book of rules for shutting people up like telescopes,” Her wish then directly leads to this moment in which she actually is shutting up like a telescope—further emphasizing the dream-like reality of Wonderland, in which some wishes or desires manifest themselves in fantastical ways.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

'But if I'm not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, THAT'S the great puzzle!' And she began thinking over all the children she knew that were of the same age as herself, to see if she could have been changed for any of them.

Related Characters: Alice (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Alice is moved to this existential question after she has grown very large from eating the “EAT ME” cake. She is confused about how the same self can be both so small and so large in quick succession, as well as how her current adventures are compatible with her normal life the day before. She wonders if she has perhaps taken on someone else’s identity and tries to reassure herself by listing why she has not become a different young girl. She then tries (and fails) to do arithmetic and to list geographic capitols.

This quote gets to the heart of one of the book’s preoccupations: how do we define identity? Here, Alice asks herself whether she can reasonably consider herself the same person if she has undergone such a dramatic physical change. That Alice would ask herself these questions suggests the instability of childhood identity (though one could also argue that she only grows and shrinks as she does, or is in Wonderland at all, because her unformed childhood identity makes it possible for her to do so). Yet Alice also attempts to use logic to answer the question for herself, eliminating possibilities and trying to assert her selfhood by showing that her mind remains unchanged through the display of knowledge. That she fails to display any such knowledge is humorous and another indicator of being a child, but her instinct to even attempt such methods suggests the adult she will inevitably grow up to become. 

Alice's childish question is also, on deeper reflection, a profound one: Is the idea of a stable, continuous identity even a realistic one? Is there a point of change at which a person becomes someone else? A person who changes his behavior might refer to himself as becoming a "new man," after all. Alice's question, spurred by her physical change, can be seen as a penetrating question about the human condition in the face of other sorts of change: intellectual, emotional, or any kind of maturation.

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.

'I HAVE tasted eggs, certainly,' said Alice, who was a very truthful child; 'but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know.'
'I don't believe it,' said the Pigeon; 'but if they do, why then they're a kind of serpent, that's all I can say.'

Related Characters: Alice (speaker)
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Alice’s conversation with the Pigeon comes just after the one with the Caterpillar, and the bird challenges Alice's identity even more assertively. Whereas the insect was simply blasé, the pigeon interrogates Alice about her very humanity. He claims that because Alice eats eggs and has a long neck, she must be a serpent—because serpents have long necks and eat eggs. That is to say, because she has certain characteristics that resemble a serpent, she must be a serpent.

This quote builds on two main themes developing in Wonderland: the wish and failure to define identity through logical statements, and Alice’s quest to empathize with the perspectives of others. In the first theme, we see how two observations—eating eggs and having a long neck—cannot equate to having a fixed identity, for they alone do not guarantee that Alice is a serpent. Existence, Carroll, implies, cannot simply be built up from a series of behaviors, for those behaviors may be shared by two very different beings.

Second, Alice must reckon with the fact that another being would receive the same information as her and arrive at a completely different conclusion. For the pigeon, egg-eating and long-necked creatures are equivalent to being a serpent, whereas for Alice these same qualities are simply markers of being human. This interaction, then, teaches Alice that different beings experience reality from different perspectives: a key lesson she takes away from her adventures in the text.

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 8 Quotes

The players all played at once without waiting for turns, quarrelling all the while, and fighting for the hedgehogs; and in a very short time the Queen was in a furious passion, and went stamping about, and shouting 'Off with his head!' or 'Off with her head!' about once in a minute.

Related Characters: The Queen of Hearts
Related Symbols: The Garden
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

The Queen of Hearts enters this fury during a game of croquet, in which the flamingos and hedgehogs function as mallets and balls and which Alice is expected to pick up without having been informed of any rules.

Much like the “Caucus-Race” of Chapter 3, the game entirely lacks order—with the merit of the players dependent on changing rules that are ultimately assured only by the autocratic Queen. Yet if the caucus race offered a lighthearted critique of politics with prizes for all, this scene is a cruel counterpoint, in which no player can correctly follow the shifting rules and thus all can easily lose the right to their heads. “Off with her head” is likely an allusion to Shakespeare’s Richard III (a play about a famously murderous king), which Carroll would cite explicitly in a 1889 letter.

It is notable that the symbols and roles here should all be indicators of gentility: croquet is a slow game played on stately fields, cards are a similarly calming pastime, and royalty like a Queen and a Duchess ought to be stately in their behaviors. Thus Carroll has taken the stereotypical symbols of good English society, placed them in a romantic, Oxford-esque garden, and yet he has rendered them bloodthirsty and unordered. This furthers the presentation of Wonderland as a place where Alice uncovers the scruples in adult society. Reality is not nearly as ordered as it purports to be, and Alice continues to struggle to orient and reassure herself amidst the madness.

Chapter 11 Quotes

'Give your evidence,' said the King; 'and don't be nervous, or I'll have you executed on the spot.'

Related Characters: The King of Hearts (speaker)
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

The King gives this harsh pronouncement to the Hatter during a dystopian trial on the Knave of Hearts for having stolen the Queen’s tarts. Having already satirized politics and the monarchy, Carroll here takes aim at the judicial system, presenting it as a ridiculous, unorganized, and unfair game in which the King can play the judge in a trial for which the Queen is the accuser.

Previously, the King has been the more kind counterpoint to the Queen, for instance acquitting all the croquet players the Queen had wished to kill. But here, as the judge, he adopts a more violent position, promising to kill witnesses not based on any crime they have committed but simply on how they behave in the court. Of course, this is a self-defeating proposition, since threatening to execute someone will only make them more nervous. Just a few lines later, he will revise this statement to threaten execution regardless of whether the Hatter is nervous or not.

The remarkable shift the King's character indicates how his personality changes based on the context of his actions. Placed in this position of power and authority, his disposition changes entirely. This rapid change connects to the text’s earlier preoccupation with how Alice’s identity alters in different contexts. Here, however, the question is less an abstract philosophical one and more connected to a specific political situation.

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.