Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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Words, Meaning and Meaninglessness Theme Analysis

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.
Words, Meaning and Meaninglessness Theme Icon

Wordplay makes Wonderland what it is. The moment Alice descends into the rabbit hole world, she starts questioning everything the world above takes for granted, including and especially language. Sentences and phrases are twisted and turned around so that they mean several things at once and cause misunderstandings and humorous clashes between the characters. “`Do bats eat cats?'” Alice asks as she falls down the rabbit hole, trying to think of life above and life in the rabbit hole at once. “for, you see, as she couldn't answer either question, it didn't much matter which way she put it.” The order of the phrases doesn't matter because the meaning behind the phrases is unclear. And Wonderland is a place where Alice is struggling to find the meaning of the changes that are happening to her.

When the Mouse in the Caucus-race scene misunderstands Alice and leaves her, offended, Alice is left alone and disoriented – this happens a lot with the characters in Wonderland. Alice’s journey is fraught with misunderstandings and offences due to language. Her inability to recite rhymes that she used to know by heart warn her that adulthood might be a less musical, comfortable place—or that she has ceased to be herself, as she no longer knows what she once did. And so words and meaning becomes tied up with the idea of the self, of who a person is.

The entire narrative has a verse-like quality because it is so packed with rhymes and recognizable phrases that should be set to tunes. But while in a traditional children’s song or rhyme, the moral or message is clear, in Wonderland, nonsense rules and it is difficult to attach meaning, consequence, or moral to almost anything. The Mad Hatter is especially affected by this condition of meaninglessness and he is also one of the most wordy of the characters, constantly assessing his own and others’ grammar and syntax to challenge the received meanings of language.

Words, Meaning and Meaninglessness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Words, Meaning and Meaninglessness 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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Words, Meaning and Meaninglessness 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 Words, Meaning and Meaninglessness.
Chapter 5 Quotes

'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.

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Chapter 6 Quotes

'If everybody minded their own business,' the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, 'the world would go round a deal faster than it does.'

Related Characters: The Duchess (speaker)
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

The Duchess delivers this piece of nonsensical advice amidst a chaotic scene. Plates fly around her kitchen, hitting the Duchess and her pig-baby, and an overly-peppery soup causes all the inhabitants to sneeze excessively.

It’s worth looking at the logic of the sentence, for Carroll, as we know by now, pays a lot of attention to differences between effective and ineffective language. First, the world can neither “go round” faster nor slower, for it maintains a constant speed despite what people do; second, everyone dealing with their own affairs is precisely and ironically what has caused the scene of mayhem; third, what the characters require at this moment is not increased speed, but a slower, less chaotic pace.

The meaningless of the Duchess’ statement here conflicts with her presentation as an adult figure of authority. She gives Alice a great deal of advice and herself has a child, yet here she shows herself to be an entirely inept maternal figure. Thus Carroll further undermines the authority of Wonderland’s adult figures, presenting them as obscuring the world’s insanity with meaningless adages instead of pragmatically confronting situations.

'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

'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 learn not to make personal remarks,' Alice said with some severity; 'it's very rude.'

Related Characters: Alice (speaker), The Mad Hatter (speaker)
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

This conversation comes just as Alice arrives at the Hare’s house and sits down with him, the Hatter, and the Dormouse. Their rude behavior toward Alice causes her to first question and then challenge their personal etiquette.

Carroll stresses their rudeness even before Alice articulates it by noting that the comment on Alice’s hair is the Hatter’s “first speech.” The Hatter, then, does not pay attention to the social norms of introducing oneself or behaving cordially, but rather jumps directly into criticism. His next comment will be to challenge Alice with a riddle, once more eschewing proper conduct for an overly aggressive statement.

Alice’s response is a striking example of her growing confidence in Wonderland. Instead of accepting the Hatter’s criticism or finding herself intimidated by him, she ripostes with her own “personal remark.” (This is a bit ironic since she is guilty of precisely what she accuses the Hatter of doing.) Consider the difference between the Hatter’s verb “want” and Alice’s “should”: both carry a normative weight, but Alice’s choice is far stronger. She does not simply hope for a consistent ethical framework but actually believes that she knows one. Though she presents herself to be less mad than the others around her—and thus more of an adult figure—the irony of Alice’s statement also slightly undermines her authority. Carroll leaves it open whether we should pay heed to Alice’s rigid rules or to the madness around her: both perhaps have some merit for the reader.

'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 9 Quotes

'Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn't one?' Alice asked.
'We called him Tortoise because he taught us,' said the Mock Turtle angrily: 'really you are very dull!'

Related Characters: Alice (speaker), The Mock-Turtle (speaker)
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

The Mock Turtle chastises Alice, here, for interrupting his story and for not understanding his pun on “Tortoise.” The interruption is caused by the Mock Turtle noting that that his teacher was a Turtle but was called Tortoise—i.e. “taught us” when spoken aloud (with an English accent).

Despite her improved ability to navigate Wonderland, Alice struggles here to stay up-to-speed on the language games played by the other characters. And as before, her earnest questions induce a sharp reprimand: “dull” for having halted the Turtle’s explanation to clarify how a turtle could also be a tortoise. Throughout this chapter and the next, the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon continue to make a dizzying number of similar puns. Some like “porpoise” and “purpose” Alice can grasp and clarify, while many others flit by without time for her to interrupt.

Carroll had actually used this pun once before, in a piece of philosophy called “What the Tortoise said to Achilles.” This may seem like a small connection, but it also reiterates the deep thought that Carroll placed in the Wonderland world. Though Alice may experience her life through bizarre puns and confusing interrogations, each of these moments is built upon the philosophical and logical rigor Carroll was pursuing elsewhere in his studies.

Chapter 10 Quotes

'It all came different!' the Mock Turtle repeated thoughtfully. 'I should like to hear her try and repeat something now. Tell her to begin.' He looked at the Gryphon as if he thought it had some kind of authority over Alice.

Related Characters: The Mock-Turtle (speaker), Alice, The Gryphon
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

In these lines, the Mock Turtle confronts Alice on the quality of her storytelling, specifically on the form in which she recounts her previous Wonderland adventures. It is notable that the text does not give any of the direct speech from Alice, so the reader has no access to whether her words were actually inaccurate or badly composed.

The Mock Turtle’s interjection is almost identical to Alice’s own interruption of his story just one chapter earlier. We could very well charge him with the same “dullness” Alice was accused of earlier, in particular because the Turtle wants Alice to “repeat” instead of produce new information. That repetition causes Alice to compare this experience with her lessons in school, a further irony since the Mock Turtle had before said he wanted to move from lessons into games. And when Alice does try to repeat what she said, the game-song of the Lobster Quadrille instead fills her mind, causing her to recite a bizarre poem.

It is also worth examining what line of Alice’s story causes the Turtle so much irritation: the moment when the Caterpillar corrects her citation of “You are old, Father William”—which is the first part of Robert Southey’s 1799 poem “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them.” The poem is an example of the more traditional moralizing literature Carroll pokes fun at throughout the text. As with the Caterpillar, the Mock Turtle explicitly denies the line in favor of the more playful and nonsensical Lobster Quadrille. But at the same time he also corrects Alice and looks to the Gryphon for authority, so he simultaneously plays both the adult figure and the silly disruptor of tradition.

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.

Here one of the guinea-pigs cheered, and was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court. (As that is rather a hard word, I will just explain to you how it was done. They had a large canvas bag, which tied up at the mouth with strings: into this they slipped the guinea-pig, head first, and then sat upon it.)

Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines reveal a startling and perplexing break in the perspective and voice of the text. Previously Alice’s adventures are recounted from an omniscient third-person perspective, but here a specific storyteller emerges to clarify the meaning of the word “suppressed.”

That storyteller is presented as a helpful figure to Alice. In contrast to the other Wonderland characters who define words badly, correct Alice’s speech, and generally only offer criticism, the “I” here is caring and attentive. He observes that the narration has included a word Alice (or the childhood reader) may not know, and then parses out its significance with a visual example that would be well-received by children. What is particularly notable about this disruption is that Alice herself responds to it, thanking the “I” (in her thoughts) for explaining the word. Then she shows off her new prowess when “suppressed” is repeated on the following page.

Beyond offering an alternative way of interacting with children to that of, say, the sermonizing Duchess or the enigmatic Cheshire cat, these lines call into question the entire narrative world of Wonderland. They seem to indicate that the story may be being told orally to a young Alice figure, or that her dream possesses some kind of internal narrator. But we should note that it is the character Alice who responds to the voice, not a separate listener, almost as if Carroll’s voice inhabits her dream.