A little girl named Alice is sitting beside her sister, who is reading what Alice thinks is a very dull book, when suddenly a white rabbit appears and says “Oh dear! I shall be late!” For a moment, the rabbit doesn’t strike Alice as odd at all, until she realizes that she has never seen a rabbit in a waistcoat or with a pocket-watch before. Instinctively, she follows him across a field and, before she has a chance to think, down a rabbit hole.
Alice is bored and sleepy on the bank, and though it is never outright stated the implication is that she is drifting into the dream. Alice’s dream state—and her magical thinking as a young child—are on display as she is not surprised by the fact of a talking rabbit—it’s only when she realizes that it’s a well-dressed talking rabbit that it gets her attention. And she follows the Rabbit from her world to its world, the world of the dream.
The rabbit hole goes on and on like a vertical tunnel, and as Alice falls, it is as if time slows down – she is able to consider everything around her. The walls of the tunnel are filled with shelves and bookcases, from which she manages to select a jar labeled “Orange Marmalade”, but finding it empty, puts it back as she falls. She muses on what her family would say if they could see her. She thinks she must be near the center of the earth by now, and proceeds to recite facts she has learned in school about the size of world, getting stuck on the ideas of Latitude and Longitude.
Alice is now in completely foreign territory. The rabbit hole does not seem to belong to the world of her sister and the bank, but a new world, not just a rabbit world, but one where gravity and the shape and composition of the earth do not exist as they did before, and everyday objects, like marmalade placed in new and ridiculous circumstances. None of this strikes Alice as strange or worrying, as she instead daydreams about facts things she’s half-learned in school. A mixture of dream and reality is occurring, offering Alice the opportunity to see her own experiences in a new light.
As she keeps falling, Alice wonders if she might come out the other side of the world, and if people in Australia are themselves upside down. Then she starts thinking about her cat, Dinah, and wonders if cats eat bats. She begins to get dazed and sleepy, dreaming she is hand in hand with Dinah the cat, when she finally reaches the ground with a thump. She gets up straight away, not at all hurt, and sees another long passage before her, along which the white rabbit is hurrying, muttering again about being terribly late.
Alice often regurgitates information she has heard from adults. She has learned geography but doesn’t entirely understand how gravity works and so the picture she has of the world is a mixture of facts and imagination—as a child, her “real” world is reminiscent of Wonderland. Her thoughts about cats eating bats, or bats eating cats, start the novella’s exploration of language, its meaning, and its meaninglessness.
Alice follows, but when she turns a corner, she loses sight of the rabbit and finds herself in a huge hall, with doors all around her. All the doors are locked, so she comes back to the center of the room. Now she finds a little table with a key on top. Thinking it must open one of the doors, she goes around the room trying it but it doesn’t fit any of them. Then a new door appears, a tiny door behind a curtain. The key fits perfectly. Alice opens the door and kneels down and peers through it to a beautiful garden. But the doorway seems to be for a small animal, not a girl. It's too small for Alice to fit through.
The long hall with the locked doors presents Alice with a puzzle. She understands perfectly well what she has to do: use the key to unlock one of the doors, but in the end she discovers that the key unlocks a door that is the wrong size for her. This is quite a metaphor for childhood, where children want to do things—and know just what it is that they want to do—but are told that they are too young or too small. Wonderland inverts this by making Alice too big. The garden, here, represents the dream of the thing she wants to do, or achieve.
Alice wishes she could “shut up like a telescope”, and goes back to the table to see if she can find anything to help (she has started to believe that anything is possible). Something has appeared on the table that was not there before – a bottle of liquid, labeled “DRINK ME”. Alice is a clever child, and will not drink it until she sees that it is not marked “Poison”. It has a very pleasant taste and she finishes it quickly.
Unlike the world above ground, Alice is able to fulfill her imagination here – she imagines shutting up like a telescope and it seems that the mere wish is enough to conjure the bottle of magic. Note how she doesn’t succumb to it though - she’s still concerned about rules and safety. And yet, at the same time, she’s also completely trusting: if she sees no note she assumes it must be safe. It doesn’t occur to her that the world might not be straightforward.
Alice feels very strange, like she is shrinking, and in fact she is. She has become the perfect size for the tiny door. Alice hopes she won’t shrink any further – she can imagine snuffing out entirely like a flame. She goes back to the door to the beautiful garden. She realizes she has forgotten the key, so she goes back to the table but, being the size of a mouse, can no longer reach it. She tries to clamber up, but the table is made of glass and she slips off again. She soon becomes very tired and upset, but then tells herself off for crying. Alice is generally very hard on herself.
What began as an adventure is now playing out like an impossible challenge for Alice – the moment she finds an opportunity, another obstacle springs up before her. The way these obstacles and opportunities appear according to what Alice needs at that moment. She seems at once to be in control – because the room keep changing according to her, and out of control, because it changes without her willing it to. Note how Alice has internalized the idea that she shouldn’t get upset about things—something adults around must tell her all the time.
Alice finds a box under the table and in it, a tiny cake with the words “EAT ME” on the top. She decides to eat the cake, hoping she will get bigger, and waits anxiously to see which way she will grow, but she appears not to be growing any way at all, so she finishes the whole cake.
Alice’s dream world is very focused on the idea of physical change – Alice must grow or shrink to transform to her new environment – this is not so different from the new demands that Alice faces as a child growing up.