Alice stands outside, trying to decide what to do. She is interrupted by the appearance of two creatures, dressed like footmen, but with the faces of a fish and a frog. They are exchanging invitations. The Fish footman hands the Frog one from the Queen to the Duchess to play croquet and the Frog delivers the same invitation in reverse. Then the footmen bow and get their powdered curls tangled together. Alice laughs and dashes back into the forest so they can’t hear her. When she comes back, the Frog is sitting beside the door, looking mindlessly up at the sky.
The ridiculousness of a frog and a fish as footmen is just plain funny, first of all. But so is the idea of the two footmen delivering identical invitations to each other—it is as if both the Duchess and the Queen want to be able to take credit for the croquet event that both of them are going to, both want to be host. This again foregrounds and parodies the way that adults jockey for position, and try to make themselves look and be powerful, at each other’s expense (even as they give lessons to their children to not act that way at all).
When Alice approaches, The Frog tells her that there is no use knocking, because he is outside, and there is such a racket inside that no one would hear. Alice hears crashing and screaming coming from inside the house. Alice asks how she will get in, if knocking will do no good. The Frog replies indirectly that if she were inside, she could perhaps knock and he could let her out. He plans to sit where he is for the next day.
A number of times Alice has wished to go home when she was confronted by the strange rules or isolating failure to communicate when in Wonderland. Here is a Wonderland home—a domestic scene—but the comfort Alice expected to find in a “home” is missing. As if to hammer that home, the frog reverses the conventions of inside and outside, suggesting knocking to get out instead of in.
Just then, the door opens and a plate comes flying out, skimming the Frog’s head. He still will not give Alice a proper answer and she feels quite frustrated at everybody’s contrariness, so she lets herself in to the house, coming straight away into a kitchen, where a cook is stirring a cauldron and the Duchess is sitting, nursing a baby.
The scene inside is very domestic...
Everybody is sneezing because of the excessive amount of pepper the cook is putting in the soup; everybody except a cat, which sits on the hearth, smiling. Alice asks the group nervously why the cat is smiling, and the Duchess merely explains that it is a “Cheshire” cat and then shouts “Pig!” at her baby. Alice says she has never known a smiling cat, to which the Duchess insults her lack of knowledge, but before Alice can be much offended, the cook starts throwing things across the room, often hitting the Duchess and the child.
…until you encounter the comically grotesque details of it, with the cook producing a soup so peppery people can barely breathe much less eat it, and the Duchess shouting insults at her baby. Meanwhile, the Duchess acts like an “adult” toward Alice, voicing judgments about her knowledge. The way the Duchess deals with the chaos around her suggests the image of a matronly woman, but she actually has no control, as the cook’s actions indicate.
Alice shouts at the cook to stop and the Duchess says angrily that the world would go round faster if people stopped interfering. The Duchess doesn’t want to talk about figures – she starts singing a lullaby to the baby and shaking it violently. Soon, the cook joins in the singing and the whole room is howling.
The Duchess tells Alice off but uses nonsensical proverbs that alert us to the fact that she has shoddy knowledge herself. She is also a terrifying mother. She does all the typical maternal things, singing and scolding, but in a ridiculous and careless way.
Then the Duchess throws the baby to Alice to nurse while she gets ready for the croquet match. With great difficulty, Alice figures out how to hold the baby and carries it outside, thinking it would be murder to leave it in the hands of the Duchess. Then she notices how pig-like the child really is, with a turned up snout. It starts grunting, and Alice reminds it that grunting is not a proper way to express itself. The child keeps grunting. Alice sees that it is definitely becoming more pig than baby, and sets it on the ground. She knows some other children who would be better as pigs, she thinks.
The Duchess’s relationship with the pig/baby is a mockery of all the kinds of mothering that Alice has learned is appropriate for mother/child relationship. It also seems likely that the pig/baby may not actually be related to the Duchess. Wildness and domesticity have become confused here, and Alice, always eager for things to belong to the right categories (as she’s been taught that they should), does the right thing in her eyes by replacing the pig to its natural environment. At the same time, Alice recognizes that she knows many children who themselves have piglike attributes—in thinking this she is confusing categories of pig/child in much the same way as the pigeon confused the categories of girl/serpent.
The Cheshire Cat appears, grinning as before. Alice asks it which way to go. The Cat replies that the answer depends where she is trying to get to, but since Alice doesn’t mind, only that she gets somewhere, the Cat says that all directions lead to somewhere. Alice asks what kind of people she will find in each direction. The Cat points in one direction to a Hatter, and the other to a March Hare, both mad; everybody is mad here, he says, even Alice. He says he knows he is mad, because he does everything in an opposite way to a dog, who they agree is a very sane animal.
When Alice asks the Cheshire Cat which way she should go she is making an assumption that the Cat will understand that she is looking to go to the best or right place. The Cat, though, refuses to grant such an assumption or to privilege one place over another. In so doing, it makes clear the assumption Alice was originally making. The Cat proclaims that Alice must be mad because everyone in Wonderland is mad, and she is in Wonderland, has the formulation of a logical statement and yet it comes to an illogical end.
The Cat asks Alice if she is going to play croquet with the Queen today but Alice hasn’t been invited. Nevertheless, the Cat says he will see her there and proceeds to vanish. Moments later it appears again to ask what became of the baby. When Alice replies that the baby turned into a pig, he vanishes again, unsurprised.
The social etiquette of Wonderland is reminiscent of that in the real world—with get-togethers and invitations—and yet completely counter at the same time, in that the invitations don’t actually seem to matter.
Alice decides to go towards the March Hare, thinking a Hare is much more interesting than a Hatter, and shouldn’t be too mad, because it’s past March. As she sets off, the Cat appears again to check if Alice had said “pig” or “fig”, and then finally disappears from the tail up, leaving the smile without the cat for a moment. Alice goes off in the direction of the March Hare and soon spots the Hare’s house, which has a roof thatched with fur. She eats a little of the mushroom to grow bigger and nervously approaches the house.
Proverbs, sayings and idioms have an interesting place in Alice in Wonderland. Alice takes them very literally, as a lot of children do when they are learning how to use their expanding vocabularies, and these literal meanings control and shape to a large extent how things appear in Wonderland. The March Hare is a good example. The phrase “mad as a March hare” comes from the behavior of hares at mating season, in March, but in Wonderland, this creature is permanently mad.