Outside the house, a long table is set out on the grass, and three creatures, a Hatter, a Hare and a Dormouse, sit at one end, though as Alice approaches they insist there is no room for her. She sits down at the other end. The March Hare offers her a glass of wine, but she sees there is no wine and tells the hare off for being uncivil. It is Alice who has been uncivil by sitting down without an invitation, responds the Hare.
Again the novella puts Alice into a scene that in the real world would require a certain kind of etiquette—or the following of rules—and then has the creatures follow completely different, arbitrary rules while at the same time insisting on the importance of those rules. By doing so, Carroll is able to both generate humor and subtly question the value of the real world etiquette—why is it the way it is rather than another way?
They go on trading insults until the Hatter speaks up and asks “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” Alice is very glad to be given a riddle and is confident she can guess it. The Hatter thinks that “guessing” is not at all the same as “finding out the answer” and tells her off for not saying what she means, and the others join in berating her until they forget the riddle altogether.
The Mad Hatter’s riddle isn’t really answerable, and by being unanswerable it gives the Mad Hatter a kind of authority because one would naturally assume that he can answer it. Of course, in fact he can’t, which makes it not really a riddle. At the same time, the Mad Hatter berates Alice for saying “guess” when she means “find out the answer” because one could guess without being able to or having any intention of finding out the answer. The Mad Hatter is here insisting that Alice must be precise with her meaning, while not holding himself at all to the same standard. This is something that characters in Wonderland do all the time, as do people in the real world.
Then the Hatter gets out his pocket watch and asks Alice what day it is. The watch is two days off. He blames the Hare for putting butter in it. Alice is fascinated by the Hatter’s watch, which tells the month and not the hour. The Hatter thinks it is just as reasonable as Alice’s watch and argues with her nonsensically. Meanwhile the Dormouse has fallen asleep. Alice pours a little tea on its nose to wake it up.
The nature of time is put up for debate in this strange place. To Alice, who has learned to accept the conventions of time and time-keeping that she has learned above ground, the Hatter’s refusal to think of time so objectively is a further sign of his madness. And yet, what if we had twice as many minutes in a day that were all 30 seconds long? Our measures are conventions that are somewhat arbitrary, and the novella continuously points out this truth.
Alice remarks that they ought to do something better with their time than waste it on unanswerable riddles. At this the Hatter becomes very indignant. Time is a Him, not an It, he says. Alice says that she knows about Time, because she beats it when she plays music. This upsets the Hatter greatly. It reminds him of a time at the Queen’s concert, when he had to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, little Bat”, an almost-recognizable nursery rhyme, and the Queen ordered his head to be cut off for “murdering Time”. This was in March and the Hare has been mad ever since. Now it is always six o’clock, so they keep the tea things out and rotate places around the table because there’s never any time to wash up.
The tea party has skirted some upsetting and dangerous territory with the Hatter’s madness and the Hare’s offensive comments to Alice, but now we also learn that the reason for the characters’ strange ritual of changing places every so often is because it is always six o’clock at their table ever since the March Hare went mad. This suggests to Alice that time can be subjective, it can appear differently to different people. Put bluntly: what Alice considered to be perhaps the most universal thing in the world is not necessarily universal –an illuminating lesson.
The Hatter changes the subject and wants Alice to tell them a story. Alice nominates the Dormouse instead, not knowing a story to tell. The Hatter tells the Dormouse to hurry, before he is asleep again, and the Dormouse obliges, with a very hurried story about three sisters who live down a well. Alice is very interested by this story and wants to know what they live on and why they live in a well. The Dormouse answers “Treacle” to each of these questions. The well is a treacle-well.
We certainly know that Alice has plenty of stories to tell, having heard her tell stories in her own head and aloud already, so why does she say to the Hatter that she doesn’t know any? Perhaps it is due to Alice’s difficulty remembering rhymes that makes her want not to try. But she does respond like a good audience to the Doormouse’s story; but the Doormouse’s story lacks all the conventions of the story: plot, details, etc.
Alice begins to get impatient with this implausible story and the Dormouse’s evasive answers. He says that the sisters were learning to draw in the well, things beginning with M, like “muchness”. Alice confesses that she has never seen a muchness, to which the Hatter scolds her for talking. This is the last straw. Alice leaves the tea-party and wanders back through the forest. She soon comes to a tree with a door in the trunk. She goes in, and finds herself in the long hall again, finds the key and the tiny door, and this time, she has all she needs to get into the beautiful garden.
Alice wants the story to be a story, and tries to get the Doormouse to tell it as one, but the last straw occurs when the Doormouse uses a nonsense word to describe what people are doing and Alice gets scolded for talking when she wants to know what it is. Now, Alice has certainly been told not to do when someone is telling a story, but at the same time a person listening to a story has a reasonable expectation that the story has some comprehensible meaning in it. Alice keeps getting scolded for her behavior when she is simply reacting sensibly to their misbehavior. And now she stands up for herself and gets to the place she originally hoped to go: the garden.