Some Sense in the Nonsensical
Social and Power Structures within Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and Alice
• Charles Dodgson, the son of a cleric in the rural English
countryside, attended Oxford and excelled at mathematics and
• Armed with an idyllic childhood, Dodgson was a lover of games and
logic—both of which he used to entertain his ten other siblings.
• After school, he took on several different posts at Christ Church
College in Oxford, where he eventually came to know the dean
Henry George Liddell and his family, including seven year old Alice.
Dodgson was 23.
• Dodgson adopted the pseudonym “Lewis Carroll” for his writing, it
being a scrambled version of his first two names. He chose to use a
pseudonym so as to preserve his real name for the publication of
• Finding a great interest in photography as well as writing, Dodgson
became enamored with the little Liddell girls, especially Alice. They
are the subjects of some of his most famous photographs, and little
Alice went on to become the heroine of his most famous story
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, initially entitled Alice
• The story began as a verbal tale Carroll told on a riverboat outing
with the Liddell’s, made up completely on the spot. It focuses on an
adventure of Alice’s into a world both like and unlike her own in
which she meets fantastical creatures, strange rules, and even
stranger characters. After much urging from Alice, Carroll decided
to set the story down on paper. The characters draw from Carroll’s
own inversions of societal positions—which he had often satirized
in early publishings of magazines and nonsense poetry.
Carroll and Alice in
• Oxford, England was a playground for the
Liddell sisters, and as their father was the
dean of Christ Church College, they often
spent their days in the gardens and grounds
around the school and cathedral.
• Carroll both worked at the college and spent
a lot of time with the family in Oxford.
Today, his portrait hangs in the dining hall at
Christ Church and a stained glass window
memorializes his fantastical characters.
• Alice loved candies from her favorite shop
“The Old Sheep Shop,” which has since
been turned into a commemorative shop for
all curious things Alice in Wonderland.
The Absurdity of Family Relations
• In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis
Carroll plays with the ideas of family in the
chapter “Pig and Pepper.” Here, Alice enters
the chaotic house of a Duchess and her child
in which safety, warmth, love, and happiness
are completely absent. Dishes fly around the
room as the Duchess throws everything in
sight. The baby wails and wails for its safety
which is constantly at risk, while the cook
cooks inedible food.
• Carroll directly attacks the cultural notion of
“motherhood” in this chapter. Is “motherhood”
an inherent trait all women possess? The baby
is referred to as a pig, a clear mockery of the
expectation of babies as “cute” and “adorable,”
and the Duchess effectively gives her baby to
Alice to take care of, unconcerned with its well-
being. In Wonderland, familial ties are trivial
and fleeting. Who one belongs to one moment
can change in the next.
• Another inversion is the relationship of the
cook and the Duchess. As was still common in
society at the time, a cook would be
subordinate to the household she works for as
well as an integral part in feeding and
sustaining the family. In Wonderland, however,
the cook puts too much pepper in everything,
causing fits of sneezing and unhealthy,
destructive behavior in the mannerisms of the
Complications in Etiquette and
• The Mad Hatter and the March Hare- When Alice
encounters the Mad Tea Party, she attempts to use her
knowledge of table manners, but finds that the Hatter and
the Hare, both adults in comparison to Alice, do not
possess any etiquette skills at all. The process of taking
“tea,” a very traditional English cultural event, is made
absurd and pointless. The hosts shout at and order about
their guests, never wash their tea sets (but continuously
use new ones), and do not cater to anyone but themselves.
Alice’s “lessons” she is being taught as a young girl really
only apply within the society that upholds and recognizes
the same codes. They are useless outside of society.
• The Caterpillar- Alice’s conversation with the Caterpillar
demonstrates an inversion of the expectation of language.
As Alice begins to explain herself in response to the
Caterpillar’s questions, she realizes that her answers are
always ineffectual at explaining her true meaning.
Language, Carroll seems to say, creates expectations that
society understands certain “universal truths,” which may
not be universal after all—and in Wonderland, Alice
continually cannot explain herself effectively to anyone
through words. Language becomes a barrier that
complicates and distorts Alice’s ability to communicate with
the other creatures.
Abuses of Power- The Queen of
• Alice attends the croquette match of the Queen of Hearts,
only to find that the Queen is a maniacal tyrant bent on
beheading anyone who steps a toe out of her imaginary
• Kings and queens, historically were crowed by “divine
right,” under the assumption that they were chosen as the
leaders of their people. The Queen of Hearts does not
inspire hope, safety, or love in the hearts of her people,
however—instead she terrifies them and acts irrationally
out of her own best interest, not theirs.
• She is also, ironically, unconcerned with following through
with her sentences. The Queen of Hearts seems to make
so many ridiculous demands that she cannot possibly enact
them all—or ensure that they are properly carried out. She
enjoys giving the sentence, but cares little for its follow-
• The Queen of Hearts is said to be a satirical reference to
Henry VIII’s fondness for beheading people who got in his
way politically, as well as romantically.
• Standing for the whims of royalty which can effect both
good and bad for their subjects, the Queen of Hearts
symbolizes the ineffectiveness of the monarchy when its
actions are self-indulgent and illogical.
The Partiality of Justice
• Perhaps the most directly satirical scene is the
courtroom trial of the Knave of Hearts towards the
end of the story. Accused of stealing the Queen of
Heart’s tarts, the Knave is unfairly questioned by the
King of Hearts, who is the completely incompetent
• The King accuses first—the Knave is guilty before
proven innocent—and attempts to give his sentence
before the presentation of the evidence.
• The jury is a ramshackle box of timid Wonderland
creatures who each possess a black slate on which
to keep record of the trial, but only at the request of
the “judge” who informs them of the important versus
unimportant aspects of the trial. All the jurors can
truly manage on their own is the writing down of their
own names which so as they would not forget them
by the end of the trial!
• Evidence that is presented is either completely
useless or unrelated, but the King puts together the
bits that make the case favorable to his
predetermined “guilty” verdict. The fairness of trials
is called into question as Carroll begs the question of
how the dominant power structures can ever justly
determine the morality, the punishment, or the
gravity of an affair given their personal (or lack
thereof) involvement in a case.
What does all this
• Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is not only a children's
story, but it a testament to the powerlessness of
individuals in a society that is always in flux—the rules in
Wonderland change almost as soon as Alice accepts
them. There are no universal truths in Wonderland, nor
is there a common way in conversing with or dealing with
characters. Each has their own individual realities which
are made up entirely of their own codes, signs, and
language. Social ideals and rules no longer apply—they
are made fun of and are completely misunderstood by
everyone in Wonderland.
• Alice’s journey brings her face to face with a whole host
of new ideologies beyond the very specific set she has
been taught as a little girl growing up in the 19th century.
• Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-
Glass. Barnes and Noble Classics, New York. 2004.
• Stoffel, Stephanie Lovett. Lewis Carroll and Alice. Thames & Hudson, The
Wonderland Press. 1997.