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Analyzing the Madness: Part I

November 10, 2009
Perhaps the most famous Alice scene, “A Mad Tea-Party” brings the madness to the reader as well as Alice.

First, about the Dormouse, why is it used “as a cushion?” (p. 69) Why is the animal there at all if it simply sleeps and gets used as a piece of furniture? I suppose it is possible that the Dormouse will play a more integral role as the story progresses, however in this scene it is more or less a part of the scenery that occasionally, sleepily offers input into the conversation.

Alice is at first denied a seat at the table, but she takes one anyway. The moment she takes her seat, the rude “No room!” cries alter to a polite “Have some wine.” (p. 69) This struck me as odd; why would the March Hare change his tune so quickly? Additionally, why would he offer wine that does not exist, and at a tea party no less? Madness, I tell you.

From then on, the tea party only becomes more mystically abstract. “Your hair wants cutting,” the Mad Hatter tells Alice out of the blue. (p. 70) In The Annotated Alice (TAA) version of the story, there is a footnote here. It explains that in Lewis Carroll’s time and culture, it would have been odd to tell a young girl that her hair was too long. Rather, the note suggests that “the remark would apply to Carroll,” considering he had long hair that, at the time, was out of fashion. (p. 71, note 4) I have explored the symbolic meaning that Alice represents in both Duel Personalities and A New Take On Multi-Dimensional Alice; in summary, one of the options I believe to be possible is that Lewis Carroll is in fact representing himself with the character of Alice. Therefore, the Hatter’s remark that applies more to Carroll than a young Victorian-age girl supports this idea. It provides–if not solid–the most plausible evidence attainable in Carroll’s nonsensical prose that suggests Carroll and Alice are meant to be one in the same.

The Hatter then plagues Alice with a purposely unsolvable riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” (p. 70) Of course, Martin Gardner of TAA notes the later solutions that analysts and Carroll alike came up with (p. 71-73, note 4), but regardless Carroll intended to make a riddle that did not have an answer. At this point in the journey through Carroll’s text, I have come to conclude that Carroll often created unsolvable problems simply for its own sake. As a mathematician, it’s possible Carroll searched for the one problem (or more) that humans could not solve. Or perhaps Carroll wanted to keep children intrigued until the very end by supplying mysteries that only he could solve, and even then, only if he chose to solve.

Alice and the Hatter later discuss their watches. Alice notes that the Hatter’s watch “doesn’t tell what o’clock it is!” and the Hatter answers her cry by asking if her watch told her “what year it is.” (p.72) Why did the Hatter answer Alice’s remark about the o’clock (which effectively means hour) with one about a year? It seems unlikely the Hatter misheard Alice. I suppose the Hatter is meant to be ‘mad’ but should he really mix up words and meanings so easily? And, if I were to believe the Hatter had a hidden agenda, what would the significance of switching hours with years be?

It’s possible Carroll felt that time stopped when he was with Alice Liddell, thus the clock at the tea party stayed still. As for switching hours with years? Perhaps Carroll wished that in mere hours Alice Liddell could grow up to marry him rather than years. I also believe it is plausible that Carroll wished his age differed by solely hours rather than years.

Look for Part II of the analysis to be published at a later date.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kristen K permalink
    November 15, 2009 6:46 pm

    I think I see your point!

    So you are saying that the Hatter believes that six o’clock is the ‘year’ and therefore his clock tells the year. So when Alice asks why his clock doesn’t tell the hour, he responds by asking her why her clock doesn’t tell the year, because that is what his clock tells him. Thus, the Hatter would naturally think its odd that Alice would ask about his clock when, to him, her’s is the one that is odd.

    Did I get it right this time?

  2. Rachel L. permalink
    November 12, 2009 10:03 am

    I think you may have misunderstood when the Mad Hatter asks Alice if her watch tells her the year. The Hatter says on page 74 that “It’s always six o’clock now” because he quarreled with Time. Time got angry with him and made it permanently tea time. When the Hatter asks Alice if her watch tells the year she replies that it does not because “it stays the same year for such a long time together”(pg. 72). Six o’clock has become like a year for the Hatter because it stays that time for so long. It would therefore be pointless to have a watch that told the time because it would not change.

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