How little girls are like serpents, or, food and power in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books

This article was written by Katja Jylkka and was first published in “The Carrollian: The Lewis Carroll Journal”, Issue 26, Autumn 2010 – published February 2015, by the Lewis Carroll Society. It is reproduced on this site with permission from the author.


At the beginning of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, shortly after her fall down the rabbit hole, Alice concludes, “I know something interesting is sure to happen … whenever I eat or drink anything” (AAIW 32)(1). Her observation remains true throughout Wonderland as well as its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found there. Other scholars have addressed the prevalence of eating and food imagery in the Alice texts, most recently Sara Guyer’s ‘The Girl with the Open Mouth’ and Carina Garland’s ‘Curious Appetites: Food, Desire, Gender, and Subjectivity in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Texts’. However, neither of these works fully considers the influence of social class on these themes throughout the texts. With her entrance into Wonderland, Alice, a member of middle-class Victorian society, experiences the reality of class conflict in nineteenth-century England.(2) While at first it may seem, to the reader as well as to Alice, that Wonderland and the Looking-Glass world are chaotic netherworlds entirely removed from Victorian reality, it becomes clear that the land at the bottom of the rabbit hole is actually a more honest view of social constructions in Alice’s own world.

Historical studies of the period underscore this ideological opposition between the nobility and the working classes as being inextricably tied to the burgeoning processes of industrialization and urbanization. Patrick Joyce’s Work, Society and Polities, for example, discusses at length the result of the growing importance of factories. Joyce also sheds light on the abuses of that power as economic authority led to increasing political and judicial control (Joyce p.4). In fact, Joyce argues that “employer power was expressed through the whole range of town institutional life” (Joyce p.4). The evolution of a dominating, cohesive, and self-aware upper class “depriv[es] not only the working classes but the middle classes of a voice in the political process” (Cody).

Other scholarship has focused on a multitude of possible interpretations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice texts, from the psychological to the autobiographical. Yet the combination of social class and the historical and symbolic significance of eating offer a fresh understanding of the often seemingly senseless violence of the texts. Together, the themes of class conflict and eating can be studied in conjunction with one another to form an understanding of social power in Victorian England. Scenes such as the famous ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ poem demonstrate that, in the Alice texts, eating is never solely about survival. The oysters’ consumption by the Walrus and the Carpenter is only one example of how eating in these works is only the ultimate logical consequence of a social relationship predicated on inequality and deception.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass set up the dichotomy between the upper and lower classes through opposing representations of language and eating, centering social identity symbolically around the mouth. Just as the type of language characters speak serves as an identifying marker of their class, so the types of food they eat or the food available to them classify them to their fellow characters and to the reader as upper- or lower-class figures. Characters who use figurative language in Wonderland and the Looking-Glass world represent an upper class that uses abstract and aesthetically pleasing speech to overlook injustices or cruelty concealed in the content of the speech itself. The presence and consumption of sweet foods such as jam, plum cake, and treacle perform the same function, signifying a falsely sweet way of looking at the world, attempts to appease the lower class, and the erasure of signs of conflict. Sweetness in general can be consistently identified throughout the texts with pleasing words meant to mollify the victims of injustice. Conversely, literal language aligns the characters that use it with the lower classes. Bread and other foods actually eaten by lower class Victorians, as well as objects typically deemed inedible, represent a more literal form of language and therefore denote an “unsweetened” view of society, the displeasing flavours of the foods reflecting the unpleasantness of social realities that these characters are forced to “swallow”. Given these relationships, the reader can infer the integral connection between food and social class and, through the formative power of class on the self, the symbolic connection between food and individual identity.

Alice’s changes in size as a result of eating and drinking represent her own experience of the symbolic connections between food, class, and identity. Chapter II, ‘The Pool of Tears’, begins with Alice growing bigger and bigger as a result of eating a “very small cake, on which the words ‘EAT ME’ were beautifully marked in currants” (AAIW 15). Eating, in this case, has transformed Alice’s body into a succinct illustration of the Victorian social spectrum as a whole, her head representative of the upper class and her feet of the lower. Supporting this identification is the physical distance between Alice’s head and feet, as well as her patronizing attitude toward the labouring, lowest “members” of her body and the service they provide her. Eating this cake causes Alice to grow, subsequently exhibiting upper-class characteristics, concerned about her ability to “sweet talk” her symbolically lower-class feet. She also begins to worry about her capacity to care for her feet, or even spare them much thought due to the increasing distance between her head and her extremities. This relationship suggests the problematic visibility of the poor in British society, as her feet grow increasingly out of sight and, thus, out of mind. To keep her lower-class feet happy and obedient, Alice decides to “give them a new pair of boots every Christmas” (AAIW 16). This scene demonstrates how the consumption of a certain food has allowed Alice to experience for herself, and in fact within herself, the division between upper- and lower-class identification.

Alice continues to grow and shrink at various times throughout Wonderland, giving her a wide range of (physical and social) perspectives on her experiences. As the scene with the currant cake indicates, whenever Alice grows larger, she sees Wonderland from an upper-class point of view. When she is that large, her naturally greater physical power over the animals of Wonderland and the great literal and metaphorical distance that separates Alice from them leads to difficulties in understanding the plight of lower-class figures and inclines her to be more abusive to them, just as other upper-class figures are throughout the text. For instance. when she has grown so big inside the White Rabbit’s house that she can’t get out again, she has very few compunctions about kicking Bill the Lizard up the chimney or threatening to “set Dinah” at the animals assembled outside the house (AAIW 36).

However, Alice also shrinks as the result of eating certain foods or drinking certain liquids, allowing her to see from a lower-class point of view. Being literally closer to the ground associates her with “low” language and “low” culture as well as exposing her to disadvantages she has previously never experienced. As a tiny Alice, she is at the mercy of all things and characters physically larger than her, nearly drowning in a pool
of her own tears and fearing being eaten by a puppy that she would have dwarfed in the world above the rabbit hole. lt is when she is this small that the White Rabbit mistakes Alice for his servant Mary Ann, a mistake which clearly links her physical size with her social standing and power.

Alice quickly grasps the connection between how she is treated and her size and takes advantage of the opportunity to drink the contents of a bottle labeled “DRINK ME” in order to stop “being such a tiny little thing” (AAlW 32). Alice’s uneasiness with the power of food and drink to change her class affiliations implies the strong link, not only between the mouth and proper social behaviour, but also between the mouth and
identity.(3) Having her own class background interrogated and experiencing for herself conflicting class identifications destabilizes Alice’s very sense of who she is. When the Caterpillar asks her to explain herself and her identity, she defends her confusion, saying, “for I ca’n’t understand it myself, to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing” (AAlW 41). The events of Wonderland and Looking-Glass demonstrate how eating is not merely a means of physical sustenance, but a commentary on inter-class power dynamics and how social status affects individual identity.

Oblivious to the position in which her previous upper-middle class education places her, Alice often encounters difficulties in seeing eating as symbolic of social class. After consuming part of the Caterpillar’s mushroom, Alice grows taller than the trees of Wonderland and alarms a Pigeon, who accuses her of plotting to steal her eggs. Here, the pigeon speaks from the position of the victimized lower class, fearing and resenting Alice’s power as a member of those who exploit her production (AAIW 47). Alice’s giant size aligns her with the upper class and reflects her power relative to the pigeon. This scene deals with the dual significance of the egg from two competing class perspectives. For the upper class, egg-eating represents the aesthetic pretension masking improper actions, while for the pigeon and other members of the lower class it signifies the exploitation of their labour and production. Alice states, “I have tasted eggs, certainly … but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know,” to which the Pigeon replies, “I don’t believe it … but if they do, why, then they’re a kind of serpent: that’s all I can say” (AAIW 48). With this statement, the Pigeon strips the act of eating eggs of its figurative and more attractive meaning, suggesting that there is no difference between a little girl who eats eggs and the proverbial snake in the grass. It is the cruelty of the egg-eating itself which induces the conflict, and it is that act to which Alice has admitted. Shocked by the revelation of her own impropriety and the Pigeon’s accusations that the wealthy upper class can be just as “serpentine” in their viciousness as an actual snake, Alice’s own mouth is shut – all she can do is be “quite silent for a minute or two” (AAIW 48).

Through interactions such as the above, Alice begins to see beyond the “sweet” view of life she has been taught and increasingly understands the embittered view of society that the experiences of the lower class have given them. The fact that she isn’t in her own world means that her curiosity is often answered honestly with the bitter truth, rather than with the lies or half-truths she would most likely receive at home. In the chapter ‘A Mad Tea-Party’, the Dormouse tells Alice, the Hatter, and the March Hare a story about little girls that live at the bottom of a well, during which Alice asks, “What did they live on?” because, as the narrator informs the reader, she “always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking” (AAIW 65). She asks the same question in the ‘Looking-Glass Insects’ chapter of Looking-Glass. This question draws together considerations of food and class through the dual meanings of the phrase “to live on”. “To live on” can imply the literal, physical nourishment required in order to live, but can also indicate the job or salary with which one buys those physical necessities. This question thereby makes the link between certain types of food and the privileges associated with consumption and Alice’s curiosity about the issue draws her deeper into the social realities of both Wonderland and her own home above ground.

The revelation of what some of the looking-glass insects do live on further illuminates the importance of Alice’s question. For example, the nature of the Bread-and-butter-fly is indicative of poverty in the world above the rabbit hole. The Gnat tells Alice it lives on “weak tea with cream in it”:

A new difficulty came into Alice’s head. ‘Supposing it couldn’t find
any?’ she suggested,
“Then it would die, of course.”
“But that must happen very often,” Alice remarked thoughtfully.
“It always happens,” said the Gnat. (ITLG 154)

The pathos of the Bread-and-butter-fly represents the injustice that plagues the life of its real-world, human counterparts. The equating of lower-c1ass status with figures that are physically close to the ground, established by Alice’s own relationship with her feet at the beginning of Wonderland, applies here as well, as the Bread-and-butter-fly is seen “crawling at [Alice’s] feet”, associating the insect’s abject position with its
poverty (TTLG 154).

A look at one record of the diets of Victorian workhouses from the 1840s reveals the historical accuracy of the Bread-and-butter-fly’s situation. In one Hereford workhouse, rations are documented as follows:

for breakfast, “31bs 80z of bread and 10.5 pints of gruel to last the week, women 140z less bread”, for dinner, “on two days they would have 80z bacon, 21bs of potatoes, for another two days 3 pints of soup, l lb 60z of bread and for the remaining three days 1lb 50z of bread and 60z of cheese” and for supper, “for the week there was 21bs 10z of bread and 10.50z of cheese. The women had the same food as the men just less of it. Old persons may have been given 10z of tea, 50z of butter and 70z of sugar a week instead of their gruel for breakfast” (Herefordshire Council). 

While this diet would have varied in workhouses across England and more so for those of the lower class not living in a workhouse, it does provide a useful summary of the food groups relied upon by most of England’s lower classes. The majority of their food would have consisted of starchy, blander staples such as bread and potatoes, a small amount of protein in the form of cheese or meat, and little else. In her introduction to the Bread-and-butter-fly, Alice’s allegiance is torn as her understanding begins to shift and expand. Her properly conducted education has assured that, until now, she has spared no thought for the suffering of those members of the lower class who are nearly invisible to her back at home.

The Bread-and-butter-fly as representative of the plight of the lower class is opposed by the Snap-dragon-fly, whose body is “made of plum-pudding, its wings of holly-leaves, and its head is a raisin burning in brandy” and which lives on “frumenty and mince-pie” (TTLG 153–4). Snapdragon was a parlour game played at Christmastime in which English children would try to “snatch raisins out of a dish of burning brandy and eat them while still alight” (TTLG 271). Such pastimes were enjoyed by the upper-middle or upper classes, as it would be only to those classes that brandy, plum-pudding, raisins, and, indeed, parlours, would be available, indicating Carroll’s Snap-dragon-fly as an upper or middle class figure.

Another component of the Snap-dragon-fly, the plum-pudding, is especially rich in significance. Now more or less obsolete, one meaning of the word “plum” aside from the literal fruit is, “The sum of one hundred thousand pounds” or the person who owned said fortune (“plum, n. and adj.²”). The word thus implies an amount of money that would mark one as part of the upper class. While modern English still uses a second meaning of “plum” as “a coveted prize” or “any desirable thing”, a third and rarer definition of “plum” as an adjective is, “the idea that indistinct or mannered speech suggests that one’s mouth is full of plums … indicating a mode of speech associated with the British Upper classes” (“plum, n. and adj.²”). This third definition makes the leap from food to class to language, with the plum as the centre of a web of meanings, a fruit available only to the upper class as a result of their wealth as well as a descriptor of affectedly well-mannered speech. The word “plum” appears seven other times throughout the Alice books; its use is yet another example of Carroll’s expertise in wordplay. The upper class’ ability to purchase plums marks them and sets them apart from the lower class, yet their “plummy” speech also marks them, this time in a negative way, as a sign of affectation and pretension.

Alice’s arrival in the Looking-Glass world introduces the voice of the Gnat to her conception of social reality, his insistence on the existence of suffering jarring Alice’s conscience. In the world above the rabbit hole, Alice is accustomed to seeing the “Butterfly” (TTLG 154). That vision only encompasses the smooth, “buttery”, beautiful version of reality, whereas in the Looking-Glass world, this vision is made to accommodate the literal simplicity of “bread-and-butter”. The Gnat is deeply “unhappy”, and it relays the tragic knowledge of the Bread-and-butter-fly in “an extremely small voice” (TTLG 150-1). Although Alice has gone through the looking-glass, it seems that the improper is still told in a whisper, fearful of retribution from proponents of the proper who wish to maintain the integrity of a sweet illusion.

Far from the reality of the Bread-and-butter-fly, the White Queen hopes to placate Alice with sweet foods, or saccharine words, in order to better exploit Alice’s own labour. When she offers Alice the position of lady’s maid, she tries to lure her with the assurance of jam, yet, “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day” (TTLG 174).The word “jam” is defined in the OED in two ways, the first literally as, “A conserve of fruit prepared by boiling it with sugar to a pulp” but the second, more figurative definition is, “Something good or sweet, esp. with allusion to the use of sweets to hide the disagreeable taste of medicine … something pleasant promised or expected for the future, esp. something that one never receives” (“jam, n.²“). The “rule of jam” is a useful phrase to describe the problematic relation that each class has with food/language and thus, with each other. The rule of jam represents the problem inherent in class-inflected propriety in general, or the “jam” in which Victorian society finds itself: while the members of the upper class have access to the sweeter, tastier foods lacking from the lives of the lower class, they cannot be seen eating them, or they risk losing their proper demeanour. In more abstract terms, the upper class can use figurative or sweet language to erase signs of conflict or violence, but since eating represents a more literal expression of reality, to consume the jam would be to deflate their own language to the level of the literal. This “jam” in which the upper class finds itself is the problem of exposing the improper in their own speech and therefore necessitates actions such as Dinah cleaning the signs of mouse-hunting from her kittens’ faces to disguise their carnivorousness.

In this scene, the sweetness of the White Queen’s promised jam is expected to hide the “disagreeable taste” of the social position of lady’s maid, but upon the revelation that said sweetness is only an illusion, a vanishing horizon created in order to pacify her, Alice complains to the Queen, “I don’t understand you … It’s dreadfully confusing!” (TTLG 175). Her own education in the use of upper-class, figurative language in the world above the rabbit hole conflicts with her treatment in this scene as the “target” of that language. Suddenly treated as a subjugated member of the working lower class, Alice becomes frustrated and “dreadfully” confused (TTLG 175). Confronted with two versions of jam, the sweet jam of her own figurative language and the problematic “jam” of an irresolvable conflict, Alice increasingly fears the stability of her own social position.

Later in the same chapter, the White Queen again demonstrates to Alice the rule of jam, thus time with the promise of an egg. The Queen has been transformed into a sheep and now acts as the proprietor of a small shop. Alice buys an egg from the Sheep, but the Sheep says, “I never put things into people’s hands – that would never do – you must get it for yourself” and Alice notes, “The egg seems to get further away the more I walk towards it” (TTLG 183–4). Here, Alice can be read as embodying the upper-class self that admitted to eating eggs to the Pigeon. Even so, attaining the egg to eat it becomes an impossible task. “Egg” when used as a verb and particularly in the sense of “to egg on” carries the connotation of “to provoke, tempt” precisely what the receding foodstuff does to Alice (“egg, v.¹”).

It is worth noting that, ironically, the word “egg” in the above phrase is actually a corruption of “edge” – the very edge which proves to be the downfall of the character of Humpty Dumpty (“egg, v.¹”). In the transition from ‘Wool and Water’ to ‘Humpty Dumpty” the f1eeing egg, which Alice has bought, transforms into the ornery figure from a children’s rhyme, Humpty Dumpty. From the novels’ lower-class perspective, figurative language can be merely provocative, promising a peace and contentment that is not real and therefore constantly fades into the distance. Humptv Dumpty acts as an embodiment of that proper language, characterized by his insistence that, ”When I use a word …. it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less” (TTLG 190), This rigid maintenance of propriety leads to fixity and, ultimately, fragility: Humpty Dumpty’s belief that he can successfully “master” other, alternate meanings of words reflects a conviction that sweetness can mask any amount of bitter reality, including the disastrous undertones of his own identity (TTLG 190), So sure of his mastery of matching one word to one meaning, Humpty ignores the threat implicit in the precarious “edge” of his own name and consequently tumbles to a messy end at the conclusion of the chapter. In so doing, Humpty Dumpty’s demise depicts the danger posed to all propriety. Ignoring improper meanings, if done too successfully, can blind one to all sorts of violence or dangers and lead to the shattering of the structures of propriety.

In ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ chapter of Looking-Glass, the difference in the sweetness and availability of different types of food also indicates class affiliations and reveals the lower-class counterpart of the rule of jam. As can be seen in the records from the Hereford workhouse, bread was the food most consistently available to members of the lower class. Yet the “jam” in which they find themselves is just as powerful and restrictive as that of the upper class. Lower-class figures in the Alice texts can consume and be seen consuming food without a problem; however, that consuming ability is limited to unappetizing foods and even to objects often not considered food. The lower-class rule of jam brings with it a more literal and honest view of the world and the language with which to communicate that vision, but that ability necessarily entails a more comprehensive view of the violence and cruelty which plagues society. The relationship between language and Victorian culture manifests itself in the lower class’s food in the fact that some truths, i.e. foods are merely “distasteful”, while others are so painful or shocking as to be “indigestible.”

In this chapter, the Lion and the Unicorn are fighting for the White King’s crown according to a children’s rhyme from the eighteenth century, the last two lines of which are: “Some gave them white bread, some gave them brown: / Some gave them plum-cake and drummed them out of town” (TTLG 202,274). The King’s messengers Haigha and Hatta offer Alice and the others present “trays of white and brown bread. Alice took a piece to taste, but it was very dry” (TTLG 204). The simple bread is easily available to Alice, but is found to be quite unpalatable. The diet of the British poor at this time would have consisted of bread, butter, and potatoes, a fact that places Alice in another instance of conflicting class allegiance.(4) Her participation in the consumption of the bread indicates, at this moment, her identification with the lower class. While the upper class’s rule of jam dictates that sweet foods cannot be eaten even if they are present, Alice can eat the bread offered to her, yet its taste opens her eyes to the injustice it represents. Although the lower class can speak a more literal, and therefore more honest, language, the content of that speech is necessarily a more “distasteful” or unpalatable view of the world.

In this same scene, Alice again identifies with both the upper and lower classes. Neither the King nor the Lion and the Unicorn are seen to eat the lower-class bread offered, and in fact the Unicorn publicly states, “None of your brown bread for me!” and calls for the plum cake to be served (TTLG 205). In opposition to the easily served and eaten bread, all of Alice’s attempts to slice the plum cake are initially futile, as “they always join on again” until finally the cake “divide[s] itself into three pieces” leaving Alice with none for herself (TTLG 207). While the bread was effortlessly obtainable, the symbolic sweetness of the plum cake seems to be naturally but prejudicially divided among only those of the nobility. The sweetness of the plum cake (including the upper-class associations of the word “plum” discussed previously) masks the violence of the competition in which the Lion and the Unicorn were previously engaged. Even so, in accordance with the rule of jam, the Lion, Unicorn and King are “drummed out of town” before they can partake of their slices of plum cake (TTLG 202). Like the jam, the actual consumption of the plum cake would represent a breach of propriety and therefore cannot occur in the text.

The rule of jam seems to apply equally to the rare occasion that the symbolically lower-class animals of Wonderland have the chance to eat the sweet foods which represent the upper class’, palliative compensation for their labour. In ‘A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale’, the Dodo insists that Alice must hand out prizes to all of the winning animals (that is, all the animals). Forced into a superior position from which shc must dole out prizes, Alice has become the upper-class figure rcsponsible for consoling (or rewarding, depending on how one reads the outcome of the strangely loser-less race) the competing animals with sweetness. The only potential prize she has on her person is a box of comfits, one of which she awards to each animal present. A comfit is “a sweetmeat made of some fruit, root, etc., preserved with sugar; now usually a small round or oval mass of sugar enclosing a caraway seed, almond, etc.” (“comfit, n.“). The phonetic similarity between “comfit” and “comfort” implies that the birds are engaged in not just the consumption of literal comfits but in the acceptance of comforting words from Alice.

Like the White Queen’s offer of jam to Alice as lady’s maid, the dispensation of comfits has a distinctly economic tone. The caucus-race of the chapter’s title is conducted in an entirely arbitrary manner, with all the animals starting in different positions along the course, and they “began running when they liked, and left off when they liked” (AAIW 26). Yet it is the Dodo, whose authority posits him as some sort of bureaucratic figure or other official, who decides when the race ends, if not where. This combination of factors signifies the disparate financial statuses of the respective characters. The comfits, or comforts, are meant to placate these animals struggling in a competitive economic system that takes advantage of their production and encourages them to turn a blind eye to the arbitrary and subjective manner in which the “race” is conducted.

However, Alice is only a young girl, inexperienced when it comes to the active use of her education and language and at this time newly arrived in Wonderland. The narrator reveals the girl’s naïveté when he says that she “had no idea what to do, and in despair … put her hand in her pocket” to unearth the box of comfits (AAIW 26). When the birds and animals attempt to eat the comfits, rather than comfort and sweetness, there is “noise and confusion, as the large birds complained that they could not taste theirs, and the small ones choked and had to be patted on the back” (AAIW 27). The sounds of choking and complaining can be read as the birds’ inability to digest such suffocating sweetness and their nearly unintelligible protest against such heavy-handed dispensation of figurative language.

A particular scene during the “A Mad Tea-Party” at the home of the March Hare relates another example of the consequences of flouting the rule of jam. The Dormouse tells a story about three little girls whose home is in the bottom of a well and who live on treacle. Treacle is literally, “The uncrystallized syrup produced in the process of refining sugar; also sometimes extended to the uncrystallizable syrup that drains from raw sugar, i.e. molasses” but also more figuratively, “Something sweet or clogging; esp. complimentary laudation, blandishment” (“treacle, n.“). The latter definition represents another example of a false and deceptive use of sweetly abstract phrases to mask the expression of bitter truths through imprecise language and wording which is not anchored in the literal. Alice takes issue with the girls’ ability to live solely on treacle, responding with, “They couldn’t have done that, you know … They’d have been ill” (AAIW 65). Eating nothing but treacle, an artificially sweetened version of experience, would indeed, as Alice suggests, make one “ill”. While the promise of treacle would merely sweeten their view of reality, the act of eating the treacle itself is an improper display of rapaciousness on the part of the little girls. Indeed, the Dormouse’s story demonstrates just how far metaphorical language as symbolized by treacle removes the speaker/eater from reality – the three sisters, relying solely on the excessively sweet treacle, can only live in a hole in the ground, isolated from the rest of the world.

Treacle as a form of figurative language makes a reappearance in the “suppressed” chapter of Looking-Glass, ‘A Wasp in a Wig’, in which Alice meets a Wasp whose downtrodden state and vernacular speech position it clearly as a lower-class figure. Hoping to comfort the aged and ailing Wasp, Alice offers to read to it from a newspaper. One of the headlines consists of the findings of an exploring party: “In coming back .,. they found a lake of treacle. The banks of the lake were blue and white, and looked like china. While tasting the treacle, they had a sad accident: two of their party were … engulphed” (Annotated Alice 295). Just as the little girls down the well become ill by living on treacle, the members of this exploring party lose their lives because of their consumption of the sweet treat. Eating treacle represents the same breach in propriety as the little girIs’ revealed voracity.

The Hatter and the March Hare seem to occupy an uneasy social middle ground between the lower and upper classes, possibly representing the skilled labouring class that fell above the truly poor. This intermediary social position is indicated by their conflicting usage of literal and figurative language and eating problems that entail a combination of both rules of jam. When Alice finds herself at the home of the March Hare during their tea-party, the Hare is in the middle of lamenting the state of his broken watch. The Hatter then chastises him for having put butter into the works with a bread knife and introducing crumbs at the same time. The Hare and Hatter relate to Alice how they became on unfriendly terms with Time, who now refuses to cooperate with the pair. What does this have to do with the Hare putting butter in his watch? The reader can infer from the soured relationship between the mad duo and Time that they hope to use the physical foodstuff of butter in a metaphorical sense, as in “to butter up”. In order to get back into Time’s good graces and smooth the conflict over, the Hare has added real butter to Time’s physical manifestation, the watch. Their literal application of the butter to “butter up” Time suggests an improper use of figurative language. The Hare and Hatter have attempted to use real butter in a literal manner, but with the expectation that it have only figurative effects. Their intermediary position – possession of some of the material advantages of the upper class, but also of the lower class’ knowledge of the world’s violence and injustice – could well cause an inner confusion and conflict in the Hatter and Hare which could manifest as madness in the text. In this reading of the cause of the pair’s insanity, the middle class appears not as a resolution to the conflict between the upper and lower classes, but as a class doomed to experience the problems of both.

Near the end of Looking-Glass, the White Knight tells Alice about a dessert he has invented which he hopes will reconcile both the upper and lower classes’ problems with eating. He has thought of a pudding that would hypothetically anchor upper-class figurative sweetness in the literal language of the lower class, thereby ensuring that sweetness could finally be consumed. While the dish is a pudding and therefore a representation of upper-class language, it is made up of ingredients such as “blotting-paper”, “gunpowder” and “sealing-wax”, objects which are not sweet and indeed not food, symbolic of the lower-class end of the food/language spectrum (TTLG 217-8). The name of the White Knight’s dessert has the alternative, more figurative, definition of a “material reward or advantage” (“pudding, n.“). Whether intentional or not, the White Knight and the narrator’s choice of the word “pudding” for this particular scene is highly applicable to this reading of the text, for the second part of the aforementioned definition is “also in alliterative contrast with (empty or 16. non-material) praise” (“pudding, n.“). As opposed to the unattainable, “empty” sweetness promised by jam and treacle, pudding in this sense has substance and accessibility to its sweetness, which is exactly the Knight’s aim in including improper foodstuffs in the pudding.

Yet the Knight’s efforts at reconciling sweetness with the real world of the lower class have only resulted in failure, Alice asks when such a pudding would be eaten, and the Knight replies, Well, not the next day … not the next day. In fact … I don’t believe that pudding ever was cooked! In fact, I don’t believe that pudding ever will be cooked! And yet it was a very clever pudding to invent” (TTLG 217). The impossibility of this union between a realistic awareness of suffering and the refined language needed to elevate that experience illustrates the hopelessness of a successful merging of the figurative and the liter al, the proper and the improper.

From the young girl who fell down the rabbit hole at the beginning of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to the end of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Alice has become a Queen in her own right. The feast scene of the final chapter, ‘Queen Alice’, demonstrates not only many of the problems inherent in eating and class, but also represents the culmination of Alice’s experiences of class, language, and power as a whole. As a middle-class girl in Victorian England, Alice didn’t understand the role of her own proper education and language until her natural curiosity lead her to these alternate realities in which the way her society really functions is made horrifically clear.

Late for her own coronation feast, Alice has missed the soup and fish, so the Red Queen orders that the joint for the meat course be brought out. Her newly bestowed royal status places Alice definitively in the proper upper class, ensuring that, according to the rule of jam, the presentation of the meat cannot end in her consumption of it. The Red Queen says to Alice, “You look a little shy: let me introduce you to that leg of mutton … Alice – Mutton: Mutton – Alice” (TTLG 234). The rule of jam, as it enforces the propriety of the upper class, dictates that Alice cannot eat the mutton if she wants to retain the proper nature of her queen-ship. Alice hopes to avoid the rule of jam and its consequences by refusing to be introduced to the pudding of the next course, for otherwise she worries she “shall get no dinner at all” (TTLG 235). The longer the feast progresses, the more Alice understands that merely because she has become queen doesn’t give her unconditional power – her authority is dependent upon and curbed by her compliance with the rules of propriety.

When she attempts to serve the pudding against the Red Queen’s wishes, it is the Pudding itself which reprimands her, “What impertinence! ‘” I wonder how you’d like it, if I were to cut a slice out of you, you creature!” (TTLG 235). In breaching the rules of propriety, Alice has opened herself to the voice of the improper.

The presence of both upper-class and lower-class figures in this last scene introduce conflicting elements of propriety and impropriety. As the feasting begins, the Queens and Alice continue not to eat, while the animal guests eat and drink “like pigs in a trough”, some drinking “the wine as it ran off the edges of the table”, others “scramble[ing] into the dish of roast mutton [and] eagerly lapping up the gravy” (TTLG 236). The feast portrays proper and improper behaviour taken to extremes: while the symbolically lower-class characters were always able to eat, now their eating has taken on the savagery of true animals, and the Queens continue to abstain from eating as they insist that Alice properly thank the guests who are now gluttonously consuming the feast. The rigid maintenance of such polite or “high” language results in Alice literally “ris[ing]” above the table, proper language physically distancing Alice from the lower class on the ground (TTLG 237). Such a severe separation between the upper and lower classes as appears in this scene puts so much strain on the social structure that it finally ruptures and collapses all distinctions. The rigidity with which class divisions are maintained in this scene causes the whole construction to crumble, revealing its constructions to have been entirely arbitrary in the first place. Without the pretense of social distinctions, the eaters become the eaten, humans become animals; there are no longer any stable divisions of propriety. Forks fly around the ceiling, a soup-ladle threatens to usurp Alice from her own throne, and the candles rocket up to the roof, while the White Queen appears in the soup-tureen, the mutton has taken her place at Alice’s side, and “several of the guests were lying down in the dishes” (TTLG 237). Finally, Alice becomes exasperated with the chaos and pulls on the tablecloth, bringing everything crashing to the floor, “too much excited to be surprised at anything now!’ (TTLG 239).

Just as the fixity of Humpty Dumpty’s proper language and high culture leads to his demise on the forest floor, so do the rigidly maintained tenets of propriety fracture and break, causing the reversals and anarchy of the feast scene. Attempting to repress emotions and the natural fluidity of language through proper schooling or sweetly abstract language is shown to be, throughout the Alice texts, a much more complex and ultimately futile process than Alice could ever have imagined. These conclusions make Carroll’s novellas much more critical and more modern than many readings often credit. Yet resolutions to these class conflicts, either through the formation of a middle class or by refining the language with which suffering is expressed, as the White Knight attempts to do, seem to be destined for failure. The “melancholy music” of the White Knight’s song is the tragedy of Victorian society, the Knight’s urgent questioning of the old man – “Come, tell me how you live … And what it is you do!” – represents his desperate desire to reconcile the cultural conflicts which sadden him (TTLG 219-20).

At the beginning of the first novella, the protagonist bumbles around Wonderland, unaware of her own previous ignorance, and even at the beginning of Looking-Glass, Alice believes that becoming a queen will solve all her problems and be all “feasting and fun” (TTLG 146). Yet, over the course of the two texts, her exposure to the “improper” voices of the lower class and the shocking, concealed improprieties of members of the upper class teaches her the realities of class conflict and introduces her to a world in which her own class identification is torn. Ultimately, Alice is able to reject the opportunity for queen-ship in favour of her ability to continue to question the nature of what she experiences – able to wonder, “Who … dreamed it all?” rather than oppress the experiences of others (TTLG 244).



1. Page citations (AAIW and TTLG) are from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Ed. Roger Lancelyn Green. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

2. As the vast majority of both texts take place in these alternative spaces and nor in Alice’s life above the rabbit hole, it is impossible to determine precisely her class. However, her education and privileges (as well as the class position of Alice’s real-life counterpart Alice Liddell) seem to place her in the middle or upper-middle class of mid-nineteenth-century British society, neither a part of the nobility nor part of the working or poorer classes

3. Kyla Tompkins’s Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the Nineteenth Century (2012) is a recent example of similar scholarly work that connects historical eating practices with social structures and relationships, although she focuses on nineteenth-century American literature, particularly concerning racial relations.

4. For more on the diet and health of the British working classes, see Anthony Wohl’s Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain (1983).


Works Cited
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass
and What Alice Found There. Ed. Roger Lancelyn Green. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition. Ed. Martin Gardner, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999.

Cody, David. ‘Social Class’. The Victorian Web ( 11, luly 2002. Web. 25 May 2009.

Garland, Carina. ‘Curious Appetites: Food, Desire, Gender, and Subjectivity in Lewis CarroIl’s Alice Texts’. The Lion and the Unicorn Vol. 32 ,No. I (2008), pp. 22-39. Project Muse ( Accessed 10 June 2009.

Guycr, Sara. ‘The girl with the open mouth’. Angelaki: journal of the Theoretical Humanities Vol. 9, No. 1 (Apr. 2004), pp. 159-63. Academic Search Premier, EBSCO. Accessed. 19 Jan. 2009.

Greene, Miranda. ‘The Workhouse Diet’. Life in a Hereford Workhouse’. Hertfordshire Council Web site ( Accessed 23 ]anuary 2009.

Joyce, Patrick. Work, Society and Politics: The Culture of the Factory in Later Victorian England. London: Taylor & Francis, 1982.

Tompkins, Kyla Wazana. Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century. NewYork: NewYork University Press, 2012.

Wohl, Anthony S. Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.


Definitions Quoted
“butter, v.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online, Oxford University Press. Accessed 15 January 2009.

“comfit, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press, Accessed 15 January 2009.

“egg, v.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed 12 January 2009.

“jam, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd. ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed 10 January 2009.

“pudding, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press, Accessed 16 January 2009.

“treacle, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed 10 January 2009.


Katja Jylkka is a PhD student in English at the University of California at Davis. Her research interests include environmental studies, human-animal interactions, and the supernatural in Victorian and contemporary literature. She also writes freelance on a variety of topics, including environmental and food issues.