Themes and motifs in the 'Alice' stories

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Growing up
The most obvious theme that can be found in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is the theme of growing up.

Lewis Carroll adored the unprejudiced and innocent way young children approach the world. With Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, he wanted to describe how a child sees our adult world, including all of the (in the eyes of a child silly and arbitrary) rules and social etiquette we created for ourselves, as well as the ego's and bad habits we have developed during our lives.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland represents the child's struggle to survive in the confusing world of adults. To understand our adult world, Alice has to overcome the open-mindedness that is characteristic for children.

Apparently, adults need rules to live by. But most people adhere to those rules blindly now, without asking themselves 'why'. This leads to the incomprehensible, and sometimes arbitrary behavior that Alice experiences in Wonderland.

When entering Wonderland, Alice encounters a way of living and reasoning that is quite different from her own. A Duchess who is determined to find a moral in everything. Trials that seem to be very unjust. But during the journey through Wonderland, Alice learns to understand the adult world somewhat more. In fact, she is growing up. This is also represented by her physical changes during the story, the growing and shrinking.

More and more she starts to understand the creatures that live in Wonderland. From the Cheshire Cat she learns that 'everyone is mad here'. She learns to cope with the crazy Wonderland rules, and during the story she gets better in managing the situation. She tells the Queen of Hearts that her order is 'nonsense' and prevents her own beheading. In the end Alice has adapted and lost most of her vivid imagination that comes with childhood. She realizes what the creatures in Wonderland really are 'nothing but a pack of cards'. At this point, she has matured too much to stay in Wonderland, the world of the children, and wakes up into the 'real' world, the world of adults.

Identity
Related to the theme of 'growing up', is the motif of 'identity'.

In Wonderland, Alice struggles with the importance and instability of personal identity. She is constantly ordered to identify herself by the creatures she meets, but she herself has doubts about her identity as well.

After falling through the Rabbit hole, Alice tests her knowledge to determine whether she has become another girl. Later on, the White Rabbit mistakes her for his maid Mary Ann. When the Caterpillar asks her who she is, she is unable to answer, as she feels that she has changed several times since that morning.

Among other things, this doubt about her identity is nourished by her physical appearance. Alice grows and shrinks several times, which she finds "very confusing". The Pigeon mistakes her for a serpent, not only because she admits eating eggs, but also because of her long neck. The Cheshire Cat questions another aspect of Alice's identity. He is not questioning her name or species, he is questioning her sanity. As she has entered Wonderland, she must be mad, he states.

However, it is not only Alice's identity that is instable. Some creatures in Wonderland have instable identities as well. For example, the Duchess' baby turns into a pig and the members of the jury have to write down their names, or they will forget them.

Curiosity
Alice's motif for entering and intersecting Wonderland is simply curiosity: she sees a White Rabbit and decides to follow him because he has a watch and is wearing a waistcoat.

 

Through the Looking Glass

Being grown up
When Carroll wrote Through the Looking Glass, the real Alice had already become a grown woman. In the introductory poem, he recalls the glorious days of her childhood, and we notice his sadness because his favorite child-friend has grown up, got married, and does not contact him anymore.

In the first book, Alice was very bewildered by the crazy adult world. In Through the Looking Glass, however, we see that Alice has grown up, as well as the real Alice has, and that she is more confident with herself when associating with the Wonderland characters. While she was being lectured and ordered about in the first story, she now teaches some of the Wonderland characters a lesson and even mothers them, like she does with the clumsy White Knight.

Learning to achieve a higher social position
However, there are still things to learn. Alice's wish (and motive) in Through the Looking Glass is becoming a queen. To achieve this, she has to adhere to the rules of a chess game. She has to reach the final square, and can interact only with creatures that are on a square directly next to hers. She also has to learn more about the way things are. For example, the flowers tell her that they are lower in social rank than she is ("it isn't manners for us to begin, you know"), she learns about the tragic lives of the lower class (Bread-and-Butterflies always die because of a food shortage), and Tweedledee and Tweedledum teach her some more social skills.

In fact, Alice is trying to reach a higher social position, and she has to master certain rules of behavior that come with this social order.

Identity
In the sequel, the concept of identity is touched upon again. Although Alice is more sure of herself, her identity is again questioned. When she enters the wood, she promptly forgets her own name. The fawn does not even recognize her as a human being. But this time the question of identity is lifted to an even higher level: Tweedledee and Tweedledum show Alice the sleeping Red King and tell her that she is not a real person; she only exists in his dream. At first Alice does not want to believe that she ceases to exist when the King wakes up. But at the end of the book, the matter is still not resolved:

"Now, Kitty, let's consider who it was that dreamed it all. [...] You see, Kitty, it must have been either me or the Red King. He was part of my dream, of course -- but then I was part of his dream, too! Was it the Red King, Kitty? [...] Oh, Kitty, do help to settle it! I'm sure your paw can wait!' But the provoking kitten only began on the other paw, and pretended it hadn't heard the question.
Which do you think it was?"