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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by British author Lewis Carroll (1832-1838) is a classic work of nonsense literature first published in 1865. Originally intended for children, the novel has become a perennial favorite of adults thanks to Carroll’s sophisticated wordplay and humor. Carroll’s work has influenced or inspired authors as diverse as James Joyce and Neil Gaiman, surrealist painters like Salvador Dalí, and the philosopher Gilles Deleuze. The novel has never been out of print and has been widely translated and adapted. Carroll published the sequel Through the Looking Glass in 1871, a book that has also become a classic. This guide uses the 1977 Easton Press edition, part of the collection The 100 Greatest Books Ever Written.
The novel began as a story that Carroll told to the three daughters of his friend Henry Liddell while on a boat ride on the River Cherwell in 1862. Carroll first wrote the story with his own illustrations as Alice’s Adventures Underground and expanded it into the widely known published version in 1865. John Tenniel is the original illustrator, and his famous wood block illustrations, which range from whimsical to unsettling, convey the gothic aesthetic of Victorian children’s literature and have become inseparable from the story. They are the model on which all subsequent illustrated and animated versions of the story are based.
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Lewis Carroll is the pen name of the mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Because Dodgson is more commonly known by his pseudonym, this guide refers to Lewis Carroll as the author.
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Set in the author’s present day in the English countryside, Wonderland is about a young girl named Alice who has an extraordinary adventure in a dream when she falls asleep one afternoon. It is written in the third person past tense, although much of the story is told through Alice’s internal monologues. Her adventures in Wonderland are not revealed to be a dream until she wakes up at the book’s end.
On a warm day in May, Alice is sitting on the riverbank with her older sister, who is reading a book. Alice is bored and sleepy, but she perks up when she sees a white rabbit wearing a waistcoat and pocket watch hurry past. She follows the rabbit down a rabbit hole and falls down a long, dark tunnel lined with cupboards and shelves. At the bottom of the tunnel is a hall with locked doors of all sizes. She drinks from a bottle labeled “Drink Me” that she finds on a table, and it causes her to shrink. Now tiny, she sees a miniature door that leads to a beautiful garden, but she cannot enter it because she has left the key on the table far above. She then eats a cake labeled “Eat Me” and grows to an enormous height. She hits her head on the ceiling and begins to cry. The White Rabbit hurries by, dropping a fan and gloves, as a pool of tears collects around Alice.
Alice retrieves the dropped items, but she begins shrinking again and must swim through the pool tears. She meets a mouse and a number of other animals who have fallen into the tears, and together they make their way to safe ground. In an attempt to dry off, the mouse begins to lecture on William the Conqueror because it is a “dry” subject. When this fails, the Dodo organizes a caucus race, in which they all run in different directions until they are dry.
The White Rabbit returns and, mistaking Alice for his servant Mary Ann, orders her to go to his house to get a new fan and gloves. After entering the Rabbit’s house, Alice drinks from an unlabeled bottle and begins growing. The White Rabbit and some other animals try unsuccessfully to remove Alice from the house, and in the end, they throw stones at her. When the stones hit the ground, they turn into cakes. She eats one and shrinks enough to escape.
After leaving the Rabbit’s house, Alice comes upon a Caterpillar sitting on a mushroom. He is smoking a hookah and is deep in meditation. The Caterpillar asks Alice, “Who are you?” but she has no answer. She tries to explain that she does not know who she is, but the Caterpillar is unsympathetic. He tests Alice by asking her to recite some of her school verses, but when she does, the words come out wrong. Alice tells the Caterpillar that she wants to return to her normal size, and the Caterpillar tells Alice that one side of the mushroom will make her bigger, while the other will make her smaller. She stretches out her arms and breaks a piece off from each end. By nibbling a bit of each piece, she gets back to her normal height.
Alice watches as a Fish-Footman delivers an invitation to the Duchess’s house to a Frog-Footman, and eventually makes her way into the house. There she finds the Duchess nursing a baby and a Cook throwing dishes and pepper around the kitchen. The pepper makes Alice and the others sneeze powerfully. She sees a large grinning Cat on the hearth, and the Duchess explains that it is a Cheshire Cat. The Duchess leaves to get ready to play croquet with the Queen and hands the baby to Alice. Upon closer inspection, Alice finds that the baby is a pig, and she lets it trot off into the forest.
After leaving the Duchess’s house, Alice is not sure where to go. The Cheshire Cat appears to her, up in a tree, and he directs her to the March Hare’s house. The Cat then disappears, leaving behind only his floating smile.
At the March Hare’s house, Alice finds the March Hare, the Hatter, and a sleepy Dormouse at a long table having a tea party. They exchange stories and riddles, including “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” (91). Alice leaves, exhausted and angered by all the nonsense and chaos.
After Alice leaves the tea party, she enters a door in a large tree. She finds herself back in the hall of doors. This time, she takes the golden key from the table before using a piece of the mushroom to achieve the correct height. Alice shrinks enough that she can unlock the door and enter the garden.
When Alice arrives in the garden, she meets three large living playing cards who are painting white rose bushes red. They are in a hurry to finish the job before the Queen arrives. Finally, the Queen arrives with her retinue, which are cards of different suits. The White Rabbit, the Knave of Hearts, and the King of Hearts accompany them.
The Queen confronts Alice, who is the only one not bowing. Whenever the Queen is displeased—which is often—she shouts, “Off with their head!” (81). Despite Alice’s impertinence, the Queen invites her to play croquet. Alice joins a game, which becomes chaotic very quickly. The Queen orders the Cheshire Cat’s beheading, but the executioner explains that it is not possible because the Cheshire Cat (at that moment) has a head but no body. The Duchess, who had been in prison for abusing the Queen, is released and brought to the croquet grounds.
The Queen threatens Alice with beheading again and sends her away with the Gryphon, who introduces her to the Mock Turtle. The three of them talk, dance, and play a game, until the Gryphon spirits Alice away for an upcoming trial.
The trial is for the Knave of Hearts, who has been accused of stealing the Queen’s tarts. The Hatter and the Duchess’s cook testify but provide no useful evidence. Meanwhile, Alice has begun to grow. When Alice is called to testify, she knocks over the jury box, scattering the animals. The Queen orders Alice to leave, but Alice refuses. The Queen orders the cards to attack Alice, but Alice is unafraid.
Just as the cards fly at her, Alice’s sister wakes her from her afternoon nap. Alice recounts the marvelous dream to her sister, then runs off to tea.
By Lewis Carroll