Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll is a most interesting tale. At first glance it’s childish nonsense (and this cannot be ignored), but the book is in fact a very deep and intellectual work. Of the many topics explored in the book, the reigning one is logic. Wonderland is a place where conventional logic falls apart—or at least appears to, as Wonderland characters have different frames of logic and reason. It would be foolish of me to write a critical review of the work; rather, I compiled some passages from the book that are especially bizarre, logical, or illogical.
A free online text with illustrations can be found on Project Gutenberg. Martin Gardner studied this book quite thoroughly, producing The Annotated Alice (1960, 1999), which I plan to read at some point. The remainder of my post, however, is from Carroll’s original work.
I. Down the Rabbit Hole
There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.
This occurs on page one, and is interesting in that Alice admits not noticing anything unusual when the White Rabbit speaks; only when the Rabbit takes out its watch does she realize something is horribly wrong.
She took down a jar from one of the shelves as she passed; it was labelled “ORANGE MARMALADE,” but to her disappointment it was empty; she did not like to drop the jar for fear of killing somebody underneath, so managed to put it into one of the cupboards as she fell past it.
This happens as Alice is falling down the rabbit hole, and she has already been falling for quite some time, so that, under the normal laws of physics, she should be falling at extraordinarily fast rates. Yet she has enough time to take and return a jar. Other than the White Rabbit, this is really the first violation of normal logic. And it is the first time the laws of physics have been violated. At this point, the reader knows that Alice has entered a new world.
II. The Pool of Tears
“Curioser and curiouser!” cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for a moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).
What a curious observation! There is a two-fold absurdity to this statement—first, the exclamation of “curiouser,” and second, the latter half of the part in parentheses: “for a moment she quite forgot how to speak good English.” This is quite ironic, for in Wonderland, a world that violates the laws of physics and common sense, the parenthetical statement keeps the English language in order. In fact, this is also a foreshadowed irony, as later on, Alice gets into some very illogical arguments precisely because of different ways to interpret English.
I’ll try if I know all the things I used to know. Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is—oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate! However, the Multiplication Table doesn’t signify: let’s try Geography. London is the capital of Paris, and Paris is the capital of Rome, and Rome—no, that’s all wrong, I’m certain!
Of course, every fact here is wrong. But even more striking is how Alice puts them together with logic. Even if we allow four times five to be twelve, and four times seven to be thirteen, it would be logical that, at some point, we would reach twenty. (Edit: Actually, in different bases, Alice is right. See the first comment.) Same with Geography. Rather than listing a capital city with the wrong country, Alice lists a capital city with another capital city. This is what makes the passage absurd. It’s not that Alice’s facts are wrong—it’s the logic.
And this is what makes Wonderland so unique. While other fantasy books create logical imaginary worlds, Alice in Wonderland jabs at logic itself by creating a world that does not follow our common sense.
III. A Caucus-race and a Long Tale
(I’m skipping this chapter for now. It’s quite dry. *Wink*)
IV. The Rabbit sends in a Little Bill
“It was much pleasanter at home,” thought poor Alice, “when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me! When I used to read fairy-tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one! There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought! And when I grow up, I’ll write one—but I’m grown up now,” she added in a sorrowful tone; “at least there’s no room to grow up any more here.”
Here Carroll uses meta writing, or writing about writing—that Alice acknowledges she is in the middle of a fairy tale, and that there ought to be a book about her, are quite plain references to the story itself. (Meta writing can seriously mess with conventional logic.)
V. Advice from a Caterpillar
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”
“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.
“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”
“It isn’t,” said the Caterpillar.
This conversion between Alice and the Caterpillar is quite a mind-boggling one, though compared to some later on, it is a mere warm up. At least, this one shows the incompatibility of standard English with literal and logical English. Here’s another section, continued later in the same conversation:
“What size do you want to be?” it asked.
“Oh, I’m not particular as to size,” Alice hastily replied; “only one doesn’t like changing so often, you know.”
“I don’t know,” said the Caterpillar.
Alice said nothing: she had never been so much contradicted in all her life before, and she felt that she was losing her temper.
“Are you content now?” said the Caterpillar.
“Well, I should like to be a little larger, sir, if you wouldn’t mind,” said Alice: “three inches is such a wretched height to be.”
“It is a very good height indeed!” said the Caterpillar angrily, rearing itself upright as it spoke (it was exactly three inches high).
This constant semantic argument between Alice and the Caterpillar only hints at what is to come. Also, there is one more section I find notable from this chapter, though Alice has already left the Caterpillar by this point:
“Well! What are you?” said the Pigeon. “I can see you’re trying to invent something!”
“I—I’m a little girl,” said Alice, rather doubtfully, as she remembered the number of changes she had gone through that day.
“A likely story indeed!” said the Pigeon in a tone of the deepest contempt. “I’ve seen a good many little girls in my time, but never one with such a neck as that! No, no! You’re a serpent; and there’s no use denying it. I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you never tasted an egg!”
“I have tasted eggs, certainly,” said Alice, who was a very truthful child; “but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know.”
“I don’t believe it,” said the Pigeon; “but if they do, why then they’re a kind of serpent, that’s all I can say.”
This was such a new idea to Alice, that she was quite silent for a minute or two, which gave the Pigeon the opportunity of adding, “You’re looking for eggs, I know that well enough; and what does it matter to me whether you’re a little girl or a serpent?”
Look at the second-to-last line carefully. The Pigeon’s logic is as follows: Girls eat eggs, serpents eat eggs, therefore girls are serpents. Of course, this is logically flawed.
VI. Pig and Pepper
“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.
“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life.”
The inversion of cat and grin in Alice’s remark is another twist of logic: A without B is not B without A.
VII. A Mad Tea-party
The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it. “No room! No room!” they cried out when they saw Alice coming. “There’s plenty of room!” said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.
With this passage starts the most logic-twisting dialog in the book, and perhaps, of all time.
“Have some wine,” the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked.
“There isn’t any,” said the March Hare.
“Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,” said Alice angrily.
It’s very curious, that is, to offer wine when there isn’t any.
The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”
“Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
“No, I give it up,” Alice replied: “what’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.
“Nor I,” said the March Hare.
Alice sighed wearily. “I think you might do something better with the time,” she said, “than wasting it asking riddles with no answers.”
Even more curious to offer a riddle without knowing the answer.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, which seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”
This is outstanding dialog from a logical standpoint. Here Carroll makes the point that a converse of a statement, that is, a statement in which the clauses are reversed, is not necessarily true.
The March Hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily: then he dipped it into his cup of tea, and looked at it again: but he could think of nothing better to say than his first remark, “It was the best butter, you know.”
Alice had been looking over his shoulder with some curiosity. “What a funny watch!” she remarked. “It tells the day of the month, and doesn’t tell what o’clock it is!”
“Why should it?” muttered the Hatter. “Does your watch tell you what year it is?”
“Of course not,” Alice replied very readily: “but that’s because it stays the same year for such a long time together.”
“Which is just the case with mine,” said the Hatter.
Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. “I don’t quite understand,” she said, as politely as she could.
“The Dormouse is asleep again,” said the Hatter, and he poured a little hot tea upon its nose.
Wow! There are so many interesting elements to this section, and I want to leave the joy of the passage to the reader. I do, however, wish to point out one statement: “The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.” This is to say that even a sentence correct in syntax, i.e. grammar, can have no meaning (or at least appear to have none).
“If you knew Time as well as I do,” said the Hatter, “you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Alice.
“Of course you don’t!” the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. “I daresay you never spoke to Time!”
“Perhaps not,” Alice cautiously replied: “but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.”
“Ah! that accounts for it,” said the Hatter. “He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock. For instance, suppose it were nine o’clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons: you’d only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!”
(“I only wish it was,” the March Hare said to itself in a whisper.)
“That would be grand, certainly,” said Alice thoughtfully: “but then—I shouldn’t be hungry for it, you know.”
“Not at first, perhaps,” said the Hatter: “but you could keep it to half-past one as long as you liked.”
Indeed, what if we were well acquainted with Time?
“‘Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!’
You know that song, perhaps?”
“I’ve heard something like it,” said Alice.
No logical/philosophical issue here, but I thought it was funny.
“…. It’s always six o’clock now.”
A bright idea came into Alice’s head. “Is that the reason so many tea-things are put out here?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s it,” said the Hatter with a sigh: “it’s always tea-time, and we’ve no time to wash the things between whiles.”
“Then you keep moving round, I suppose?” said Alice.
“Exactly so,” said the Hatter: “as the things get used up.”
“But what happens when you come to the beginning again?” Alice ventured to ask.
“Suppose we change the subject,” the March Hare interrupted, yawning.
As you have most likely noticed by now, Alice is very curious and inquisitive. Upon hearing that the trio moves around from set to set, she immediately wonders what happens when they reach the beginning again, forming a mathematical loop.
“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”
“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter; “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
“Nobody asked your opinion,” said Alice.
Another witty remark on the English language. What does it mean to take more or less of something when one has not had it yet?
Alice did not wish to offend the Dormouse again, so she began very cautiously: “But I don’t understand. Where did they draw the treacle from?”
“You can draw water out of a water-well,” said the Hatter; “so I should think you could draw treacle out of a treacle-well—eh, stupid!”
“But they were in the well,” Alice said to the Dormouse, not choosing to notice this last remark.
“Of course they were,” said the Dormouse; “——well in.”
This answer so confused poor Alice that she let the Dormouse go on for some time without interrupting it.
“They were learning to draw,” the Dormouse went on, yawning and rubbing its eyes, for it was getting very sleepy; “and they drew all manner of things—everything that begins with an M——”
“Why with an M?” said Alice.
“Why not?” said the March Hare.
Alice was silent.
Quite a few puns here. And more mysterious witticism.
“Really, now you ask me,” said Alice, very much confused, “I don’t think——”
“Then you shouldn’t talk,” said the Hatter.
Ouch. This is yet another observation on language and logic—if a statement is not completed, it could mean something much different from what it was designed to. I would suggest anyone interested in logic or English to read the entirety of this chapter. It’s brilliant.
VIII. The Queen’s Croquet-ground
She was looking about for some way of escape, and wondering whether she could get away without being seen, when she noticed a curious appearance in the air: it puzzled her very much at first, but, after watching it a minute or two, she made it out to be a grin, and she said to herself “It’s the Cheshire Cat: now I shall have somebody to talk to.”
“How are you getting on?” said the Cat, as soon as there was mouth enough for it to speak with.
Alice waited till the eyes appeared, and then nodded. “It’s no use speaking to it,” she thought, “till its ears have come, or at least one of them.” In another minute the whole head appeared, and then Alice put down her flamingo, and began an account of the game, feeling very glad she had some one to listen to her. The Cat seemed to think that there was enough of it now in sight, and no more of it appeared.
The head of the Cheshire Cat causes quite a bit of disturbance:
“It’s a friend of mine—a Cheshire Cat,” said Alice: “allow me to introduce it.”
“Well, it must be removed,” said the King very decidedly, and he called to the Queen, who was passing at the moment, “My dear! I wish you would have this cat removed!”
The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. “Off with his head!” she said, without even looking round.
The executioner’s argument was, that you couldn’t cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from: that he had never had to do such a thing before, and he wasn’t going to begin at his time of life.
The King’s argument was, that anything that had a head could be beheaded, and that you weren’t to talk nonsense.
The Queen’s argument was, that if something wasn’t done about it in less than no time, she’d have everybody executed all round. (It was this last remark that had made the whole party look so grave and anxious.)
Alice could think of nothing else to say but “It belongs to the Duchess: you’d better ask her about it.”
“She’s in prison,” the Queen said to the executioner; “fetch her here.” And the executioner went off like an arrow.
The Cat’s head began fading away the moment he was gone, and by the time he had come back with the Duchess, it had entirely disappeared; so the King and the executioner ran wildly up and down looking for it, while the rest of the party went back to the game.
Each of the three arguments regarding the beheading is quite comical. The executioner backs away due to impossibility and inexperience, but of what importance is inexperience compared to impossibility? The King’s argument is firm and unadaptive, and is logically incorrect, because the Cat did not then have a material body. And the Queen’s argument is like that of a psychotic manager—something must be done, or else.
IX. The Mock Turtle’s Story
“Very true,” said the Duchess: “flamingoes and mustard both bite. And the moral of that is—’Birds of a feather flock together.'”
“Only mustard isn’t a bird,” Alice remarked.
“Right, as usual,” said the Duchess: “what a clear way you have of putting things!”
“It’s a mineral, I think,” said Alice.
“Of course it is,” said the Duchess, who seemed ready to agree to everything that Alice said: “there’s a large mustard-mine near here. And the moral of that is—’The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours.'”
“Oh, I know!” exclaimed Alice, who had not attended to this last remark. “It’s a vegetable. It doesn’t look like one, but it is.”
“I quite agree with you,” said the Duchess; “and the moral of that is—’Be what you would seem to be’—or if you’d like it put more simply—’Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.'”
The Duchess’s last sentence here is one of my favorites. Obviously, it’s an extreme example of being more wordy than necessary. (And as a new Cornellian, I must say, “Omit Needless Words!”) It’s also an example of poor logic—to put something more simply, you normally don’t use a lot more words.
“Now, I give you fair warning,” shouted the Queen, stamping on the ground as she spoke; “either you or your head must be off, and that in about half no time! Take your choice!”
The Duchess took her choice, and was gone in a moment.
There’s a pun on “off,” as a person being off is quite different from a head being off. Another reference is to diminishing return, this time applied to the extreme case. That is, the Queen wants the the Duchess to make a choice very quickly, and tries to emphasize this by using two words that both mean a smaller amount, but do not work with each other—”half” and “no.” The “half” is irrelevant; no time means no time. This could also be thought of as a mathematical reference, for half of zero is still zero.
“And how many hours a day did you do lessons?” said Alice, in a hurry to change the subject.
“Ten hours the first day,” said the Mock Turtle: “nine the next, and so on.”
“What a curious plan!” exclaimed Alice.
“That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” the Gryphon remarked: “because they lessen from day to day.”
This was quite a new idea to Alice, and she thought over it a little before she made her next remark. “Then the eleventh day must have been a holiday.”
What a curious plan indeed! Other than having a great pun on “lesson” and “lessen,” the passage also presents a basic math problem, which Alice solves. If the amount of time decreases by one hour each day, then the lesson on eleventh day (not the tenth day) should last zero hours. But this raises the question as to what happens the twelfth day and after.
X. The Lobster Quadrille
“They were obliged to have him with them,” the Mock Turtle said: “no wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.”
“Wouldn’t it really?” said Alice in a tone of great surprise.
“Of course not,” said the Mock Turtle: “why, if a fish came to me, and told me he was going a journey, I should say, ‘With what porpoise?'”
“Don’t you mean ‘purpose’?” said Alice.
Another pun, but because of the way the unintended meaning of the word actually makes sense, we’re not really sure as to the porpoise of this passage.
“Well, I never heard it before,” said the Mock Turtle: “but it sounds uncommon nonsense.”
Ironic as the Mock Turtle is in a world of nonsense. (At least according to a human perspective. Would the creatures in Wonderland see themselves as logical and us as nonsensical?)
XI. Who Stole the Tarts?
The twelve jurors were all writing very busily on slates. “What are they all doing?” Alice whispered to the Gryphon. “They can’t have anything to put down yet, before the trial’s begun.”
“They’re putting down their names,” the Gryphon whispered in reply, “for fear they should forget them before the end of the trial.”
Clever, as usual.
“You ought to have finished,” said the King. “When did you begin?”
The Hatter looked at the March Hare, who had followed him into the court, arm-in-arm with the Dormouse. “Fourteenth of March, I think it was,” he said.
“Fifteenth,” said the March Hare.
“Sixteenth,” said the Dormouse.
“Write that down,” the King said to the jury, and the jury eagerly wrote down all three dates on their slates, and then added them up, and reduced the answer to shillings and pence.
Another element of nonsense. Of course one cannot simply convert numbers to different units. This may have been another mathematical reference by Carroll.
XII. Alice’s Evidence
“That’s very important,” the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: “Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course,” he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.
“Unimportant, of course, I meant,” the King hastily said, and went on himself in an undertone, “important—unimportant—unimportant—important——” as if he were trying which word sounded best.
Some of the jury wrote it down “important,” and some “unimportant.” Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates; “but it doesn’t matter a bit,” she thought to herself.
This final chapter is both a plot climax as well as a logic-twisting one. I think the Mad Tea-party (Chapter VII) is better, but basically, the battles of wit in both VII and XII are genius.
At this moment the King, who had been for some time busily writing in his note-book, called out “Silence!” and read out from his book, “Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court.”
Everybody looked at Alice.
“I’m not a mile high,” said Alice.
“You are,” said the King.
“Nearly two miles high,” added the Queen.
“Well, I sha’n’t go, at any rate,” said Alice: “besides, that’s not a regular rule: you invented it just now.”
“It’s the oldest rule in the book,” said the King.
“Then it ought to be Number One,” said Alice.
Alice’s retort at the end is very nice. And also, forty-two, what a coincidence!
“Please your Majesty,” said the Knave, “I didn’t write it, and they can’t prove that I did: there’s no name signed at the end.”
“If you didn’t sign it,” said the King, “that only makes the matter worse. You must have meant some mischief, or else you’d have signed your name like an honest man.”
There was a general clapping of hands at this: it was the first really clever thing the King had said that day.
A very poor argument by the king, but which is held with high regard.
“Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.
“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”
“Hold your tongue!” said the Queen, turning purple.
“I won’t!” said Alice.
“Off with her head!” the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.
“Who cares for you?” said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”
The Queen’s wanting of the sentence before the verdict is quite absurd, as is her shouting of “Off with her head” even when Alice was a mile high.
Alice in Wonderland is a fine book. It’s one of my top three favorites, and many of the passages above are the reasons. I’ve also read Through the Looking Glass recently; a similar treatment will be coming soon. (Edit: Quotations from Through the Looking Glass.)