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Broken Looking Glass: Dissolved Community in Alice in Wonderland

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” ‘If everybody minded their own business,’ the Duchess said, in a hoarse growl, ‘the world would go round a deal faster than it does’ ” (Carroll 62).

Capricious and fanciful, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland depicts a place where communal rules and shared understandings have dissolved. Wonderland’s inhabitants fail to form a community although they share a common space. Interpersonal relationships lack the mutuality that Alice is accustomed to, and individual trajectories do not seem to alter one another even as they intersect. As Richard Kelly argues, “Everyone is alone and isolated in Wonderland” (77). The “madness” that Alice perceives finds its roots in this pathological individualism; where personal freedom is carried to extremes on an interpersonal level, a pervasive arbitrariness materializes.

In contrast to the wise and helpful creatures prevalent in fairy tales and folklore, the inhabitants of Wonderland prove belligerent and self-righteous. Ironically, Alice is more correct than she realizes when she wonders if she “shall fall right through the earth . . . [to] The antipathies” (Carroll 21). As Alice subsequently observes, “It’s really dreadful . . . the way all the creatures argue. It’s enough to drive one crazy!” (Carroll 60). Yet, the creatures’ neglect to provide a support network for Alice is merely symptomatic of an even more confounding phenomenon – their failure to form any cohesive social unit that the protagonist can perceive. Carroll frees Wonderland’s inhabitants from any obligation to behave in a certain way towards not only Alice, but also one another. Liberated from social conventions that dictate how individuals should interact with others, the Mad Hatter and March Hare are thus found arbitrarily “trying to put the Dormouse into a teapot” (Carroll 75) at a tea party – a setting traditionally epitomic for etiquette and propriety.

Rules and standards provide an infrastructure for community, and social cohesion dissolves in their absence. This dissolution gives way to a high degree of personal independence yet correspondingly causes the Wonderland creatures to interact “in a confused way” (Carroll 35). As exemplified by the Caucus-race, disorder reigns when there are no shared rules: The creatures “began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over” (Carroll 35). As Richard Kelly notes in “Dream Child,” “The caucus race may more significantly be read as a metaphor for the entire story” (79) in that individual creatures behave according to their own whims.

Insofar as community entails “sharing, participation, and fellowship” (The American Heritage Dictionary) in the standards that orchestrate behavior, the creatures of Wonderland seem to revel in the anarchy of their individualism. Because community is dependent upon common agreement to uphold certain standards, individual freedom must be sacrificed for its sake. Yet, even when it comes to law, the Wonderland creatures fail to exchange personal freedom for justice and order. When the King demands, “Give your evidence,” (Carroll 108) during the Knave of Heart’s trial, the cook replies, “Shan’t” (Carroll 108). The bedlam of the trial demonstrates the arbitrariness of the law—or lack thereof—in Wonderland. Although the trial bears some resemblance to legal proceedings in its courtroom complete with judge, jury, and witnesses, no “valid” evidence is ever contributed, and the case makes no progress.

The anarchy that Alice perceives arises not only from an absence of shared rules, but also from a dissolution of the very logic upon which rules are based. This fundamental logic of causality dictates that positive consequences ensue from following rules while negative consequences emerge from breaking them. Yet, “in Wonderland, where Alice is repeatedly liberated from the predicaments in which her rashness has entangled her, the theory of natural reward and punishment . . . completely breaks down” (Mulderig 324). Actions lose their normal causal potential and are freed from the obligation of producing effects. Although the cook “set to work throwing everything within her reach at the Duchess and the baby—the fire irons . . . saucepans, plates and dishes [—] . . . the Duchess took no notice of them even when they hit her . . . [and] it was quite impossible to say whether the blows hurt it [the baby] or not” (Carroll 61).

As critic Gerald P. Mulderig notes, “The most curious fact of life in Wonderland . . . is that one is never held responsible for one’s actions . . . Falls down rabbit holes end with a gentle bump . . . threats of execution are never carried out” (326-327). The cook can act however she pleases, because she is neither reprimanded nor even noticed for her actions. Although throwing things at others normally elicits negative feedback, the cook’s actions possess no such causality. Throwing things remains merely throwing things; no causality transforms it into hurting others or being punished. Where one’s actions fail to impact others, individuals are freed from one another. Moreover, in this world where “everybody mind[s] . . . their own business,” (Carroll 62) the tyranny of causality no longer reigns; individualism effaces the logic familiar to Alice, leading her to diagnose Wonderland happenings as arbitrary.

Even when actions do produce consequences, arbitrariness plagues the causal relation. In Wonderland, consequences are not fixed; although the same action may repeat, there is no guarantee that it will produce the same effect. Prior to her discovery of the mushroom, Alice partakes of various foods and drinks that alter her physical size in an unpredictable manner. Alice becomes “only ten inches high,” (Carroll 24) the first time she drinks out of a bottle labeled “DRINK ME” (Carroll 23). However, upon drinking out of the second, similarly labeled bottle, she grows rapidly and finds “her head pressed against the ceiling, and had to stoop to save her neck from being broken” (Carroll 41). Had Alice known that she would become stuck in the White Rabbit’s house as a result of drinking this draught, she probably would not have done so. But because of the very impossibility of predicting an action’s effects, potential consequences fail to function as concrete incentives or impediments.

In essence, the destruction of causality frees Alice from the past. As Kelly notes, “the language, characters, and scenes in Wonderland are essentially discrete. Attempts to fuse them lead to misunderstanding. Consequently, . . . Alice cannot evaluate past experiences and can only look forward to new . . . ones” (80). Arbitrariness characterizes the relation between past and present. Accordingly, the debunking of causality invalidates the past as a repository of guidelines for future action and allows Alice to act uninhibited by what has happened before. Free to act according to her whims, Alice comes to abide by the principle of individualism that guides behavior in Wonderland. Without realizing it, she has become as “mad” as the other creatures.

The “mad” individualism of Wonderland behavior is echoed on a linguistic level; the creatures refuse to cede linguistic freedom for communal understanding. Dialogues, for example, often resemble two monologues delivered simultaneously, because the participants’ words appear to have no relation. At the Mad Tea Party, for example, the Hatter replies, “Your hair wants cutting” (Carroll 68) after Alice notes, “I didn’t know it was your table . . . it’s laid for a great many more than three” (Carroll 68). It is as though the Hatter did not even hear Alice, for his response seems like a completely arbitrary non sequitur. Uninhibited by verbal customs, the Hatter is free to say what he pleases when he pleases. The Hatter demonstrates what Gordon Hirsch describes as an “inability or refusal to share communicational levels . . .Whatever the cause, the characters’ problems in creating a conversational world in which words, phrases, and sentences have shared communicative meanings is clear and striking” (88).

Individualism dominates Wonderland language not only in the sense that verbal exchanges are free from traditional, shared protocols, but also in the sense that language itself is often produced freely according to personal, private processes. Conventional language is established through a communal process in which a group of individuals concur on the pairings between words and what they signify. Individuals can only be understood by others if both parties participate in the same process of communication. “Carroll was well aware of the essential arbitrariness in the relation between the linguistic sign and its referent long before Ferdinand se Saussure was to illustrate that such a principle is axiomatic to all language systems” (Baum 69). In Wonderland, however, individual creatures often assign subjective meanings to words and speech, rather than coming together to agree on arbitrary pairings. Personal expression finds a conduit in personalized language, rather than being channeled through preset linguistic conventions. The exchange preceding the Caucus Race exemplifies this individualistic phenomenon:

. . . said the Mouse. ” . . . Edwin and Morcar . . . found it advisable—“

“Found what?” said the Duck. “Found it,” the Mouse replied rather crossly: “of course you know what ‘it’ means.”

“I know what ‘it’ means well enough, when I find a thing,” said the Duck: “it’s generally a frog, or a worm” . . . (Carroll 34)

Carroll highlights the subjectivity of the Duck’s definition of “it” by italicizing the Duck’s “I” and following it with qualifications specific to the Duck’s diet. Although the Duck and the Mouse refer to the same word, their interpretations of “it” do not coincide. This exchange illuminates the creatures’ “inability to concentrate on shared ideas and feelings, to the extent that communication between individuals is significantly disrupted” (Hirsch 87). Language becomes arbitrary in that individuals endow the same linguistic vehicles with conflicting meanings. Each creature opts for freedom from others’ points of view.

Accordingly, Carroll revels in puns, because they so effectively exploit the subjectivity of language through their ability to simultaneously convey more than one meaning. It is thus that Alice cannot understand how “the Mouse’s tail [(tale)]” (37) can be “sad” in addition to “long”. Although puns are also used in conventional English, they are normally followed by tacit comprehension. In Wonderland, however, the listener does not notice when words are being used as puns, and the speaker cannot comprehend the listener’s confusion. Both listener and speaker fail to participate in the other’s system of language.

Even when the Wonderland creatures do participate in the same language, no such shared linguistic register exists between them and Alice. For example, when Alice inquires of the duchess, “Please, would you tell me . . . why your cat grins like that?” (Carroll 61), she receives the following reply: “It’s a Cheshire Cat . . . and that’s why” (Carroll 61). The creatures define a cat that grins as a “Cheshire Cat,” but Alice is not privy to the other pairings within their personal language. Thus, at the “mad tea-party,” (Carroll 68-76) Alice fails to understand the Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse even as all four exchange words at the same table. As Alice muses, “The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English” (Carroll 70).

In “Double Binds and Schizophrenogenic Conversations: Readings in Three Middle Chapters of Alice in Wonderland,” Gordon Hirsch makes a revealing comparison between Wonderland interactions and “schizophrenic patterns of thought and communication” (86). Fragmented, ambivalent, and full of double meaning, both schizophrenic language and Wonderland language are used “expressively and personally rather than to communicate a shared meaning or engage in real dialogue” (Hirsch 97). Whereas language is usually used to establish common ground or bind individuals together, Wonderland language has a paradoxically alienating and anti-communal effect. So estranging is her visit to the March Hare’s house that Alice storms off in disgust: “It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!” (Carroll 76).

So excessive are the creatures in their own individualism that they fail to acknowledge the separate individualism of other creatures. Whereas normal communities permit individual freedom up to the point that it does not impinge on others’ freedom, this qualification does not stand in Wonderland. Instead, the creatures fail to respect or even acknowledge the validity of identities outside of themselves. Hirsch notes the egocentricity that arises from this excessive personal freedom exercised during the Mad Tea Party:

. . . as the centerpiece of social life in this culture [19th-century middle-class English life], the tea ceremony above all provides an opportunity to move beyond an egocentric view of personal relations . . . [Yet] it is clear that at the Wonderland tea-party, no one is going to give Alice her own cup of tea or recognize her as a real person with whom there could be meaningful communication and interaction based on mutual respect. (100)

One might argue that Wonderland’s “madness” does not arise from exaggerated individuality but rather from a sheer lack of logic or reason. Yet while actions may initially appear illogical, they actually seem to make sense in a way merely unfamiliar to Alice. “Carroll’s nonsense is not non sense, that is, devoid of meaning . . . Despite the apparent anarchy of words and things in the Alices, there is method evident in the madness” (Baum 69-70). For example, while it appears arbitrary for the Dodo to declare each participant a winner of the Caucus-Race, this in fact makes sense in light of the race’s original purpose; the Dodo had proposed the race as a “more energetic remed[y]” (Carroll 34) for drying off the creatures soaked by Alice’s tears. And only after “they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again” (Carroll 35) does the Dodo announce that the race has ended.

Similarly, Wonderland language also seems to function according to a subtle internal logic imperceptible to Alice. For example, the conversation that takes place during the Mad Tea Party seems at first glace wholly illogical, a string of non sequiturs. Upon closer examination, however, a curious logic appears. When Alice arrives, the creatures state that there is no room at the table. The logic behind this statement is that when one says that there is nothing, there is nothing. Yet, Alice violates this by insisting that there is room. As a result, the March Hare tries to prove that things go wrong when this logic is violated: he implies that there is wine by offering some to Alice, but there is in fact none. Alice becomes angry, and yet it was she who first violated this logic of saying what you mean (which might be why this discussion comes up later). Although it seems as though the March Hare acts arbitrarily and rudely, he actually adheres consistently to this logic. As Kelly argues, “The systems of the Wonderland creatures may be logical, in the sense of being self-consistent” (91). It is Alice who “arbitrarily” expects abandonment and then adherence to this logic according to changes in circumstance.

In addition to recognizing the fundamental inconsistency in Alice’s way of thinking, the creatures try to expose the relative arbitrariness of Alice’s language to them. For example, when Alice says “You should not learn to make personal remarks,” she does not specify that personal means relating to a private/specific person instead of relating to people in general (the latter of which in fact seems more logical, since “personal” is derived from just the word “person” and not the phrase “specific person”); there is nothing in the word “personal” that specifies this distinction. The creatures seize on the latter definition and then abide by Alice’s imperative perfectly, for the next remark that the Hatter made is perfectly “impersonal” in the sense that it has nothing to do with people: “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” (Carroll 68).

Shared customs and understandings serve as a lens for interpreting individuals’ actions. “Above-ground conventions of etiquette in social intercourse are meaningless in Wonderland” (Rackin 45). As an outsider, Alice does not have access to these lenses and sees only arbitrariness. Placed in an alien frame of reference, Alice experiences an identity crisis when the standards she previously used to define herself fail to apply in Wonderland. In her world, children’s age changes proportionately with their physical size. Growing and shrinking rapidly in Wonderland, Alice feels an overwhelming sense of arbitrariness as the rules and boundaries that she is accustomed to dissolve. “But I’m grown up now,” she muses, “shall I never get any older than I am now?” (Carroll 42). Although freed from conventional rules, Alice also feels an overwhelming sense of “madness” because of her unfamiliarity with Wonderland rules. Reciprocally, Wonderland may make sense to its inhabitants, but if they were placed in Victorian England, they might perceive the same arbitrariness that Alice does in Wonderland.

Sane enough in her own world, Alice is in fact “insane” in Wonderland. “The term ‘mad’ seems relative to Carroll,” (Kelly 84) since individuals are arbitrary only insofar as their subjectivities do not coincide with those of others. As the Cheshire Cat profoundly discloses, “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad” (65). In this land of extraordinary individualists, Alice, with her private customs and logic, fits right in.

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