Analysis Of The Main Animal Characters And Their Impact On Alice In Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland

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1) Introduction

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (27 January 1832 – 14 January 1898), otherwise known as Lewis Carroll, his pen name, is famous for his children’s storybook Alice in Wonderland[footnoteRef:1]. Besides being a famous author, he was also a photographer, a mathematician and Anglican deacon. There are rumours that he could have been a paedophile, but nothing has been proven yet.[footnoteRef:2] [1: Lewis CARROLL, Alice in Wonderland, 1865] [2:]

In the tale Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll presents the journey of Alice through Wonderland. It is a third person narration as Wonderland is seen and experienced through the eyes of Alice, the protagonist. The story happens in the middle of the Victorian era, the period of Queen Victoria’s reign. It is a children’s fantasy book about a girl called Alice, who ends up in Wonderland because she tried to follow a white rabbit she saw when her sister was reading a book to her. With this encounter begins her crazy journey through Wonderland. There she meets a whole bunch of weird and “mad” characters and she changes size several times by eating or drinking some beverages. The animal characters in this tale are anthropomorphized, which makes the story more interesting and bizarre.

Anthropomorphism, i.e. “the showing or treating of animals, gods, and objects as if they are human in appearance, character, or behaviour”[footnoteRef:3] is very common in children’s literature, fantasy books, and, more importantly, in fables. But one has to be careful not mix up anthropomorphism with personification. As a matter of fact, personification is also giving human traits and emotions to an object or an animal, but a personified animal (or object) just acts as if he was human and he seems human. [3:]

However anthropomorphism describes the animals or the objects as being human. Therefore, with a personification, the reader does not see a personified animal as a human being.

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When reading the book, one may ask oneself who the animal characters are, what they stand for and what impact they have on the protagonist. Every object and trait display a certain symbolism. Hence, in this extended essay the four main animal characters in the story will be analysed in detail: the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar and finally the March Hare.

2) The White Rabbit

The protagonist first meets the White Rabbit in the opening chapter and he is considered as being the most important animal character.

He is the reason why Alice, the main character, ends up in Wonderland. Due to her curiosity, she followed the rabbit and falls down a rabbit hole. When she arrives in Wonderland, she gets lost. The fact that he was an animal wearing human clothes caught her attention. Furthermore his personality is rather aggressive and rude and he is always nervous. Hierarchy being crucial in Wonderland, the White Rabbit treats Alice rather brutally as an inferior being. But one possible reason for having these rude manners is that he may be scared of the Queen. He does not want her to chop his head off as she did to a lot of people.[footnoteRef:4] A bit later in the story the readers find out that he works for the King and the Queen of Hearts as he is their herald servant. All these characteristics illustrate that he is an anthropomorphised rabbit. As he is a “White Rabbit with pink eyes”[footnoteRef:5] he is called the White Rabbit. His human traits are that he wears a waistcoat and has a watch which he keeps in his pocket. [4:] [5: Ibid, p.12]

It may be interesting to take a closer look at this watch as it could be a symbolism of the Greek god Cronos[footnoteRef:6], the god of time and the representation of the twelve hours of the day and of the night.[footnoteRef:7] He stands for the linear time that passes without any interruption, time which is omnipresent. It is a chronological time that is divided into three parts: the past, the present and the future. One of his well-known representation is father time. [6:] [7:]

Father time is an anthropomorphised version of time. He is usually illustrated as having wings, holding a scythe and an hourglass.[footnoteRef:8] The hourglass is the most predominant element because it symbolizes time. A lot of characters representing time own an object personifying time, like a watch for the White Rabbit for example. Furthermore, another representation of this god is the flight of time. Time may be linear, but it passes too rapidly for most people. They see their life pass in no time and time consumes every living being without sparing anyone, even if every living being has their own lifespan. So the White Rabbit highlights Alice’s time. She is growing up and is becoming more and more mature. She is frustrated and not confident of herself, like a lot of children and teenagers entering puberty. She would like to stay a child forever, not having the same problems as adults. When time seems to pass too slowly for her, which happens when her sister was reading to her, the White Rabbit appeared. After she followed him, a whole new world opened up to her. There she learned so many different aspects of life as for instance how to deal with puberty, to understand life and to accept herself. [8:]

The White Rabbit may also be a depiction of the adults surrounding Alice in the normal world. To Alice they would all seem to be in haste and have no time to take care of her. To be an adult seems rather boring to Alice as time passes too fast for them. That is why they do not take care of the cardinal parts of life, like family, around them. They have bad habits as for instance constantly looking at their watch to know if they are on time, just like the White Rabbit. Alice would have wanted her parents to be more around her and help her more to understand subjects that only adults understand, like puberty. Therefore, the White Rabbit’s white fur could be a symbol of Alice’s innocence and purity. She is still a child, but she is slowly moving towards puberty, displayed by the Alice’s constant size shifting.

Another major point is that, even though he did not want it and never helps her, the White Rabbit can be seen as Alice’s guide. Involuntarily he guides Alice through Wonderland, his house and the court. He is also there at the end of the book when Alice’s dream finishes. So the White Rabbit is the link between all the characters Alice meets during her journey. If he were not there, she would not even be in Wonderland. He has also a lot of interactions with other characters of Wonderland. He is there, as a herald, when the trial takes place in the court of justice of the Queen. He does not directly communicate with the witnesses because his role does not necessitate any interaction with them. So in the end, he does not have any relationship with the other main animal characters. For him, the most significant person he has to deal with is the Queen.

3) The Cheshire cat

Alice meets the Cheshire Cat right after lowering a little pig she was carrying. The Cheshire Cat is sitting on a branch of a tree, looking at her and grinning. At first Alice was surprised to see this cat, she did not think to find a smiling cat in a tree. He has “very long claws and a great many teeth”[footnoteRef:9]. Alice, shy, lost and surprised at seeing the intimidating cat, calls him “The Cheshire Puss”[footnoteRef:10] at first, asking him which way she should go. When she asks him some questions, he does not answer her questions directly. But he seems to know a lot about his surroundings and Wonderland. He even helps Alice to find her way back and leads her to the Mad Hatter’s tea party. As he is very helpful, one can consider the Cheshire Cat as one of Alice’s guides. At first Alice and also the reader could have been intimidated by the Cheshire Cat and his “ghostly” presence. He also has a grin that seems to contain a lot of mischievousness. But because he is helpful, Alice treats him like a friend. Even though he seems threatening because of his physical appearance and power of disappearance, he is the character who is Alice’s most valuable friend. One explanation of having such a trust in him is that he may remind her of Dinah, her cat. Furthermore, he is one of the few characters who actually has a name, which highlights the fact that he has a relevant role to play in the story. [9: Ibid, p.76] [10: Ibid, p.76]

The way he deflects Alice’s questions could be an indication that he is a character that loves to cause confusion around him. His ability to disappear and reappear is also a sign that he wants to cause some scepticism on the people around him.

This constant confusion around this character could show that he may be an allegory of Wonderland’s madness: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”[footnoteRef:11] [11: Ibid, p.77]

With those words he summarizes what Wonderland represents. Every character’s way of thinking is irrational and full of craziness. Moreover, the scepticism he seems to love to create could be a sign of his madness. An unanswered question is if he knows the outside, the real world. The fact that he is aware that Wonderland is mad shows that he knows that the outside world is not mad, that animals do not speak there and that people usually have one normal way of thinking. But what does exactly mean madness?

Madness is defined as a “stupid or dangerous behaviour”[footnoteRef:12]. It is often assimilated to mental disorder. People who suffer from this kind of mental illness slowly lose contact with reality and their surroundings. The characters absurd behaviour illustrates a form of madness because most of them have nonsensical or enigmatic discussions. Thus, it is a hint that they do not have real contact with reality or any sane thoughts and movements. [12:]

It is not completely proven, but the origin of this character’s name may be from a Victorian saying that readers nowadays may not be familiar with. “Grin like a Cheshire cat” is not well-known, but it means “to have a large smile” and to possess knowledge that not everyone has. One assumption regarding the origin of the expression is about a cheese having the shape of the face of cat. This cheese is a culinary speciality of the county of Cheshire, “it was eaten from tail to face leaving the cat’s smile as the last part of the cheese to be consumed.”[footnoteRef:13] So the cheese only has the cat’s face in the end, and it could be the reason why the Cheshire Cat of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland constantly disappears and reappears with only his head visible.[footnoteRef:14] [13:] [14:]

The Cheshire Cat interacts a lot with Wonderland as he disappears and appears everywhere and he does not seem to have a specific place to live. He is only interacting with the landscape of Wonderland and seems to know every corner of it. Another interaction he has through the story is with Alice and he even leads her to the Mad Tea Party. He seems to be only interested in Alice which could be because he wants to guide her. In addition, he does not have any communication with the other animal characters.

4) The Caterpillar

Alice meets a blue Caterpillar that is sitting on the top of a mushroom and smoking a large hookah when she was questioning herself about what she could eat to grow back to a normal human height: “A large blue Caterpillar, that was sitting on the top with its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah.”[footnoteRef:15] He is three inches in height and because of the effect of the hookah he has a sleepy voice. [15: Ibid, p.53]

When Alice first meets and talks to him, she is getting easily annoyed by his weary attitude. He takes his time to talk to Alice and is rather direct to her when he is asking her some questions. These are rather difficult to answer as for example “Who are you”[footnoteRef:16]. She is struggling with this question to find out who she really is since she seems to have lost her identity. It is a common problem for many children entering puberty. They are slowly growing and do not know who they really are anymore, so they begin to search for their identity. One interesting theory is that when she meets the Caterpillar, she has just started her puberty. Like most teenagers, she is scared of the physical changes and of not knowing who she is anymore. These are the characteristic feelings a child entering puberty can experience. [16: Ibid, p.55]

An indication that he has some knowledge is that he takes his time to teach Alice about size shifting.[footnoteRef:17] He knows a lot about this subject because he himself will later evolve into a butterfly, a process which is also a form of size shifting. It is his evolution and he wants her to understand that size shifting can also be a positive experience because it can lead to a fulfilling outcome. Both the changing in this tale and of the Caterpillar refer to Alice’s growing up and slowly moving into puberty. [17:]

She is scared to change her size constantly and she is always too big or too small for the actions she wants to do. But thanks to the Caterpillar, she is gaining control of her size shifting.

Nowadays, the Caterpillar is associated with drugs because of his hookah and the fact that he is sitting on the top of a mushroom. As a matter of fact in today’s society, mushrooms represent drug culture as they are well-known to have hallucinogenic and entheogen properties. And for the hookah it is used for smoking tobacco, but sometimes it is also used for smoking cannabis or opium, but in Alice in Wonderland we do not get the information what he is exactly smoking. At the time Lewis Carroll was writing his book, the Caterpillar could have been considered as being a shaman, a person with a lot of knowledge.[footnoteRef:18] It is well-known that the head of indigenous tribes was often smoking a calumet, an American Indian tobacco pipe, and that he was seen as being an elder who was one of the wisest in the village. [18:]

One could raise the question if there is any kind of link between Wonderland and the “normal” world as the Caterpillar knows about the poem “Father William”[footnoteRef:19] and he tells Alice to recite it. But the fact that he knows this poem may also be an example of his knowledge. “Father William” describes the generation gap between a father and his son and it reflects the nonsense and the absurdity of Wonderland because there are a lot of odd descriptions as well as random answers.[footnoteRef:20] Father William’s goal is to teach his son about life and he wants his son to learn through his own experiences enabling him to grow up in society more smoothly.[footnoteRef:21] He also would like his son to live his life to the fullest, so that he does not have any regrets at the end of his life. [19: ] [20:] [21:]

This poem could be a way to teach Alice that she has to learn alone with the basic knowledge she already has about society and she should not worry too much about her identity since she should live her life without thinking excessively about growing up.

Thanks to his knowledge, and the fact that he helps Alice, the Caterpillar could be seen as another of Alice’s guides. He is the first person who takes his time to help Alice, even though he seems weary and unfriendly.

One of the many theories regarding the Caterpillar is that he may represent a sexual threat to Alice, due to his phallic shape[footnoteRef:22] and to the author’s possible paedophilic past. The Caterpillar seems annoyed and speaks with short sentences. He appears to be like an adult who does not really care about what Alice is saying, and is only interested in her being a girl he may assault. However none of the theories have been proven. But the most relevant theory is the one about him being the illustration of the changes Alice endures during puberty. [22: ]

Like a lot of animal characters in Alice in Wonderland, the Caterpillar is anthropomorphised but he does not have a name, unlike any normal human. Furthermore, there is not any interaction between him and the other characters since he only appears in chapters 4 and 5.

5) The March Hare

The March Hare’s first appearance is in chapter 7 at the Mad Tea Party but Alice first speaks about him in chapter 6. As a matter of fact, she was curious about seeing a March hare and she thinks that because they are in May, the hare will not be that mad. In fact, the origin of his name comes from a saying: “Mad as a March hare.” Hares are known for being extremely excited in March since it is their mating season.[footnoteRef:23] So they become more aggressive which could explain why the March Hare is being a bit rude to Alice. During the rutting season when they are excited, they tend to hit the other hares repeatedly with their front paws and it could be the reason why there is the saying “Mad as March hare”. The fact that the hare is mad reflects the crazy atmosphere in Wonderland. [23:]

There is not much physical description about this character except as the name suggests, he is a hare. He has a watch that does not show what time it is, but what day of the month, it is which is particularly intriguing. To possess this kind of watch would mean that for him, to know the exact time does not interest the March hare. He, and also the other members of the tea party, may be disoriented about the time. They have the same routine all day long as they tell each other jokes and have nonsensical discussions. This could lead to not knowing when there is lunch time, dinner, or they would not be sure when to go to sleep. This could be a consequence of not knowing the exact time.

The tea party itself could be compared to the traditional English afternoon tea. To Alice it may be very boring in her normal world, because the adults talk to each other about themes that she finds rather dull.

But this time the tea party in Wonderland, is full of craziness and madness. They tell each other some jokes and puns, even though they do not always know the answer to them. They also play with the English grammar and teach Alice that word order in a sentence is crucial for its meaning.[footnoteRef:24] Alice was telling the members of the Mad Tea Party that it means the same to say “To say what I mean” and to say “To mean what I say”. That’s why the members explained to Alice that it was not the same meaning at all in giving her other examples. “You might as well say,’ added the March Hare, ‘that “I like what I get” has the same meaning as “I get what I like”[footnoteRef:25]. As a matter of fact, the March Hare is right as it does not have the same meaning: “I like what I get” means that when you get something you like it. But if you say “I get what I like” just means that whatever things you like, you will get it. With this example the March Hare helps Alice to comprehend more about the use of language. Therefore, the March Hare is one of the characters that helps Alice to grow up. [24:] [25: Ibid, p.83]

The March Hare and the other members of the tea party stay during their whole life together, locked together, drinking tea and telling each other puns.[footnoteRef:26] They do not really have a lot of interaction with the other animal characters. Nevertheless the March Hare as well as the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse were summoned to the court of the Queen for a trial. It is the only time they are seen outside the tea party and they do not have any interaction with the other animal characters. [26:]

6) Conclusion

As we can notice after having analysed all the four main animal characters, Wonderland is a place where everybody is mad and where confusion reigns. All the animal characters have a unique purpose, and most of them are here to help Alice understand that she is growing and entering puberty. Therefore she needs to accept it. When she meets the Caterpillar she notices that she does not know who she is anymore. It is at that moment that she loses her identity just like a child beginning to become a teenager going through puberty. As a matter of fact, the Caterpillar will be a vital guide to her as he explains her that to undergo an evolution is completely normal. But the most indispensable character is the White Rabbit that leads her through Wonderland. The White Rabbit symbolizes time, the adults, and purity. He is essential for the story as he is Alice’s main guide through Wonderland since the journey begins and ends with him. Furthermore, the Cheshire Cat is the character whom Alice gets along very well which could be due to the fact that she loved her own cat, Dinah. He is also the character who stands for the madness omnipresent in Wonderland. Finally, the March Hare has his importance because he teaches her how valuable a grammatically accurate English sentence, how essential the meaning of every sentence and how significant the correct word order, is.

In conclusion, every animal character act as an influential guide to the protagonist. They all help her grow up and understand a lot about herself and Wonderland. Apart from the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat, the animal characters are mostly staying at their place and they stay in their own “world”, not caring about what happens around them.

Unfortunately a lot a questions are unanswered about the precise meaning of the story and the exact symbolism of each character, which underlines the undeniable fact that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of the most mysterious children’s books.

7) Bibliography and references

  1. Alice in Wonderland, Lewis CARROLL


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