Alice in Lockdown

by John Batchelor

Lewis Carroll's 'Alice' in the age of the Coronavirus.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass — John writes: "... in both narratives she endures restriction and imprisonment ...".
But bullies beware!

A good 10-minute read.

Tenniel's Illustrations from WikiMedia here.

C harles Lutwidge Dodgson — who published as Lewis Carroll — was a shy and stammering mathematics academic at Christ Church, Oxford, who transformed the nature of children's literature.

His stories were centred on Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of his college. Soon after Henry George Liddell had become Dean of Christ Church, Charles Dodgson made friends with his children (three daughters and a son). The Dean's young daughters, Lorina, Alice and Edith Liddell, enjoyed Dodgson's company for expeditions on the river and in the local countryside. The most fruitful of these expeditions was a boating trip in July 1862 with Dodgson and his friend from another college, Robinson Duckworth. Dodgson invented and told a story which the children greatly enjoyed, and later he had the Liddells' permission to write out the story (at this point it was called 'Alice's Adventures Underground'). The rest, of course, is world famous literary history.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) displayed a kind of child protagonist new to the genre.

Alice is not created to be instructed by adults and still less is she upheld as an example of morally admirable behaviour. Instead she is a highly intelligent and independently minded seven year old in the 'Wonderland' narrative, who grows a bit older (to seven and a half) in the 'Looking-Glass' narrative, and in both books she triumphs over all obstacles and emerges in command of the dramatic pattern. Also, in both narratives she endures restriction and imprisonment. The opening phrases of Alice in Wonderland have her trapped on a hot afternoon in Oxford and 'sitting by her sister on the bank' of the Cherwell and tired of 'having nothing to do'. She is feeling 'very sleepy and stupid' when suddenly the White Rabbit comes running by.

Alice is very good at what is known among actors as the 'slow burn', the slow reaction to a dramatically new situation.

She did not 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!' (for an engagement with the Ugly Duchess).


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.' She is just in time to see the rabbit 'pop down a large rabbit hole under the hedge' and follow it, to find herself falling down 'what seemed to be a very deep well.' She falls slowly down the well, so slowly that she can take a jar labelled ORANGE MARMALADE from a shelf (and put it on another shelf when it turns out to be empty). She lands on dry leaves, finds a tiny golden key on a three legged table and is able to look through a little passage at a beautiful garden.

The passage is far too small for her: Alice is cornered, constrained and locked in.

'How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head through the doorway.'

She encounters a bottle labelled 'DRINK ME,' the first of many instances in the text where eating and drinking change her size, and she finds herself shutting up like a telescope — so she eagerly meets the next challenge, a small cake labelled EAT ME, which causes further, and drastic, change: 'her head struck against the roof of the hall: in fact she was now rather more than nine feet high.' Further rapid changes in size lead her to the White Rabbit's house, where Alice drinks from another bottle and grows so exorbitantly that she becomes wholly physically trapped:

She went on growing, and growing, and very soon had to kneel down on the floor: in another minute there was not even room for this, and she tried the effect of lying down with one elbow against the door, and the other arm curled round her head. Still she went on growing, and, as a last resource, she put one arm out of the window and one foot up the chimney.

What to do in such a situation?

Not for nothing is Alice the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church; although unable to move she can still be authoritative.

The White Rabbit comes home, finds the door blocked and tries to climb into his house through a window : 'That you won't!' thought Alice. She makes a grab at the Rabbit and 'heard a little shriek, and a fall, and a crash of broken glass, from which she concluded that it had fallen into a cucumber frame.' She hears loud conversation outside the window. The Rabbit's gardener points out that there is a giant 'arrum' in his window: 'An arm, you goose! Who ever saw one that size? Why it fills the whole window!' The Rabbit then orders his servants to 'take it away' (none of the talking animals in this scene asks whose arm it is!) . Bill the Lizard, a hapless under-gardener, presumably, is compelled to go down the chimney: Alice gives a sharp kick and Bill goes up 'like a sky-rocket' and has to be comforted when he lands. The Rabbit then threatens to set fire to his own house, and Alice shouts 'If you do, I'll set Dinah at you!' (Dinah is her cat.) With this threat she frightens these Oxfordshire talking animals into silence.

Here and elsewhere the power structures of Victorian Oxford are reflected in the Wonderland narrative.

The Caterpillar, sitting on a mushroom and smoking a long hookah, behaves like an intimidating College tutor.


When it condescends to notice Alice it employs disempowering speech and body language. It 'took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

'Who are you?'

Alice tries to explain that she is 'not herself' because 'being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.'

'It isn't' said the Caterpillar.'

It treats Alice as an obtuse student. The more Alice tries to engage with it the more brusque and punitive it becomes:

'I've something important to say!'

'Keep your temper'.

And Alice is indeed in danger of losing her cool ('she had never been so much contradicted in her life before'). She tries to oblige the Caterpillar by reciting 'You are Old Father William' which only makes matters worse (the Caterpillar pronounces her recitation 'Wrong from beginning to end'). She then makes the mistake of complaining about the recent abrupt change in her height:

'Three inches is such a wretched height to be.'

'It is a very good height indeed!' said the Caterpillar angrily (it was exactly three inches high).'

The sense of being caught in an entrapping and enclosing nightmare continues throughout the Wonderland narrative.

Unless you count the Duchess's baby (which turns into a pig!) there are only three humans in the story, the Mad Hatter, the Ugly Duchess and the Cook. The Duchess's kitchen is a site of random violence: 'The Cook took the cauldron of soup off the fire, and at once set to work throwing everything within her reach at the Duchess and the baby — the fire-irons came first; then followed a shower of saucepans, plates and dishes.


The Duchess took no notice of them, even when they hit her; and the baby was howling so much already that, that it was quite impossible to say whether the blows hurt it or not.' When Alice escapes from this setting it is only to encounter further madness; the Hatter and the March Hare are both 'mad', as the Cheshire Cat warns her on the way to their house, and indeed when Alice is their guest at the 'Mad Tea Party' their behaviour is both boorish and unaccountable. After putting up with their incomprehensible behaviour for a while Alice turns her back on them (while they push their companion, the uncomplaining dormouse, head first into the teapot).

The Duchess and the Queen of Hearts are gratuitously violent, and are both based on well-known images.


The Queen of course is a traditional playing card while the Duchess is based on a famous painting of a real fourteenth century Duchess of Carinthia and Tyrol who was famous for being the ugliest woman in the world. They are in a way two sides of the same terrifying woman, and a third, equally bossy, aspect of the same woman crops up in Through the Looking-Glass as The Red Queen.

The Wonderland story is loosely based on a game of cards, whereas Through the Looking-Glass is closely based on a game of chess (with the position of the characters on the chess-board set out at the start of the story). In the Looking-Glass narrative Alice starts as a pawn and ends as a Queen, and is guided by the Red Queen on her progress. The Red Queen sets her impossible tasks. She is forced to run across the chess-board divided into square fields (which reflect the flat landscape of the Otmoor), and while the challenge is exhausting the outcome defies logic: 'They went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touch the ground with their feet.' As she recovers from this hectic run Alice realises that she and the Red Queen have not actually moved at all.


'It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.'

This is a space-time variant of the kinds of entrapment that Alice experienced in the earlier story, and even when she has reached the last square on the fields of the chessboard and become a Queen she is still interrogated and humiliated. The Red Queen says fiercely that she can't be a Queen until she has passed the proper examination, and Alice fears that she has been presumptuous.

'I didn't mean' Alice tries to explain, but the Queen cuts her off:

'You should have meant! What do you suppose is the use of a child without meaning?'

'Meaning' is a theme that Humpty-Dumpty has used in a previous chapter when he challenges Alice to tell her name and her business, and he declares that

Alice is 'a stupid name enough! What does it mean?'

'Must a name mean something?' Alice asks.

'Of course it must,' says Humpty-Dumpty, 'My name means the shape I am.'

Names are important, and the loss of her own name earlier in the story, where Alice walks through the wood where things have no names, has frightened Alice considerably. She encounters a fawn — neither she nor the fawn can remember their own names and they are in complete harmony. But when they leave the wood the fawn is suddenly terrified:

'Dear me! You're a human child!'

Alice's name and her identity are threatened even more startlingly in the scene where she encounters the sleeping Red King, who is dreaming. Tweedledee tells Alice that the King is dreaming about her , and that if he wakes she won't exist:

'You're only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you're not real.'

This is the darkest and most alarming of the many challenges that Alice has encountered in the two texts.

'I am real!' cries Alice and she bursts into tears, which provokes more bullying:

'You won't make yourself a bit realer by crying.'

Both texts have carnival endings; each comprises a final challenge to Alice's strength and resilience.

In Through the Looking-Glass the ending is a quick and violent dinner-party scene worthy of Hieronymus Bosch; Alice puts an end to it by pulling everything off the table. The ending of Alice in Wonderland is slower and more elaborate. Alice has had wild variations in her own physical size, but at the end of that text her physical changes are represented as 'normal'. In the courtroom scene which closes the text (the Knave of Hearts is charged with stealing the tarts) Alice forgets 'how large she had grown in the last few minutes' so that she upsets the jury box ('she had a vague sort of idea that they must be collected at once and put back into the jury-box, or they would die').


The Queen of Hearts and Alice have a liberating shouting-match which Alice wins:

'Hold your tongue!' said the Queen, turning purple.

'I won't!' said Alice.

'Off with her head' the Queen shouted [...]

Who cares for you?' said Alice [...] 'You're nothing but a pack of cards!'

It is the eureka moment for the text and the nemesis of bullies world-wide.

SEE ALSO by John Batchelor:
• The Tipping Point
• Tennyson's Lady of Shalott
• Alice in Lockdown
• Summer's Gardens and The Poets
• Poetry and Crisis: Edward Thomas
• Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year and the Current Pandemic

Formerly a Fellow of New College, Oxford, John Batchelor is also Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Newcastle. His books include biographies of Mervyn Peake (1974), Joseph Conrad (1995), John Ruskin (2000), Ruskin's close friend Lady Trevelyan (2006), and Alfred Tennyson (2012). His other books have included critical studies of H G Wells (1985) and Virginia Woolf (1992).
John is a resident of the village of Kidlington, Oxfordshire, and his new book on Rudyard Kipling called 'How the Just so Stories were Made' is published by Yale University Press from 13th April 2021.

To order, click the book cover below.
– April 2021 — John's New Book –

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