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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll

Summary and Analysis Chapter 4


In a dramatic, magical shift, Alice suddenly finds herself in the presence of the White Rabbit. But the glass table and the great hall have vanished. There is a clear contrast between the calmness of Alice and the nervous, agitated White Rabbit, looking frantically for his lost fan and gloves. Typically, however, the White Rabbit is always fretting over his appearance and the time, while Alice's problem concerns her physical size changes and her identity crisis. In a way, the two characters embody concerns of youth and age. For youth, the question is to establish an identity; for an older person, there is usually a constant wish to have the appearance, at least, of an identity, and there is usually a "fretting" about time, since one is more and more aware of the little time left for living as each day passes.

Alice's central problem in this chapter is accentuated very suddenly. The White Rabbit mistakes her for his house servant, Mary Ann, and he orders her to fetch a spare pair of gloves and fan at his house. His air of authority makes her obey him even though she resents her new status: "How queer it seems to be going on messages for a rabbit! I suppose Dinah'll be sending me on messages next!" Alice clearly knows the difference between herself and servants. But in Wonderland's bewildering anarchy, she is forever trying to make sense and order — in social status. It is her very Victorian class-consciousness that makes her reasonable, self-controlled and polite; yet her sense of class also makes her resent the creatures' nasty, insulting treatment. Class, in the end, distinguishes Alice from the eccentric creatures of Wonderland; whereas she always seems reserved, they seem ever at the mercy of their whims; and they are usually either ill-mannered, or grotesquely inept (the Mouse, for example).

At the White Rabbit's house, Alice finds the fan and the rabbit's gloves, and yet she is seemingly, uncontrollably drawn again to yet another bottle labeled "DRINK ME." She takes a nip of the liquid, and suddenly she is too large to leave the room; again, her curiosity and appetite have gotten her into trouble. However, this is no longer just "curious": Growing too large is becoming a nightmarish theme; in this instance, Alice's growing larger — and then smaller — form a sort of internal rhythm that most children connect with time — that is, sometimes time seems long; sometimes, it seems short. Yet the consequences of eating or drinking the wrong things never result — in the real world — in one's becoming suddenly very wee or truly gigantic. Alice's size here brings her to regret her adventure: "It was much pleasanter at home," she thinks. Seemingly, she has "grown up," something she has long wanted to do; but now she laments the fact that growing up has not made her any more of an adult: "Shall I never get any older than I am now?" She's very big, but she's still a child. "Well, that'll be a comfort, one way — never to be an old woman — but then — always to have lessons to learn!"

The White Rabbit, meanwhile, has lost his patience and followed Alice to his house. He is in a furious mood, which frightens Alice, so she prevents him from entering the house. The humor here is due to the fact of Alice's being many, many times larger than the rabbit and, logically, she should have no reason at all to fear him. Nonetheless, the White Rabbit's angry, brusque orders are terribly intimidating to her because the White Rabbit sounds like an adult. For Alice (a well-trained child), no matter how impolite an adult is, an adult must be minded and must be feared. Adults may be a puzzle (and rude) but, to a child, their domination must be accepted at all times. Alice's real world society, then, is responsible for her behavior here and is further enforced by her class consciousness.

Prevented from entering his own house, the White Rabbit calls to his gardener, Pat. Here, note that whereas the White Rabbit speaks in standard, formal English, Pat has an Irish brogue (as does Bill the Lizard and the "card gardeners" in the "enchanted garden"). Pat recommends that "little" Bill (see chapter title) the Lizard enter the house through the chimney and evict Alice; because of his shape, Bill should have no trouble squeezing down the chimney. So Bill goes down the chimney, but Alice kicks him fiercely back up the chimney as soon as he reaches the fireplace.

Suddenly, there is a heavy, claustrophobic feeling within Alice, but she is by no means helpless. In contrast, it is the "tiny creatures" who are truly frustrated, and we see now a direct basis for Alice's disillusionment with "growing up." At last, she is physically large enough to control Wonderland's creatures, but she is unable to do so because her enormous size has her trapped in the rabbit's small house.

Without warning, the irate White Rabbit and his servants begin pelting Alice with small pebbles. More trouble! But as the pebbles land on the floor, they magically turn into cakes! Remembering that cakes had previously had an opposite effect to liquid, Alice eats a cake and is suddenly small again. Then, however, the creatures outside promptly attack her and chase her off.

Alice is now so small that she has to hide; all the creatures whom she sees are loathsome, especially a "monstrous" puppy, which nearly crushes her. In Alice's words, the puppy is "a dear little puppy" but because of his size, he might as well be "the villainous Fury" of the Mouse's tale. Alice does her best to escape from the puppy because since he is so big and she is so small, she is in just exactly the kind of jeopardy that the Mouse described. The puppy, friendly as he seems to large adults, is a brute to Alice, and the life of a tiny little Alice is certainly of no consequence to him. This impression is strengthened by the puppy's constant delight in almost trampling on her.

After she escapes from the puppy, Alice finds herself under a large mushroom, and on top of the mushroom sits a large blue caterpillar smoking a water-pipe (a "hookah").