Summary and Analysis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland begins as a pleasant fairy tale. Alice and her sister are reading a book that has neither pictures nor conversations. Alice finds the reading tedious; she is anxious for more vivid and direct forms of experience. Her boredom and anxiety cause her to withdraw from the "civilized pastime" of reading dull books and to fall to sleep, entering the world of dreams. At the edge of semi-sleep consciousness, she sees the form of a white rabbit scurrying toward a rabbit-hole. Immediately, Alice is curious and pursues him down the hole. The reason for Alice's pursuit is that she burns with curiosity; after all, the rabbit is wearing a waistcoat, talking to himself, walking upright, and he has a pocket watch; his image is thus unusual, suggesting romantic and fairy tale "people." The rabbit's hole functions like a large laundry chute, and, curiously, Alice "floats" down the hole in a slow descent. In her fall, she has fantasies relating to the absence of gravity, the quality of infinite space, the shape of her body, mass, and velocity. Her free, fanciful associations in the tunnel are in vivid contrast to her innocent, non-reflective curiosity that led her to leap down the hole in the first place.
In fact, her leap downward probably was unconscious. Not once did she hesitate for fear of what she might find or consider how she might get out. Her leap was a leap in a spirit of adventure, a reckless gamble done for fun.
On the other hand, Alice retains her belief in the world above-ground. There are shelves lining the walls of the tunnel, and on one shelf she finds a jar of orange marmalade. Things like the jar (which is empty) reaffirm her feelings that matters are not "too different" here, so she refuses to accept that her experience of floating down a rabbit-hole is unlike previous, curious adventures that she has had. This is just another adventure, and fancying that she might well be headed through the earth's center, she wonders how to determine her latitude and longitude. Note that it doesn't seem to matter to her that such terms do not apply under the earth's surface. Then, Alice considers the prospect of emerging head downward in New Zealand or Australia; her concern is almost a caricature of her childish belief in the impossible.
Strangely enough, there is no indication that she is truly disoriented; everything seems true to sense in spite of the absence of acceleration and gravity. Even her "sense of propriety" is functioning. She returns the empty marmalade jar to a lower shelf for fear that to drop it might injure someone below. Then, in an imaginary conversation with a woman whom she might meet on the other side of the world, she manages to curtsy in mid-air. Yet, already she is beginning to suffer nostalgia for her life in the conscious, above-ground world. The frightening possibility of being trapped in a dream occurs to her. Above-ground, her cat Dinah had an appetite for bats, and Alice is suddenly confronted by the thought that, possibly, bats may also eat cats! The age-old questions of eating, or being eaten, poses itself here in the context of an alien world while Alice is falling, falling . . . to heaven knows where.
Wonderland is one of the most spontaneous "places" in this novel. And suddenly Alice is in Wonderland! She has landed safely at the bottom of her long, slow fall. But, immediately, she hears the White Rabbit's anxious lament: "Oh, my ears and whiskers, how late it's getting!" Alice then loses sight of the rabbit in a hall that is paneled with doors. None of them, however, seems to be the right size for even a young girl of Alice's size; in fact, they are "strange doors." They seem to have a foreboding, funereal feeling about them. Thus, she does not attempt to open them.
On a glass table, though, she finds a tiny golden key, and this key opens a small, curtained door; but the entrance-way is small, rat-sized, in fact, and Alice cannot fit even her head through the doorway. And the door leads to a beautifully colorful, seemingly "enchanted garden." Alice wishes so very much that she could reduce her size and could explore the garden. Her wish that she could reverse her size is consistent with the logic of fantasy. Already, as the narrator observes, ". . . so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that few things indeed were really impossible."
On the glass table, Alice finds a little bottle. It seems to have just magically appeared. The label on the bottle reads "DRINK ME." It is against her previous, proper English training to eat or drink strange foods, but curiosity (she is a child, after all) proves a stronger compulsion than doing the "right thing." So she drinks the liquid and is reduced immediately; now she can pass through the doorway leading to the garden! But she forgot to take the key before she drank the liquid, and now she has shrunk down to a tiny little girl. Disheartened that she can no longer reach the key, Alice begins to cry.
Then there is a curious change in her attitude. She stops herself from crying, as though her "selfish self" has been detached from her "proper self" and the latter is scolding her for crying. We almost hear her mother's voice: A desire for something right now is childish; it is "narcissistic" — selfish. It is naughty, and little girls shouldn't be selfish and want things right now. Thus, Alice restrains herself from crying.
Suddenly, a little glass box appears with a cake inside it (this is underneath the three-legged table). On the cake, there is a sign: "EAT ME." Alice eats the cake, but there is no immediate consequence. To her dismay, life is dull once again; it seems as though she has not really left the above-ground world at all. She feels that she is the same frustrated little girl that she was before. Except now there's an additional problem. When she was a normal-sized girl, she could not get out of the passageway, and now that she is too small, she has no means to escape. So there she sits, an enclosed soul, trapped in the traumatic nightmare of a prison cell. Already logic has begun to break down in this confusing, claustrophobic condition. Life is beginning to become exaggerated. Alice feels that she can't trust her sanity; curiosity seems to have taken its place. Thus, here in this introduction, rational expectations have taken Alice to an illogical and fantastic destination.