More Logic, Wordplay, and Mirrors: Through the Looking Glass

Six years after sending a curious girl through a land of mathematics, dream, and logic in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll returned to the story of Alice in Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There.

In some ways, the book is a direct opposite of its predecessor: starting indoors, rather than outdoors, Alice stepping boldly through the looking glass instead of following a rabbit and falling down a rabbit hole. In nearly every other way, the book is a direct continuation: with Alice entering a world of logic and confusion and nursery rhyme and twisted poetry—only this time, I’m not quite as certain that she has entered fairyland, or a fairyland.

What I had forgotten is that Through the Looking Glass starts on a note reminding us that Alice is both an imaginative and (possibly) a very lonely child. The sister from the previous books is nowhere to be found. Alice’s initial companions are Dinah, her cat, too busy washing kittens to pay much attention to Alice, and a black kitten. The text tells us that her sister and her nurse don’t like Alice’s games of Let’s Pretend, and also that Alice plays chess with herself—pretending that her kitten is playing on the other side. This in turn leads to boredom—and curiosity—and Alice stepping through the looking glass to the strange world on the other side.

As before, Carroll makes it clear from the outset that Alice is in a dream: she floats down staircases instead of walking, for instance. But where Alice in Wonderland followed the strange logic of dreams, of finding yourself unexpectedly in one place when you were heading elsewhere, of growing smaller and bigger, of constantly trying to reach a location only to find, once you reach it, that what you need to do there makes no sense, Through the Looking Glass follows a different, more precise logic, since Alice is not just in a dream: she is in a chess game, and in a world that reflects rather than distorts her own. And if in the last book Alice followed no set path, in this book her route is clear: through the looking glass, down the stairs, through a garden of talking flowers and into the giant chessboard on the other side of the mirror, where, just like any pawn, she finds herself progressing square by square. Each square may be different and strange, but her journey is remarkably straightforward and logical—especially for a dream.

This is partly because Alice herself has subtly changed from the previous book. There, she was at turns bewildered and angry and puzzled and lost, but rarely, until the last few pages of the book, particularly confident—largely because the creatures of Wonderland never hesitated to insult and belittle her, often driving her to tears. The creatures beyond the Looking Glass are in many ways no less critical, but they are generally more helpful—and Alice herself has learned to either ignore some of the more painful remarks—or talk back.

And where the Alice of the previous book failed at remembering French, nursery rhymes, or any of her lessons despite her attempts to repeat them while falling, this Alice fares a little better. She still may not remember French (it doesn’t really come up in this book), and she can’t do arithmetic, but then again, the White Queen can’t do arithmetic either, for all of the time she practices thinking of impossible things. And this time around Alice is able to remember nursery rhymes, and figure out the meaning of at least one of the trickier words of “Jabberwocky.”

At one point Alice is arguably even crueler than the creatures she encounters, when she encounters the Gnat and tells him (correctly) that his jokes are very bad. She is much kinder later when she encounters the White Knight—it helps that he’s just rescued her, sorta, from the Red Knight, and that he seems more kindly than the Gnat to begin with—but in those earlier encounters, Alice proves that she’s learned honesty and insults from the creatures she’s encountered—and how to use both. This is a more confident Alice, certain that she will reach the eighth square of the chess board and become a queen. This, as it happens, is true: it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s in the eighth square where things really start to go wrong.

Just as Alice triumphs, the Red Queen and the White Queen show up; the White Queen is mostly supportive (but has to agree that Alice can’t do math.) The Red Queen, who had earlier criticized Alice for bad manners right before sending her to be a pawn on the chessboard, is not. But she agrees to host a thoroughly disturbing feast in Alice’s honor anyway, and by thoroughly disturbing, I mean her food talks to her, and a confident, irritated, and probably hungry Alice decides to cut up the talking pudding anyway. It’s very rude but people more or less go with it, perhaps because Alice, unfamiliar with how to cut cake on the other side of the Looking Glass, earlier missed getting any plum cake for herself. Still, the rest of the dinner upsets Alice so much that she ends up waking—to find that the Red Queen really was just a kitten after all. (Which, when you think about it, explains a lot of things, including the attitude.)

Before the doomed feast, however, the book has a number of other delightful moments: Alice’s encounter with Humpty Dumpty, who explains very difficult things about language and meaning; a rather less enjoyable visit to Tweedledum and Tweedledee (I remember hating their crying and fighting about a rattle when I was a kid, and the years really have done nothing to improve that scene since); a rather unusual train ride; a rather snippy conversation with some very opinionated flowers; and a more languid moment with the White Knight, who recites the only poem Alice enjoys hearing in the entire book.

I was surprised to realize that Through the Looking Glass actually has fewer poems than did Alice in Wonderland, and unlike in the first book, all but one of the poems are originals, not parodies. The one parody is “The Aged Aged Man,” (or whatever you want to call it; the White Knight rattles off several different possible titles), a parody of Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence,” and, in my opinion, the weakest of the poems. Far more fun are “Jabberwocky,” a heroic battle poem filled with completely made up words, some of which later decided to become real words, and “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” unless, that is, you happen to be an oyster, in which case I can only advise you that “The Walrus and the Carpenter” is not safe for oysters.

I wanted to address one more thing before heading off to Sylvie and Bruno. In this series of posts we’ve talked a lot about children heading off to fairylands and other worlds, sometimes to return, sometimes not, sometimes forgetting, sometimes remembering.

Here, Alice is unusual: she remembers, quite clearly, but she expresses no wish to return to either Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass, even though she never hesitates to step through the glass in this book. That’s understandable, certainly, given that her experiences in both were not entirely universally pleasant, but also odd given the books which were to follow Alice and draw upon it, exploring the reactions of children brought to magical lands, who are allowed to remember their adventures afterwards.

In particular, contrast Oz, where Dorothy eventually becomes part of the ruling class structure; Mary Poppins, where the children are willing to put up with emotional abuse for the delight of being with Mary Poppins, and beg her to come back; Narnia, where the kids sit around and talk desperately about trying to get back to Narnia, for all of their frequent misery there, and eventually die to get there; and Harry Potter, who spends every summer thinking longingly of Hogwarts. Granted, all of these places are, in their books, quite quite real, and Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are only dreams—unless, indeed, Alice is only a dream of the Red King, in which case our world, and Alice, are not at all real, and we will exist only until the Red King wakes up.

But I can’t help thinking that all of those writers reacted to their own wish that Alice could have returned to Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass, and told us more about those lands and the curious and verbose creatures that lived there. Instead, Carroll took us to Sylvie and Bruno.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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