Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

Appropriate And Inappropriate Conversation In Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland

One of the original illustrations for Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, showing Alice and the mouse swimming in the pool of tears

I wasn’t a fan of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland in general, personally (Disney influence? Time period differences? I think there’s another post lurking here…) but something I really loved and appreciated was Lewis Carroll’s look at a particular skill within the art of conversation – knowing when a particular item of information may or may not be appropriate to any one setting and/or group of people. It’s like a mini crash course in how to be polite, written in a way that’s understandable when you’re younger, and, actually, when you’re older, too. (You just pick up on it sooner when you’re older.)

This crash course is included a little in the second chapter but is most remarked upon in the third chapter. By remarked upon I mean by Carroll – he does not address it directly, does not say anything equivalent to ‘now see here, children, why Alice shouldn’t have said this to the birds’ but it is quite obvious in a subtext sort of way.

The first case comes when Alice has cried her pool of tears and finds herself, now much smaller, swimming in the pool alongside a mouse. Here she starts by saying “Où est ma chatte?” which isn’t translated in the book, presumably because the target audience would be learning French, but which we can gather regards her cat. (The translation is ‘where is my cat?’ which is a bit of an odd thing to ask in such a situation anyway but we can forgive Carroll this literary device.)

What’s interesting here is that Alice realises the offence straight away, saying, when the mouse ‘gave a sudden leap out of the water, and seemed to quiver all over with fright’ (it knows French too?) “Oh, I beg your pardon!… I quite forgot you didn’t like cats.” Of course this has a second purpose in that it informs any non-French reader as to the subject of the French sentence – so perhaps my presumption of lessons is incorrect or Carroll is simply aware of the wider, highly varied audience – but the fact of inappropriate conversation and the act of causing offence, as well as how to deal with it swiftly, is accomplished here.

Why then, in chapter three, does Carroll return to inappropriate versus appropriate and leave Alice oblivious as to the effect cat-talk has on the birds (and the mouse who has remained in her presence after a brief run-down of why cat-talk is offensive)? It’s fair to say that Carroll might be thinking it’s a good subject to look at further, to cover in depth. And, having introduced it and stated why it’s a problem, Alice’s oblivious in chapter three might be easily spotted by the attentive reader who would have a chance to feel good, triumphant, at working out the problem themselves. I reckon it’s a bit of both and I have to say as aunt to a keen learner, I love the author for it. It’s a wonderful bookish interaction that has the potential to really engage a child.

One of the original illustrations for Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, showing Alice and the animals sat listening to the mouse

Anyway, in chapter three, Alice tells the animals – the birds and mouse – how lovely her cat is and they all ruffle their fur and feathers and make to leave. Alice is confused by this because, to paraphrase, if they could only meet Dinah, the cat, she’s sure they’d love her. This time she completely misses that instinctual lasting conflict, as it were, between birds and cats. (Thinking about this, if we consider that in some cases the situation between cats and birds reverses so that the cat is the prey, we could, although it’s obvious Carroll is considering only the most usual situation of cats as the predators, say it’s just an overall conflict. Yes, I’m now in thinking too much mode…)

In this, the second instance of this lesson, Carroll keeps Alice repeating the general notion of Dinah’s loveliness, perhaps to make the lesson stand out and be stronger, and to illustrate the extreme obliviousness that might make a child laugh and note that Alice is so silly. If he told you about it that first time when Alice said beg pardon, here he’s not saying anything at all, has effectively left it all up to the reader to work out.

Interesting is the fact that in the first instance, of just the mouse, the animal returns a couple of times throughout the uncomfortable dialogue, whereas in the second instance of birds and mouse, everybody leaves. Perhaps this is a show of people giving a second chance but only so much, that people will indeed leave completely if you don’t cotton on to what you’re saying and don’t apologise; it’s also a device, the mouse teaching Alice whilst showing discomfort. And of course in that first instance, Alice redeems herself.

None of this is included in the Disney animation, which makes a lot of sense because really it’s quite dull as far as the more bizarre and fantastical parts of the story go and it’s likely the film-makers considered the lesson wouldn’t work so well on screen. It is very much a teaching moment than a good story moment (and quite a relief to get past when you’re an adult reading it for the first time!) but for its merit, it’s very much worth reading the book rather than defaulting to the film.

The teaching of inappropriate and appropriate conversation in the book was the biggest takeaway for me, partly perhaps because it’s something not well-known overall but mostly because it’s a section where Carroll’s plans and writing really shine, where you can see him really considering how he can provide a lesson and how to explain it to his target audience.

And let’s face it, we could all do with a reminder on occasion!

Have you read this book?



November 9, 2016, 6:58 pm

I have read the book and as you say Disney leaves out the more bizarre and fantastical parts which is such a shame. It’s been a long time since I read it though but I am pretty sure I did not pick up on the “lesson.” I will definitely remember about it should I read the book again sometime!


November 16, 2016, 10:45 am

Stefanie: I do wonder if it was my focus on the parts left out that led to this post – it started with notes in my freewriting journal.



Comments closed