In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll rejects the typical Victorian society to show the absurdity and nonsense of that era. The Victorian era encompassed many beliefs in areas such as education, social theory, etiquette, and politics. The whimsical and illogical creatures of Wonderland satirize the vice and folly of these concepts. Throughout the novels, Alice interacts with things commonly seen in her Victorian world. The education system in England teaches knowledge that is useless to the real world. The morals and constructive tales that children learn are irrational and have no clear meaning. Carroll’s use of puns shows the silliness in everyday English etiquette. Through the characters in Wonderland, Carroll mocks English politics by proving them to be corrupt.
Throughout both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Carroll shows that the lessons taught in Victorian schools are inapplicable and unrealistic. Though Alice is proud of the knowledge she acquired through her education, the information she remembers from her schooling is either completely useless or inaccurate. Alice absorbs the lessons but has trouble putting them in context or understanding their real-world applications. This can be seen when Alice falls down the rabbit hole. She says:
I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?” she said aloud. “I must be getting somewhere near the center of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think … yes, that’s about the right distance – but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I’ve got to?” (Alice had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say) (15)
Alice is a diligent student and makes an attempt to practice her learning, but everything she knows about geography is either jumbled or useless in Wonderland. Carroll shows that Victorian education is nonsensical because although she can remember the how many miles down until the center of the earth, she mistakenly believes that everything will be upside down when she passes through to the other side. Her education has not given her the skills she needs to find her way.
Carroll mocks the character, the Duchess, to prove that morals and meanings taught to children are insignificant and irrational. An education in the Victorian era emphasized morals and character improvement along with the academic subjects. Carroll uses the satirical characterization of the Duchess to mock this Victorian proclivity in her encounter with Alice at the Queen’s croquet match. The Duchess repeatedly refers to morals and then says, “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it…and the moral of that (croquet game) is – ‘Oh, ’tis love, ’tis love, that makes the world go round” (103). She assigns morals and meanings to everything, though they do not fit or make sense. Just like the Duchess’ chin, her morals metaphorically “dig” into Alice and the reader. The world of Wonderland resists a moral interpretation of things, unlike the world of Victorian England.
Lewis Carroll uses parodies of academic subjects to show the corruption in the Victorian education. When explaining the difference in his education with that of Alice, the Mock Turtle replies, “Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,…and then the different branches of Arithmetic – Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision” (110). These are all parodies of the subjects learned in school: reading, writing, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Carroll argues, however, that all the sardonic subjects listed are learned in school as well; competing for grades teaches ambition, many things distract students from studying, and there is derision among peers. Lewis Carroll’s mockery of the Victorian education system shows the corrupt side of children’s erudition because they learn bad habits and behaviors.
Lewis Carroll makes fun of the Victorian attitude towards several customs to show the absurdity and silliness of the social protocol. He uses puns to satirize the etiquette and behavior of people. Carroll derides two of the numerous rules that governed a Victorian lady’s behavior, “cutting” and bowing. This can be seen when Alice bows to the mutton on the table at the feast prepared for her when she becomes a queen in Through the Looking Glass. After Alice offers to cut the mutton, the Red Queen says, “Certainly not…it isn’t etiquette to cut anyone you’ve been introduced to” (262). In Victorian slang, “to cut” means to fail to acknowledge someone. A bow is a proper recognition to show politeness.
Carroll mocks the Victorian etiquette through both the punning of the term “to cut’ and the bowing of the leg of the mutton. Carroll also makes travesty of the Lobster Quadrille in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This can be seen when Alice encounters the Mock Turtle and Gryphon. As the Mock Turtle and Gryphon begin dancing, they explain, “…you first form into two lines…seals, turtles, salmon, an so on: then when you’ve cleared all the jellyfish out of the way…you advance twice each with the lobster as your partner…you throw the lobsters as far out as you can…swim after them” (115). The Lobster Quadrille is a parody of the quadrille; a dance that would open nearly every fashionable ball at the time the book was written and published. The Mock Turtle’s and Gryphon’s confusing, mad dance does not compare to the politeness of the original dance. Lewis Carroll uses the absurdity of the characters in the novels to show the consequent absurdity in Victorian society.
Lewis Carroll uses satire to show the lack of progression in Victorian politics. The Caucus Race in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland provides a critique of the illogicality of English politics. Carroll writes:
First it marked out a race-course … and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no `One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out `The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, `But who has won?’ (35).
The animals run randomly in circles, progress nowhere, and capriciously stop without any clear conclusion. A caucus is a private political meeting among party members. Carroll implies that politicians do the same as the characters; they flaunt grandeur and circumstance without actually accomplishing anything.
Carroll’s satirical description of Wonderland shows the madness in the Victorian era. The silliness and nonsense that surrounds the characters in Wonderland parallel the foolishness in the real world. The lessons taught in Victorian schools prove to be inapplicable, which can be seen when Alice does not fully understand the concept of geography. The satirical description of the Duchess shows that morals of things are foolish and do not make sense. Carroll’s mockery of Victorian etiquette and behavior show the absurdity of their social protocol. The little progression made in the caucus race is consistent with the little accomplishment made by politicians.