By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was first published in 1871; according to Alice Liddell, the young girl who inspired Lewis Carroll to write the Alice books, Through the Looking-Glass had its origins in the tales about the game of chess that Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) used to tell Alice and her sisters when they were learning to play the game. Below, we offer a brief plot summary of the novel, followed by some analysis of its meaning – or rather, possible meanings.
Through the Looking-Glass: plot summary
The novel begins with Alice sitting indoors on a winter afternoon, curled up in an armchair with her kitten for company. As the snow falls outside, Alice asks her kitten to imitate one of the chess pieces in front of them. When the kitten fails to comply, Alice holds it up in the mirror and threatens to expel it to ‘Looking-Glass House’.
To her surprise, Alice now finds herself transported into a looking-glass world which is arranged as a giant chessboard, but with various other features, such as gardens of flowers, present. She finds a poem which she cannot read, because its words are back-to-front.
Many of the subsequent ‘moves’ in the novel actually follow the rules of the game of chess (for instance, the Queens tend to move about looking-glass world a lot, while their husbands, the Kings, largely remain where they are throughout the novel), and the characters – including the Red Queen and White Queen, are chess pieces come to life.
Having spoken with some talking flowers in a garden and met the Red Queen, Alice finds herself being whisked onto a train, with her fellow passengers including a gnat, a goat, and a man dressed in white paper meant to represent Benjamin Disraeli, the Tory politician. The train then takes off, and Alice finds herself in a wood where nothing has a name (she even forgets her own), and where she meets the fat twins, Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
These twins, who – in keeping with the looking-glass theme – are meant to be mirror-images of each other, sing a song called ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ (which we’ve analysed here), and fall out over a rattle, before the White Queen whisks Alice off again, telling her that the rule in this looking-glass world is ‘jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today’.
The White Queen then turns into a sheep, which is busy knitting behind the counter of a shop whose stock disappears whenever Alice tries to focus on it on the shelves. The shop transforms into a boat, and then back into a shop, and when the Sheep/White Queen tries to straighten an egg wobbling on a shelf, we find ourselves in the countryside with a large egg, with arms and legs, sitting on a wall: Humpty Dumpty.
Humpty Dumpty explains the poem ‘Jabberwocky’ to Alice, which is the poem she encountered as mirror-writing when she first entered looking-glass world. (We offer a more detailed commentary on the poem here.) After he has done so, however, he falls off the wall, as in the nursery rhyme, and the King’s horses and King’s men come to try to put him back together. The ‘King’ here is the White King from the chess game.
Next, Alice goes to see the Lion and the Unicorn fighting over the crown (an allusion to the heraldic animal symbols of England and Scotland respectively, as seen on Britain’s coat of arms). However, many critics have interpreted the Lion as representing the Liberal politician (and UK Prime Minister at the time) William Ewart Gladstone and the Unicorn as the Tory politician, Benjamin Disraeli.
The White Knight, an inventor, sings a song, and Alice finds herself on a new square of the chessboard with a crown on her head: the pawn has become a queen. Sandwiched between the White Queen and the Red Queen, Alice is analysed by them both and deemed not worthy to be a queen like them.
Alice then finds herself at a feast between the Red Queen and White Queen, a banquet where even the food can talk. Overcome with frustration, Alice shakes the Red Queen, who grows smaller in her hands until she turns into Alice’s own kitten, and just like that, Alice leaves the looking-glass world behind and is back in our world.
Through the Looking-Glass: analysis
Through the Looking-Glass has embedded itself within the popular consciousness, and even the everyday language we use, more than pretty much any other single work of children’s literature – indeed, even more so than the novel it was a sequel to, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. If you’ve ever used the words ‘chortle’ or ‘galumph’, or encountered the linguistic term ‘portmanteau word’, or the phrase ‘jam tomorrow but never jam today’, or the idea of ‘being through the looking-glass now’, you’re dealing with the legacy of Through the Looking-Glass.
Curiously, one chapter of the novel, featuring a wasp in a wig, remained unpublished until 1990. Carroll took out this section from the book before its publication, possibly because his illustrator, John Tenniel, couldn’t ‘see [his] way to a picture’ (according to a letter Tenniel wrote to Carroll in June 1870). It was finally published nearly 120 years after the book first appeared. The ‘wasp in a wig’ is thought to be a play on the more usual phrase, ‘having a bee in one’s bonnet’.
As a masterpiece of nonsense literature, it’s perhaps unwise to analyse Through the Looking-Glass too closely in search of deeper meanings and subtexts, although it’s certainly true that aspects of the novel can be made to resonate with Freudian significance (Carroll was writing before Freud, but psychoanalysis encourages us to go back and read classic works of literature with an awareness of the Freudian unconscious and how it operates).
And it’s well-known that Lewis Carroll was fond of Alice Liddell and other young girls (and how innocent, or otherwise, his feelings towards them were has been the subject of analysis and debate ever since).
When Alice finds herself between the White Queen and the Red Queen at the end of Through the Looking-Class, it’s tempting to see this as Carroll’s veiled way of referring to Alice’s passage from childhood into adulthood, with white connoting purity and innocence, and red carrying its well-known connotations of sin, the flesh, and even menstruation.
If the chess metaphor whereby Alice the pawn becomes a queen can be interpreted as representing this passage into adulthood, the fact that both Queens deem Alice unsuitable to be a queen like them: she’s not ready, Carroll is perhaps saying.
Of course, some readers of Through the Looking-Glass may blanch at such a psychoanalytic interpretation of the novel (or at psychoanalytic interpretations of literature in general). But we should bear in mind that the end of the novel suggests that it has been little more than a dream: that the world ‘through the looking-glass’ is nothing more than fantasy and imagination, representing the free play of the childlike mind, but according to the rules of chess.
The chess game offers Carroll the ideal conceit for Alice’s adventures, since Carroll’s writing is governed by an awareness of logic and mathematics (he was a mathematician by trade, at the University of Oxford).
But the way that one adventure leads to the other with some suggestive link joining them – the egg on the shelf turning into Humpty Dumpty, or the King’s horses and King’s men paving the way for the White King – gives the whole book the peculiar logic of dreams, too, where anything might happen, but according to rules of association and suggestion.