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“We’re all mad here”: Using Nonsense to Find the Self in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

Initially published in 1865 at the peak of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is critically considered the first children’s book that solely focuses on the child and their pure entertainment. This is the first literary instance in the Victorian Age where overt moralization is altered to unobstructed enjoyment of a simple story. To achieve such a feat, Lewis Carroll used the literary form of nonsense, playing with language conventions and meanings in a maddening, senseless way to create a story that should ultimately bear no meaning. However, this analysis will deconstruct the nonsensical plays in Wonderland, and illustrate how they inadvertently support the search for the true self in a world where meaning and labels are stripped away to make room for it.

Nonsense bases its existence on paradox and on subverting expectation in meaning, chaos ruling over order, paradoxically, in an orderly fashion. In Carroll’s text, language is replete with nonsense in the form of reversal of the literal meaning and figurative: “ ‘Found what?’ said the Duck. / ‘Found it,’ the Mouse replied rather crossly.” (36). In this case, the Duck tries to find a reference in a word that only serves a grammatical purpose. The opposite applies to Alice’s discussion with the Caterpillar, where he asks her to explain herself, and she switches from the figurative to the literal: “I can’t explain myself … because I’m not myself, you see.” (50). From the moment Alice chased the white rabbit down the rabbit hole, the adult world of meaning has shifted into pure nonsense; she tries to find it in Wonderland, but her quest is perpetually collapsing in meaninglessness. Another instance that conveys a break in meaning manifests through the labels Alice reads. After falling down the rabbit hole, she naively trusts the label of a bottle (‘DRINK ME’), assuming it to be fine since the bottle is not labeled ‘poison.’ But, in the same scene, she also discovers an empty jar of ‘ORANGE MARMALADE’; her utter disappointment signals the incipient stages of madness since, just like the empty jar, language is also empty, and labels are arbitrary.

At every turn, Alice’s sense of self is confronted. The tea party is a perfect opportunity for Alice to feel comfortable since she is familiar with the etiquette of such a festivity as a middle-class English girl. Nonetheless, like everything else in Wonderland, the tea party is a social mayhem where talks are pointless and use flawed and fluctuating logic. Alice’s previous education is not helpful, and she becomes confused by the mad discussions because she has yet to assess her individuality without a reference to the world outside Wonderland.

In the foreword, Alice is the “dream-child,” signifying an understanding of the pressuring value Victorians placed on children. Her adventures in Wonderland expose the instability of individuality in a world where logic is turned upside down. Romanticism, too, is not an escape but a hoax since Alice’s quest to reach the beautiful garden only leads her to discover its artificiality: roses are painted red and games are deadly. With each new character Alice meets, things get “curiouser and curiouser” because Alice’s precarious sense of self is crumbling like the meaning in language itself: “her voice sounded hoarse and strange, and the words did not come as they used to” (52). Since Alice cannot find the right words, the conclusion is that she is no longer herself: “it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then” (97). The adult way of seeing the world is turned on its head, and Alice has to comply with Wonderland's rules both physically and mentally: she grows and shrinks multiple times and later uses the same nonsensical language of inverting meaning like the other characters. Free of language constraints, Alice ultimately delights in the challenge of finding who she truly is: “ ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” (30). Like with meaning, the self is ever-changing and fluctuating, joy coming from basking in the alienation.

Lewis Carroll’s humor is intimately linked with fantasy and surrealism, creating the perfect framework for his whimsical narrative with no cultural constraints. As Jacqueline Flescher stated, “[nonsense] can be read with the freshness of a child or the critical mind of an adult” (144), but, no matter what, it requires the suspension of disbelief since “anarchy is both joyous and disturbing” (Shires 268). When labels are removed and language is dissolved, leaving meaning open to subjectification, the child (physical and metaphorical) is free to choose what defines them, discovering that their essence lies within the non-signifiers. As such, the form of nonsense frees Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to be everything and nothing, meaningful and meaningless, which is utterly appropriate since “we’re all mad here.”


Works Cited

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass. Illustrated by John Tenniel. Signet Classic, 2000.

Flescher, Jacqueline. “The Language of Nonsense in Alice.” Yale French Studies, no. 43, Yale University Press, 1969, pp. 128–44,

Shires, Linda M. “Fantasy, Nonsense, Parody, and the Status of the Real: The Example of Carroll.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 26, no. 3, West Virginia University Press, 1988, pp. 267–83,

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