Lewis Carroll’s masterpieces of Victorian nonsense, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There,[1] are quite rightly two of the most widely read books ever written in English. The tales of Alice’s fantastic adventures have captured the imaginations of both children and adults for over a century, and as a result are endlessly being adapted into new films, plays, illustrated editions, paintings, and many more forms of art. What I wish to demonstrate here is that these two almost universally loved nonsense narratives depend, for their very existence, on interruption. The characters within the nonsense consistently cut each other off and change the subject entirely, meaning that the intrigue of these great pieces of literature may come not from the cohesive whole of the stories they tell, but from the fragmented nature of those stories which give the reader many unfinished lines of thought to pursue for themselves, long after the characters of the text have forgotten them entirely.

During the trial[2] scene in Wonderland, the King of Hearts tells the Mad Hatter to “begin at the beginning […] and go on till you come to the end: then stop” [3]. Considering that this is generally how recounting past events works, this instruction may seem too obvious to be worth stating. However, in the context of the structures of both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass it is actually a radical concept, as the narratives of both these Carrollian masterpieces revolve around interrupted discourse. Linear narratives that reach a definitive “end”, such as the King demands, are a rare occurrence: throughout both texts, interruption is used consistently to “change the subject hastily”[4] when the characters in the nonsense reach a point past which deeper contemplation would unearth paradoxes or lead to troubling emotional realisations.

In order to consider interruption in the Alice books, it is important first to outline the conditions necessary for interruption to occur. The primary definition of the verb “interrupt” in the Oxford English Dictionary is “to break in upon (an action, process, or condition, esp. speech or discourse)”.[5] This demonstrates that an interruption needs a process to act against: as David Hillman and Adam Phillips astutely observe, “you can’t by definition interrupt chaos”.[6] It is also important to bear in mind that the “stop” in the “process” is not necessarily a full stop. Hugh Haughton outlines that there are both permanent and temporary interruptions when he writes, “the activity [or process] that has been interrupted can either be resumed after the interruption, or left unfinished”.[7] We can take from this that, in order to be interruptible, the Alice books must each create a process to be interrupted. Carroll achieves this in different ways in both Wonderland and Looking-Glass.

In Looking-Glass the process is very clear: Alice’s quest to reach the end of the board and become a Queen is the ever-present driving force of the narrative. In fact, the reader knows from the start not only that Alice’s monarchic ambition is the central process, but also that it is ultimately successful. This is conveyed through the inscription above the chessboard and list of moves at the start, “White Pawn (Alice) to play, and win in eleven moves.”[8] Alice is continually frustrated in her quest to reach the end of the board as her progression is interrupted by characters who insist on reciting poetry for her. When Tweedledee begins The Walrus and the Carpenter, “Alice venture[s] to interrupt him. ‘If it’s very long,’ she said, as politely as she could, ‘would you please tell me which road –’”,[9] however her attempt to continue her process is fruitless, as Alice’s interruption is itself interrupted by Tweedledee, who simply “smile[s] gently and beg[ins] again”.[10] These interruptions in Alice’s journey are only ever temporary, as eventually she reaches the eighth square and becomes “Queen Alice”.

Unlike Looking-Glass, Wonderland is not unified by a continuous over-arching aim; the game Wonderland is structured around is cards rather than chess. However, the narrative is prevented from becoming uninterruptible “chaos”[11] by a series of activities which follow each other in an almost arbitrary fashion, but which never allow Alice’s situation to become purposeless. The first seven chapters of Wonderland are united by Alice’s search for the beautiful garden, in which she finds herself “at last”[12] when she leaves the Mad Tea Party. She is then plunged into the croquet-game; this is followed by the Mock Turtle’s Story and Lobster-Quadrille lesson; and finally she is called to the trial.

These different activities often even interrupt each other at the moment they are exchanged for each other, for instance when Alice and the Gryphon “hurr[y] off, without waiting for the end of the [Mock Turtle’s] song”[13] in order to get to the trial. The interruptions in Wonderland are often more permanent than those in Looking-Glass: the actions that are interrupted are not resumed, in contrast to the ever-present chess game in Looking-Glass. The narrative structures of both of Carroll’s texts thus create processes to be interrupted, but vary in how these processes are created. It is now necessary to look at how these processes are interrupted, and what the consequences of these interruptions are.

In the very first paragraph of Wonderland, Alice ponders the uselessness of books “without pictures or conversations”.[14] One would expect then for books in which Alice is the protagonist to have a substantial amount of both. In fact, whilst the Alice books are not lacking in the former – the amount of artists who have produced editions Alice’s adventures since John Tenniel’s original illustrations is incalculable – conversations are much rarer than one may think. As will be explored below, dialogue between the characters of Alice’s dream-worlds is constantly interrupted. However, before delving into the texts, it is worth bearing in mind that the Oxford English Dictionary defines “conversation” as an “interchange of thoughts and words”.[15] It would follow from this that if the words of their conversations are routinely interrupted, then there is an interruption in the interchange of the thoughts of the characters that Alice encounters.

Many times in both texts, a character is interrupted in the middle of a sentence, often completely altering the meaning of what they were saying and thus ruining any possibility of the interchange of thoughts. The Mad Hatter’s interruption of Alice at the end of “A Mad Tea Party” (chapter seven of Wonderland), “‘I don’t think –’ ‘Then you shouldn’t talk’”,[16] is a good example of this, as is the dialogue between Alice and the Queens in “Queen Alice” (chapter nine of Looking-Glass):

“‘I didn’t mean –’ Alice was beginning, but the Red Queen interrupted her impatiently.

‘That’s just what I complain of! What do you suppose is the use of a child without any meaning?”[17]

These interruptions are of the same nature: in both cases Alice is cut off before she has finished her sentence, and in both cases this leads to what Alice was intending as the start of a sentence being interpreted as a declarative statement. The result in both is a terminal interruption in the interchange of thoughts, and it would thus be very difficult to class either of these examples as conversational.

Another example from “Queen Alice” that illustrates the consistent interruption of the interchange of thoughts between the characters of the Alice books is the White Queen’s insistent puns.  In this section, these puns prevent Alice demonstrating her knowledge of how bread is made,

“‘How is bread made?’

‘I know that!” Alice cried eagerly. “You take some flour –’

‘Where do you pick the flower?’ the White Queen asked. ‘In a garden or in the

hedges?’

‘Well, it isn’t picked at all,’ Alice explained: ‘it’s ground –’

‘How many acres of ground?’”[18]

Here Alice first sees the noun she uses, “flour”, being misinterpreted for its homonym, and then when trying to get her attempt at conversation back on track, sees her verb, “ground”, punned with its homonym noun, thus terminally interrupting the meaning of her words. The structure of this interaction shows Alice attempting to make the first interruption of her meaning only temporary, but despite her efforts the interruption becomes permanent when she is interrupted for a second time. The same effect is seen in Alice’s exchange with the Duchess in “Pig and Pepper” (Chapter six of Wonderland):

“‘You see the earth takes twenty-four hours to turn round on its axis –’

‘Talking of axes,’ said the Duchess, ‘chop off her head!’

Alice glanced rather anxiously at the cook…[who] seemed not to be listening, so she

went on again: ‘Twenty-four hours, I think; or is it twelve? I–’

‘Oh, don’t bother me!’ said the Duchess.”[19]

Here again Alice is interrupted first with a pun, then tries to continue in her original vein, before the interruption becomes permanent when she is interrupted a second time. Both of these instances illustrate Alice attempting to engage the characters of her dream-worlds in conversation but being unable to do so.

It would, of course, be false to assert that conversation never occurs in the Alice books. However, it is interesting that even at times when the dialogue does become conversational, it is usually interrupted before an “end”[20], such as the King of Hearts demands of the Mad Hatter, can be reached. Two good examples of this are “The Mock Turtle’s Story” and the early discussion of “which dreamed it?”[21] when Alice meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Alice derails what was meant to be the Mock Turtle’s story by interrupting him regularly, starting almost immediately by enquiring, “Why did you call [the teacher] Tortoise if he wasn’t one?”[22] What evolves after Alice’s early flurry of interruptions is a competitive conversation about the schooling of both the Mock Turtle and Alice herself, but this conversation is driven by Alice’s questions rather than the Mock Turtle’s narrative. However, once this conversational passage about schooling has been allowed to continue for a page, Alice is “interrupted”[23] by the Gryphon as her questioning reaches the point of exposing a paradox – an issue that will be explored below.

A similar effect can be seen in Alice’s existential conversation with Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The possible ramifications of waking the Red King, and the issue of whether Alice is dreaming, or being dreamed by the slumbering monarch lead to troubling thoughts, and so after being “interrupted”[24] by Tweedledum’s assertion that her tears are not real because she herself is not real, Alice chooses to change the subject to the weather, thus interrupting the interchange of thoughts that was heading in a dangerous direction. These two examples bring us to the primary use of interruptions in the Alice books: they protect and preserve the nonsense. The means by which interruptions do this are by preventing the realisation of paradoxes and cutting off the development of extreme emotion, thus never allowing the characters space or time to consider and realise their nonsensical surroundings.

Alice must be kept from realising paradoxes, as any interruption in Alice’s suspension of disbelief would result in expulsion from her dream-worlds. That unquestioning acceptance of one’s surroundings is central to being in Wonderland is demonstrated by Alice’s sister’s failed attempt to visit her sister’s dream-world when “only half believ[ing]”[25] in it. Paradoxes which would threaten Alice’s suspension of disbelief are averted by both the abrupt end to “The Mock Turtle’s Story” and during Alice’s dialogue with the Red Queen in “Queen Alice”. After the Mock Turtle puns “lesson” and “lessen”,[26] and thus implies he would work an hour less each day each school, Alice quite rightly asks him, “how did you manage on the twelfth?”,[27] a day on which he would paradoxically have to work negative hours seeing as he first describes his school day as eleven hours long. Here she is immediately “interrupted”[28] by the Gryphon, who confidently changes the subject and the matter is dropped. Likewise with the Red Queen, Alice highlights the obvious problem that would arise if everyone only spoke when they were spoken to: “nobody would ever say anything”.[29] The Red Queen interrupts Alice’s continuation in this line of thinking, “‘so that –” ‘Ridiculous!’”, however she then realises Alice is correct and “suddenly change[s] the subject”.[30] In both of these examples, an impasse is reached where the only option is to consider and realise the paradox, and thus realise the nonsense nature of Alice’s surroundings, or to interrupt any thought about it by changing the subject, allowing Alice’s suspension of disbelief to remain intact. The latter is chosen continually throughout the Alice books, with the fundamental exception of, “you’re nothing but a pack of cards!”[31] – which sees Alice inevitably ejected from Wonderland.

The preservative power of interruption is perhaps most clearly demonstrated through the most intriguing unanswered question in the Alice books, which forms the title of the final chapter of Looking-Glass, “Which dreamed it?”.[32] This question is obviously of pivotal importance to the entire nature, and existence of the Looking-Glass world, and the only reason we do not find out the answer is that Alice’s thoughts are “interrupted”[33] by the Red Knight at the point when she has resolved to go and wake the Red King to “see what happens”.[34]

It is not only through the prevention of the realisation of paradoxes that interruption protects Carroll’s nonsense. Another important aspect of interruption is that it consistently removes extreme emotion from the text, a feature that is highlighted by Elizabeth Sewell’s theory of nonsense as “a game, to which emotion is alien”.[35] This use of interruption can be seen in “The Pool of Tears” (chapter two of Wonderland) and Alice’s existential argument with Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Alice cries a “pool of tears”[36] when allowed a rare solitary period to think about her situation, but this is not allowed to last. After she cries, “I am so very tired of being all alone here!”,[37] her thoughts are interrupted by her change of size, and her emotional outpouring is brought to a sudden end as she turns her attention back to the door to the garden. Alice’s existential conversation with Tweedledum and Tweedledee also leads her to tears. However, as with the end of “The Mock Turtle’s Story”, this conversation is not allowed to reach an “end”[38] as Alice forcibly “brush[es] away her tears, and [goes] on, as cheerfully as she [can]”,[39] changing the subject to the unemotional topic of the weather.

In both these examples, it is useful to consider Sewell’s theory that nonsense exists in detached units, following each other in a “one and one and one”[40] pattern. Emotion, she claims, would lead to a connection of the units in the mind of the reader, and therefore destroy the playful nature essential to nonsense. Although the dream-worlds of the Alice books are occasionally infiltrated by emotion, it is always interrupted before it can do any serious damage in the way Sewell envisages. To consider the chess game in Looking-Glass, had Alice’s resolve to go and wake the Red King not been “interrupted”[41] by the Red Knight, then to carry out her ambition she would have had to play an illegal move to reach him: she would have had to move backwards three squares, with her only legal move as a pawn being to move forward one. It has already been shown that the possibility of being part of the Red King’s dream is an emotional problem for Alice through the tears she “brush[es] away”[42] when forced to talk about the issue, and these emotions come to the fore again in her interrupted decision to wake him, as she says in a “complaining tone” that she doesn’t “like”[43] the possibility that she is merely a figment of his imagination. Thus emotion, which Sewell argues is toxic to the game of nonsense, has to be interrupted before it brings about a collapse in the rules of the chess game of Looking-Glass.

These examples of extreme emotion developing and needing to be purged by interruption stand in direct contrast to the White Queen’s advice to Alice, “Consider anything, only don’t cry”.[44] The White Queen implies that the way for Alice to avoid strong emotions is to stop and think deeply; but the evidence within the Alice books shows that the opposite is the case. When Alice is allowed but a solitary page to “consider” her situation, the result is a “pool of tears”,[45] and in the very instance in which the White Queen espouses this advice, Alice is crying only because she has actually stopped and “thought of her loneliness”.[46] It is also by being allowed just one paragraph to “consider” her feelings about “which dreamed it?”[47] which leads her to her resolution to wake the Red King. As discussed above, this puts the fabric of the nonsense in danger, so Alice’s “thoughts [are] interrupted”,[48] and the Red King is forgotten.

However, whilst the question of “which dreamed it?”[49] is cast aside by Alice numerous times, it is never allowed to be terminally interrupted. The nonsense ends, before the final acrostic poem, with an explicit challenge to the reader to fill in the ultimate unanswered question of the Alice books: “which do you think it was?”.[50] Wolfgang Iser’s theory of “the structured blanks of the text”[51] can be applied to this to give us an alternative and revealing perspective on interruption in the Alice books. Iser argues that written texts are created in the minds of their readers in the instant that they are read, and that what is not said, the “blanks”, are the areas in which the reader’s imagination has to take over to fill in the gap; this means that reading becomes an active rather than passive activity, as the interpretation of any given reader helps to shape the text in their mind. In the Alice books, whilst the characters of the nonsense are consistently distracted from the realisation the dream-worlds’ inherent paradoxes or their own extreme emotions, the reader is given more time to think about these instances. They have the power to stop and consider what has been interrupted; the existence of this essay is testament to this fact. This means that the constant interruptions of the Alice books can be seen to work on different levels for both the characters within, and the readers of, the texts.

Through interruption, the characters are distracted from realisations that would bring consciousness of, and therefore destroy, the dream-worlds. Interruptions thus preserve the narrative for those involved in it. However, the reader exists in the real, rather than the dream-world, and has time to stop and think about Alice’s situation. The narrator in fact often demonstrates to the reader that what they are reading is merely a story, interjecting in “The Mock Turtle’s Story” to tell the reader, “If you don’t know what a Gryphon is, look at the picture”,[52] and demonstrating that the narratives portray a separate reality by interjecting, “I hope you understand what thinking in chorus means – for I must confess that I don’t”.[53] These narratorial interjections break the reader’s suspension of disbelief and allow the reader space to “consider”[54] the things that Alice and the characters of the dream-worlds are kept from dwelling upon, as the interruptions move them swiftly along in a process of “one and one and one”.[55]

Interruption is essential to the structures of the Alice books as it preserves the nonsense for the characters of the two dream-worlds. This is achieved by interrupting the realisation of paradoxes that would lead to a break in Alice’s suspension of disbelief, and by preventing the development of extreme emotion that would destroy the nonsense-game. However, the interruptions in the texts function in a different way for its readership, for whom they can be read Iserian narrative “blanks”[56] to be filled with the imagination of the reader. We are thus offered the chance to step away from the nonsense and “consider”[57] the aspects of the dream-worlds upon which Carroll refuses to let his characters dwell. It is perhaps this interruption-laden narrative style that has led to the lasting power of the Alice books: Carroll has given us texts which each contain countless rabbit holes for us to explore, and we have never tired of delving deep underground to see what we might find. While we may begin at the beginning and go on to till we come to the end, we never stop.

[1] Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, The Annotated Alice, (ed.) Martin Gardner. London: Penguin, 2001 and Lewis Carroll “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There”, The Annotated Alice, (ed.) Martin Gardner. London: Penguin, 2001 Hereafter Wonderland and Looking-Glass

[2] Trials are a common feature of nonsense narratives, from Carroll’s writing in both Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark, to Kafka’s more sinister nonsense narrative of bureaucracy, The Trial

[3] Wonderland126-7

[4] Looking Glass 252

[5] OED

[6] David Hillman, “Introduction”, The Book of Interruptions. (eds) David Hillman and Adam Phillips, Bern: Peter Lang.  10

[7] (Hugh Haughton, “Xanadu and Porlock: thoughts on composition and interruption”, The Book of Interruptions, 31)

[8] Looking-Glass 136. Incidentally, the moves outlined below the chess board on the opening page actually map out the plot of Looking-Glass in its entirety. Alice never interacts with a character who would not be immediately adjacent to her on the board if the moves are played out.

[9] Looking-Glass 192

[10] Ibid.

[11] Hillman, “Introduction” 10

[12] Wonderland 81

[13] Ibid. 113

[14] Ibid. 11

[15] OED, “conversation”, 7a

[16] Wonderland 80

[17] Looking-Glass 265

[18] Ibid. 267

[19] Wonderland 63-64

[20] Ibid. 127

[21] Looking-Glass 283

[22] Wonderland 100

[23] Ibid. 103

[24] Looking-Glass 198

[25] Wonderland 131

[26] Ibid. 103

[27] Ibid. 103

[28] Ibid. 103

[29] Looking-Glass 264

[30] Ibid.

[31] Wonderland 129

[32] Looking-Glass 283

[33] Ibid. 245

[34] Ibid. 245

[35] Elizabeth Sewell, The Field of Nonsense, London: Chatto and Windus, 1952, 129

[36] Wonderland 20

[37] Ibid. 24

[38] Ibid. 267

[39] Looking-Glass 198

[40] Sewell, The Field of Nonsense, 51

[41] Looking-Glass 245

[42] Ibid. 198

[43] Ibid. 245

[44] Ibid. 209

[45] Wonderland 20

[46] Looking-Glass 209

[47] Ibid. 282

[48] Ibid. 245

[49] Ibid. 283

[50] Ibid. 285

[51] Wolfgang Iser, “Interaction Between Text and Reader”, The Norton Anthology, (ed.) Vincent B. Leitch, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.  1527

[52] Wonderland 98

[53] Looking-Glass 179

[54] Ibid. 209

[55] Sewell, The Field of Nonsense, 51

[56] Iser, “Interaction Between Text and Reader”, 1527

[57] Looking-Glass 209

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