Angelika Zirker – “Alice was not surprised”: (Un)Surprises in Lewis Carroll’s Alice-Books


"Alice was not surprised": (Un)Surprises in Lewis Carroll's Alice-Books

Angelika Zirker

Published in Connotations Vol. 14.1-3 (2004/05)


Surprises are connected with the idea of the unexpected.1) Yet, even at the very beginning of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, we find that Alice often is not surprised although things happen that might be regarded as 'unexpected.' It is, for example, not surprising to Alice "when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes [runs] close by her" (16) and when he speaks.2) Only after further reflection "it occur[s] to her that she ought to have wondered at this," and she is surprised that then she was not surprised, yet, "at the time it all seemed quite natural" (10) to her. Her spontaneous reaction to the talking rabbit is that of a child in whose imagination speaking animals exist and to whom they are familiar from the world of fairy tales and beast fables. Accordingly, the rabbit who says to himself "I shall be too late!" (9), to her understanding, is quite 'natural': the imagined world of stories is a natural one for the child. It is only when a new and unknown element in this world crops up, e.g. when "[…] the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on […]" (10), that Alice becomes curious and follows him for she has "never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it" (10).

Hence, the question whether something is surprising or 'unsurprising' in the Alice-books seems to depend on whether it is natural or not.3) However, as is already obvious in the first lines of Wonderland, Alice's understanding of what is natural seems to be peculiar, for most of us would most probably wonder at a talking rabbit. The question therefore is what is surprising to her and what is not. [→page 20]

The Confusion of Expectations

Alice 's being surprised and her being unsurprised may well go together. Even in the first chapter this is the case. She is not so very much surprised at falling down the rabbit-hole, and even while falling, she tries to be as rational as possible and reflects upon all kinds of questions, e.g. "what Latitude or Longitude" she has "got to" (11), whether "cats eat bats" (11) and so forth; nor is she surprised at "suddenly" (12) finding a little table in the hall, which has not been there before; then "on the second time round, she [comes] upon a low curtain she [has] not noticed before" (12). The adverb "suddenly" and the 'sudden' discovery of things do not lead to Alice's surprise, for she is simply "delight[ed]" (12) at finding the table and the key. Their sudden appearance presumably does not surprise her as she knows that fairy tales, as a rule, deal with "events that would be impossible in the real world" and that "[t]hey often include magical happenings."4) The sudden appearance of a table belongs to the realm of "magical happenings" and is a quality inherent in the genre of fairy tales; hence it is not surprising, even more so as she very soon realizes that she is "in the middle of one!" (33). Although she realizes that, when she "used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened" (33), she also states that it was only her fancy that made her think so. Events in Wonderland thus confirm her innate tendency to accept spontaneously the most unexpected things.

Consequently, it does not surprise Alice to find a bottle with the label " Drink Me." She follows the instruction, and, after having drunk from the bottle and shrunk in size, she finds some cake, labelled "Eat Me":

She ate a little bit, and said anxiously to herself "Which way? Which way?", holding her hand on the top of her head to feel which way it was growing; and she was quite surprised to find that she remained the same size. To be sure, this is what generally happens when one eats cake; but Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way. (15) [→page 21]

The corresponding labels—"Drink me" and "Eat me"—make her think that a change in her bodily size will occur after drinking or eating. She obviously follows the rules of analogy, and of cause and effect which, at first, do not seem to work in the underground world. The nature of surprises is inverted: as she turns the enigmatic order into a systematic one, she is surprised that nothing happens.5)

That her life seems to go on in a "dull and stupid" manner is a disappointment. Alice thus "set[s] to work" and eats the whole cake.6) She is all the more surprised when eventually something happens. The whole situation has a paradoxical note: first, Alice starts to eat, thinking that something will happen, according to the rules of analogy. Then, as nothing happens, she nonetheless eats the cake but is then surprised that something happens, which implies that meanwhile she must have expected nothing to happen. Yet if this is the case, why bother to eat the cake? If this is not the case, i.e. she was sure something would happen, why is she surprised? It seems as if the very notion of surprise becomes a rather doubtful one.

Having finished the cake, she "open[s] out like the largest telescope that ever was!" (16). Her being overwhelmed is expressed by her exclamation and the subsequent comment: "'Curiouser and curiouser!' cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English)" (16). Thus, she is now surprised at what happens although she had earlier anticipated exactly this would occur. She expected—and moreover wanted—to grow, but, as it now happens, she is surprised at it; she is actually so much surprised that she forgets "how to speak good English." Yet, what happens, after all, follows a relation of condition, or of laws: without first shutting up like a telescope, she would not be able to open out like one; if she does not shrink first, there is no need to grow. Hence, she no longer knows what to expect, as the events do not in the first place follow rules she knows or is able to infer. Her surprise stems from Carroll's adding a note of unexpectedness to the expected—or yet a note of expectedness to the unexpected.

As has been stated by John Fisher, "'curious' is Alice's repeated response to the endless successions of weird escapades and eccentrics [sic] [→page 22] he [Carroll] produces on her behalf" (12). Moreover, she is surprised at her own reaction, i.e. at her being surprised—"'Oh dear, what nonsense I'm talking!'" (17)—and even aware of her surprise as she finds that she is being nonsensical.

Knowledge and Surprise

The change in size and her awareness that she talks nonsense make Alice think she has been changed into someone else, and consequently she wants to find out who she is.7) In this situation, she tries to rely on her knowledge in order to reassure herself—she fears she has been changed for Mabel who "knows such a very little" (18) while Alice knows "all sorts of things" (18). She therefore tries to think of the things she once learnt and used to know—most probably learnt by heart, which is why they actually should come quite 'naturally' when being recalled—and starts with the multiplication table. Yet, as it turns out, she cannot rely on this knowledge as her skills, both mathematical, "[…] four times five is twelve," and geographical, " London is the capital of Paris" (19), seem to have left her.

Her last recourse is poetry, which is why she tries to repeat "How doth the little—" but "the words did not come the same as they used to" (19), 'used to' indicating a sense of habit and routine. Whenever she tries this during the course of her adventure, she forgets the 'correct' texts and modifies the poems by turning them into parodies that are both unexpected and surprising.

Watts's "How doth the little—", i.e. "Against Idleness and Mischief" from his Divine Songs for Children (1715), thus becomes:

How doth the little busy bee

Improve each shining hour,

And gather honey all the day

From every opening flower!

How skilfully she builds her cell!

How neat she spreads the wax!

And labours hard to store it well

With the sweet food she makes.8)

How doth the little crocodile

Improve his shining tail,

And pour the waters of the Nile

On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,

How neatly spreads his claws,

And welcomes little fishes in,

With gently smiling jaws!

[→page 23] We can see that Carroll keeps the syntactic structure and even many of the words, at least nearly all the verse beginnings, but then uses these words in new contexts: in "improve his shining tail," the verb 'to improve' implies that the pouring of water on the crocodile's scales serves an aesthetic end, namely to enhance the crocodile's beauty; conversely, "Improve each shining hour" means being profitable and avoiding any waste of time, as the gathering of honey means hard work and not the satisfaction of one's own (physical) needs.9) Moreover, the highly didactic content of Watts's poem is turned into a parody by transforming the image of the busy bee into that of a (lazy and hungry) crocodile.10) The pattern of rational moralism with a causa finalis, namely moral improvement, on which Watts's poems are based, is changed here. Thus, the image of the busy bee, a faded metaphor of diligence and industriousness, is turned into the quite unusual image of a crocodile that minds his own looks. In the Wonderland world that is suffused with the child's imagination, moral principles are replaced with aesthetic values, which is why Alice can no longer remember the didactic poem.11) She can no longer be sure of her 'rational' knowledge and abilities as her spontaneity has come to the fore. At the same time, the crocodile's natural behaviour is stressed, for crocodiles are ravenous and like to eat "little fishes."

Codes of Interaction

After her encounter with the White Rabbit, Alice expects him to be surprised. "'He took me for his housemaid,' she said to herself as she ran. 'How surprised he'll be when he finds out who I am!'" (31). However, he does not find out who she is and, consequently, is not surprised.12) What is more, even Alice does not any longer act as she initially thinks she will; she at first emphasises that she does not "go […] messa­ges for a rabbit" (31), but then she enters his house, and when she finds a bottle there, she drinks from it. The difference from the earlier finding of a bottle is that this one is not labelled. Maybe this is the reason for her growing instead of shrinking as in the previous [→page 24] case. From her earlier experience, she "know[s] something in­teresting is sure to happen" (32)—which, in this case, is her filling the whole house.

When the Rabbit finds her arm in the window, his first reaction is to shriek, but very soon he composes himself. Although he is surprised at finding an arm in his window, he is determined not to show his astonishment and simply says: "An arm, you goose! Who ever saw one that size? […] go and take it away!" (35). This behaviour stems from his aristocratic background; he is called "yer honour" (34) by Pat, the gardener, which is the denomination given to an "'honourable personality': Formerly (and still in rustic speech) given to any person of rank or quality."13) He is—or plays the role of—a gentleman who, as such, is not surprised and shocked but tries to stay cool no matter what happens. This code of behaviour is very much in line with the Horacian thought of nil admirari—which is applied to the English gentleman.14) Accordingly, the White Rabbit does not run away or is scared but just tries to get rid of whatever there is, namely of Alice.

In the end, the Rabbit and his friends produce some pebbles, and then it is Alice who is surprised "that the pebbles were all turning into little cakes as they lay on the floor, and a bright idea came into her head" (37). Again she proceeds to think in analogies. When she first drank from the labelled bottle in the hall, she shrank, and then she ate the (likewise labelled) cake to grow again. Now she first drank something (from an unlabelled bottle!), and, in conclusion, the "bright idea" which comes to her mind is that the result of eating the cakes this time must be her shrinking. The rabbit, for his part, plays the role of the perfect aristocrat and gentleman who acts most discreetly in order to solve the problem without giving it too much further attention.

When Alice leaves the house, the animals waiting outside make "a rush" (37) at her, and she runs away as quickly as she can. This shows that the interaction with the creatures she meets is almost always rather strange to Alice. One reason is that she expects to be treated amiably and politely but very soon learns that this is not necessarily [→page 25] the case. One need only think of the Mad Tea-Party or when she is threatened with being beheaded in the queen's croquet-ground.

The " Garden of Live Flowers" is one further instance of Alice's being treated unkindly; the Rose, for example, remarks: "Said I to myself, 'Her face has got some sense in it, though it's not a clever one!'" (139). The speaking rose evokes and pokes fun at the Victorian idea of the language or even 'poetry' of flowers, "where every flower, herb, and tree had a distinct 'sentiment' or 'emblematic meaning' attached to it," i.e. flowers were "associated with human feelings or properties."15) Alice meets flowers that usually have attributes ascribed to them which differ utterly from their actual behaviour; and although she tries to react to this behaviour with politeness—she speaks in "a soothing tone" (140) and "choos[es] [not] to notice" (140) some of the remarks—Alice is particularly surprised at the violet's behaviour, for the violet usually counts as a symbol of humility and modesty.16) Carroll seems to take the notion of a language of flowers quite literally here, as the violet proves to be neither modest nor shy but violent—and what else can she do, for she only needs an 'n' to be so. He parodies the idea that flowers "convey hidden meanings and secret messages";17) the flowers Alice encounters are mostly blunt and very direct in what they say.

This also goes for the daisies. They make fun of Alice when she does not know the 'meaning' of the tree's boughs, and "[w]hen one speaks, they all begin together" (139) and produce a terrible noise. Their behaviour even makes Alice say, though in a whisper that is opposed to their "shouting together": "If you don't hold your tongues, I'll pick you!" (139). This refers to the proverb "Fresh as a daisy":18) fresh flowers are those that have been picked. However, Alice finds herself in Looking-Glass country, which means behind a mirror where everything is reversed;19) therefore, the daisies run the risk of being picked because they are literally fresh, namely cheeky.20) [→page 26]

The (Playful) Treatment of Language: Taking Things Literally

It is this playing with language that is noteworthy when it comes to surprises in the Alice-books:

[…] Alice carefully released the brush, and did her best to get the hair into order. "Come, you look rather better now!" she said, after altering most of the pins. "But really you should have a lady's maid!"

"I'm sure I'll take you with pleasure!" the Queen said. "Two pence a week, and jam every other day."

Alice couldn't help laughing, as she said "I don't want you to hire me—and I don't care for jam."

"It's very good jam," said the Queen.

"Well, I don't want any to-day, at any rate."

"You couldn't have it if you did want it," the Queen said. "The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day."

"It must come sometimes to 'jam to-day,'" Alice objected.

"No, it ca'n't," said the Queen. "It's jam every other day: to-day isn't any other day, you know."

"I don't understand you," said Alice. "It's dreadfully confusing!"

"That's the effect of living backwards," the Queen said kindly: "it always makes one a little giddy at first—"

"Living backwards!" Alice repeated in great astonishment. "I never heard of such a thing!"

"—but there's one great advantage in it, that one's memory works both ways."

"I'm sure mine only works one way," Alice remarked. "I ca'n't remember things before they happen."

It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards," the Queen remarked. (174-75; my emphasis)

The dialogue starts off quite normally, with Alice suggesting that the Queen have a maid help her. But it very soon turns out to be more or less nonsensical, when the Queen offers Alice the job in question and, as a salary, "Two pence a week, and jam every other day." What we understand here is: One day she will get jam, the next day she will not, the day after that, jam again, and so forth. By the redefinition of quite conventional phrases and remarks the conversation is given a "sudden and unexpected direction."21) Carroll may even refer to working conditions of servants in questioning the conventional sense of, [→page 27] e.g., "giv[ing] them an afternoon out every other Sunday"22) and allowing them "every Monday morning a certain amount of sugar, tea, and butter for their private use."23)

"Jam every other day" unexpectedly means "jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never to-day." Alice objects to this—"It must come sometimes to 'jam to-day'" (175)—yet the Queen has, from her perspective, a very logical answer to offer: "It's jam every other day: to-day isn't any other day." By taking the meaning of a conventional phrase literally,24) she turns Alice's understanding of a world based on fixed definitions as well as logical connections and causalities upside down, and leaves her puzzled.

The—linguistically—familiar there­by becomes surprising. The Queen, furthermore, being unable or unwilling to give up her own kind of logic, offers an explanation that is actually not enlightening at all; there is no connection between the jam offer and the notion of living backwards, as "jam every other day" works in both directions, forwards and backwards. But she gives Alice the feeling that she simply lacks the understanding of "living backwards" and therefore cannot really judge.25) What adds even more to the apparent nonsense here is that the Queen tries to convince Alice, who does not "care for jam," of its quality, and then tells her that she cannot get it anyway.

This scene has been called "one of the famous paradoxes connected with time"26) in Through the Looking-Glass. Yet, as Gardner notes in his revised edition of The Annotated Alice, there proves to be sense behind the apparent nonsense, namely a rule from Latin grammar:

[…] I completely missed the way Carroll plays on the Latin word iam (i and j are interchangeable in classical Latin), which means "now." The word iam is used in the past and future tenses, but in the present tense the word for "now" is nunc. I received more letters about this than about any other oversight, mostly from Latin teachers. They tell me that the Queen's remark is often used in class as a mnemonic for recalling the proper usage of the word.27)

Carroll introduces a rule of Latin grammar in disguise, which suddenly and surprisingly fills the apparent nonsense in this dialogue with sense. [→page 28]

Nonsense based on rules or particular 'laws' can also be detected in the notion of "living backwards," which refers to Looking-Glass-logic where everything is turned around and inverted. Alice, very shortly after the quoted dialogue, faces a surprising situation when the White Queen shouts that her finger is bleeding although she hasn't "pricked it yet […] but […] soon shall" (176). However, the Queen cannot be surprised as she experiences everything in a reversed order.28) This means that living backwards is connected with being unsurprised, an experience that even Alice, though unconsciously, has already had in the Tweedledum and Tweedledee chapter, only that she cannot transfer it to this new situation.

The (Playful) Treatment of Language: Nursery Rhymes

When she meets the Tweedle-brothers, Alice at first is surprised—"she came upon two fat little men, so suddenly that she could not help starting back" (158)—but very soon recognizes them. By recognising them, their appearance becomes somewhat 'natural' to her, which is furthermore indicated by the transition from the preceding chapter to the Tweedle-chapter, for Alice is feeling sure that "the two little fat men [she meets] must be [/] […] Tweedledum and Tweedledee" (158-59). In The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner points out that "Carroll clearly intended this last clause and title of the next chapter to be a rhymed couplet" (188). Alice can recognize and, in a way, also 'remember' them because of her knowledge of the nursery rhyme, which can likewise be seen as a form of 'living backwards,' as she knows the outcome of the interaction between them even before it starts. Thus, surprise is impossible in this case, or it is a surprise of the kind which, as a child's fascination with nursery rhymes shows, goes together with what is reassuringly familiar. Alice anticipates and foresees what is to come and can "hardly help saying" (160) the nursery rhyme out loud: [→page 29]

Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Agreed to have a battle;

For Tweedledum said Tweedledee

Had spoiled his nice new rattle.

Just then flew down a monstrous crow,

As black as a tar-barrel;

Which frightened both the heroes so,

They quite forgot their quarrel. (160)

The nursery rhyme is used as a surprising unsurprise, as it predicts the further action in this chapter. This implies that the action is not based on causal principles or chance, as we generally know it from the world we live in, but on a new set of rules which relies on the (il)logic of a nursery rhyme. Before things follow their given course, i.e. before the Tweedles agree "to have a battle,"29) the action is put off by the initial conversation between Alice and the Tweedle-brothers, and by the insertion of the "The Walrus and the Carpenter" poem. But that the course of events will turn out to be just like we expect it to be is already alluded to at the beginning when Alice introduces herself to the Tweedles:

Alice did not like shaking hands with either of them first, for fear of hurting the other one's feelings; so, as the best way out of the difficulty, she took hold of both hands at once: the next moment they were dancing round in a ring. This seemed quite natural (she remembered afterwards), and she was not even surprised to hear music playing: it seemed to come from the tree under which they were dancing, and it was done (as well as she could make it out) by the branches rubbing one across the other, like fiddles and fiddle-sticks. (160-61; my emphasis)

"She was not even surprised to hear music playing" because everything which happens seems natural to her. The connection between something that appears natural and the fact that she is not surprised could not be more direct. This scene can be interpreted as an allusion to the origin of this nursery rhyme, as, according to The Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes, it goes back to a rivalry between Haendel and Bononcini.30) Alice's not being surprised here is certainly linked to her not [→page 30] being surprised in general, as so many "queer things [are] happening" (58).31) Even that the music is "done" by a tree does not seem to surprise her at all.32)

A few lines further down, we learn that it is "Here we go round the mulberry bush" (161) that they are singing.33) Their dancing round in a ring "seemed quite natural," as there are three of them dancing and singing, making up a trio, a [tri:-ou] that is a "tree"-"o" (Note the 'O' standing for the "ring" in which they are dancing), for the music is done by the tree. "Here we go round the mulberry bush" furthermore is a ring-dance composed in six-eight time, which means arithmetically, not rhythmically speaking, three-four time. Each stanza of the song has 16 bars;34) Tweedledum and Tweedledee are "very soon out of breath. 'Four times round is enough for one dance,'" (161) they say and stop dancing. So their dance is arithmetically correct: they stop it after the first stanza, as three people are dancing four rounds of a six-eight time, i.e. it seems to take them four bars to get round once. This calculation is a further explanation of Alice's not being surprised by the dance, as everything is actually quite natural.

Alice 's generally being "unsurprised" furthermore explains her not being afraid of the brothers' battle after the rattle has been broken. She is not afraid of "the most serious thing that can possibly happen to one in a battle—to get one's head cut off" (170) because she knows that there is no danger. After she has helped them to get dressed, she only hopes for the crow to come, "I wish the monstrous crow would come!" (171), and shortly afterwards it actually comes and more or less ends the chapter. It is, in this context, all the more striking that even Tweedledee and Tweedledum seem to expect it, as they shout "It's the crow!" (171). The use of the definite article not only indicates that they know they are living (in) a nursery rhyme but is also due to the notion of repetition, which is inherent in nursery rhymes: they are always the same, and the same events are repeated again and again, just as the rhymes are repeated for, and by, children and learned by heart,35) which is why for Alice, the child, they are something that comes naturally.[→page 31]

The notion of surprise hence has very much to do with the mind of the child and the child's perception of the world. Things that, to an adult, may seem very surprising—e.g. a rabbit that runs by and talks—are familiar to a child and therefore unsurprising. Alice is mostly surprised at herself when she does not recall things or when something does not seem natural, i.e. when something occurs that is not part of the world she is accustomed to, including the world of fairy tales, nursery rhymes and beast fables. In Alice, Carroll shows that being surprised and not being surprised are not mutually exclusive states but easily go together. Maybe this is, at least partly, an explanation for the ongoing popularity of the Alice-books: they enable us to perceive these fantastic worlds through the eyes of the child and allow us to react with both surprise and unsurprise at the most fantastic things and occurrences.

Eberhard Karls Universität
Tübingen



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