“‘Be what you would seem to be,’ – or if you’d like it put more simply, ‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.’”
This is one of my favorite quotes from the book, spoken by the Duchess, as the moral to Alice saying mustard is a vegetable, even though it doesn’t look like one. It doesn’t really summarize any great point from the story or have any special meaning; it’s just one of many random moments that made me laugh.
With this being a children’s story from the 19th century, we naturally expect there to be a moral. In fact, the Duchess also said, “Every thing’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” In the middle of the very first chapter, it appears that Carroll presents us with one when Alice finds a bottle with a label around it’s neck saying “DRINK ME”.
“It was all very well to say, ‘Drink me,’ but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. ‘No, I’ll look first,’ she said, ‘and see whether it’s marked “poison” or not’; for she had read several nice little stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them, such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long, and that if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds; and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked ‘poison’, it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.”
As you can see, if you read closely, Carroll is using irony and understatement to mock the stories with lessons for children. Especially that last line (makes me laugh out loud). The irony continues when Alice goes ahead and drinks it after not finding it marked “poison,” and she shrinks!
By the end of the story it’s clear that Alice was in fact the most sane and sensible character in all of Wonderland, and it was the adults who were out of their minds. And then she wakes up, to find that it was all a dream. She shares the dream with her sister, who sends her off for tea, and then takes a moment to imagine Alice as a grown woman, still holding onto her childhood innocence and sharing the stories of Wonderland with her own children and grandchildren.
Perhaps the moral of the story is, that life doesn’t always need a moral, and we should hold onto the magic of childhood as long as possible….
This story was written down after being told to three sisters as a way to pass time on a boat ride. It’s part of the “literary nonsense” genre – that says it all right there. Playing with logic and subverting expectations are fun in small doses, but reading this story, you really do feel as though you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole!