What Are the Most Important Symbols in Alice in Wonderland?

According to scholars, Alice in Wonderland is rife with symbolic motifs, from Alice to the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts.

Sep 9, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
alice in wonderland most important symbols

 

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a much-loved classic that has fascinated children and adults alike for more than 150 years. From colorful characters to magical potions and a garden filled with talking plants, the story pulls us into a mind-bendingly surreal world where almost anything seems possible. But more than a whimsical children’s fairytale, the book is also laden with rich layers of symbolism that make reference to the trials and tribulations of the human condition as Alice passes from childhood into adolescence. While Lewis Carroll has largely left the story open to interpretation, over the decades writers and scholars have searched for hidden layers of meaning behind the motifs in Alice in Wonderland. Below are just a handful of the most popular theories.

 

Alice

Front cover for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865
Front cover for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865

 

Alice is the central character who goes on a madcap journey, diving own the rabbit hole into a strange and surreal world. As the story draws to a close, we realize the wonderland is entirely of her own imagination, when she awakens to discover it was all a daydream. Thus, the journey Alice goes on is a psychological and emotional one that allows her to discover unseen aspects of her own identity.

 

Alice falling down the rabbit hole, vintage illustration
Alice falling down the rabbit hole, vintage illustration

 

Within her own mind Alice finds a rich treasure trove of unexpected wonders, and she learns how to solve problems and stand up for herself. Many have interpreted Alice’s process of self-discovery as a symbol for the power of imagination, curiosity, and creativity, not just in childhood but as one passes through adolescence into adulthood. Given that the book was written during the strait-laced, rigid Victorian times, it can be understood as a reflection on the need for individuality and an escape from dogmatic rules in order to fully understand one’s potential, and to navigate the complexity of the adult world. 

 

The White Rabbit/The Rabbit Hole

Illustration of the White Rabbit by John Tenniel, 19th century
Illustration of the White Rabbit by John Tenniel, 19th century

 

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The white rabbit character marks a significant starting point for the story, drawing Alice away from the real world, down its winding rabbit hole to a strange and unexpected new place. Thus, the rabbit, and the rabbit hole, becomes a symbol for curiosity, fantasy and escape. Even today, the expression “going down the rabbit hole” is in popular use, symbolizing a journey somewhere unknown, challenging, bizarre or complex, that will take some mental work to figure out.

 

The white rabbit in Alice story became the starting point for the famed Jefferson Airplane song White Rabbit, released in 1967, which alluded to the psychedelic effects of drug taking. Yet the band claimed simply that the song was simply about feeding your curiosity. While many have suggested Lewis Carroll also made reference to mind-altering drugs within Alice’s story, there is no concrete evidence to suggest this is actually true. Many have also interpreted the rabbit’s constant time-checking and panicked rushing around as a symbol for the time pressures put upon people in Victorian society, and the resulting anxiety that this caused. 

 

The Cheshire Cat

Alice and the Cheshire Cat, by John Tenniel, 19th century
Alice and the Cheshire Cat, by John Tenniel, 19th century

 

The Cheshire Cat is another recurring character within Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, known for his bizarre wide grin and curious ability to appear and disappear on a whim. The cat is a complex and contradictory character who appears to make little sense on the surface, presenting Alice with a series of confusing riddles to solve. But many agree the Cheshire Cat, with its ghostly, apparition-like qualities, represents a wise spirit-guide for Alice, offering her a series of conundrums that push her in the right direction towards the March Hare’s House and the Mad Hatter’s tea party, and offer her Wonderland’s essential secret – that it is completely mad. 

 

Queen of Hearts

Vintage illustration of the Queen of Hearts
Vintage illustration of the Queen of Hearts

 

In contrast with many of the more ambiguous and unpredictable characters Alice encounters in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts is rigid and dogmatic, leading as a figure of fear and authority. But in the end Alice discovers the queen never actually carries out any of the executions she orders, and that she is merely a playing card with no real power. She can be interpreted as a symbol of the seemingly endless rules and punishments dolled out by adults, particularly during Victorian times, which, from a child’s perspective, might appear ruthless and unnecessary. Another popular interpretation is that the Queen of Heart is a proxy for Queen Victoria, and Wonderland a symbol for England, the place over which a domineering queen leads with tyrannical power. 

 

The Mad Hatter

Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, Milo Winter, 1916
Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, Milo Winter, 1916

 

The Mad Hatter is one of the most unusual and eccentric characters Alice encounters in Wonderland. While he is only ever referred to in the book as ‘the hatter,’ the story alludes to his madness on numerous occasions, most notably in the Cheshire Cat’s conversations with Alice. In Victorian times the colloquial expression ‘Mad as a Hatter’ was widespread, even if its origins are unclear. Some think the saying draws on the Mercury poisoning that hatters often endured after using mercury to cure pelts. While Carroll’s hatter doesn’t demonstrate mercury poisoning symptoms, there may be an oblique connection in the character’s erratic behavior. 

 

The Mad Hatter by Blanche McManus, 1900
The Mad Hatter by Blanche McManus, 1900

 

Others have argued that Carroll’s sympathetic treatment of the hatter, described in the book as ‘insane,’ is a call for a more humane and compassionate understanding of the mentally ill, who were treated poorly in Victorian England. 

Author Image

By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.