“We are but older children”: the representation of the world of adulthood in the Alice books

In their novels, authors often juxtapose two or more sets of characters in order to accentuate their differences and similarities. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the setting of Wonderland can be seen as a metaphor for adulthood itself, and Alice, as the childlike observer of it, is juxtaposed with various adult characters in order to represent the world of adulthood as heavily flawed. Therefore, these characters, as representatives of the world of adulthood, can only be understood when considered in relation to Alice, as the representative of childhood. In this way, Carroll questions the idea that one ‘progresses’ from childhood to adulthood; the term ‘progress’ signifies gradual improvement, growth and development, and would therefore imply that adulthood can be correlated with maturity, capability and a judicious mindset.  However, Carroll’s adult characters, such as the White Queen, the March Hare and the Queen of Hearts, are shown to be immature, hypocritical and pernicious. In making this point, the author first demonstrates the markers which differentiate childhood and adulthood, such as physical growth, the formation of identity, the adherence to rules of social etiquette, legal independence and physical maturity. He then shows that despite these official differences, adulthood is not necessarily an improvement. He portrays adulthood as an inevitable illness which should be dreaded, and represents the world of adulthood as being governed by moral, social and legal laws, which the adult characters both fail to adhere to, and to enforce. Therefore, Carroll’s books represent adulthood as a period of one’s life distinct from childhood in terms of legal and physical factors, but in which one remains as flawed, powerless and illogical as a child.

In the Alice books, adulthood is represented as a state of being which is distinct from childhood in several ways. Firstly, it is represented as a time in which one has formed one’s own identity; both mentally and physically. In Alice in Wonderland, in which Alice frequently changes her physical stature, growing up physically is often paralleled with ‘growing up’ metaphorically. Upon drinking from the bottle labelled ‘DRINK ME’, she considers the idea of writing a book about her adventures when she is an adult. However, she continues growing until “there’s no room to grow up any more here” (Carroll 28), and thereby equates this event with having grown up into adulthood, stating that “I’m grown up now” (Carroll 28). Similarly, during her transition to adulthood, Alice is often concerned with her own personal identity, as when she defends herself against the pigeon’s assertion that she is a serpent, and is reminded by the White Queen to “remember who you are” (Carroll 125). Likewise, the concept of the formation of one’s identity is implicitly linked to adulthood when Alice forgets her own name while travelling through the wood; it is only when she continues on her journey across the chessboard, and therefore moves closer to being crowned a queen, that she is able to remember it again. Finally, Carroll equates adulthood with legal responsibility when Alice is exempted from punishment by the King of Hearts. In chapter eight of Alice in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts wants to have Alice beheaded for talking to her impertinently. However, the King attempts to excuse Alice’s rebellious behaviour by appealing to the Queen, saying “Consider, my dear: she is only a child” (Carroll 69). This implies that if Alice were an adult, she would have been held responsible for her comportment and would have been subjected to capital punishment. Therefore, the Alice books highlight the distinction between the world of adulthood and that of childhood, by representing adults as having distinct physical statures, personal identities and legal responsibility.

However, Carroll highlights the inevitability of adulthood in a negative light, causing the reader to associate this natural progression towards adulthood with an atmosphere of sadness. In an extended metaphor, in Through the Looking Glass, Alice continually moves across the chessboard, in her transformation from a pawn to a queen, in a progression which mirrors the growth from childhood to adulthood; she does not choose her role in this game, but rather her status as a pawn is thrust upon her by the Red Queen. Although Alice desires the eventual transformation from pawn to queen (stating “I wouldn’t mind being a Pawn…though of course I should like to be a Queen” (Carroll 123)), and is pleased on receiving her crown, adulthood is seen by other characters as an unavoidable affliction or sickness. The Rose kindly remarks to Alice that “you’re beginning to fade, you know – and then one can’t help one’s petals getting a little untidy”, but adds that “But that’s not YOUR fault” (Carroll 120). Likewise, Humpty Dumpty advises Alice that she should have “left off at seven”, instead of having grown to the age of “seven years and six months”; this more advanced age is labelled as “uncomfortable”, and is therefore seen as negative (Carroll 159). Similarly, in the prefatory poem to Through the Looking Glass, Carroll writes “ere voice of dread…/Shall summon to unwelcome bed/A melancholy maiden! We are but older children, dear,/ Who fret to find our bedtime near” (Carroll 101). In this stanza, adulthood, marriage and death are all interconnected, and therefore growing up is represented both as a dangerous and depressing concept. When considering this quote within the context of Carroll’s fascination with young girls, and his interest in photographing children, it could be hypothesised that Carroll sees childhood as an idealised time, before girls are besmirched by marriage (as suggested by the connotations of the ‘[marital] bed’), or the stifling and highly-regulated world of adulthood (in which youthful girls are transformed into ‘melancholy maidens’). Thus, Carroll represents the world of adulthood as something to be dreaded.

Carroll satirises the highly-regulated nature of the adult world, in order to highlight its failings. Adult characters within the works are governed by a series of moral, social and legal frameworks, which are often shown to be illogical and ineffective. As Carolyn Sigler argues, the world of adulthood is shown to be run by a “autocracy of fools, in which meaningless didacticism is wielded as a weapon, rules of behavior and decorum are hypocritical and contradictory, and the threat of punishment always looms” (58). Adult characters are positioned as the arbiters of justice, responsible for punishing those who fail to adhere to the rules of their world. However, the irony of the situation is that their hypocritical and ineffective natures result in a world ruled by chaos and a lack of consequences, instead of justice. This is best exemplified through the character of the Queen of Hearts, who can be seen as a symbol of “unregulated hostility” (Kincaid 93), whose position of authority allows her to sentence her constituents to be executed for insignificant crimes. Yet, the Gryphon reveals that no one is ever executed. Hence, her position of authority is shown to be undeserved and hollow, as she is clearly incapable of ensuring that the law is carried out justly, and therefore she wields no real power. Likewise, the jury system is shown to be totally ineffective in arbitrating justice. As D’Ambrosio points out, “things of little or no importance are recorded by the jury as important, whereas, the important evidence is neglected” (1075). The illusion of following due legal process is shattered by the fact that the sentence is proclaimed first, and the verdict of the jury afterwards. Thus, despite the veneer of power and judiciousness which these adult characters hold, they are shown to be as powerless as Alice herself.

Likewise, adults’ reliance on moral and social guidelines to direct their behaviour is satirised through the Duchess and the trio at the tea party. The Duchess foolishly insists that “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it” (Carroll 68). However, she arbitrarily connects morals with other concepts which are completely unrelated, such as when she illogically suggests that the moral of the fact that flamingos and mustard both bite is that “Birds of a feather flock together” (Carroll 68). Carroll therefore uses her as an example of the consequences of blindly allowing moral guidelines to dictate one’s thinking. The guests at the tea party, on the other hand, are heavily preoccupied with the rules of social etiquette. They admonish Alice for behaving in a way that defies these social expectations, stating that “It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited” (Carroll 52), and they appear so fixated on the rules for proper dining that they argue about the March Hare’s choice to include butter as a part of the tea-party spread. However, their hypocrisy is shown when the Hare dips his watch in his tea, and the Hatter rudely tells Alice that “[she] shouldn’t talk” (Carroll 58) if she does not think.  In this way, Carroll symbolically suggests that the highly regulated world which adults create is governed by moral and social frameworks with which they fail to truly understand and adhere to, and therefore implies that their position of authority in creating and enforcing these frameworks is both undeserved and illogical.

Carroll’s belief that this authority is undeserved is shown through his commentary on the idea that adults “are but older children” (Carroll 101); despite their claims to intellectual superiority and a dominant status within the hierarchy of the social structure, they remain as flawed and childlike as Alice herself. In order to make this statement, Carroll first satirises the idea of adult intellectualism, and the assumption that adults are inherently more intelligent than, and therefore superior to, children. Within the books, several characters demonstrate a presumption that superiority in age is equal to greater wisdom, such as the Lory, who tells Alice that “I’m older than you and must know better” (Carroll 20). His attitude is mirrored by the Duchess, who rudely tells Alice that “You don’t know much…and that’s a fact” (Carroll 46). Both characters are unable to substantiate their own viewpoints against the seven-year-old Alice, and therefore resort to reminding her of their own superiority.  Likewise, Humpty Dumpty chooses to belittle Alice by pointedly observing that “Some people…have no more sense than a baby!” (Carroll 157). In this way, Alice’s agency as an observant and curious being is dismissed as insignificant, due to her inferiority in age and stature; it is taken for granted that babies and children are nonsensical, illogical and uniformed beings, and therefore adulthood is a superior state of being. However, Carroll ironically allows the reader to see that these infantile attempts at self-delusion are used as a cover for their own inability to logically win a debate against Alice.  Carroll’s idea is most effectively reinforced through the characterisation of the White Queen, whom Carroll himself described in Alice on the Stage as “helpless as an infant; and with a slow, maundering, bewildered air about her…suggesting imbecility” (Carroll 296). It is ironic that this woman, who is a symbol of authority, and the mother of an infant, is so infantile herself that Alice, who is her pawn and therefore her inferior, is forced to ‘mother’ her every time they meet. She sings the White Queen a “soothing lullaby” (Carroll 195) when she is sleepy, reunites her with her child, and helps her refasten her shawl and tidy her hair, in a role reversal which symbolises that adults can be just as childlike as children. She encapsulates the entirety of this notion when she informs Alice that “I can read words of one letter! Isn’t that grand!” (Carroll 193). Therefore, the White Queen personifies this notion that adults are but older children – an adult who takes pride in the fact they can read words of one letter, is unable to outwit a young girl, or who cannot refasten her own shawl, is deluding themself in thinking they are superior to a child; therefore, their superior position within the hierarchy of Wonderland is unmerited.

Therefore, despite masquerading as frivolous, chaotic children’s novels, the Alice books deal with complicated themes. They represent the world of adulthood as being governed by arbitrary rules and illogical authorities, and adulthood as an inevitable state of being, in which one is required to form one’s physical and mental identity. Carroll’s perception that “we [adults] are but older children”, underlies the core of the texts, in which adult characters are represented as being as flawed and childlike as Alice herself.



Carroll, Lewis. “Alice” on the stage. London: Carson and Comerford, 1887. Print.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland. Ed. Donald J. Gray. New York: Norton, 2013.

D’Ambrosio, Michael A.. “”Alice” for Adolescents.” The English Journal 59.8 (1970): 1074-1075+1085. Print.

Kincaid, James. “Alice’s Invasion of Wonderland.” PMLA 88.1 (1973): 92-99. Print. URL:    http://www.jstor.org/stable/461329

Knoepflmacher, U. C. . “The Balancing of Child and Adult: An Approach to Victorian Fantasies for Children.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 37.4 (1983): 497-539. Print. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3044681

Shelton Hubble, George. “The Sanity of Wonderland.” The Sewanee Review 35.4 (1927): 387-398. Print. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27534201

Sigler, Carolyn . “Brave New Alice: Anna Matlack Richard’s Maternal Wonderland.” Children’s Literature 24 (1996): 55-73. Print. URL: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/childrens_literature/v024/24.sigler.html.


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