Alice finds the March Hare, the Hatter, and the Dormouse sitting all together at one end of a large table. The Dormouse sits between the other two, fast asleep. They are disagreeable from the start, and Alice's conversation with them is confusing even by Wonderland standards. They contradict Alice at every turn, correcting her with confusing arguments that have their own strange logic. Much of the conversation is about time. The Hatter's watch, which only tells the day of the month, is broken. The Hatter also tells Alice that Time (which he talks about as if it were a person) stopped working for him about a month ago, when the Queen of Hearts accused the Hatter of murdering the time. Since then, it's always been six o'clock, which is why they sit at tea all the time. All the places at the table are set, because they don't have time to do the dishes. When they want a clean plate, they just move to another spot.
The Dormouse begins to tell a strange story about three sisters who live in a well; Alice's questions and contradictions anger the Dormouse, and the Hatter and March Hare grow increasingly rude to her. Finally, Alice leaves, disgusted, turning around as she goes to see the Hatter and the Hare trying to stuff the Dormouse into a pot of tea.
Alice wanders in the woods until she finds a tree with a door in it. She goes inside, and finds herself in the long hallway again. This time, she's prepared: she takes the key from the table and unlocks the door to the garden. She then eats just enough mushroom to step through the door, and she finds herself in the lovely garden.
The Mad Tea party is an important scene, as the logic/illogic of the March Hare, the Hatter, and the Dormouse reveals some of the peculiarities of language. They are some of the most argumentative of the creatures Alice meets in Wonderland, and their strange remarks show Carroll's talent for word games and logic puzzles. (The readers should take a moment to look at some of these important scenes up-close, as analyzing every pun and bit of mad reasoning would be too time-consuming for this summary. Of particular note are the scenes with the caterpillar, the Cheshire cat, and the Mad Tea Party.) The illogic of language and the relationship between sense, nonsense, and words is an important theme of the book. At one point, Alice protests that she says what she means, or at least, she means what she says. She insists that the two are the same thing. But the creatures correct, using examples of similar flipped sentences where the meanings are totally different. (Example: "I like what I get" and "I get what I like.")
Alice is participating in that most adult of activities, a tea party, and she comes up against some of the most difficult creatures she has ever met. But she generally maintains her composure, holding her own against the three tea-takers and managing to anticipate some of their conclusions and rules. She also is smart enough to leave when she's had enough.
The themes of growing up and learning the rules come up in Alice's triumphant entry into the garden. Unlike the first time, when she cried and couldn't maintain control of herself, she remains calm and uses her head to get to the garden.
Chapter 8: The Queen's Croquet Ground
Alice enters the garden and finds three gardeners, shaped like playing cards, hurriedly painting the white roses of a rose tree. Alice asks why they are painting the roses red, and one of the gardeners (the Two) admits to her that the tree was supposed to be a red rose tree. If the Queen learned about the error, she would cut off their heads.
The procession of the queen arrives. There are a good many soldiers shaped like cards, like the gardeners; there are also the royal children, various guests, and the white rabbit. Last come the Knave of Hearts and the King and Queen. The procession stops opposite of Alice, and the Queen demands to know Alice's identity. Alice politely introduces herself, but she thinks boldly that she has nothing to fear: they are only a pack of cards. Her replies to the Queen are sassy, and she refuses to be intimidated by the Queen's bluster. The Queen demands to know the identities of the three gardeners, who have thrown themselves, facedown, onto the ground. She has the unfortunate gardeners turned over, so that their numbers and suits are revealed, and when she sees the roses she orders their beheading. The soldiers come forward, and the gardeners run to Alice for protection. Alice secretly hides them in a large flowerpot.
The soldiers report that the gardeners are gone, and the Queen seems to forget about them. She invites Alice to play croquet. Alice follows the Queen and talks to the White Rabbit: from him, she learns that the Duchess is under a sentence of execution. Alice soon learns that croquet in Wonderland is quite difficult. The balls are live hedgehogs, the mallets are live flamingoes, and the hoops are the card-people, bent over so that their bodies make arches. No one is waiting their turn, and the Queen is soon in a fury. Alice begins to worry that the Queen's fury will be turned against her.
The head of the Cheshire cat appears, to Alice's relief. Finally, she has someone civil to talk to. She complains to him about the quarrelsome players and the difficult game. When the cat asks how she likes the Queen, Alice admits she doesn't like her much at all. When Alice notices that the Queen is eavesdropping, she smoothly makes a save and the Queen walks away, satisfied. The king asks whom Alice is talking to, and from the start the King and Cheshire cat don't get along. The king demands its execution and goes to fetch the executioner himself. Alice tries to play croquet some more, but finds it hopeless; she returns to find the executioner, the King, and the Queen arguing, with the Cheshire cat calmly watching. The executioner argues that since the cat is only a head, he cannot be beheaded. The king argues that anything that has a head can be beheaded. The Queen threatens to behead everyone if they don't find a solution. They ask Alice to mediate, and Alice recommends that they fetch the Duchess; it's her cat, after all. By the time the Duchess is brought forth, the cat has vanished.
Alice initially faces the Court of Cards with great confidence; she boldly says to herself that they are only a pack of cards, and she has nothing to fear. She is much stronger than when she first arrived in Wonderland. Her confidence comes through when she saves the lives of the three gardeners.
But Alice soon realizes that although the people of the Court are only a pack of cards, their nature does not make them any less dangerous. The Court of Cards, like people of power in real life, rely on rank and costume for their status. Carroll turns rank and costume into a game, mocking it; however, he does not deny that ridiculous people can be frightening or dangerous. Alice begins by thinking she has nothing to fear, but as she spends more time with the Queen of Hearts she becomes increasingly anxious.
The theme of games, and learning their rules, is central in this chapter. Alice is learning to get along in a social set of powerful people; Carroll makes this adaptation into a kind of game by turning the court into a deck of cards. Alice also has to adapt to a very difficult game of croquet. Part of her problem is realizing that no one else is paying any attention to the rules; sometimes, learning to play means more than learning the rules.
The argument about beheading the Cheshire cat is more fun with nonsense, as the king argues that anything that has a head can be beheaded and the executioner argues that being beheaded actually requires having a body. Alice is composed enough to mediate.
The Cheshire cat is one of the few animals in Wonderland who treats Alice with courtesy. He is a figure similar to the Caterpillar, in that he seems tranquil and unbothered by the confusion of Wonderland. He is unimpressed by the King's threats, and he easily escapes when his safety is threatened.
Chapter 9: The Mock Turtle's Story
The Duchess is strangely civil to Alice; she walks with her and engages her in conversation. Alice finds it quite unpleasant, as the Duchess keeps digging her sharp chin into Alice's shoulder. The Duchess also talks almost exclusively in cliché morals; she manages find a moral in everything Alice says or notices. They reach the Queen, who tells the Duchess to run off or lose her head. The Duchess runs. Alice returns nervously to the croquet game. The Queen keeps shouting "Off with her/his head," and within half an hour, all of the other players have been taken into custody and put under sentence of execution. Since the Card-Soldiers were acting as the arches for croquet, there are no arches left. The Queen announces that they shall go find the Mock Turtle (the kind of turtle one uses to make Mock Turtle Soup) so that he can tell Alice his story. As they leave, Alice hears the King quietly pardon all of the prisoners.
Alice and the Queen come upon the Gryphon, whom the Queen wakes. She orders the animal to take Alice to the Mock Turtle. The Queen goes back to see after her executions, and the Gryphon assures Alice that they never really execute anybody. She comes to the Mock Turtle, whose eyes are full of tears. He begins to tell his story. Once, he was a real turtle. He and the Gryphon digress and talk about the strange school that they went to at the bottom of the sea. The description is full of puns. Alice's questions irritate the Gryphon and the Turtle, who are at times quite disagreeable.
The Duchess seems different, but her change in behavior actually reflects how Alice has changed. She is no longer the intimidating figure who acted imperiously to Alice; she is instead a rather silly woman, full of cliché wisdom that degenerates into nonsense. Alice is now able to see her clearly. The Duchess' tendency to find a moral in everything satirizes the simplistic moralizing children's literature of Carroll's time; but now, Alice has grown enough to view the Duchess critically.
Mock Turtle is another game with language. Mock turtle soup is actually made of veal, which is why the original illustrations for the book show a turtle with a calf's head. The description of the school is full of puns, with several moment of real cleverness. The Mock Turtle says that the turtle who taught the others was called a Tortoise; Alice asks why he was called a Tortoise if he was a Turtle. The answer is that he was called a Tortoise because he taught the others. This joke is actually an illustration of the disconnection between sign and signified; language, in other words, is arbitrary. Tortoise is an arbitrary sound, and it need not mean the animal. To the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle, teaching is part of the definition of "Tortoise." The French thinker Derrida writes about this quality of language, and his work has had a great influence on linguistics and literary theory.