The book begins with a poem about a golden afternoon spent rowing on a river; the speaker of the poem is pressed by three girls (Prima, Secunda, and Tertia) to tell them a fantastic story. Each time he tries to take a break and leave the rest for "next time," the girls insist that it is already "next time"; in this way, the speaker tells us, the story of Alice's adventures in Wonderland took shape.
Young Alice is sitting by the river bank with her older sister, feeling bored; her sister's book has no pictures or conversation, and thus holds no interest for Alice. Suddenly, a white rabbit scampers back, proclaims that it is very late, and pulls a pocket watch out of its waistcoat. Though she initially does not notice the strangeness of a talking rabbit, when she sees the rabbit's clothes and watch, she becomes very interested. She follows the rabbit, hopping right down a deep rabbit hole after him, giving no thought of how she plans to get out again.
She seems to fall quite slowly, having time to observe the things around her. There are shelves and maps and pictures hung on pegs; at one point, she picks up a jar of orange marmalade and puts it back into place on another shelf. She seems to fall for an interminable amount of time, and begins to worry that she might fall straight through to the other side of the earth. Although she has no one to talk to, she practices some of the facts she learned in school: she knows the distance from one end of the earth to the other, and she says some of the grand words she has heard in her lessons. She worries about missing her cat, Dinah, at dinner. Finally, she reaches the bottom of the hole. She is in a long hallway, and she is just in time to see the white rabbit hurrying away.
The hallway is lined with doors, but all of them are locked. On a three-legged table made of glass, Alice finds a key, but it is far too small for any of the locks. Then, Alice finds a tiny door hidden behind a curtain. The key works, but the door is far too small. Through the door there is a miniature passageway, leading to a lovely garden; the sight of the garden makes Alice more determined than ever to find a way to get through. Alice goes back to the table, where a little bottle has appeared. The label says "DRINK ME," and after checking to see if it marked "poison," Alice drinks it all. She shrinks to a size small enough for the door, but she soon realizes that she has left the key on top of the glass table. She is now to short to reach it; seeing her dilemma and fooling foolish for her mistake, she begins to cry. But she then finds a piece of cake, on which is a little slip of paper that says "EAT ME." Alice eats, and waits for the results.
The poem at the beginning of the book is a reasonably accurate account of how the book came to be. The three girls in the boat are the Lidell sisters, of whom Alice is the second oldest. Carroll often entertained the girls with fantastic stories he made up on the spot. On Alice Lidell's insistence, he took one of his longer tales and wrote it down.
The central theme of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is Alice's struggle to adapt to the rules of this new world; metaphorically, it is Alice's struggle to adapt to the strange rules and behaviors of adults. The rabbit, with his watch and his concern for schedules and appointments, is a representative of this adult world. Alice's story starts when she follows him down the hole.
She is characterized as a bright child who often says or does foolish things; in other words, Alice has much in common with any child who is trying to behave like someone older than she is. Her blunders come about because of unfamiliarity rather than stupidity. She is also an unusually conscientious child; note the moment when she is falling down the hall, and she puts the marmalade carefully back on the shelf for fear that the jar might kill someone if she were to drop it.
As Carroll sees it, the world of children is a dangerous one. Not knowing the rules, however foolish or arbitrary those rules may be, is a source of great peril. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is shadowed by hints of death, and death is a recurring theme of both of Carroll's books. Through the Looking Glass, the second book about Alice's adventures, is an even darker story; in Through the Looking Glass, reminders of death are inescapable. But even here, at the start of Alice's adventure, we are reminded of the frailty of humans and of children in particular. The first hint of mortality comes with Alice's concern about the marmalade jar; her worry shows that Wonderland is not an escape from all of the limitations of the real world. Death is still a possibility. A moment later, Carroll treats us to a very macabre joke. When Alice is falling, she takes pride in her composure: "Well!' thought Alice to herself, after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs! How brave they'll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn't say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!'" (13). The narrator adds, grimly, "Which was very likely true." The narrator agrees with Alice, but not for the reason she might think: after falling off a house, the reason why she would not say anything is because she would be dead. Alice makes another unknowing allusion to her own death when she peers into the tiny door. She realizes that she cannot even fit her head through the opening, and even if she could, her head "would be of very little use without my shoulders" (16). She is referring, unknowingly, to her own decapitation. The moment is both an allusion to death and a bit of foreshadowing. At the end of the book, the Queen of Hearts will try her best to separate Alice's head from her shoulders.
In Alice's treatment of the little drink, we are reminded of the specific perils that face children. Carroll writes: ". . . [F]or she had read several nice little histories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up be wild beasts and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them" (17-8). The challenge of mastering the "simple rules" is going to be Alice's main struggle in Wonderland, and this passage hints at some of worst consequences of not knowing the rules. Innocence is closely connected to ignorance: in this book, it is not an idealized or safe state. While we are charmed by Alice's blunders and know that she will make it home in the end, Carroll is constantly reminding us of the consequences of not knowing the rules. Childhood is partially a state of peril, and Carroll names a few of those perils directly: poison bottles that the child cannot read, falls, burns, wounds from blades that the child is too young to handle (18). Not least of these dangers is an adult world that baffles and confuses. Alice is trained enough to read the bottle before she drinks it. She knows the simple rule in this case, and knows well enough to avoid the label "poison." Her challenge will be to learn more complex rules, reading not only labels but also situations and people as she makes her way through Wonderland.
Chapter 2: The Pool of Tears
As the cake takes effect, Alice finds herself growing larger. This time, she keeps growing until she is the size of a giant. Now, getting through the door to the garden will be more difficult than ever, and Alice begins to cry again. The white rabbit comes scurrying down the hall; at the sight of him, Alice dries her tears and tries to talk to him, but one look at Alice and the rabbit runs away in terror. He leaves behind his fan and his white kid gloves. Alice begins to wonder how so many strange things could happen to her. Yesterday was a day like any other, and Alice begins to consider the possibility that she might have changed during the night. If she has changed, there's no telling who she might be. She wonders if she's been changed into Mabel, a girl who is less affluent and less bright than Alice: when she tries to recite her lessons and fails, she fears that she must be Mabel.
Suddenly, Alice realizes that she has put on the rabbit's gloves: if they fit, she must be shrinking again. She soon learns that the cause is the fan that she is holding, which she drops hastily before she shrinks away completely. She is now the right size for the door to the garden, but she has left the key, once again, on the glass table. She soon slips and falls into a vast body of salt water. It is the pool of tears that she cried when she was a giant. She sees a mouse swimming through the little sea, and tries to talk to him, but she unintentionally offends and frightens the creature by talking about her cat. The mouse can talk. Alice offends him again by bringing up a dog that kills rats, and the mouse seems to be swimming away, but when Alice calls out to him and apologizes, the mouse swims back and tells her to swim to shore with him. He promises to tell her his story, after which she will understand why he hates and fears cats. They swim towards the shore, and Alice finds herself swimming at the head of a curious party of animals who have fallen in the water: a Duck, a Dodo, a Lory, an Eaglet, and a few other animals.
Alice's shifts in size and inquiries into her own identity reflect the difficulties of growing up. Just as children on the verge of adulthood sometimes find themselves too small for adult privileges while being forced to talk on the no-fun world of adult responsibilities, Alice finds her body thrown back and forth between two extremes of size. The abrupt, almost violent physical changes might also suggest the sudden physical changes that come with the onset of adolescence.
Her inquiries into her own identity parallel a child's search for herself as she grows older. Alice worries that her identity has been displaced; her fears parallel any child's uncertainty about her place in the world. Note that Alice loathes the idea of being Mabel not only because Mabel is less bright, but because Mabel is less affluent. Alice is aware of differences in wealth, but she is still a young child; she sees class only in terms of how many material objects a little girl is allowed to have.
Chapter 3: A Caucus Race and a Long Tale
The animals and Alice make it to the shore, wet and grouchy. The mouse tries to dry them off by telling a dry story: he recites English history in flat, uninspired prose. At some point, he uses the word "it" without an antecedent, which causes confusion as the animals argue about what "it" is. The Dodo suggests another method of getting dry, as everyone seems to be as wet as over. The animals are initially reluctant to follow the Dodo's advice, as his speech is full of grand words that the other animals don't understand: the Eaglet convinces the Dodo of not understanding them either.
The Dodo suggests a Caucus Race. Alice and the animals line up and race around in circles, starting and stopping whenever they please. After a half-hour or so, they are all quite dry. The Dodo declares that they are all winners. Alice is charged with the responsibility of giving prizes to all of them: all she has is a container of little candies. She gives them one candy each. For her prize, the Dodo awards her the thimble that was in Alice's pocket. She thinks it's all totally absurd, but she dares not laugh for fear of offending them.
She asks the mouse to tell his tale, and he begins. But Alice is transfixed by the mouse's tale, and she looks at it as he speaks. Her impression of the tale is merged with her impression of his tale, and on the page the mouse's story, in verse, is written in the shape of a mouse's tail. The mouse accuses her of being inattentive, and wanders off in a huff. Alice is quite upset, and admits that she wishes that Dinah were with her. Dinah could fetch the mouse back so that he might finish his story. The birds ask who Dinah is, and Alice, eager as always to talk about her cat, talks about Dinah's many talents and virtues as a pet. She mentions that Dinah is quite good at catching birds, and at this bit of news the birds all begin to leave. Alice feels quite lonely, and begins to cry again. Soon, she hears the sound of little footsteps coming towards her.
Puns abound. The two meanings of "dry" are played on at the start of the chapter, as the mouse recites from Havilland Chapmell's Short Course of History. Carroll's taste for puns and the playful side of language is a constant source of amusement throughout the book. The mouse quotes a passage where the antecedent for the word "it" is missing (though the meaning is still quite clear), and the result is general confusion among the animals; this is one of many moments where the creatures of Wonderland create confusion by taking language at absolute face-value. They allow themselves to be confused by pronouns without antecedents; they also take figurative language literally, or confuse homonyms. Much of one's ability to understand language comes from the ability to ignore its inconsistencies and incoherencies: for example, the listener can understand the meaning of "it" without hearing its antecedent. The creatures of Wonderland are not merely silly: they always have their own logic, a certain sense and reasoning behind their absurd behavior. Their strange reactions to language point out the potential pitfalls of English, and their bizarre rules and sensitivities parallel the arbitrary nature of any culture's customs and habits. Alice's adventures are wonderful training for adapting to the absurd behavior of adults.
The Caucus Race parodies political process: the participants run around in confused circles, never accomplishing anything. If we can take Alice as a symbol for the average citizen, we see that the Race does very little to benefit her. At the end, Alice is forced to give everyone a prize. Although Alice also receives a prize, she is given something that she already had. More humor comes from the contrast between the animals' sober faces and Alice's secret conviction that the whole process is absurd.
Carroll puns with the homonyms "tale" and "tale," as the shape of the mouse's tail becomes the shape of the mouse's printed story. The pun is playful, and Alice's fascination with the animal's tale makes for a charming moment: the charm of her wandering attention, the shape of the printed words, and the rhyme scheme mask some of the darkness of the mouse's story. He is talking about being cornered by a dog and forced to go on trial. The dog (whose name is Fury) wanted to be prosecutor, judge, and jury; he also wanted to condemn the mouse to death. We never hear the end of the story, as the Mouse, realizing that Alice is paying less than total attention to the meaning of his words, runs off in a huff.
Alice makes more unknowing allusions to death, this time to the death of others. She wishes her cat Dinah was there, so that the cat might fetch the mouse back to finish his story. She seems unaware of the fact that this would mean the mouse's death. And she unthinkingly talks about Dinah's amazing talent for catching birds, not realizing that this kind of talk will offend all of her new avian friends.