Decorative Initial N

ear the end ofAlice in Wonderland, the reader encounters the most solemn of places — the courtroom — thrown into discord by the most horrific kind of nonsense. Here, the strangeness of Wonderland reaches its fitful and disturbing climax, and Carroll's usual toys — puns, illogic, and word games — change into monsters. A judge cannot understand the difference between the words "unimportant" and "important," witnesses give impertinent testimony, and jurors forget their own names. In this scene Carroll's satire hits us hard because it attacks an establishment revered for its supposed prudence. But it also hits us hard because of its accuracy.

In Carroll's time, as in ours, a senseless court case would hardly have smacked of fantasy. In an 1865 edition of Punch, for instance, an article entitled "Condemned To Go To Church" explains just the kind of thing Carroll was railing against in this penultimate scene of Wonderland. In this case, Captain Chamberlain of the ship Resistance ordered a midshipman to three months of Divine Service for falling asleep one morning during church. Later, Chamberlain filed a remonstrance against a Reverend Guthree for refusing to report the condemned man's attendance at worship. The Admiralty on the case ordered the Reverend to be "'severely reprimanded for declining to undertake the direction and supervision of the punitive attendance of a midshipman for three months at Divine Service'" (Punch 48 (1865): 3). As the writers of Punch point out, the humor, the absurdity, of this story lies in the words of the Admiralty. By describing the attendance of church services as "punitive," these judges effectively declared a cornerstone of Victorian society a painful bore, suitable only for criminals. Consequently, anyone who goes to church punishes himself. And in the final step of this brutalized logic, condemning a man for falling asleep in church is to condemn a man for being unwilling to punish himself to the fullest extent.

On Captain Chamberlain's ship, then, virtue and wrong-doing will lead you to the same end: either way you suffer. The Punch writers satirize the Admiralty's faulty reasoning in a style that would have made Carroll proud: "After this declaration of opinion, we may expect to see attendance at Divine Service occasionally substitute for ascent to the mast-head, and ultimately, perhaps, prayers ordered instead of a round dozen in the Navy. An Act, too, will perhaps be passed, pursuant whereto the civil magistrate will sometimes give three months' church, like Captain Chamberlain" (3). With a topsy-turvy world like this existing outside of literature, the courtroom scene in Alice in Wonderland appears less fanciful. Carroll, it seems, could have achieved nearly the same level of humor just by transcribing the reality of some select court cases. For example, another courtroom drama lampooned in the same issue of Punch tells of an abruptly ended marital engagement and corresponds directly with Carroll's satire. The man of this story left his intended at the altar to run off with another woman. The widow, who had been engaged to this man for two years, took him to court, and as the Punch writers explain, in this case a "British jury, for once in the way, actually found a verdict for the defendant" (Punch 49 (1865): 80). The insinuation here that British jurors tend to favor the plaintiff's case echoes a dialogue at the end of Alice:

"Consider your verdict, "the King said to the jury.

"Not yet, not yet!" the Rabbit hastily interrupted. "There's a great deal to come before that!"

"Call the first witness," said the King (p. 88).

In this passage Carroll mocks the same aberration of justice that the Punch writers implied above. When the King asks for the jury's verdict before any evidence is presented, he does so in part because he himself cannot comprehend the proper procedure of a court case but also because, with or without the evidence, the jury will reach the same decision — a verdict of guilty. If we think of Punch's insinuation as a true one (and it must contain some truth, or the joke would not work effectively on contemporary readers), then we can see that Carroll most likely drew upon this popular notion of British juries' biases to satirize his own country's court system. Indeed, by portraying the Wonderland jury as a mix of animals and birds too stupid to even remember a name or a date, Carroll essentially confirms the King's reasoning: the jury will decide the same way every time. Contemporary British readers would have picked up on the parallel in reality even if we do not.

Likewise, the previous example from Punch — the story of the man sentenced to church — illuminates in a more general sense the target of Carroll's satire. Just as in this day and age, the Victorians had their share of senseless court cases, with surprising verdicts cast for perplexing reasons. This particular case stands as a prime example. As Carroll might have said, in the courtroom people decide other people's fates and there, for a moment, man plays God; yet in this most important of social structures, we must entrust authority to ordinary human beings, with all their biases and flaws. Illogical decisions, or absurdities, naturally result. In Wonderland, a dull-witted king controlled by a vindictive wife presides over a mish-mash jury of brainless animals. Alice, the only sensible one of the bunch, has to destroy the whole courtroom to get a point across. One of the King's statements to the Knave evinces the impossibility of beating this nonsense: "'If you didn't sign [the letter] ... that only makes the matter worse. You must have meant some mischief, or else you'd have signed your name like an honest man'" (94) If the Knave falsely admits to writing the letter, however meaningless it is, he proves his guilt to the court; but then again, if he denies he wrote the letter, the court will think him dishonest and therefore guilty. The Knave cannot win. In a similar example from the contemporary real world, if a midshipman cannot stay awake during church, he must attend church as punishment. If he can stay awake during church, then he still must attend and suffer like everyone else. These examples from Punch seem crucial, for they prove that even the Victorians, at a time of philosophical and moral revision, could not keep human frailty out of the most important of social structures, the court. And this fact furnished Lewis Carroll with one of his most uproarious scenes.


"Condemned To Go To Church," Punch, 48 (7 January 1865): 3.

"Uncommon Verdict Of A British Jury," Punch, 49 (26 August 1865): 80.

Last modified 25 November 2004