Alice in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll
Contributed by Sharon Fleming
Chapter 5

Alice finds an indifferent Caterpillar sitting atop a large mushroom and smoking a hookah pipe. After a moment of awkward staring, the Caterpillar breaks the silence by asking Alice who she is. Alice reacts with confusion, not knowing how to answer this question. She turns away from the Caterpillar, annoyed with its rudeness.

Before she climbs down from the mushroom, though, the Caterpillar asks Alice to return and recite a poem. When she does, the Caterpillar notes that Alice misquotes it. Then the Caterpillar asks Alice what size she would like to be, and she thinks, with disdain, “three inches.” Her thoughts offend the Caterpillar, who is three inches tall, and it crawls away. Before it leaves the mushroom, however, the Caterpillar advises Alice that she can grow larger or smaller by eating different sides of the mushroom. 

Alice eats one end of the mushroom and shrinks. After eating the opposite side of the mushroom, she grows so tall that she towers over the jungle. Above the trees, Alice meets a Pigeon that confuses her for a snake preying on its eggs. Although she argues for her correct identity, the Pigeon refuses to listen to her appeals. Before the argument escalates, Alice consumes the other side of the mushroom and shrinks. Having attained a desirable size, Alice walks around the forest in search of the garden. She finds a four-foot-tall house and eats the side of the mushroom that reduces her height to nine inches.


Alice’s identity crisis worsens when the Caterpillar asks her to identify herself. The Caterpillar’s line of questioning does nothing to help Alice understand her size. Although Alice might have sought companionship and comfort in the Caterpillar, it does not become her friend. In fact, the Caterpillar’s scrutiny exacerbates Alice’s self-doubt. So she submits to the Caterpillar by reciting its requested poem, although she does so poorly. This turn of events emphasizes the disorder of Wonderland. Everything Alice thinks she knows and believes to be true does not apply. Alice becomes even more perplexed when the Caterpillar appears to read her mind to know her desired size. However, the Caterpillar gives her some advice that enables her to gain more control over her situation. Since the Caterpillar ultimately helps Alice, it does not fill the same antagonistic role of other characters.

The Caterpillar’s request of Alice to recite “Father William” alludes to Victorian life. Since the poem was quite popular at the time, most children were required to memorize it. Therefore, it is surprising that Alice could not repeat it accurately. The fact that Alice cannot recite it correctly calls into question her intelligence. Moreover, the poem acts as a kind of test to gauge the level of change Alice has experienced in Wonderland. Indeed, the fact that she no longer remembers a fixture of her life away from Wonderland indicates she has undergone significant changes. The knowledge and brain power she once had no longer exists.

Finally, the Pigeon’s attack compounds Alice’s identity crisis. She cannot fathom being associated with a serpent, but neither can she defend herself from the accusation. The Pigeon calls her identity into question, causing Alice to feel out of place and uncomfortable. Her instincts guide her to escape the situation, which she does by shrinking herself. It remains to be seen whether Alice will maintain a specific size or identity in Wonderland.

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