Alice in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll
Contributed by Sharon Fleming

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Chapter 9
Summary

After the Cheshire Cat vanishes, the Duchess becomes unusually close to Alice. They walk side by side with their hands close together. Alice thinks the lack of pepper causes the Duchess’s sudden friendliness. As she talks, the Duchess gives Alice moral instruction to help her survive in Wonderland. The Duchess gets so close to Alice that she attempts to wrap her hands around Alice’s waist, but Alice rejects her advances by saying her flamingo croquet mallet might bite. Then the Queen of Hearts appears, orders the Duchess away, and tells Alice to resume the croquet game.

After the Queen orders the beheading of all other players, they flee, leaving her, the King, and Alice on the croquet field. At this point, the Queen ends the game and tells Alice to listen to the Mock Turtle’s story. She sends the Gryphon with Alice to find the Mock Turtle. On their journey, the Gryphon informs Alice that the Queen’s execution orders never come to fruition. Instead, the Gryphon says, she uses the threat of decapitation to force the animals into submission. When they meet the Mock Turtle, Alice becomes concerned because he appears very sad. However, the Gryphon does not have sympathy for the Mock Turtle because he seems to enjoy being sad.

The Mock Turtle starts his story — punctuated with incessant sobbing — by saying he used to be a real turtle. He attended sea school every day alongside other turtles, where he was under the tutelage of a master turtle named Tortoise. Alice interrupts the Mock Turtle and asks him why his teacher was called “Tortoise” if he was not a tortoise. The Mock Turtle criticizes Alice for not picking up on the fact that “tortoise” came from “taught us.” Then the Mock Turtle prides himself on being one of the most educated creatures in Wonderland and lists absurd topics he has studied. Some of his lessons included Uglification, Reeling, and Writing. When Alice asks about the length of these classes, the Mock Turtle states that they became short with each passing day. This confuses Alice, and the Mock Turtle clarifies his studies were “lessons” that “lessened” over time. Alice asks more questions, but the Gryphon changes the subject.

Analysis

While Alice tries to understand what she experiences in Wonderland, the Duchess, on the other hand, injects a lesson on morality into everything. “If only you can find it,” the Duchess tells Alice, “everything’s got a moral.” Although the Duchess obsesses over morality, Alice does not share her preoccupation. She does not see how her interest in understanding rules and order overlaps with the Duchess’s fascination with morality. In effect, Alice demonstrates a lack of self-awareness that would allow her to exploit and wield immense power in Wonderland.

The Duchess’s moral focus reflects the self-righteous moralization that existed among some inhabitants of Victorian England. In fact, some scholars argue that Carroll wrote the Duchess’s character as a mockery of these individuals. Alice does not have energy to sustain her own thoughts while the Duchess pontificates. Another notable aspect of the Duchess’s demeanor is her physical interaction with Alice. The Duchess’s attempts to wrap her arms around Alice’s waist are a borderline sexual advance, but Alice rejects it. This suggests the Duchess might have ulterior motives. It certainly undermines the Duchess’s talk of morality.  

Alice’s meeting with the Mock Turtle appears to be one of her most enjoyable experiences in Wonderland. The Mock Turtle and the Gryphon are some of the oldest animals there, and Alice enjoys their company. She seems to have a better understanding of these two animals than she does with any of the others she encounters.  From their discussions, Alice finds comfort and courage. Unlike the other animals, the Gryphon and Mock Turtle are direct in their speech and willingly examine the ills of Wonderland. However, Alice still worries about putting up with nonsense from the Gryphon and Mock Turtle, in part because she has had to deal with that from other animals. Despite her best efforts, Alice still does not quite understand the Gryphon and Mock Turtle.

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