Gillian Beer on Dialogue in the Alice Books

Following Dame Gillian Beer's talk at our Alice in Space Study Day on 25 Feb., here are two extracts from her book, Alice in Space, discussing dialogue in the Alice books.

The Dialogues of Alice

And like Alice, the other creatures of her books claim possession of language:

'Would it be of any use, now,' thought Alice, 'to speak to this mouse? Everything is so out-of-the-way down here, that I should think very likely it can talk: at any rate, there’s no harm in trying.' (21)

So first she tries the vocative 'O Mouse!,' learnt from 'her brother’s Latin Grammar'; then she tries 'the first sentence in her French lesson-book: “Où est ma chatte?”', learnt, it seems, by rote without much attention to its meaning. The mouse understands French instantly and is terrified. Alice is the liberal colonialist here, respecting the forms of speech but not the experiences of the indigenous – here motley – characters. She has not yet learned that just because animals speak, they have not ceased to be animals.

All adults have been children. They are in dialogue with their past, which is also lost to them. Much of Alice’s conversation is conducted within this nimbus of the irrecoverable. The different categories and thought-sequences of the young child are evoked, though not always through the person of Alice. Sometimes she plays the adult against the wayward arguments of those she encounters.

'They lived on treacle,' said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.
'They couldn’t have done that, you know,” Alice gently remarked. “They’d have been ill.”
'So they were,' said the Dormouse; 'very ill.' (65)

The two readers – child and adult – sometimes collaborate, sometimes laugh at odds with each other. But often they are one endoubled reader, responding with all the capacities they still share, or having shed, still half-recollect.  


The Alice books are never obscure, always transparent, and so, unexpectedly, refuse to yield to any familiar conceptual relations or share pragmatic goals. Throughout the two books Alice is always seeking rules: rules for shutting up like a telescope, for having jam for tea. Or, as the White Queen hopes, for being glad:

'I wish I could manage to be glad!' the Queen said. 'Only I never can remember the rule. You must be very happy, living in this wood, and being glad whenever you like!'

'Only it is so very lonely here!' Alice said in a melancholy voice; and, at the thought of her loneliness, two large tears came rolling down her cheeks. (173) 

Rules expand categories. Alice is lonely, as she repeatedly complains. She fears her nonce-status and seeks categories more inclusive than herself. That way, both flexibility and order lie – neither of them easy to come by in this hectoring zone. Rules for Alice promise companionship and order, but for most of those she encounters they mean triumph or domination. The relaxed rules of conversation are tightened into riddle, catechism, combative game.

Alice is lonely not only because she is one of a kind ­– a girl-child amidst odd adults and fabulous beasts ­– but because almost no-one she meets shares her sense of how a conversation can be conducted to bring people closer. Alice seeks mutuality through dialogue, whether the exchanges run in agreement or disagreement, or simply passing the time of day. Most of those she meets play by rules that exaggerate and satirize the various strategies of alienation in adult debate. The Red Queen, for instance, understands conversation as the answering of 'useful questions'. (223) And here Carroll is satirizing the tradition of pedagogic dialogues, then domineering over the Victorian educational system and combining inexorably with rote learning. 

Gillian Beer, from 'The Dialogues of Alice: Pretending to be Two People', ch. 4 of Alice in Space (2016), pp. 115-16, 120-1.