Chapter 7 – A Mad Tea-Party: Alice becomes a guest at a “mad” tea party along with theMarch Hare, the Hatter, and a very tired Dormouse who falls asleep frequently, only to be violently woken up moments later by theMarch Hare and the Hatter. The characters give Alice many riddles and stories, including the famous ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’. The Hatter reveals that they have tea all day because Time has punished him by eternally standing still at 6 pm (tea time). Alice becomes insulted and tired of being bombarded with riddles and she leaves claiming that it was the stupidest tea party that she had ever been to.
Chapter 7: A Mad Tea Party
Alice approaches a large table set under the tree outside the March Hare’s house and comes across the Mad Hatter and the March Hare taking tea. They rest their elbows on a sleeping Dormouse who sits between them. They tell Alice that there is no room for her at the table, but Alice sits anyway. The March Hare offers Alice wine, but there is none. Alice tells the March Hare that his conduct is uncivil, to which he rejoins that it was uncivil of her to sit down without being invited. The Mad Hatter enters the conversation, opining that Alice’s hair “wants cutting.” Alice admonishes his rudeness, but he ignores her scolding and responds with a riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” Alice attempts to answer the riddle, which begins a big argument about semantics. After their argument, the tea party sits in silence until the Mad Hatter asks the March Hare the time. When he discovers that the March Hare’s watch, which measures the day of the month, is broken, the Mad Hatter becomes angry. He blames the March Hare for getting crumbs on the watch when the March Hare was spreading butter on it. The March Hare sullenly dips the watch in his tea, dejectedly remarking that “It was the best butter.”
Alice gives up on the riddle and becomes angry with the Mad Hatter when she discovers that he doesn’t know the answer either. She tells him he should not waste time asking riddles that have no answers. The Mad Hatter calmly explains that Time is a “him,” not an “it.” He goes on to recount how Time has been upset ever since the Queen of Hearts said the Mad Hatter was “murdering time” while he performed a song badly. Since then, Time has stayed fixed at six o’clock, which means that they exist in perpetual tea-time. Bored with this line of conversation, the March Hare states that he would like to hear a story, so they wake up the Dormouse. The Dormouse tells a story about three sisters who live in a treacle-well, eating and drawing treacle. Confused by the story, Alice interjects with so many questions that the Dormouse becomes insulted. Alice continues to ask questions until the Mad Hatter insults her and she storms off in disgust. As she walks, she looks back at the Mad Hatter and the March Hare as they attempt to stuff the Dormouse into a teapot.
In the wood, Alice encounters a tree with a door in it. She enters the door and finds herself back in the great hall. Alice goes back to the table with the key and uses the mushroom to grow to a size that she can reach the key, then to shrink back to the size that she can fit through the door. She goes through the door and at last arrives at the passageway to the garden.
When Alice discovers that Time is a person and not merely an abstract concept, she realizes that not only are social conventions inverted, but the very ordering principles of the universe are turned upside down. Not even time is reliable, as Alice learns that Time is not an abstract “it” but a specific “him.” An unruly, subjective personality replaces the indifferent mechanical precision associated with the concept of time. Time can punish those who have offended it, and Time has in fact punished the Mad Hatter by stopping still at six o’clock, trapping the Mad Hatter and March Hare in a perpetual teatime. The Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse must carry out an endless string of pointless conversations, which may reflect a child’s perception of what an actual English teatime was really like. Alice must adjust her own perceptions of time, since the Mad Hatter’s watch indicates that days are rushing by. However, the party has not moved past the month of March, the month during which the March Hare goes mad.
Though the tea party challenges Alice’s understanding of the fundamental concept of time, the Mad Hatter’s answerless riddle reaffirms Wonderland’s unusual sense of order. The riddle seems to have no answer and exists solely to perpetuate confusion and disorder. Some readers have suggested that the riddle does in fact have an answer: Edgar Allen Poe “wrote on” both the subject of a Raven and “wrote on” a physical writing desk. In Wonderland, chaos is the ruling principle, but a strange sense of order still exists. Though riddles need not have answers, language must retain some kind of logic. The Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse point out to Alice that saying what she means and meaning what she says are not the same thing. Alice has said that she cannot take “more” tea because she has not had any yet. However, as the Mad Hatter points out, Alice can indeed take “more” tea even though she has not had any, since “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.” The language games at the tea party underscore the inconsistency of Wonderland, but also imply that the ordering principles that govern Alice’s world are just as arbitrary.
Mad as a hatter
Although the name “Mad Hatter” was clearly inspired by the phrase “as mad as a hatter”, there is some uncertainty as to the origins of this phrase. Mercury was used in the process of curing felt used in some hats, making it impossible for hatters to avoid inhaling the mercury fumes given off during the hat making process; hatters and mill workers thus often suffered mad hatter disease, mercury poisoning causing neurological damage including confused speech and distorted vision.
Hat making was the main trade in Stockport, near where Carroll grew up, and it was not unusual then for hatters to appear disturbed or confused; many died early as a result of mercury poisoning. However, the Hatter does not exhibit the symptoms of mercury poisoning, which include “excessive timidity, diffidence, increasing shyness, loss of self-confidence, anxiety, and a desire to remain unobserved and unobtrusive.” The Hatter and the March Hare are initially referred to as “both mad” by the Cheshire Cat, and both first appear in the seventh chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is titled “A Mad Tea-Party”.
It is claimed by some[who?] that the Hatter’s character may have been inspired by Theophilus Carter, an eccentric furniture dealer. Carter was supposedly at one time a servitor at Christ Church, one of the University of Oxford’s colleges. This is not substantiated by university records. He invented an alarm clock bed, exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851, that tipped sleepers out to wake them up. He later owned a furniture shop, and became known as “the Mad Hatter” from his habit of standing in the door of his shop wearing a top hat. Sir John Tenniel is reported to have come to Oxford especially to sketch him for his illustrations. There is no evidence for this claim, however, in either Carroll’s letters or diaries.
The March Hare’s tea party with Alice, the March Hare, the Dormouse, and the Hatter.
The card or label on the Hatter’s hat reads “In this style 10/6”, which refers to 10 shillings and six pence (or a half guinea), the price of the hat in pre-decimalized British money. The figure acts as a visual indication of the hatter’s trade.
The Hatter’s riddle
In the chapter “A Mad Tea Party”, the Hatter asks a notable riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” When Alice gives up, the Hatter admits he does not have an answer himself. Lewis Carroll originally intended the riddle to be just a riddle without an answer, but after many requests from readers, he and others, including puzzle expert Sam Loyd, thought up possible answers to the riddle. In the preface to the 1896 edition, Carroll wrote:
Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s Riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer: “Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!”. This, however, is merely an afterthought; the riddle as originally invented, had no answer at all”.
Note that “nevar” is “raven” “with the wrong end in front” (backwards). Loyd proposed a number of alternative solutions to the riddle, including “Because [Edgar Allan] Poe wrote on both” and “because the notes for which they are noted are not noted for being musical notes”.
Alice in Wonderland Chapter 7: A Mad Tea-Party
Outside the house, the March Hare and the Mad Hatter are having tea while the Dormouse sleeps between them. Alice approaches, but the others yell that there is no room, even though they are sitting at a very large table. Indignantly claiming there is plenty of room, Alice seats herself at the table. Alice finds the Mad Hatter and the March Hare to be very rude, but they remind her that it was rude to join them without being invited.
The Hatter asks Alice a riddle, “‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?'” Chapter 7, pg. 44 Alice says she thinks she can guess, which leads to some confusion on the Hatter’s part. The Hatter insists Alice should say what she means. Alice answers that she means what she says, and that’s the same thing. The Hatter disagrees because, for example, seeing what one eats is not the same thing as eating what one sees.
Topic Tracking: Meaning 4
The Hatter asks what day of the month it is, and when he finds out that his watch is two days slow he angrily reminds the March Hare that he didn’t think the Hare’s idea of using butter to fix it was a good one. Alice gets a good look at the watch and sees that it is a strange one. It tells the day of the month, but not the time. The Hatter tells her that his watch is perfectly normal, because neither his watch nor the watches Alice is used to tell what year it is. Alice is pretty sure this comment has no meaning whatsoever, even though she understands the individual words.
Topic Tracking: Meaning 5
When asked if she has guessed the riddle yet, Alice has to confess that she has no idea. The Hatter and the Hare both say they also have no idea, much to Alice’s frustration. She says the other two are wasting time. The Hatter explains that it’s best to keep on good terms with time; it turns out that he had a quarrel with Time when he took part in a concert for the Queen of Hearts. He had to sing “‘Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!/How I wonder what you’re at.'” Chapter 7, pg. 47 The Queen hated his performance and had howled that he was murdering the time. Since then, it’s always six o’clock for the Hatter–that is, it’s always tea time.
The March Hare, who is getting sick of the conversation, suggests that Alice tell a story. Alice doesn’t know any, so the Hatter and the Hare wake the Dormouse. So the Dormouse tells a story about three little sisters named Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie who lived at the bottom of a well and ate treacle.
Topic Tracking: Identity 6
The Hare speaks up to ask Alice if she’d like more tea. Irritated, Alice replies “‘I’ve had nothing yet…so I can’t take more.’ To this the Hatter says, ‘you mean you can’t take less…it’s very easy to take more than nothing.'” Chapter 7, pg. 48 Alice now wonders why these girls lived at the bottom of a well. After some thought, the Dormouse pronounces that it was a treacle well. Alice objects that there is no such thing, and the Dormouse threatens to end his story if she doesn’t stop interrupting. The Hatter interrupts when he decides he needs a clean cup; everybody must move down one place. Alice continues to argue over the details of the story the Dormouse is telling, but the Dormouse manages to confuse her into silence with a series of puns and strange expressions.
Finally, Alice becomes disgusted by the rudeness of her three companions and, swearing to herself that she will never return, she stalks away. She soon comes upon a tree with a door in it and decides without much thought to enter.
Inside, she finds the long hall with the glass table. Better prepared this time, Alice takes the golden key and unlocks the door to the garden. Then she nibbles at the mushroom until she is a foot tall and walks into the beautiful garden.
Linguistic assaults are very much a part of the “polite bantering” in Wonderland. Often, traumatic and verbal violence seems just about to erupt all the time, breaking through the thin veneer of civilized behavior, but it rarely does. Alice reaches the March Hare’s house in time for an outdoor tea-party. The tea-party turns out to be a very mad tea-party. In attendance are Alice, the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, and a Dormouse. All are indeed mad, except (perhaps) Alice and the sleepy Dormouse (who is only mad when he is awake). Alice has arrived just in time for tea, which is served at six o’clock. But it is always six o’clock, with no time to wash the dishes; thus, it is always tea time. In fact, the significant feature about this tea-party is that time has been frozen still. The idea of real, moving, passing time is non-existent
The absense of time means that the Mad Tea-Party is trapped in a space without time. The world isn’t turning, hands aren’t moving around the clock, and the only “rotating” exists around the tea-party table. When the four have finished tea (although Alice gets none), they move to the next place-setting around the table. Dirty dishes accumulate, and there doesn’t seem to be any substantive food. No one even seems to be taking tea. The Mad Hatter tells Alice that the Queen has accused him of murdering his friend Time; ever since the Mad Hatter and Time had a falling out, it has always been six o’clock. It’s always tea time, and they have no time to wash the dishes between time for tea.
Alice typically does her best to cling to her own code of behavior (as always); she is still determined to “educate” the creatures to the rules of Victorian social etiquette. They protest her joining the party with cries of “No room! No room!” But Alice ignores them (she is larger now), and she sits down. The insanity of it all begins immediately when the March Hare offers her wine that doesn’t exist. Alice complains, of course, about this lack of civility in offering her some nonexistent wine. The March Hare counters that she was very rude to invite herself to their party. Her rules of etiquette completely fail her here. These creatures once again turn upside down all her principles of decorum.
“Your hair wants cutting,” the Mad Hatter interrupts her at one point.
“You should learn not to make personal remarks,” Alice says. “It’s very rude.”
Later, she violates her advice and impolitely interrupts the Mad Hatter. “Nobody asked your opinion,” she says. “Who’s making personal remarks now?” retorts the Mad Hatter.
Alice has been deflated and demoralized. The last above-ground rules of how to act and what to say seem to dissolve before her eyes. She cannot understand why they are acting this way!
Thus, the tea-party continues with endless cups of tea and a conversation of absolutely meaningless nonsense. Suddenly, the Mad Hatter asks Alice: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
At first glance, the riddle makes no sense as a logical question. And even the answer that Carroll provides elsewhere (the raven produces a few notes, all very flat, and it is never put the wrong end front) is nonsense. Presumably there should always be answers to any questions; at least, there were answers above-ground.
The Mad Tea-Party conversation repeats this miscommunication pattern like all the other absurd conversations that Alice has had with Wonderland creatures in previous chapters. She delightfully explains: “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles — I believe I can guess that.”
“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” asks the March Hare.
“Exactly so,” says Alice.
“Then you should say what you mean,” says the Hare.
Alice’s confidence is shaken: “I do,” she says, “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing you know.”
But here, of course, Alice is speaking in the context of time’s absence. There is no time. This is, even in Wonderland, “another world.”
“Why,” says the Hare, “you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!”‘ This is reverse logic — exactly right for Wonderland, but, of course, not correct above-ground.
Alice cannot make the creatures understand this, however, and finally she sighs. “I think you might do something better with time . . . than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.” To this, the Hatter replies: “If you knew Time as well as I do . . . you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.”
Time is thus suddenly personified and becomes the source of much punning and comic relief. Alice participates in this nonsense in all seriousness, saying that she has to “beat time” when she learns music, even though she has “perhaps” never spoken to “him.”
“Ah! That accounts for it,” says the Mad Hatter. “He won’t stand beating!”
Then the Mad Hatter launches into a satirical parody of another, famous children’s verse: “Twinkle, twinkle little bat!” The bat is not the shining star of the Victorian poem, but a repulsive and morbid symbol of the ugly course of events about to begin. The Mad Hatter explains that his fight with Time and accusation of murder happened the last time that he was reciting that verse. So the disaster with Time is closely related to the Mad Hatter’s distortion of the nursery rhyme. Filling his version with bats and flying tea-trays, the Mad Hatter’s rhyme increases the comic personification of Time. The Mad Hatter has animated the inanimate star as a bat and has made an inanimate object live.
The Mad Tea-Party is filled with atrocious puns in conversation. The pun is determined by the coincidence of two words that sound so alike that relevant information is muddled. And here the play on words is a way of freeing meaning from conventional definition. The Dormouse, for instance, tells a story about three sisters who lived in a treacle well and were learning to “draw” treacle (molasses). Alice asks: “But I don’t understand. Where did they draw treacle from?”
“You can draw water out of a water-well,” says the Mad Hatter, “so I should think you could draw treacle out of a treacle-well.”
“But they were in the well,” says Alice (very logically).
“Of course they were,” says the Dormouse. “Well in.”
The Dormouse’s illogic continues to frustrate Alice. Playing on words that begin with the letter M, the Dormouse describes the sisters as drawing “all manner of things — everything that begins with an M such as mousetraps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness — you know you say things are ‘much of a muchness’ — did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness!”
Alice stammers, and the Hatter cries, “Then you shouldn’t talk.”
With that rude remark, Alice storms away in disgust. She has still not succeeded in getting any closer to the reality she seeks. At the tea-party, she has not even received any tea or food. Her serving has been only a bitter course of verbal abuse and semantic teasing. Muchness indeed! The creatures are self-centered, argumentative and rude; they have violated all of the conventions of conversation that Alice has been taught to practice. All of these creatures in Wonderland have compounded the pain of Alice’s psychological loss of place and time with their nonsense and cruel teasing.
As she leaves the table, Alice notices the other two attempting to drown the Dormouse in the teapot. His ritualistic death is, at least, a seemingly logical consequence of the Mad Hatter’s ominous verse and Alice’s departure. The Dormouse should have been hibernating instead of attending parties and telling anecdotes; dunking him seems to be sort of a realistic — if an absurd — way of forcing him back to “slumber.” This will be, however, if they are successful, more than just a “slumber”; it will be death, “much of a muchness.”
The Dormouse’s fate serves as an appropriate conclusion to this chapter, for Alice enters another door and finds herself once again in the hallway with the glass table and the small doorway that leads to the beautiful garden. To try and reinforce the notion that Wonderland must have a hidden order, Alice first unlocks the door, and she then reduces her size by nibbling on a piece of the mushroom.
She has finally learned a lesson from her initial, frightening experience in Wonderland: She has been eating, drinking, and changing sizes, without thinking first.