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Chapter 3: A Caucus Race and a Long Tale





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Summary:

The animals and Alice make it to the shore, wet and grouchy. The mouse tries to dry them off by telling a dry story: he recites English history in flat, uninspired prose. At some point, he uses the word "it" without an antecedent, which causes confusion as the animals argue about what "it" is. The Dodo suggests another method of getting dry, as everyone seems to be as wet as over. The animals are initially reluctant to follow the Dodo's advice, as his speech is full of grand words that the other animals don't understand: the Eaglet convinces the Dodo of not understanding them either.

The Dodo suggests a Caucus Race. Alice and the animals line up and race around in circles, starting and stopping whenever they please. After a half-hour or so, they are all quite dry. The Dodo declares that they are all winners. Alice is charged with the responsibility of giving prizes to all of them: all she has is a container of little candies. She gives them one candy each. For her prize, the Dodo awards her the thimble that was in Alice's pocket. She thinks it's all totally absurd, but she dares not laugh for fear of offending them.

She asks the mouse to tell his tale, and he begins. But Alice is transfixed by the mouse's tale, and she looks at it as he speaks. Her impression of the tale is merged with her impression of his tale, and on the page the mouse's story, in verse, is written in the shape of a mouse's tail. The mouse accuses her of being inattentive, and wanders off in a huff. Alice is quite upset, and admits that she wishes that Dinah were with her. Dinah could fetch the mouse back so that he might finish his story. The birds ask who Dinah is, and Alice, eager as always to talk about her cat, talks about Dinah's many talents and virtues as a pet. She mentions that Dinah is quite good at catching birds, and at this bit of news the birds all begin to leave. Alice feels quite lonely, and begins to cry again. Soon, she hears the sound of little footsteps coming towards her.

Analysis:

Puns abound. The two meanings of "dry" are played on at the start of the chapter, as the mouse recites from Havilland Chapmell's Short Course of History. Carroll's taste for puns and the playful side of language is a constant source of amusement throughout the book. The mouse quotes a passage where the antecedent for the word "it" is missing (though the meaning is still quite clear), and the result is general confusion among the animals; this is one of many moments where the creatures of Wonderland create confusion by taking language at absolute face-value. They allow themselves to be confused by pronouns without antecedents; they also take figurative language literally, or confuse homonyms. Much of one's ability to understand language comes from the ability to ignore its inconsistencies and incoherencies: for example, the listener can understand the meaning of "it" without hearing its antecedent. The creatures of Wonderland are not merely silly: they always have their own logic, a certain sense and reasoning behind their absurd behavior. Their strange reactions to language point out the potential pitfalls of English, and their bizarre rules and sensitivities parallel the arbitrary nature of any culture's customs and habits. Alice's adventures are wonderful training for adapting to the absurd behavior of adults.

The Caucus Race parodies political process: the participants run around in confused circles, never accomplishing anything. If we can take Alice as a symbol for the average citizen, we see that the Race does very little to benefit her. At the end, Alice is forced to give everyone a prize. Although Alice also receives a prize, she is given something that she already had. More humor comes from the contrast between the animals' sober faces and Alice's secret conviction that the whole process is absurd.

Carroll puns with the homonyms "tale" and "tale," as the shape of the mouse's tail becomes the shape of the mouse's printed story. The pun is playful, and Alice's fascination with the animal's tale makes for a charming moment: the charm of her wandering attention, the shape of the printed words, and the rhyme scheme mask some of the darkness of the mouse's story. He is talking about being cornered by a dog and forced to go on trial. The dog (whose name is Fury) wanted to be prosecutor, judge, and jury; he also wanted to condemn the mouse to death. We never hear the end of the story, as the Mouse, realizing that Alice is paying less than total attention to the meaning of his words, runs off in a huff.

Alice makes more unknowing allusions to death, this time to the death of others. She wishes her cat Dinah was there, so that the cat might fetch the mouse back to finish his story. She seems unaware of the fact that this would mean the mouse's death. And she unthinkingly talks about Dinah's amazing talent for catching birds, not realizing that this kind of talk will offend all of her new avian friends.

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