“We’re All Mad Here”: Hidden References in Alice in Wonderland

As far from reality as Wonderland is, Lewis Carroll is believed to have used references to contemporary people and concepts to create the iconic characters readers know and love. Read on to learn more about these obscure allusions!

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Tea cups, playing cards, keys, and pocket watch's fly across a blue gradient background.

One of the most famous children’s books, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is an unforgettable classic. The fantastical world and even crazier characters serve as the perfect dedication to the magic of children’s imagination. But, like most child-friendly entertainment, Carroll added some adult twists to the story. Namely in that, he alluded to people that he and Alice knew personally–not always positively– or incorporated his own interests. So, keep reading to meet the real-life people behind four of the world’s most famous characters!

Origins of Alice in Wonderland

Before falling down the rabbit hole of whimsy, it would be helpful to establish how the original story came to be.

Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, was a scholar and math teacher at Christ Church (a branch of the University of Oxford) in Oxford, England. While here, he met Henry Liddel, Dean of Christ Church, and his wife. As he grew closer to the family, he became friends with their three daughters: Edith, Lorina, and Alice, and was often invited on family excursions.

A red, black, and white cover shows a girl in a blue dress being attacked by playing cards.

It was during one of these excursions on July 4, 1862, during a boat ride with the Liddell’s, that he told the story that would eventually become Alice in Wonderland. It’s alleged that after the ride, Alice asked Lewis to write the tale down. Originally called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, a friend of Carroll’s encouraged him to have the book illustrated and published, which it was in 1865 to commercial success. Queen Victoria is reported to have loved the book so much that she ordered him to dedicate his next book to her, which he did in his next book on mathematical determinants.

While Carroll denied it, plenty of evidence exists that he used contemporary people, social, and political allusions in his work. Recent scholarship, analyzing the character’s personality in comparison with people he may have known during his years at Christ Church, has begun to place names with the obscured figures.

Characters and their Counterparts

1. White Rabbit

John Tenniel's illustration of the White Rabbit on a white background. Henry Acland's photo is next to it, separated by a line.

Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!”

Alice in Wonderland

The first character readers meet is the White Rabbit. Famous for leading Alice down the rabbit hole and running late, scholars have attributed the Rabbit as symbolizing the Liddel’s physician, Dr. Henry W. Acland.

According to David Day’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded, Acland was the College’s Professor of Medicine. He was known to check his pocket watch before running off to his next appointment. Acland was also a social reformist, dedicating to improving sanitation. As such, he was often spotted climbing down into holes to inspect draining tunnels. He was also in service to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, just as the White Rabbit was.

2. The Caterpillar

John Tenniel's illustration of the Caterpillar next to Augustus De Morgan's photo on a white background, separated by a black line.

Who are you?”

Alice in Wonderland

The second major character readers meet is the Caterpillar with the Hookah. It’s been argued that Dodgson wrote portions of Wonderland under the influence of opium, and his journals did indicate that he was knowledgeable about it, but there is no record of him ever having tried the drug. That said, Melanie Bayley has argued that the inspiration for the Caterpillar was Augustus De Morgan, who proposed a modern approach to algebra, which held that procedures were valid as long as it followed an internal logic.

This allowed for the square roots of negative numbers to be answers (even though De Morgan thought them “absurd”). More specifically, De Morgan found the word “algebra” in an Arabic phrase “al jebr e al mokabala,” which was translated to “restoration and reduction.” He reasoned even though algebra had been reduced to a seemingly absurd but logical set of operations, eventually some sort of meaning would be restored. As a mathematician, Carroll appears to have found this new method ridiculous so in the novel, as Alice talks to the caterpillar, eating the mushrooms both “restored” her size and “reduced”. And the Caterpillar offers one-lined, confusing responses to the absurdity of Alice’s situation, very well implying that De Morgan was high when he created his theory.

3. Cheshire Cat

John Tenniel's illustration of the Cheshire Cat next to Edward Pusey's photo on a white background, separated by a black line.

We’re all mad here.”

Alice in Wonderland

Possibly one of the most famous characters from the franchise, the Cheshire Cat was inspired by Reverend Dr. Edward Bouverie Pusey, a Professor of Hebrew at Oxford and Carroll’s mentor. It’s hard to know how much of Pusey played into Cheshire’s personality (he presumably couldn’t appear and disappear at will), but the most famous aspect of the cat is thought to be derived from his role in the Church.

As recognized by David Day, in Carroll’s time, “Patristic Catenary” meant “chain of the fathers,” and as Pusey was an authority on the fathers of the Christian Church, he was considered the ultimate “patristic catenary”. But catenary also had a mathematical definition: curve made by a chain suspended by two points, like a suspension bridge. Or more famously, like a certain cat’s grin.

4. The Mad Hatter

John Tenniel's illustration of the Mad Hatter next to Charles Kingsley's photo on a white background, separated by a black line.

Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Alice in Wonderland

The most famous scene from the entire novel, Alice is introduced to an additional three characters: the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse, and the March Hare. Broadly speaking, the entire tea party is a reference to the Christian Socialists, a group of reformers that Carroll hated. As such, one joke from this scene is when Alice was offered wine but then told there was none. As “symposium” (meaning “to drink together) refers to Philosopher’s wine drinking party, but Socialist get togethers lack the spirit. With that, Charles Kingsley has been recognized as inspiring the Hatter.

Kingsley was a Professor of Modern History at Cambridge and a Christian Socialist. Kingsley often portrayed the plight of the working-class in his texts. One group of the working class that he frequently championed for was the Hat makers (hatters). At the time, hats were made using mercury, and symptoms of poisoning included dementia and uncontrollable shaking, and raving speech, from which the phrase “mad as a hatter” likely derives but the phrase appeared to be in existence long before the book.

Carroll’s wordplay and references are nothing short of impressive and this article has only scratched the surface. Scholars have identified other contemporary figures as character inspiration, and others still have discovered hidden mathematical equations throughout the book. With so many references left to uncover, researchers and readers alike are assured that the rabbit hole will never end.

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