The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 3, No 3 (1999)

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Alice's Academy


A Partial Vindication of Carroll's Hatter: Head Games and Ambiguity in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Fernando J. Soto

Fernando J. Soto holds an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Saskatchewan, with a thesis on the semantics of Lewis Carroll. He has had several articles published and accepted in The Carrollian (journal of the Lewis Carroll Society) and Knight Letter (newsletter of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America). An active member of the Lewis Carroll Societies of Canada, North America, and England, he speaks on Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Mr. Soto lives in Toronto.

What?!! When Alice joins the Hatter and the March Hare at the famous Tea-party table, could it be Alice who's rude? And might the Hatter be sane, even helpful? Most Carroll scholarship would disagree. But Fernando J. Soto makes a convincing case for revisiting the Tea-party to see whose manners really need minding. He also proposes Alice may have a scalp disease that would definitely put you off your tea! Let us know your opinion of Mr. Soto's intriguing thesis. - Ed.


He was constantly devising problems...It was a way of giving occupation to a mind which could never be turned off, which could never stop itself thinking. It was also a way of imposing certainty and order on a disorderly world. Puzzles, games and conundrums seemed to arrive virtually of their own accord, and with them he would entertain his child-friends or torment his fellow dons... He seems to have derived an almost sensual satisfaction from setting a problem to which he alone knew the correct solution. (Bakewell, Lewis Carroll A Biography, 42-43)


Many of Lewis Carroll's puzzles, linguistic games, and philosophical paradoxes, outside of his famous "nonsense" books, are well known and appreciated today. What is a little strange is that most scholars continue to view Carroll's most famous books as incomprehensible nonsense. However, as Bakewell suggests, Carroll was a very complex, orderly, and wily individual. In fact, the medium of "nonsense" may have provided this puzzling writer with the perfect method by which to frame complex linguistic puzzles. After all, Carroll, the mathematical logician, loved complexity and paradox almost as much as pulling people's legs. For instance, he was in the habit of sending his friends linguistic puzzles followed by Carrollian "sham answers". A "sham answer", according to Carroll, is a subsequent puzzle impersonating an answer, which if solved provides an answer to the original puzzle! (Cohen, ed. Letters of Lewis Carroll, 323 and 367) Therefore, it may not be a stretch to suppose that there are "hidden" linguistic puzzles in Carroll's famous books. One such puzzle (in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) involves the enigmatic Hatter.

Most readers and scholars appear to agree with Alice's sentiment that the Hatter, as presented in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, is not only mad but also rude. However, the Hatter, like many other fictional characters who first seem to be insane and unsavoury, appears to have been misjudged. Both Alice and Carroll's readers may have failed to understand the real intent of some of the Hatter's statements and actions. And, while Carroll's Hatter and, say, Jane Austen's Darcy (to pick one of the many stock "misunderstood" characters found in English fiction) have superficially little in common, they do share some characteristics which are taken for arrogance and unsolicited interference by those who they may be trying to help. The bewildered reader, however, may wonder how exactly the Hatter (as compared to Darcy) can be sane and attempting to help Alice.

In order to answer these questions, we must review parts of Carroll's narratives with a close eye to detail, lest we continue to misjudge and misdiagnose the Hatter. Let's remember that it was Carroll, through the Cheshire cat, who first attempted to prejudice Alice and the reader against the Hatter. In Wonderland, when Alice inquires about the nearby inhabitants, Carroll has the Cat answer her:

"In that direction," the Cat said, waving its right paw round, "lives a Hatter: and in that direction," waving the other paw, "lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad." (Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 90)

The assaults upon the Hatter's character continue by having Carroll name the next chapter "A Mad Tea-Party". Clearly, by having the Hatter present at the said "Mad Tea-Party", Carroll implies that this character is mad. [1] And most readers, along with Alice, think that this diagnosis is further supported by the Hatter's words and actions. However, let us see exactly what is written before we jump to further hasty or unwarranted conclusions regarding the mental state or social manners of the Hatter. We are trying to determine if the Hatter is mad (which I don't believe to be true), and if he is rude (as Alice believes). Even if the Hatter were mad, he would not necessarily be as rude as Alice concludes. Either way, let us review our first introduction to the Hatter:

There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and talking over its head. "Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse," thought Alice; "only, as it's asleep, I suppose it doesn't mind."

The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: "No room! No room!" they cried out when they saw Alice coming. "There's plenty of room!" said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table. (Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 95-96)

The first "bad" impression of the Hatter, gathered by both Alice and the reader, is supposedly further capped by the Hatter's first words directed at Alice: "Your hair wants cutting," said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for sometime with great curiosity, and this was his first speech. (Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 96)

Alice, along with the great majority of readers, interprets this "unsolicited" remark as a personal insult:

"You should learn not to make personal remarks," Alice said with some severity: "It's very rude." (Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 96)

However, what if the Hatter's remark is not unsolicited? While readers scratch their heads in thought, one could further ask, what if there is a method to the Hatter's supposed madness?

Of course, there may be many methods of interpreting the Hatter's words and behaviour. What if the above descriptions and verbal exchanges were seen as a complex linguistic puzzle? In other words, the Hatter may indeed have had reasons for leaning and talking over the head of the Dormouse, yelling "No room! No room!" and telling Alice that her hair needed cutting. After all, there are some interesting clues that could have led to some of the Hatter's words and actions in narrative. Thus, in order to understand the above puzzle, it proves useful to remember that Carroll loved to invent linguistic riddles, was knowledgeable about many aspects of language, including dialects (Cohen, Lewis Carroll: A Biography, 25), had studied medicine (Gattégno, Lewis Carroll: Fragments of a Looking-Glass, 297-298), had a life-long interest in many strange, obscure aspects of the English language, and was unpredictably tricky.

Let us then proceed to unravel the "mix up" he creates in the first pages of "A Mad Tea-Party".

The very first words exchanged between the Hatter and Hare and Alice revolve around the dispute regarding "room". Alice and the reader both appear to jump to the conclusion that what the March Hare and Hatter mean by "No room!" is that there is no place for Alice at their table. However, the narrator states that: "The table was a large one" and that the large table was "laid for a great many more than three"! (Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 95, 96). In addition, since Alice herself can easily see that "There's plenty of room!", we may wonder whether the Hatter and Hare had some other meaning in mind for the word "room". The Hare and Hatter must have known that Alice could see the size of their large, and for the most part empty, table. It is also hard to believe that their cries of "No room! No room!" were the preferred way to tell Alice that she was not welcome at their large, empty table. [2] And, later on, the Hare appears to imply that Alice may have been willingly allowed to join the Tea-party had she not sat down without asking and without a proper invitation. (Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 96)

Then what else could the Hare's and Hatter's cries of "No room! No room!" have meant? The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary lists the following as a second definition of "Room":

Room (rum), sb.2 Obs. exc. dial. also 6 rome, roome. [Of obscure origin.] Scurf of the head, dandruff. 1578 LYTE Dodoens 262 The same...doth cure...the scurffe or roome of the head. Ibid. 410 The very good to wash the scurffe of the head...causing the rome and scales to fall off. 1847 HALLIW., room, — dandruff. Somerset. 1886 ELWORTHY W. Somerset Wd. Bk. sv. (2573)

The above definition — which appears to be the only definition of "room" which has nothing to do with spatial considerations — can help us understand some of the actions of the two vociferous members of the Tea-party. However, before we proceed, let's search for other germane dialectal and medical aspects of the word "room".

The above definition — which appears to be the only definition of "room" which has nothing to do with spatial considerations — can help us understand some of the actions of the two vociferous members of the Tea-party. However, before we proceed, let's search for other germane dialectal and medical aspects of the word "room".

The English Dialect Dictionary lists a definition derived from Halliwell's dictionary and thus does not add much to the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary. Dunglison's A Dictionary of Medical Science, published in 1860, is more helpful. If we look up the word "Room" in this pre-Alice medical dictionary, we find: "ROOM, Pytiriasis." (850). Under this latter more "medical" word in the same dictionary, we find:

PITYRI´ASIS, from pituron, Œbran; Lepido´sis Pityriasis, Pityris´ma, Pithyri´asis, Herpes furfura´ceus seu farino´sus, Porri´go (of some), Tin´ea furfura´cea seu porigino´sa, Furfura´tio, Furfuris´ca, Dandriff, Dandruff, (Sc.) Luss, (Prov.) Room, Rummet, (F.) Teigne, Dartre, D. Furfurace´e volante; — a very superficial affection; characterized by irregular patches of thin scales, which repeatedly exfoliate and recur; but which never form crusts, or are accompanied with excoriations. It is not contagious. It occurs under three or four varieties of form. 721)

By spreading out into the other various medical names we come to more particular occurrences of the disease(s) in question and methods of treatment. Under "Porrigo" we find that some of the "scurf" can in fact be contagious and is not quite as "superficial" as stated earlier:

PORRIGO (L), scurf or scall in the head...Some of the varieties are contagious. It is principally characterized by an eruption of the postules, called favi and achores, unaccompanied by fever... PORRIGO FUR´FURANS, Ecpyesis porrigo furfura´cea, Tinea seu Tricho´sis furfuracea seu porrigino´sa, Pityriasis, Teigne furfurace´e (Alibert), commences with an eruption of small achores, the fluid of which soon concretes and separates in innumerable thin, laminated scabs, or scale-like exfoliations. It is attended with a good deal of itching and some soreness of the scalp, to which the disease is confined. It occurs chiefly in adults. In the treatment the scalp must be kept shaved. (Dunglison, A Dictionary of Medical Science, 746) [3]

With just some of the above information regarding the word "room", the Wonderland episode in question begins to make much better sense. It appears that the Hare would probably greatly fear the above "hair (Hare) related" diseases and that the Hatter would have been aware of the symptoms and perhaps cures of these scalp ailments from his close proximity to his customers' heads! Thus, both Hare and Hatter have good reasons for wishing to avoid this particular itchy type of "room". This may also explain why both Hare and Hatter are closely leaning over the head of the Dormouse. They may be checking him for room! And they were, as argued earlier, well aware that there was plenty of space at the table for Alice, if only she did not suffer from "scurf of the head"!

Given the above, it is likely because of this fear of "room" that the Hatter "had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity" and that his first speech toward Alice is "Your hair wants cutting". These fears may also have been grounded in the fact that some types of scurf were contagious and that Alice had been cavorting with many wild and domesticated animals, including a mouse, cat, dog, and had but recently held a pig in her arms. [4] Therefore, because Alice did not know the other meaning of the word "room", the Hare and Hatter may have been talking not only over the head of the Dormouse, but over Alice's head as well!

With the above arguments and evidence we may also go on to understand other parts of Carroll's narrative: why the Hatter is surprised when Alice states that he had been "making personal remarks", why this was interpreted as "very rude", and why the three little girls (one of which is Alice) in the Dormouse's story are ill. The Hatter, probably not quite sure of where Alice was "coming from", does not point out to her that it was she who may have been "rude". [5] Not only did Alice fail to check whether she had a scalp disease as she was warned to do, and sits down without being invited, but she also refuses to take the Hatter's helpful alleviative for her bad case of scurf. The Hatter may have had reason for his surprise, as Alice not only appears to admit to having a bad case of "scurf" (with her "there's plenty of room"), but she actually takes the warnings and suggestions as personal insults!

There is still one more possibility regarding what the Hatter may have meant with his remark "your hair wants cutting". This possibility does not portray the Hatter in as good a light. If the Hatter is seen as reinforcing the Cheshire cat's arguments that Alice is as mad as everyone else, then he could be considered rude (though truthful). Remember, the Cheshire cat had recently told Alice that she must walk among mad people (and animals): "...we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad". (Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 90). Alice had resisted this conclusion and the subsequent logical arguments the Cat had directed at her, but she had done so with little, if any, discussion. Ultimately Alice merely did not believe the Cat's arguments were sound regarding the supposed universal levels of madness in Wonderland. However, if the Hatter had overheard the Cat's arguments, and Alice's weak verbal responses, he may well have concluded that Alice was just as mad as anyone else there! [6] If this was the case then he may have had the following old phrase as advice for Alice: "Get your head shaved." This phrase is explained in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:

Get your head shaved. You are a dotard. Go and get your head shaved like other lunatics... Thou thinkst that monarchs never can act ill, Get thy head shaved, poor fool, or think so still. Peter Pindar: Ode upon Ode. (517)

This, even if directed at a lunatic, would probably be considered rude.

In this short paper I've shown that the Hatter may have been misunderstood, if not unfairly maligned, during parts of the Wonderland narrative. If the Hatter is mad, then I hope I have shown that there is method to his madness: he would merely be using some obscure meanings for some common words. However, if he is not mad and was merely attempting to help Alice with her scurf — a rational conclusion once Alice, a "friend" of mice, dogs, cats, pigs, etc., stated "there is plenty of room" — then the "bad press" he has received ought to be reviewed and quickly cast off. If, on the other hand, the Hatter is seen as continuing the Cheshire cat's attempts to convince Alice that she is mad, then we must carry out more research to attempt to see if in fact this conclusion regarding Alice's mental health is warranted before we pass judgment on the Hatter's call for Alice to get her hair cut or her head shaved! Either way, more work needs to be undertaken into this episode before the labels of "mad" or "rude" can be securely assigned to the Hatter. Thus researchers and readers may have to review their biases regarding the Hatter's character if they want to truly understand this eccentric and puzzling inhabitant of Wonderland.


Works Cited

Bakewell, Michael. Lewis Carroll A Biography . London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1996.

Brewer, Ebenezer. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable . New York: Harper and Row, 1970. (This is a revised centenary edition of the original dictionary first published in 1870.)

Carroll, Lewis. Lewis Carroll's Alice — A Special Centenary Edition (containing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass ). London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1998.

Carroll, Lewis. The Nursery Alice . London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980.

Cohen, Morton. Lewis Carroll: A Biography . New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Cohen, Morton (ed.). The Letters of Lewis Carroll . New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (compacted by Albert Boni). New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Dunglison, Robley. A Dictionary of Medical Science . Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1860.

Gattégno, Jean. Lewis Carroll: Fragments of a Looking-Glass. Trans. by R. Sheed. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976.

Soto, Fernando. "The Bellman, Rituals of Death and the April Fool in The Hunting of the Snark", in Knight Letter (newsletter of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America) , # 60, 1999.

Soto, Fernando. "Lewis Carroll: Finding the Philosopher's Stone", in The Carrollian (Journal of the Lewis Carroll society) , # 1, 1998.

Wright, Joseph (ed.). The English Dialect Dictionary . The Times Book Club, 1898-1905.



1. While the Cheshire cat claims that the Hatter is mad, this claim may be undermined by the further claim that he, the Cat who points by turning his paw "round", is also mad. It is very interesting to note that Carroll merely implies that the Hatter may be insane. Not once in all of Carroll's stories in which the Hatter plays a part is he referred to as a Mad Hatter. For instance, in The Nursery Alice, Carroll goes to great lengths to point out that the Hare is mad, but remains conspicuously silent regarding the mental state of the Hatter!

2. The point here is that the Hatter and Hare do not appear to be such bold-faced liars nor ridiculous enough to suppose that Alice will believe that the large table is full when she can see for herself that it is mostly empty. If anything, the Hatter and Hare come across for the rest of the Tea-party episode as anything but unconcerned with strict logical soundness in everything that is said!

3. In the same book, under the general heading of Porrigo there is a "children's disease" which appears germane to the Tea-party episode. This is the way in which Porrigo Scutula´ta is explained: "It commences with clusters of small, light, yellow postules, which soon scab off; and if neglected, become hard by accumulation. If the scabs be removed, the surface is left red and shining, but studded with slightly elevated points. If not attended to, it involves the whole head. It occurs in children three or four years of age, and is very unmanageable. The rules laid down under Porrigo furfurans must be here still more perseveringly enforced.".

4. Carroll may also be playing with Alice's very name in all of these linguistic games. After all "Alice" may easily have become "a lice" to a man known for similar word "tricks".

5. There may be one more pun inserted into the above linguistic comedy of errors if we attempt to ascertain who — Alice or the Hatter — is "ruder". The word "rooder" (pronounced the same as "ruder" and derived from the old Norse hrudr) is related to some aspects of "room": both are closely related to "a crust or scab on a sore". For this information see The English Dialect Dictionary, p.147 of volume V. For another of Carroll's creative uses of the word "rooder", see Fernando J. Soto's article, "The Bellman, Rituals of Death and the April Fool in The Hunting of the Snark" in Knight Letter (the newsletter of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America) # 60, PP. 13-15. If, on the other hand, Alice is suffering from Porrigo Scutula, then she would be the most "rude". This latter is explained by the fact that the word "rude" is a dialectal variant of the word "red" (CE of OED 2595 and 2594)

6. For an account of Alice's and the Cheshire cat's logical arguments regarding madness see Fernando J. Soto's article "Lewis Carroll: Finding the Philosopher's Stone" in The Carrollian (Journal of the Lewis Carroll Society) # 1 — Spring 1998. pp. 42-46.



Fernando J. Soto

Volume 3, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, 1999

Site design and content, except where noted © The Looking Glass, 1997. Send all mail regarding The Looking Glass c/o The Toronto Centre for the Study of Children's Literature. Images© Bernard Kelly, 1997. (Tenniel images in the public domain.) "A Partial Vindication of Carroll's Hatter: Head Games and Ambiguity in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"© Fernardo J. Soto. Last updated December 6th, 1999.

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