The Encounter with Mock Turtle in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”

John Tenniel`s original (1865) illustration for Lewis Carroll`s "Alice in Wonderland".  Alice sitting between Gryphon and Mock Turtle.

John Tenniel`s original (1865) illustration for Lewis Carroll`s “Alice in Wonderland”. Alice sitting between Gryphon and Mock Turtle.

It has taken me 57 years to finally read Alice In Wonderland; if I had waited another 57 years to do so I would not have felt a loss.  Taken on face value without delving into the irony and parody the author may have intended, it reads like the mad wanderings of someone using too many hallucinogens.

Pick a passage, any passage, and you will find yourself thoroughly perplexed and asking, “What’s the point?”  Take for example the scene dealing with the history of the Mock Turtle, which is probably one of the more lucid scenes in the story.  The Queen of Hearts, literally a playing card with human qualities, tells Alice that she must hear the Mock Turtle’s history.  The Queen escorts Alice to a Gryphon, a creature with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion, and directs the Gryphon to take Alice to see the turtle.

The history of Mock Turtle (who looks mostly like a turtle but appears to have the head, rear hooves, and tail of a calf) is sketchy at best.  This melancholy, tearful creature begins his story with the revelation that once, he was a real turtle.  He then continues on to tell Alice that when he was little he went to school in the sea.  He states, “The master was an old Turtle – we used to call him Tortoise,” at which point, Alice interrupts him to ask, “Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?”  To which Mock Turtle angrily replied, “We called him Tortoise because he taught us.  Really you are very dull!”  This exchange is in keeping with what seems to be an underlying theme throughout Alice’s time in Wonderland.  Alice is continually questioning or correcting the inhabitants of Wonderland based upon her perceptions, formed in her world, or her own faulty knowledge.  The implication being that Alice, or any of us, is often too ready to apply her standards to others when in fact, there may be more than one way of doing things and her way of seeing or doing may not be the only way.

The remainder of the chapter, and the beginning of the next, carry on in much the same way with Mock Turtle relating his school days and how to perform the Lobster-Quadrille (a dance).  Numerous plays on words ensue and the overall madness contained in Alice in Wonderland continues unabated.  Certainly there is a moral to this story if one chooses to look hard enough, for example: the need to keep an open mind regarding our perceptions as outlined in the paragraph above.  But, as a form of entertainment, I stand by my opening remarks.  Perhaps this story was considered entertaining fancy for the Victorian reader; if so, it has not stood the test of time.

“The Mock Turtle’s Story” – Alice in Wonderland

In Alice in Wonderland, the main character is led by the Gryphon to hear the Mock Turtle’s story. Alice is indigent that all of the characters in Wonderland order her around, but she follows Gryphon because she is curious about the Mock Turtle. The Queen says that “he shall tell you his history”, and indeed, the Mock Turtle seems to be representing the stereotypical sad storyteller (71). Lewis Carroll describes him as “sitting sad and lonely on a little ledge of rock” and “sighing as if his heart would break” (72). Alice immediately feels sorry for him, but this pity becomes ironic when Gryphon says that “[i]t’s all his fancy, that: he hasn’t got no sorrow, you know” (72).

The Mock Turtle. Original illustration, drawn by John Tenniel. Via Wikipedia Images.

This episode in the story seems to serve no obvious purpose. It does not continue the basic storyline of the Duchess and the Queen and the other characters involved in the trial. In fact, the chapter and a half that deals with the Mock Turtle only seems to be a momentary lull in the chaos of the royal court. However, the Mock Turtle himself seems to draw the reader’s attention to the ironic, or even satirical elements in the story.

The first indication of this comes in the form of his name and the illustrations that accompany him. By calling him the “Mock Turtle”, Carroll draws our attention to the fact that this creature is not supposed to be a real turtle. He is not supposed to be a real turtle in the same way that he is not supposed to be a sad storyteller. Carroll toys with our expectations of what a turtle or a storyteller should be and uses these expectations to create elements of irony in the story. Mock Turtle has the head of a mouse-like animal, with  the shell and flippers of a turtle. His feet are those of a goat and tail is that of a donkey. “Mock” Turtle is not what the reader would expect of a realistic turtle, which acts as a cue to the reader that other things in this scene are also not as expected.

Mock Turtle’s sad history is also not what one is led to expect. For instance, the description of him on the rock, weeping, seems to indicate that his story will be sad. However, this is not true. His “history” is full of tales of school and dancing – the only sad element is the beginning, when he states that “once” he was “a real Turtle” (72). Alice “could not help thinking that there must be more to come, so she sat still and said nothing”. However, his statement is not followed by any explanation of his transformation, but is instead followed by memories. His reminisces recall an old man with many stories to tell who just goes on and on with no true point. Instead of the anticipated dramatic storyteller, Alice listens to ramblings that do not fulfill hers and reader’s expectations of what a dramatic storyteller should tell.

By looking at this short episode in the book as an ironic or even satirical portrayal of a character type, other characters begin to make sense as well (such as the Queen). The Mock Turtle shows that Carroll uses our traditional expectations of character type in order to “mock” or poke fun at these representations.