Caterpillars and Symbolism



The caterpillar is such an iconic symbol of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland but do you know the symbolism of this scene?  The Caterpillar’s mushroom also has multiple symbolic meanings. Some readers and critics view the Caterpillar as a sexual threat, its phallic shape a symbol of sexual virility. The Caterpillar’s mushroom connects to this symbolic meaning. Alice must master the properties of the mushroom to gain control over her fluctuating size, which represents the bodily frustrations that accompany puberty. Others view the mushroom as a psychedelic hallucinogen that compounds Alice’s surreal and distorted perception of Wonderland. It could also mean that Alice has mastered Wonderland. The Caterpillar is also a mathematical symbolism where Charles Dodgson was a teacher of mathematics at Christ Church in Oxford, England.

Early in the story, for instance, Alice’s exchange with the Caterpillar parodies the first purely symbolic system of algebra, proposed in the mid-19th century by Augustus De Morgan, a London math professor. De Morgan had proposed a more modern approach to algebra, which held that any procedure was valid as long as it followed an internal logic. This allowed for results like the square root of a negative number, which even De Morgan himself called “unintelligible” and “absurd” (because all numbers when squared give positive results).

The word “algebra,” De Morgan said in one of his footnotes, comes from an Arabic phrase he transliterated as “al jebr e al mokabala,” meaning restoration and reduction. He explained that even though algebra had been reduced to a seemingly absurd but logical set of operations, eventually some sort of meaning would be restored.

Such loose mathematical reasoning would have riled a punctilious logician like Dodgson. And so, the Caterpillar is sitting on a mushroom and smoking a hookah — suggesting that something has mushroomed up from nowhere, and is dulling the thoughts of its followers — and Alice is subjected to a monstrous form of “al jebr e al mokabala.” She first tries to “restore” herself to her original (larger) size, but ends up “reducing” so rapidly that her chin hits her foot.

Alice has slid down from a world governed by the logic of universal arithmetic to one where her size can vary from nine feet to three inches. She thinks this is the root of her problem: “Being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.” No, it isn’t, replies the Caterpillar, who comes from the mad world of symbolic algebra. He advises Alice to “Keep your temper.”

In Dodgson’s day, intellectuals still understood “temper” to mean the proportions in which qualities were mixed — as in “tempered steel” — so the Caterpillar is telling Alice not to avoid getting angry but to stay in proportion, even if she can’t “keep the same size for 10 minutes together!” Proportion, rather than absolute length, was what mattered in Alice’s above-ground world of Euclidean geometry.

In an algebraic world, of course, this isn’t easy. Alice eats a bit of mushroom and her neck elongates like a serpent, annoying a nesting pigeon. Eventually, though, she finds a way to nibble herself down to nine inches, and enters a little house where she finds the Duchess, her baby, the Cook and the Cheshire Cat.


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