Spotlight on Wonderland: The Caterpillar

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Whooooo are you? The Caterpillar confronts Alice with this question over and over in Lewis Carroll’s timeless tale,  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Perched on a mushroom and smoking his hookah, the Caterpillar is known for his abrupt, impolite, overly inquisitive, and frustratingly contradictory conversation.

“Who are YOU?” said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”

“I can’t explain MYSELF, I’m afraid, sir” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”

“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.

Despite his rudeness, the Caterpillar provides Alice with helpful advice, such as “Keep your temper” and “One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.” Thanks to his mushroom, Alice is able to grow from 3 inches to the towering height of the trees with a small bite. As a cue to readers when you read Carroll’s text, you will notice a pattern of asterisks on the page whenever she suddenly changes sizes.

According to Carroll’s text, the Caterpillar is blue and exactly three inches high (a very good height indeed). Countless artists have re-imagined the Caterpillar in creative and unexpected ways, appearing as a realistic insect, an intimidating, brooding monster,or a charming woodland creature.

Who would you want to run into in Wonderland?

Did you Know:

  • According to Charles Mackay, “Who are you?” became a catchphrase in London during Lewis Carroll’s time due to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’s popularity.
  • If you look closely at Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the Caterpillar’s nose and chin are actually two of its legs.

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Visit the Maryland Room gallery in Hornbake Library from October 2105-July 2016 to discover more about the Caterpillar and the rest of the Wonderland cast of characters in the exhibit Alice 150 Years and County…The Legacy of Lewis Carroll: Selections from the Collection of August and Clare Imholtz.

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