“…and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.”
At this point Alice remarks “she has often seen a cat without a grin but never a grin without a cat.”
The cat sometimes raises philosophical points that annoy or baffle Alice.
One of the things I love most about Alice in Wonderland is the kaleidoscopic nature of the setting. Characters simply appear, interact with Alice and subsequently disappear. However, in the case of the Cheshire Cat, the disappearance is literal. He is very much a guide, pointing the way to the next step of the adventure. I could go deeper and claim the Cheshire Cat is the Jungian archetype of the mysterious trickster, but that analysis is only partially true. He’s clever, but not as deceptive as your average trickster.
In my humble opinion, the Cheshires honesty and straight-forwardness make him the sanest character in the stories.
“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.”
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Moreover, the Cheshire yields a powerfully enlightening influence over Alice. Though he is the only one to listen, take her seriously and offer sound advice, he never sticks around for long…but he is always there when he is needed most. As a plot device, he serves a singular purpose: to drive the storyline.
Conversely, who has not met someone, who comes and goes at will? Each time they involve themselves in other peoples lives, they only stay for as long as their presence is physically necessary. Regardless of the situation, once it has passed, they vanish into thin air until the next time. To connect with these kinds of people in real life is almost impossible. They are aloof and detached to the point of madness. However, in the case of the Cheshire Cat, we are introduced to a version of such a personality is more balanced than most.
How so? To rest in the knowledge that we are all insane in our own way restores a level of psychological health, at which we question what functional behaviour truly is. In Wonderland, we are immersed in a place, where nothing is as it appears…like in any world, appearances are deceptive and therefore cannot be trusted, so look within for real answers. From an educational perspective, it introduces children to very valuable lessons, they’ve yet to come into contact with through life experiences.
As we grow older, we are conditioned to internalise such life lessons through failed relationships, social faux pas etc. For what it’s worth, to internalise said lessons is supposed to pave the way to adulthood…but it merely complicates the process of discarding outdated coping mechanisms, learning new things or seeing the world through different eyes.
This notwithstanding, there is one disturbing aspect of the books, we often overlook as we believe our children are not mature enough to grasp the concept…Wonderland’s madness is greater than the sum of its parts. When surrounded by chaos, no single situation or person has an especially strong influence, but the cumulative effect on one is more than the circumstances, people or else combined...and so fiction bridges into reality…
In actuality, what we consider to be “normal” behavior is “mad” in the Wonderland context, but it can be just as mad in a real world context.
The order of events creates the context, we use to navigate through life. However, every person interprets reality differently. The order of events that created our world as we know it forms the context, in which we perceive our identity. In the case of Alice, for instance, her curiosity to understand the world around her defines her character. In a positive light, she questions what is happening around her. In a negative frame of reference, she leaps before looking. She ventures down the rabbit hole “never once considering how in the world she was to get out again“. For what it is worth, she doesn’t have any particular reason for the things she does, except that she wants to find out more about the world around her. She also doesn’t have any plan for dealing with the consequences of leaping without a seconds thought.
The conversations between Alice and the Cheshire Cat are filled with relevant details on how the world works down in Wonderland. Though their interactions are fleeting, their relationship reforces specific realisations that are yet to dawn on her. When she throws all caution to the wind, she’s reminded of them, but no solemn reminder can rein in her natural inclination to experiment. After all, in an insane place, to be mad is a testament to our sanity…and to know everyone is mad must mean we may only be more aware of our insanity than most.
Prior to & After Alice’s Adventure
While most often celebrated in an Alice-related context, the Cheshire Cat predates the 1865 novel. “To grin like a Cheshire Cat” is in fact an expression, which dates back to Victorian times, as described in the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms.
After the publication, the character of the Cheshire Cat transcended fictional literature and became enmeshed in far more than just popular culture, appearing in various forms of media, from political cartoons to television. It also appears in many cross-disciplinary studies, from business to science.