“Take some more tea," the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
"I've had nothing yet," Alice replied in an offended tone, "so I can't take more."
"You mean you can't take less," said the Hatter: "it's very easy to take more than nothing."
"Nobody asked your opinion," said Alice.”
― Lewis Carroll,
|The (Mad) Hatter|
|First appearance||Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)|
|Last appearance||Through the Looking Glass(1871)|
|Created by||Lewis Carroll|
|Aliases||"Mad Hatter", "Hatter"|
|Significant other(s)||Alice, March Hare, The Dormouse|
|Nationality||Wonderland, Looking-Glass Land|
The Hatter is a character in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. He is often referred to as the Mad Hatter, though this term was never used by Carroll. The phrase "mad as a hatter" pre-dates Carroll's works and the characters the Hatter and the March Hare are initially referred to as "both mad" by the Cheshire Cat, with both first appearing in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in the seventh chapter titled "A Mad Tea-Party".
The Hatter character, alongside all the other fictional beings, first appears in Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In it, the Hatter explains to Alice that he and the March Hare are always having tea because when he tried to sing for the Queen of Hearts, the foul-tempered monarch, at her celebration she sentenced him to death for "murdering the time", but he escapes decapitation. In retaliation, time (referred to as a "he" in the novel) halts himself in respect to the Hatter, keeping him and the March Hare stuck at 18:00 (or 6:00 pm) forever.
When Alice arrives at the tea party, the Hatter is characterised by switching places on the table at any given time, making short, personal remarks, asking unanswerable riddles and reciting nonsensical poetry, all of which eventually drives Alice away. The Hatter appears again as a witness at the Knave of Hearts' trial, where the Queen appears to recognise him as the singer she sentenced to death, and the King of Hearts also cautions him not to be nervous or he will have him "executed on the spot".
When the character makes his appearance in Carroll's 1871 Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, he is again in trouble with the law. This time, he is not necessarily guilty; the White Queen explains that subjects are often punished before they commit a crime, rather than after, and sometimes they do not even commit it at all. The Hatter, and the March Hare, is also mentioned as being one of the White King's messengers, since the King explains that he needs two messengers, "one to come, and one to go". Sir John Tenniel's illustration also depicts him as sipping from a teacup as he did in the original novel, adding weight to Carroll's hint that the two characters are very much the same.
Mercury was used in the manufacturing of felt hats during the 19th century, causing a high rate of mercury poisoning in those working in the hat industry. Mercury poisoning causes neurological damage, including slurred speech, memory loss, and tremors, which led to the phrase "mad as a hatter". In the Victorian age, many workers in the textile industry, including hatters, often suffered from starvation and overwork, and were particularly prone to develop illnesses affecting the nervous system, such as tuberculosis, which is portrayed in novels like Alton Lockeby Charles Kingsley and North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, which Lewis Carroll had read. Many such workers were sent to Pauper Lunatic Asylums, which were supervised by Lunacy Commissioners such as Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge, Carroll's uncle. Carroll was familiar with the conditions at asylums and visited at least one, the Surrey County Asylum, himself, which treated patients with so-called non-restraint methodsand occupied them, amongst others, in gardening, farming and hat-making. Besides staging theatre plays, dances and other amusements, such asylums also held tea-parties.
The Hatter introduced in Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland wears a large top hat with a hatband reading "In this style 10/6". This is the hat's price tag, indicative of The Hatter's trade, and giving the price in pre-decimal British money as ten shillings and six pence (or half a guinea).
The Hatter and his tea party friend, the March Hare, are initially referred to as "both mad" by the distinctive Cheshire Cat. The first mention of both characters occurs in the sixth chapter of Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, titled "Pig and Pepper", in a conversation between the child protagonist Alice and the Cheshire Cat, when she asks "what sort of people live about here?" to which the cat replies "in that direction lives a Hatter, and in that direction, lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad!" Both then subsequently make their actual debuts in the seventh chapter of the same book, which is titled "A Mad Tea-Party".
Hat making was the main trade in Stockport where Carroll grew up, and it was not unusual then for hatters to appear disturbed or confused; many died early as a result of mercury poisoning. However, the Hatter does not exhibit the symptoms of mercury poisoning, which include excessive timidity, diffidence, increasing shyness, loss of self-confidence, anxiety, and a desire to remain unobserved and unobtrusive.
It has often been claimed that the Hatter's character may have been inspired by Theophilus Carter, an eccentric furniture dealer. Carter was supposedly at one time a servitor at Christ Church, one of the University of Oxford's colleges. This is not substantiated by university records. He later owned a furniture shop, and became known as the "Mad Hatter" from his habit of standing in the door of his shop wearing a top hat. Sir John Tenniel is reported to have come to Oxford especially to sketch him for his illustrations. There is no evidence for this claim, however, in either Carroll's letters or diaries.
The Hatter's riddle
In the chapter "A Mad Tea Party", the Hatter asks a much-noted riddle "why is a raven like a writing desk?" When Alice gives up trying to figure out why, the Hatter admits "I haven't the slightest idea!". Carroll originally intended the riddle to be without an answer, but after many requests from readers, he and others—including puzzle expert Sam Loyd—suggested possible answers; in his preface to the 1896 edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll wrote:
Loyd proposed a number of alternative solutions to the riddle, including "because Poe wrote on both" (alluding to Poe's 1845 narrative poem The Raven) and "because the notes for which they are noted are not noted for being musical notes".
American author Stephen King provides an alternative answer to the Hatter's riddle in his 1977 horror novel The Shining. Snowbound and isolated "ten thousand feet high" in the Rocky Mountains, the five-year-old son "Danny" hears whispers of the malign "voice of the [Overlook] hotel" inside his head, including this bit of mockery, "why is a raven like a writing desk? The higher the fewer, of course! Have another cup of tea!"
The latest idea as published in bandersnatch by the Lewis Carroll Society is a possible answer of "One is nevar backwards and one is forwords."