Character Appreciation: The Cheshire Cat
'We're all mad here...'
Consider the following:
1. Wide grin
2. Speaks when it should not be able to
3. Disappears at will
4. Unafraid of anyone
Slide a shadow over the frame and turn up the suspenseful music, you have the makings of a horror monster on your hands. Credit to Disney who decided to flirt with the eerie undertones in their 1951 movie Alice in Wonderland with this one very special character.
The Cheshire Cat.
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If you watched the Disney movie version in your childhood, you could be forgiven for feeling uneasy when this feline seeped into the scene. First announcing itself by singing a nursery rhyme as portions of the dark forest light up in response to its beats, the first visual we get is the long, stretched, curved white smile in a sea of black. Brilliant. We later witness it's furry stripes both spiralling into nothingness or fading into the background like a ghost. And not to be outdone, its eyes drop onto its face like tennis balls and its head finds its way off the shoulders more than once. Has your memory been refreshed? The voice paired with it was equally as unnerving: a faint rasp of a drawl before erupting into unwarranted laughter. Yes, Disney gave us a very captivating aid to our hero Alice.
But how much of this interpretation, or the later Tim Burton adaption, can be found in the source material of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland? And why, if the character remains a core aspect of the movie and television adaptions, does it deserve a character appreciation post?
The simple answer is this: The Cheshire Cat is a unique persona of Wonderland, and likely more so than you gave it credit for if you only know it from visual media.
The appeal of a character like the Cheshire Cat comes in part to its relaxed take on his surroundings. An enviable position to be in, it does not need to fear the numerous dangers posed to Alice and other characters. It possesses powers unexplained, and appears to float around Wonderland seeking distraction. When the Queen of Hearts orders its beheading, the feline decides to only let its head appear, baffling the Queen and executioner much to its amusement. Though it interacts with the world around it, the Cheshire cat is oddly detached - an outsider like Alice - yet able to see the inner workings Wonderland as a whole. It can be objective, seeing both sides of the fence.
'We are all mad here.'
Does this quote ring a bell? You may be more familiar with the "Most everyone's mad here," version. The striking aspect of this quote is self-awareness. Would you expect someone who truly was mad to see it, not only in others, but in themselves? In a place like Wonderland, finding someone to listen and understand is a very tall order. To others, Alice's questioning, reasoning and motivations are considered ridiculous ramblings. Yet not to the Cheshire Cat, who identifies Alice as someone in need of help and understanding. Only it can point out the obvious with clarity - they are all mad in Wonderland.
In its conversing with Alice, it is interesting to read of its philosophical points which both confuse and engage Alice. As our protagonist expresses her frustration at the workings of Wonderland, it is the Cheshire Cat who helps her recognise that Wonderland is pure nonsense, and to belong in it is to be 'mad'. As she is not mad there are grounds to consider her the oddity of the realm with her 'normal ways'. Her eager curiosity to understand those she meets is not in keeping with Wonderland's nature. Clearly, there is a reason she interacts differently with the Cheshire Cat in comparison with others - she often receives helpful information or at the very least a thread of common sense or logic.
“Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?”
The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?”
We follow Alice as a silent companion in her adventures, yet when the mysterious cat appears we are able to appreciate that Alice's reasoned statements might not be as sensible as initially thought. As we tend to find ourselves identifying most with Alice, the Cheshire Cat is essentially challenging our own perception of what we consider normal.
Alright, let's rein in the existential-esque vibes and bring it back to basics. As a reader, we enjoy the pages the Cheshire Cat appears on. Its loyalties are not clear cut - it certainly does not go to any great effort to aid Alice yet it appears to support her when she is brought into a game of croquet. Perhaps if it did more, we would not feel as uneasy for Alice's sake and therefore a portion of the apprehension would be removed?
All we know is that without its presence in Lewis Carrol's pages, Alice's story would lose a cornerstone of its magic, and we wouldn't have wonderful quotes to end on such as this:
'And how do you know that you're mad?'
'To begin with,' said the Cat, 'a dog's not mad. You grant that?'
'I suppose so,' said Alice.
'Well then,' the Cat went on, 'you see, a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased. Now I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry. Therefore I'm mad.'
- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland