Near the beginning of A Mad Tea-Party, the Hatter suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, states “Your hair wants cutting,” which words Alice takes as a personal insult. This was the Hatter’s first speech in Wonderland (the words “No Room! No Room!” don’t seem to count).

This seems to have been the original “riddle” of this Chapter (see Tenniel’s only surviving Wonderland letter to Carroll, and the original drawings of the scene, with the above written words emerging from the Hatter’s mouth). Therefore these words may hold a lot of meaning within the story. As far as I can tell, there are almost no good recorded explanations (maybe none?) regarding the Hatter’s strange words.

Answers based on Wonderland, any other text, or illustration, may therefore help to advance our understanding of Wonderland.

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    Do you mean other than the obvious "You need a haircut"?
    – shoover
    Mar 6, 2021 at 5:34
  • 1
    Yes or, if a person interprets it this way, why did Carroll make so much of this. As I stated above, this seems to not only come out of nowhere, but it seems to have been the original riddle, later replaced by “why is a raven like a writing-desk?”. A sentence like “You need a haircut.” also may miss out on puns such as hare-hair and “cutting” which meant something like “ignore in a social setting.” Mar 6, 2021 at 5:57
  • "This seems to have been the original “riddle” of this Chapter" What leads you to think this? It isn't even a question.
    – Rosie F
    Mar 7, 2021 at 21:34
  • @shoover - Young people often need haircuts.
    – Valorum
    Jun 12, 2021 at 7:56

3 Answers 3


The madness of the party

Hatter's conduct shows that the Tea Party isn't just mad (in the sense of it being a nonsensical occasion), but we learn very rapidly that all the rules, including time and space themselves, are being bent out of shape within this neverending party where nobody knows where to sit, no-one knows what time it is and, most importantly for Victorian society, the rules of civility are all going out of the window.

Into this we find Alice injecting herself into the party. First Hatter and the others tell her that there's no room. Alice ignores them and (against all protocol for a lady) seats herself at their table without permission. Hare pranks her by offering her some wine (an inappropriate choice of beverage at a tea party, to be sure) and then, when she remarks that she does not see it, follows up with the punchline that it's not available anyway! Alice remarks on the lack of civility and is reminded that she seated herself without permission and finally Hatter joins the conversation by making a personal remark about Alice's appearance, something that would have been unforgiveable in Victorian society.


This entire section of the book is rife with homophone and double/triple-meaning wordplay. The Hare said something rude and Alice didn't respond. In speech, the word would sound like "Your hare needs cutting" which could be interpreted to mean that he needs to be 'cut dead' (ignored) or that she needs to deliver a 'cutting' (hurtful) remark in response. This is a persistent style of joke in the work and one we see again and again in the book and its sequel (i.e. Mouse's "long and sad tale [tail]", Alice's "I have not! [knot]", "to turn round on its axis" [axes] etc).

Alice's appearance

Lest we fall into the trap of over-analysing the text, it's worthy of note that Alice's hair does need cutting, so Hatter's remark, although lacking appropriate civility for the occasion, is actually a pretty fair comment and something that a professional hatter might say to a client, especially one as young as Alice. This helps to establish his relationship with her as older/younger since he's speaking to her as one might speak to one's own child.

First, she [Alice's sister] dreamed of little Alice herself, and once again the tiny hands were clasped upon her knee, and the bright eager eyes were looking up into hers—she could hear the very tones of her voice, and see that queer little toss of her head to keep back the wandering hair that would always get into her eyes—and still as she listened, or seemed to listen, the whole place around her became alive with the strange creatures of her little sister's dream.

enter image description here
C.L. Dodgson's own illustration of Alice

  • 1
    Speaking logically, not all the rules are being bent out of shape. Carroll, the geometer, likely reasoned that because an aspect of time has stopped, then a part of space must also be impacted. It seems they all do know where to sit and in which direction to rotate (rotation being a major theme of ‘Wonderland’). The Tea-Party does come to an end when all four of the attendees find their way to the Trial. Most of Causality is still functioning, something of imperative importance for Victorian Society, or any other, overwhelmingly trumping the “rules of civility.” Mar 6, 2021 at 14:49
  • @ferjsoto42yahoocom: If none of the rules were functioning as you suppose, then the story would not be possible to understand. Carroll took a small amount of artistic liberty here to ensure that we could at least recognize "this is a tea party, they're supposed to be doing X but instead they are doing Y." Taking rotation in conjunction with the lack of time, it's fairly obvious to me that Carroll was making an oblique reference to the quaternions (which use four dimensions to model three-dimensional rotation) - the rotation is "broken" or illogical because a dimension is missing.
    – Kevin
    Mar 6, 2021 at 19:54
  • It’s not me the one who’s stating that all the rules are off. I am actually, like you, saying that many rules must still be functioning. like you, I also look for reasons regarding the story’s ability to make sense, at different level, to different people. Yes, just like “room” or space cannot be measured if we don’t have a, or have a faulty, time component. Mar 6, 2021 at 20:24
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    Perhaps mention the most elementary issue here -- that "want" (both verb and noun) in the past was much more commonly used in the sense of "lack" or need" versus the primary modern sense of "desire". And thus today it can be confusing to read that a non-sentient object "wants" something. In discussing the text, you slipped from "wants" to "needs" without remark. Today's financial advisers urge clients to distinguish between "needs" and "wants", which would have gotten a blank stare from Victorians!
    – nanoman
    Mar 7, 2021 at 1:31
  • Lest we fall into the trap of under-analyzing the texts, in ‘The Nursery Alice,’ Carroll himself seems to disagree with Alice’s sister’s opinion quoted above. Here’s is what Carroll states, directly on this question: “He [the Hatter] had just got up to say to Alice “Your hair wants cutting!” That was a rude thing to say, wasn’t it? And do you think her hair does want cutting? I think it’s a very pretty: length — just the right length. (P. 40, Carroll uses italics to write the words “wasn’t” and “I” to give emphasize his idea regarding the correct length of Alice’s hair. Mar 11, 2021 at 3:43

In the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, p. 590, we find:

Head Shaved (get your.) You are a dotard. Go and get your head shaved, like other lunatics.

Therefore, the Hatter may be telling Alice that she is just as mad as the rest of the party.


In Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, the connection between hair and time is made explicit (2:2, 51-108), as well as the personification of time as father Time (2:2, ~69), while the inverse relationship between hair and wit is also found in this short set of lines (2:2, 78-108.

In Eric Flora’s ‘Hair as Time in The Comedy of Errors’ (available online) this researcher makes the case that baldness seems to reflect the stoping of time/Time.

Thus, Carroll - a lover of Shakespeare’s plays - may have intended for the Hatter to sugest that Alice get her hair cut so as to improved her wit or intelligence; that because an aspect of time/Time had stopped, this must be reflected in the cutting of any extra hair; or that she must cut her hair lest she insult Time, who had commanded for a part of time to stop.

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