‘The letter’, by the White Rabbit, the Red King & the Knave of Hearts

‘The letter’, by the White Rabbit, the Red King & the Knave of Hearts

We are in Wonderland, along with Alice, in the book written by Lewis Carroll. The Knave of Hearts is on trial for the heinous crime of stealing jam tarts. The court is convened, with the Red King presiding and the Red Queen shrieking in the background about executions and ‘off with his head’. Important evidence is to be presented. The White Rabbit, the Clerk of the Court, has to read out the contents of a piece of paper that has been found. A debate ensues as to whether or not this is a letter, and it offers useful guidance as to the definitional features of what a letter is and therefore what pieces of writing can and cannot be seen to be a letter. The debates unfolds as follows.

It seems at first sight to be a letter written by the Knave of Hearts, but it lacks a ‘direction’ or what we would now refer to as being addressed to someone by name. In fact it has nothing at all on the outside of the piece of paper. Therefore, says the King, it can’t be a letter, unless it has been sent to nobody, but letters to nobody are very rare. Also, it does not appear to be in the handwriting of the Knave of Hearts. This is countered by someone saying that he must have imitated someone else’s handwriting. However, the Knave of Hearts then says he can prove he did not write it, which he does by saying there is no signature and without his signature it is not a letter by him. The Red King takes this as proof of guilt, for he says that an honest man would have signed his name, although Alice points out that this is nonsense. Attention then turns to the content of the piece of paper, which has clear indications of the communicative aspect of letterness, in the way it communicates information from the writer to whoever it has been written for – ‘They told me you had been to her / And mentioned me to him / …..’ However, after this wonderfully nonsensical quasi-poem is read out, Alice concludes that it has no meaning although the Red King pours over words and phrases to extract a meaning that enables him to find the Knave guilty. Off with his head! Alice loses patience, points out they are just a pack of playing-cards, disrupts events and then wakes up from her dream.

So what is ‘a letter’, then, according to the debate between the White Rabbit, the Red King and the Knave of Hearts? 1. A letter needs to be addressed to someone, and for preference to be addressed to them by name, although this can be by implication. 2. A letter needs to be provably by someone who has written it, and while in earlier times this would have importantly included handwriting, it also includes signature. 3. A letter should have communicative content in conveying something from the letter-writer to the person the letter is addressed and sent to. 4. A letter’s content cannot be just any old thing, but must have some sensible meaning. These are four helpful suggestions that even outside of Wonderland would be seen as definitional aspects, albeit ones that are complicated and at times up for grabs.



Last updated: 1 September 2017


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