Jump to content
  • Sign Up to reply and join the friendliest Watch Forum on the web. Stick around, get to 50 posts and gain access to your full profile and additional features such as a personal messaging system, chat room and the sales forum PLUS the chance to enter our regular giveaways.

The Mad Hatter's Pocket Watch

Recommended Posts


NOTE: This is a reprint of my topic with minor edits first posted in January 2017 on the Christopher Ward Forum
Lewis Carroll's Hatter as illustrated by John Tenniel, the original illustrator of the first published edition of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (pic from cdn-images-1.medium.com):

I am currently engaged in a new art project for which I hope to seek a publisher in due course, and it has entailed immersion in classic children's literature. Some books are a re-read from my childhood, while others are a new read, and I have been amazed at the quality of some classics which I failed to read as a child. I was a somewhat precocious reader from a young age and I seem to have bypassed some children's favourites in order to read so-called "adult" fiction; for example, I did not read "The Wind in the Willows" until a few days ago.

One classic I did read as a youngster but almost forgot about is, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," with my later impressions of the work being unfortunately influenced by TV and film adaptations that rarely if ever truly captured its depth and meanings. While re-reading this extraordinary book recently, I came upon the Mad Hatter's tea party and within that part of the book is a fascinating section about the Mad Hatter's watch and the concept of time in general, where "Time" becomes a personality in its own right. I was so intrigued by this little section of Alice in Wonderland that I have decided to quote it here and offer a little discussion about it. So, here I now quote verbatim from the first edition text as published by Puffin Classics:

Illustration for the Hatter's tea party by John Tenniel (pic from victorianweb.com);

The Hatter was the first to break the silence.
'What day of the month is it?' he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of his pocket, and was looking at it uneasily, shaking it every now and then, and holding it to his ear.
Alice considered a little, and then said 'The fourth.'
'Two days wrong!' sighed the hatter. 'I told you butter wouldn't suit the works!' he added, looking angrily at the March hare.
'It was the best butter,' the March hare meekly replied.
'Yes, but some crumbs must have got in as well,' the Hatter grumbled: 'you shouldn't have put it in with the bread-knife.'
The March hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily: then he dipped it into his cup of tea, and looked at it again: but he could think of nothing better to say than his first remark, 'It was the best butter, you know.'
Alice had been looking over his shoulder with some curiosity. 'What a funny watch!' she remarked. 'It tells the day of the month, and doesn't tell what o'clock it is!'
'Why should it?' muttered the Hatter. Does your watch tell you what year it is?'
'Of course not,' Alice replied very readily: 'but that's because it stays the same year for such a long time together.'
'Which is just the case with mine,' said the Hatter.
Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter's remark seemed to have no meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. 'I don't quite understand you,' she said, as politely as she could.
'The Dormouse is asleep again,' said the Hatter, and he poured a little hot tea upon its nose.
The Dormouse shook its head impatiently, and said, without opening its eyes. 'Of course, of course; just what I was going to remark myself.'
'Have you guessed the riddle yet?' the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
'No, I give it up,' Alice replied: 'what's t'
'I haven't the slightest idea,' said the Hatter.
'Nor I,' said the March hare.
Alice sighed wearily. 'I think you might do something better with the time,' she said, 'than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers.'
'If you knew Time as well as I do,' said the Hatter, 'you wouldn't talk about wasting it. It's him.'
'I don't know what you mean,' said Alice.
'Of course you don't!' the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. 'I dare say you never even spoke to Time!'
'Perhaps not,' Alice cautiously replied: 'but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.'
'Ah! that accounts for it,' said the hatter. 'He won't stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he'd do almost anything you liked with the clock. For instance, suppose it were nine o'clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons: you'd only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!'
('I only wish it was,' the March hare said to itself in a whisper.)
'That would be grand, certainly,' said Alice thoughtfully: 'but then - I shouldn't be hungry for it, you know.'
'Not at first, perhaps,' said the Hatter: 'but you could keep it to half-past one as long as you liked.'
Is that the way you manage?' Alice asked.
The hatter shook his head mournfully. 'Not I!' he replied. 'We quarelled last March - just before he went mad, you know -' (pointing with his teaspoon at the March Hare,) '- it was at the great concert given by the Queen of Hearts, and I had to sing

"Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at

You know the song, perhaps?'
'I've heard something like it,' said Alice.
'It goes on, you know,' the Hatter continued, 'in this way:

"Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea-tray in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle -"'

Here the Dormouse shook itself, and began singing in its sleep 'Twinkle, twinkle, twinkle, twinkle -' and went on so long that they had to pinch it to make it stop.
'Well, I'd hardly finished the first verse,' said the hatter, 'when the Queen jumped up and bawled out, "He's murdering the time! Off with his head!"'
'How dreadfully savage!' exclaimed Alice.
'And ever since that,' the Hatter went on in a mournful tone, 'he won't do a thing I ask! It's always six o'clock now.'
A bright idea came into Alice's head. 'Is that the reason so many tea-things are put out here?' she asked.
'Yes, that's it,' said the Hatter with a sigh: 'it's always tea-time, and we've no time to wash the things between whiles.'
'Then you keep moving round, I suppose? said Alice.
'Exactly so,' said the hatter: 'as the things get used up.'
'But what happens when you come to the beginning again?' Alice ventured to ask.
'Suppose we change the subject,' the March hare interrupted, yawning. 'I'm getting tired of this. I vote the young lady tells us a story.'
'I'm afraid I don't know one,' said Alice, rather alarmed at the proposal.
'Then the Dormouse shall!' they both cried. 'Wake up, Dormouse!' And they pinched it on both sides at once.
The Dormouse slowly opened his eyes. 'I wasn't asleep,' he said in a hoarse, feeble voice: 'I heard every word you fellows were saying.'
'Tell us a story! said the march Hare.
'Yes, please do!' pleaded Alice.
'And be quick about it,' added the Hatter, 'or you'll be asleep again before it's done.'

Illustration of Lewis Carroll's Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, by John Tenniel (pic from upload.wikimedia.org):

The first thing to notice about the scene of the Mad Hatter's tea party is that, in fact, the author himself does not allude directly to the Hatter being "mad" and we should perhaps call this part of the book, "The Hatter's Tea Party" or, as Carroll himself titles it, "A Mad Tea-Party." This may sound trivial, but given the mathematical intelligence behind much of Lewis Carroll's work, I believe that he intended the Hatter to be a character of some wit and wisdom, and not exactly "mad" or insane in any sense though perhaps a trifle eccentric and irritable. It is true, however, that Carroll did draw on two well-known aphorisms of the time alluding to the "mad" behaviour of hares in the spring and contemporary hatters who were afflicted with mercury poisoning. This fascinating use of the borderline between madness and wisdom is a vital part of Alice in Wonderland as a whole.

Alice in Wonderland was first published by in 1865, from which edition I have quoted. However, the story was written down a few years prior to publication, with illustrations by Carroll himself. When it came to publishing the (lengthened) 1865 version, Lewis Caroll commissioned the illustrator, John Tenniel, to provide the pictures and they were to be based on Carroll's own illustrations. I specifically mention this here because in the first edition of Alice's Adventure's in Wonderland, there is no graphic representation of the Hatter's pocket watch either in illustrations showing the Hatter alone or in the main tea party picture. On the other hand, when it comes to modern illustrations, especially those promoting decorations and events for "Mad Hatter's tea parties" the image of the pocket watch is frequently shown, sometimes as a quite dominant element. This may in part be due to the focus on "Time" that appears in the recent film of Alice Through the Looking Glass, apparently not a major feature of that literary sequel to Alice in Wonderland by carroll himself. Whatever the case, the lines about "time" in the Hatter's tea party segment of the book have indirectly become an important image today, appealing to the current retro-trend/steampunk style generally. Certainly, in the original illustrations by Tenniel, Lewis Carroll's direct influence and approval of Tenniel's pictures was a powerful factor, and these illustrations therefore are almost integral to the work. As a final note on this, I have not seen the Disney animation of Alice in Wonderland, and it may be that the pocket watch does appear in this cartoon - and Disney productions have had an important cultural impact.

Modern interpretation of the table laid for the Mad Hatter's tea party - one of the party websites that feature this event in their repertoire - showing how the Hatter's pocket watch seems to have become an indispensable image in recent times (pic from blog.partydelights.co.uk):

It is not surprising that Lewis Carroll plays with time in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" as he certainly plays with relative size and proportion, as well as words and meanings. It might be wondered why he did not play with "time" more than he did, but then the basis of the book is based on the distinction between waking time and dreaming time, so we can see the whole book as a rift in time filled with a rich tapestry of magic and wondrous characters. Interestingly, Carroll's take on the story - Alice's dream - is permeated with a sense of uneasiness sometimes bordering on cruelty.

As far as the Hatter's actual pocket watch is concerned, we have to compare his timepiece with timepieces that were generally available at the time Alice in Wonderland was written. The early and mid 1860's represented the twilight of watches manufactured by individual watchmakers and small watchmaking concerns. Only ten years later, in about 1875, the watchmaking industry started to become more automated, with machine-production of components that were standardized such that they were interchangeable between identical models of watch, and movement, so making economies of scale possible. At the time of "Alice," the American industry had not yet conquered Europe and Britain with its new model of industrial production although the British watchmaking industry had already succumbed somewhat to Swiss competition. The notion of the very cheap so-called "dollar watch" had not yet been sprung upon the public and watches were still something of a luxury, though gradually filtering down into the middle classes, and when Lewis Carroll was writing Alice in Wonderland, the reality of a global watch industry was still some way off.

The Hatter's tea Party, by Kerry Darlington - print released in 2011. Note how the Hatter's pocket watch has become an important element in this illustration, contrary to Tenniel's ill;ustrations and other earlier pictures of the scene (pic from cdn.shopify.com):

The "class" of the Hatter is to some extent denoted by his possession of a poocket watch, and his watch is unusual in having a date feature - and watches with such a complication were more costly than plainer types and not common. Carroll cleverly plays with this idea by providing the Hatter with a watch that ONLY has the date complication and ignores hours and minutes timekeeping altogether. Knowledge of the Hatter's watch then forms the philosophical basis for the rest of the segment in Alice on time, where general timekeeping is not to be viewed on a watch or seen as being undertaken and controlled by an elemental and interminable progression. Instead, hours and minutes are the realm of "Time" (with an upper-case 'T') - a personality who can backtrack and stop time on a whim, and who is unrelated to the physical hands of a clock or watch.

Silver fusee open-faced pocket watch with marks for Chester, 1860, and branded, "Rich'd Hornby & Son, Liverpool (pic from picclick.com):

With the mention of the clock into the text, Carroll also introduces an interesting comparison between the hands on the clock dial and the constant shifting in position around the table by the Hatter and his companions, and the remark is made by Alice as to what happens when the Hatter and friends reach the beginning again - what does it mean for the hands of a clock (or Time itself) to return to their starting point, and can time periodically start all over again, replenished. There are also references to the possibility of destroying time altogether. The verbal wit over the term "beating time" is one reference to this, as is the Queen's condemnation of the Hatter for murdering "the time."

I do not wish to "overstate the case" by making too much of Carroll's discussion of time and Time in the Hatter's tea party, but I do feel that he raises some interesting points, especially when these are viewed in the light of the theories that were to dominate physics and cosmology in the early 20th century and which continue to be vital to our understanding of the universe. Charles Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll, was a mathematician in addition to his other skills and hobbies, and it is not surprising that this area of thought enters "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." I have deliberately avoided the controversy that still surrounds Dodgson's personal life, but that does not mean I am unaware of its ramifications. Alice in Wonderland is a work of genius, full of fascinating material for children and adults alike, and I shall, for the purposes of this topic, leave it at that.

Johnny Depp as the Hatter in the 2010 film version of Alice in Wonderland, and here the pocket watch is visible though not a dominant element. In the 2016 Alice Through the Looking Glass, time and Time are important themes throughout the picture (pic from quirkbooks.com):

In this interesting depiction of a rather androgynous Hatter by Chriisymoon, with the image of the pocket watch placed on the teapot (pic from orig11.deviantart.net):
Link to comment
Share on other sites

8 hours ago, Always"watching" said:

With the mention of the clock into the text, Carroll also introduces an interesting comparison between the hands on the clock dial and the constant shifting in position around the table by the Hatter and his companions, and the remark is made by Alice as to what happens when the Hatter and friends reach the beginning again - what does it mean for the hands of a clock (or Time itself) to return to their starting point, and can time periodically start all over again, replenished.

This is interesting, Honour. I'd always thought of the tea party dialogue as another example of very clever word play, but never considered the arrangement of the table itself to represent a clock.

The other character with a watch in Alice is, of course, the White Rabbit, whose obsession with time is the reason Alice gets into this mess in the first place. And this time the watch is clearly shown in the illustration.

... "when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!” (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge."


  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

  • Create New...