The one word that is most important to understanding any of Carroll’s work is nonsense. He filled his stories with very real life characters and circumstances but in ways that defy all sense of logic. That is why one can say that the Alice of the story was both Alice Liddell and was not Alice Liddell. Or why the Dodo both is and is not Charles Dodgson. But what of the Mad Hatter, Who was he and why was he so mad?
It is worth noting that Carroll never actually called the Hatter Mad, he was called only the Hatter. Having said that there is no doubt the Hatter was the most outwardly appearing “mad” character in all of Wonderland and Carroll knew this perfectly well. In fact a leading contender for the real hatter was a man called Theophilus Carter, a local furniture dealer and inventor (who invented an alarm clock bed that tipped the sleeper up and out of bed when the alarm went off) who was himself known as the Mad Hatter accounting to his eccentric behavior (and in the 19th century eccentricity was prevalent so imagine how far out there someone must have been to have been recognized for being eccentric). We can be sure that the Hatter, like all of Carroll’s characters was an amalgam of real people and Carroll’s own peculiar ideas.
As far as the idea of mercury poisoning goes, there are many symptoms which create the effects of madness many of which can be attributed to the Hatter among them; Paresthesia, tremors, clumsiness, quick changes of emotional response, manic behavior and emotional disconnects. He could have been suffering from such a poison but it is much more likely that he was simply intended to convey a sense of disordered madness to counterbalance the ordered madness of the rest of the Wonderland inhabitants. By madness we should understand the term the way it was used in the 19th century, which is to say the Hatter developed a set of alternative social rules which were out of touch with societal norms that went beyond simply “queer” behavior and became an actually dysfunction. The term Mad as a hatter had become a common term for any sort of odd behavior so the truth or falsity of mercury poisoning is irrelevant to the story. In fact the term mad as a hatter has an alternate meaning that has long been out of general usage but that fits the Hatter perfectly. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defined the word hatter as “To harass; to weary; to wear out with fatigue.” And cites a quote by John Dryden “He’s hatter’d out with pennance.” If the idea of the hat trades mercury poisoning doesn’t seem to fit then certainly the hatter himself vexed Alice in the manner as defined by Johnson.
The truth is the Hatter (and this is where he parts from Theophilus Carter, or whom ever he was modeled after) could no more function in real society than any inmate of Bedlam. It is because of this the Hatter has been viewed as the most mad of all the inhabitants of Wonderland (which was originally not a separate place but an underground world beneath our own. The original manuscript was called Alice’s Adventures Underground. This connects Wonderland to the land of the dead, the same land were fairies were said to come from which has always had connotations with madness). The Queen was only acting at the extreme level of what a real Queen might do, the Caterpillar was mad because he was wise (or is it the other way around), the Cheshire Cat was the least “mad” because he recognized his madness as being in perfect accord with the normal rules of Wonderland. Even the minor characters acted in ways that made perfect sense in you look at it from a skewed perspective. But the Hatter was out of touch with even the rules of Wonderland. At the tea party we find the Hatter standing out as the most Mad at a Mad gathering. The hare at first glance seems to be mad offering wine that doesn’t exist but it turns out this was to make a point (It wasn’t civil of you to offer any), that Alice should not have sat down at a table (it wasn’t civil of you to sit without being invited). Then we have the first words spoken by the Hatter, “Your hair wants cutting” In the context of the scene the wine conversation makes sense but the hair statement is utterly out of place and shows the disconnect with which the Hatter engages his surrounding world. After being scolded for making personal remarks he went on with the most enigmatic riddle in the whole cannon of Carroll’s work “Why is a writing desk like a raven”, Which is also the only riddle which has no answer. He goes on to ask about the time and complains that butter doest suit the works. He engages people in a manner that is completely out of touch with reality whereas the Queen, The Cheshire Cat, The White Rabbit all act within the structure of a set of rules to which they all subscribe even when we don’t understand those rules, or when those rules make no sense, which was of course the point Carroll was trying to convey to the three Liddell sisters. That grown up rules don’t always make sense and sometimes not even grown ups really understand them.
Because of his inability to engage Alice in a manner that is in accord with the overtly rule heavy laws of Wonderland he is clearly insane. Or to put it another way, he is not insane because of the things he says, which are no more odd than any other speeches to be found in Wonderland, rather he is insane because he does not engage his surrounding in a consistent manner in accord with the accepted behavior of his peers. He belongs to their society but his mode of connecting to it is out of touch.
While it is true that no single interpretation of the meaning of the Alice story sufficiently tells the whole story and thus no interpretation is completely applicable there is on aspect that was true when Carroll initially told the story to the three Liddell sisters, it was true when the story was published and it remains true down through the years. That is Alice’s adventures, couched in many different meanings and open to many different layers of speculation are fundamentally the story of a little girl growing up as seen by a grown man who worshiped the stuff of little girls. Issues of identity, of social responsibility, of size or maternal affections and of what is and is not fair or just are delivered in a manner that makes them at once easily accessible and yet sublimely mysterious. Alice is not simply growing up, she is growing into something other than what she was before, this is the nature of maturity and to a child, especially to a girl child it is the most disorienting and terrifying of all life’s mysteries. Lewis Carroll did not simply create an amusing story, though that was his intention. He created a roadmap for the journey from girlhood into womanhood just as J.M. Barrie created the roadmap for boys. The Hatter, by his inability (not refusal) to accurately follow the rules of his world, becomes the perfect vehicle by which the reader is made to understand that rules exist even when they make no sense. For all Carroll’s embracing of the mystique of the little girl Alice becomes in the end a tragedy because she is destined to leave Wonderland and rejoin her own world of rules and regulations. The strength of the story is not in it’s urging to break with the rules, but in its giving us a new way to look at the nature of rules and thus to possess some measure of power over them because if we accept that rules no matter how strongly maintained are all at heart whims of nonsense then following the rules becomes an act of childhood defiance.
This is the key to Alice’s enduring popularity.