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Mad Hatter

The Hatter is a fictional character initially encountered at a tea party in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and later again as "Hatta" in the story's sequel, Through the Looking Glass. He is popularly referred to as the "Mad Hatter," but is never called by this name in Carroll's book- although the Cheshire Cat does warn Alice that he is mad, and the Hatter's eccentric behavior supports this. (Likewise, the chapter in which he first appears, "A Mad Tea-Party", is often called "The Mad Hatter's Tea Party"). He has been portrayed on film by Edward Everett Horton, Sir Robert Helpmann, Martin Short, Peter Cook, Anthony Newley, and Ed Wynn, and in a music video by Tom Petty.

Appearances in the Alice books

The Hatter explains to Alice that he and the March Hare are always having tea because, when he tried to sing for the Queen of Hearts at a celebration of hers, she sentenced him to death for "murdering the time" but escaped decapitation. He comes to the conclusion that time itself was indeed "murdered", he and the March Hare continue to have tea as though the clock had truly stopped. His tea party, when Alice arrives, is characterised by switching places on the table at any given time, making (along with the March Hare) somewhat short, personal remarks, asking unanswerable riddles and reciting nonsensical poetry, all of which eventually drive Alice away. He appears again as a witness at the Knave of Hearts' trial, where the Queen appears to recognise him as the singer she sentenced to death, and the King also cautions him not to be nervous "or I'll have you executed on the spot".

When the character makes his appearance as "Hatta" in Through the Looking-Glass, he is in trouble with the law once again. This time, however, he is not necessarily guilty: the White Queen explains that quite often subjects are punished before they commit a crime, rather than after, and sometimes they do not even commit it at all. He is also mentioned as being one of the White King's messengers, and the March Hare appears as well as "Haigha", since the King explains that he needs two messengers: "one to come, and one to go". Sir John Tenniel's illustration also depicts him as sipping from a teacup as he did before in the prequel, adding weight to Carroll's hint that the two characters are indeed the same.

"Mad as a Hatter"

The name 'Mad Hatter' was undoubtedly inspired by the phrase "as mad as a hatter". There is some confusion as to the origins of this phrase. Mercury was used in the process of curing felt used in some hats. It was impossible for hatters to avoid inhaling the mercury fumes given off during the hat making process. Hatters and mill workers often suffered mercury poisoning as residual mercury vapor caused neurological damage including confused speech and distorted vision. It was not unusual then for hatters to appear disturbed or mentally confused, many died early as a result of mercury poisoning. However, the Mad Hatter does not exhibit the symptoms of mercury poisoning. Principal symptoms of mercury poisoning are “excessive timidity, diffidence, increasing shyness, loss of self-confidence, anxiety, and a desire to remain unobserved and unobtrusive” Most likely the Mad Hatter was modeled on someone who was not a hatter, but the hatter character with its associations with madness was a useful symbol.

10/6

The "10/6" card or label on the Hatter's hat means ten shillings and six pence (or half a guinea), the price of the hat in pre-decimalised British money and acts as a visual indication of the hatter's trade. There were 20 shillings to the pound, 12 pence to a shilling... thus 10/6 = 126 pence. With inflation analysis up to 1974, 126 pence equals about $23.83 in 1974 US dollars, around $105 in Oct 2008 spending power. So this was likely to indicate a nice hat. Given the price, and size/appearance of the hat (exceedingly large), it is unknown if this was a joke, or if the hatter was charging 10/6 for the hat. He may have simply just forgot to remove the price, or was borrowing the hat from his inventory to wear.

Model

The Hatter is generally believed to be based on Theophilus Carter, at one time a servitor at Christ Church, one of the University of Oxford's colleges. He invented an alarm clock bed, exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851, that tipped out the sleeper at waking-up time. He later owned a furniture shop, and became known as the Mad Hatter from his habit of standing in the door of his shop wearing a top hat. Sir John Tenniel is reported to have come to Oxford especially to sketch him for his illustrations.

The Mad Hatter's riddle

In the chapter "A Mad Tea Party", the Mad Hatter asks a famous riddle: "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" When Alice gives up, the Hatter admits he does not have an answer himself. Lewis Carroll originally intended the riddle to be just a riddle without an answer, but after many requests from readers, he and others, including puzzle expert Sam Loyd, thought up possible answers to the riddle. One possible answer is "Poe wrote on both", a reference to Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote The Raven. It should also be noted that in the preface to the 1896 edition, Carroll wrote:
Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s Riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz: "Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!" This, however, is merely an afterthought; the Riddle as originally invented, had no answer at all.

Popular culture

The Mad Hatter character appears in a number of other places:

References

Further reading

  • Heavens to Betsy! and Other Curious Sayings, Charles Earle Funk. HarperCollins Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0-06-051331-4

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