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Who is the Mad Hatter?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Mad Hatter is a character who appears in the Lewis Carroll book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and also in the follow-up book, Through the Looking Glass. Like the Cheshire Cat, another famous Carroll character, he is so distinctive that many people recognize him and his preposterous headgear outside the context of the Alice world. As a result, he sometimes appears in popular culture.

This character is puzzling and enigmatic, and as his name suggests, he appears to be crazy. Certainly his behavior is peculiar, and the Cheshire Cat actually specifically warns Alice that the character is insane. However, in the books, he is never directly referred to as the Mad Hatter, although he is sometimes known as “Hatter.”

Alice first meets the Mad Hatter at a peculiar tea party. His vocation is readily identifiable from his large and ornate hat, which still bears a price tag. The Hatter and the March Hare have in fact been having the same tea party for an extended period of time, ever since the Queen of Hearts declared that the Mad Hatter had murdered time by singing especially badly in a public performance. Originally sentenced to death, he escaped, but decided that time had actually stopped, condemning him to an endless tea party.

At the tea party, guests switch seats constantly, and exchange scraps of conversations, peculiar verses, and strange riddles like “how is a raven like a writing desk?” When the Mad Hatter pops up again later in Alice, the Queen threatens him with decapitation after recognizing him, but he escapes to live again in Through the Looking Glass. However, he doesn't evade his legal troubles, as he finds himself condemned for a crime he hasn't committed yet.

Like some other Carroll characters, the Mad Hatter is probably based on a real life person. Some people believe that the character is a fictionalization of Theophilus Carter, an eccentric who would have been known to Lewis Carroll.

The Mad Hatter's name is a reference to a common slang term, “as mad as a hatter.” The origins of this term appear to relate to the harmful chemicals which many hatters used in their trade to treat materials like felt and leather. These chemicals would have been inhaled constantly in hat manufacturing shops, causing brain damage which could have resulted in a variety of psychological symptoms.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon115393 — On Oct 01, 2010

My G G Grandparents were Hatters in London. He died at age 42 in 1896 and she died at age 39, leaving six children to fend for themselves. My G G Grandmother's death certificate states death due to Psychosis Hoemophysis Exhaustion.

By anon73890 — On Mar 29, 2010

The Mad Hatter's price tag on his hat indicates that even his own hat is for sale. A hatter's profession is to make hats, and ultimately, sell them.

By annaemm — On Mar 23, 2010

Thank you for this article! I simply love this character, and especially Johnny Depp's portrayal of him.

In my mind a hat has always symbolized that one is putting on an act. It is only "the hat you wear" and not the real you.

For me, the idea of the price tag strengthens that thought. Might be that the Hatter was not really mad, that it was only the hat he wore, and that the price tag gave him away - it was not even his own hat!

Let me know if you find any other interesting thoughts on this. Thanks again.

By snappy — On Mar 06, 2010

I have always wondered why the price tag was still in his hat. Odd thing to fixate on but every time I see the Disney movie I ask the same question.

The hatters used mercury, which eventually caused them to tremble and get aggressive and have some pretty drastic mood swings. All in all...they appeared and acted mad.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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