Twins in Wonderland

By Helena de BresDecember 26, 2023

Twins in Wonderland
MY FAVORITE PICTURE of twins is John Tenniel’s illustration of Tweedledum and Tweedledee for Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). The Tweedles stand beside each other in a dark wood wearing matching school uniforms, one with Dum embroidered on the collar, the other with Dee. Alice leans toward the pair, captivated, while they warily return her gaze, each with one arm around the other’s back.

This scene deftly captures three core aspects of my own experience of identical twinhood. First, it features two people who look strikingly alike. Since Leibniz published his Discourse on Metaphysics in 1686, philosophers have held that no two distinct things can resemble one other exactly. (“[I]f it was so,” says Tweedledee on another subject, “it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”) The Tweedle brothers must differ, then, but how? Who could resist peering closer, in search of clues to what makes one Dum, the other Dee, beyond the names stitched on their collars?

The picture also underscores the closeness many twins share. Tweedledum and Tweedledee are positioned so near each other that they look physically conjoined. Emotionally, too, they’re clearly intimate, aligned: check out the matching side-eyes they shoot in Alice’s direction; note their protective/possessive side-hug. But the image subtly implies that things between them aren’t as peaceful as they seem. Lying at the twins’ feet is an umbrella they’ll later use as a weapon, when a petty disagreement between them escalates into a violent battle. Twinship is always passionate, that umbrella reminds us, but where the passion will lead is anyone’s guess.

Finally, though the twins are the alleged stars here, it is Alice’s reaction to them that the illustration foregrounds. While she’s mobile and lively on the left, Tweedledum and Tweedledee are static and stolid on the right, like a pair of inanimate objects awaiting her eager examination. Much of the experience of twinhood is determined not by twinship itself but by the response of non-twins to it. Enthrallment can be gratifying, and we twins often encourage it, as the Tweedles later do, when performing a poem for their audience of one. But, like all twins, these two know that attention from a singleton always merits their suspicion.


Tweedledum and Tweedledee live in Wonderland, a place alarmingly peopled by the odd, unpredictable, seductive, and unhinged. In that way, it reminds me of graduate school in philosophy. I arrived at my program, an inquisitive 22-year-old Alice eager to prove myself a serious thinker. I could have done with the Duchess’s advice: “Be what you would seem to be.” Or, the Duchess continues, “if you’d like it put more simply—‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.’” A lot of what I read in grad school looked like that. As Alice says elsewhere, “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!”

Wonder is where Socrates claimed philosophy begins, and Wonderland is full of philosophizing. Alice enters it via a very deep well lined with bookshelves, and, in their areas of interest and speculative-argumentative cast of mind, the creatures she meets there closely resemble the members of the profession I now belong to. Humpty Dumpty is a philosopher of language, the Caterpillar a theorist of personal identity, the Tweedles experts on Berkeley’s metaphysics, and the Red Queen a renegade logician who claims to have “believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Alice herself is on an intellectual quest for the truth about whom and where she is, a puzzling adventure that defamiliarizes everything she’s ever known and makes her question everyone’s sanity, including her own.

It’s no surprise to see the Tweedle twins turn up in this parade of curious characters. Part of what makes us twins philosophical is that we inspire wonder wherever we go. In running into twins, even the most prosaic among us sense a great conceptual territory ripe for exploration, like the luxuriant garden behind the tiny door that Alice opens with her magic key. What exactly is behind that door?


Among the most immediate existential questions that twins raise—as I discuss in my recent book on the subject—are those concerning personal identity. Given their impressive similarities, it is natural for identical twins to obsess over what makes each of them a distinctive person. But in art and everyday life, singletons often use twins, or the idea of them, to narrow in on the same question for themselves. Am I more like the Good Twin or the Evil Twin, a non-twin can ask, the extrovert or the introvert, the empath or the narcissist, the Red Queen or the White? The question takes a philosophical turn when we step back and ask whether there is anything valuable about this widespread human habit of dumping people into two starkly opposed camps. Once you realize your sense of yourself has been formed by binary thinking (whether you’re a twin or not), how should you feel about that?

Another identity question twins elicit concerns “the mathematics of personhood”—how to draw the boundaries between one person and another. This puzzle comes up most obviously in the case of conjoined twins, but extends to the non-conjoined kind too. All twins are susceptible to being treated as, if not the same person, at least somewhat less than two. “Nohow!” I used to respond to this assumption, but I have since become more open to it. Twins vividly breach some of the central physical, cognitive, and emotional boundaries that we assume hold between individual people. Maybe their case suggests that those boundaries are, quite generally, weaker than we think. Is it possible, in some sense, for one person to be spread across two bodies? Or, for that matter, might two people be contained in one? Alice is tempted by the latter idea: we’re told that she once tried to box her own ears for having cheated herself in a game of croquet that she was playing against herself.

The sight of twins sends many of us on an additional adventure concerning the philosophy of free will. The likeness of identical twins goes well beyond their looks, to encompass their interests, values, talents, and personality traits. If we assume that shared genes explain these similarities, it looks as if much of whom any of us is derives from biological forces beyond our control. If so, how can any of our actions be genuinely chosen? Identical twins whose lives take very different paths inspire a distinct anxiety, bordering on grief. T. S. Eliot said he was thinking of Alice when he wrote, in his Four Quartets (1943),

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

Can philosophy help us reconcile ourselves, one might wonder, to life paths unfollowed?

The Tweedle twins call to mind a further set of questions, to do with the philosophy of love. For many, twinship represents the ideal human attachment, marked by a degree of intimacy and fondness of which singletons can only dream. The Tweedles twice share spontaneous hugs and their battle seems merely performative: “Let’s fight till six, and then have dinner.” But alongside this positive vision of twinship in our culture, we see a much darker one, implicating twinhood in psychological meltdown and death. Singleton portrayals of twins often imply that, while twin love is enviable in youngsters—the Tweedles are children who live in the same house and fight over a nursery rattle—twinship is something you should grow out of. “Contrariwise!” I suggest. One benefit of philosophizing about twins is that it promises to widen the set of loving relationships we see as healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful.

Our own reactions to twins raise philosophical questions too. When they are together, identical twins with similar appearances are permanent magnets for what we might call “the singleton gaze.” Even usually sensitive and well-meaning people stare at us, obsess over our appearances, and ask us invasive questions. Singletons also use us for their own ends in a wide variety of ways, in science, art, entertainment, and the market. At what point does wonder at another turn into objectification? (When do twins become nothing but Thing 1 and Thing 2?) And is such objectification any less troubling if the objects are complicit? “If you think we’re wax-works,” Tweedledum tells Alice, “you ought to pay, you know.”


Twins are not only philosophical because of the questions they inspire. Their dual nature also reflects the dialectical method of philosophy. Philosophy characteristically proceeds via a repeated two-step movement, between an argument and a real or imagined objection to it, resulting in an increasingly well-defined and well-defended thesis. Alice, who likes to pretend she’s two people and is always talking to herself, is thereby a true philosopher: “And so she went on, taking first one side and then the other, and making quite a conversation of it altogether.”

Researchers who study the way creative people think have found that they are drawn to divergence, the meeting of opposites. They call it Janusian thinking: the capacity to hold, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Lewis Carroll’s extraordinarily creative mind clearly worked this way, giving much of Wonderland a twinny quality.

The Tweedles are “enantiomorphs,” or mirror-image twins, like me and my twin sister. (I’m left-handed, she’s right-handed; my hair parts on the left, hers on the right.) But as you’d expect in a Looking-Glass world, the whole territory behind the mirror is replete with reversals and inversions of the usual order of things. Alice is given dry biscuits to quench her thirst, and it’s only by running very fast that she can avoid moving. Mathematician and writer Martin Gardner notes that “nonsense itself is a sanity-insanity inversion. The ordinary world is turned upside down and backward.”

Many things in Wonderland come in pairs—the Red and White kings, queens, and knights; the lion and the unicorn; the walrus and the carpenter—and those pairs have been read as ciphers for other duos aboveground. We twins are likewise a fertile source of symbols: we represent all doubles and repetitions, all fusions and fissions. Many of the reflections we inspire resemble the gnomic kind of philosophy that leaves linear argument behind and bleeds into poetry.

Carroll briefly moonlit as an academic philosopher: two of his logical paradoxes were published in the prestigious journal Mind. Though not technically a twin, he had twin selves—Charles Dodgson, Oxford mathematician, and Lewis Carroll, children’s book writer—and a compulsively twinning mind. In the Alice books, but also his other literary works and personal correspondence, he was always double-entendring, topsy-turvying, letting his language replicate and turn in on itself, corkscrewing into infinity. If I’m not careful, I could do that here and tumble down the rabbit hole of Alice-twin-philosophy associations forever. (“‘Fan her head!’ the Red Queen anxiously interrupted. ‘She’ll be feverish after so much thinking.’”)

It is easier to riff associatively on stories than it is on arguments. My favorite undergraduate philosophy professor once satirically claimed that the only logical relation used in literary studies is “reminds me of.” What does that relation remind me of? Why yes, how curious: my twin.

LARB Contributor

Helena de Bres is a professor of philosophy at Wellesley College. Her essays have appeared in The Point, The Yale Review, Aeon, The New York Times, and elsewhere. Her book How to Be Multiple: The Philosophy of Twins came out with Bloomsbury in 2023.


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