The Cheshire Cat is one of many iconic characters depicted in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that have become enmeshed in popular culture, appearing in various forms of media, from political cartoons to television. One of its distinguishing features is that from time to time it disappears, the last thing to be seen being its grin.
Alice first encounters it at the Duchess’s house in her kitchen, and then later outside on the branches of a tree, where it appears and disappears at will, engaging Alice in amusing but sometimes vexing conversation. The cat sometimes raises philosophical points that annoy or baffle Alice. It does, however, appear to cheer her up when it turns up suddenly at the Queen of Hearts’ croquet field, and when sentenced to death baffles everyone by having made its head appear without its body, sparking a massive argument between the executioner and the King and Queen of Hearts about whether something that does not have a body can indeed be beheaded.
At one point, the cat disappears gradually until nothing is left but its grin, prompting Alice to remark that she has often seen a cat without a grin but never a grin without a cat.
In the 1951 Disney animated film, Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat is depicted as an intelligent yet mischievous character that sometimes helps Alice and sometimes gets her into trouble, and thus, in some cases, is classified as a “Disney Villain”. He is voiced by Sterling Holloway and later by Jim Cummings after Holloway’s death (making him the third character that Cummings has taken from Holloway). The Disney version of the character can also be spotted during the final scene of the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The Cheshire Cat is heard singing the poem Jabberwocky before he materializes in front of Alice. Prior to the release of the Walt Disney animated adaption of the story, scholars observed few specific allusions to this character. Martin Gardner, author of The Annotated Alice, wondered if T. S. Eliot had the Cheshire Cat in mind when writing Morning at the Window but notes no other significant allusions in the pre-war period.
The phrase appears in print in John Wolcot’s pseudonymous Peter Pindar’s Pair of Lyric Epistles in 1792: “Lo, like a Cheshire cat our court will grin.” Earlier than that, A classical dictionary of the vulgar tongue by Francis Grose (The Second Edition, Corrected and Enlarged, London 1788) contains the following entry: “CHESHIRE CAT. He grins like a Cheshire cat; said of any one who shows his teeth and gums in laughing.”
One of the stories of the possible origins of the grinning “Cheshire cat” is based on a Cheshire sign painter’s peculiar way of drawing the lion crest of the Grosvenor family of Concord, Massachusetts, USA on inn and pub signs, which looked to the general populace like a grinning cat, rather than the noble beast it was supposed to be. However, this would not account for the phrase’s appearing in English eighteenth-century reference books such as Grose’s dictionary.