Study Guide

Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll Essay - Carroll, Lewis (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Carroll, Lewis (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Lewis Carroll 1832-1898

(Born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) English novelist, poet, satirist, and mathematician. See also Lewis Carroll Poetry Criticism and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There Criticism.

Dodgson produced several essays on mathematics and symbolic logic as an Oxford lecturer in mathematics, but it was under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll that he published his most famous works, the fantasy novels Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872). Originally intended for the amusement of children, the Alice stories, as well as Carroll's highly imaginative poetry, have been subjected to intense scrutiny and widely varying interpretations by scholars around the world since their publication.

Biographical Information

The third child and the eldest son of eleven children, Carroll was born in the parsonage in Daresbury, Cheshire on January 27, 1832. In 1843, his father, a country clergyman, accepted a more lucrative position in Croft, Yorkshire, a post that also provided a larger parsonage for the family of thirteen. Carroll's childhood was apparently a happy one, and he spent hours entertaining and caring for his many siblings, particularly his sisters. He began writing at an early age, producing poems and stories for the amusement of his siblings as well as a series of illustrated magazines for his family. Carroll's formal education began at the Richmond Grammar School, where he spent a year and a half; this was followed by three years at Rugby, after which he attended Christ Church, Oxford, where he took a first in mathematics, earned a bachelor's and a master's degree, and remained for the rest of his life, first as a lecturer in mathematics and later as curator of the Senior Common Room. He produced a number of scholarly works on mathematics and symbolic logic and tutored countless students, including young women denied admission to the all-male university, in both subjects. In 1861, he became a deacon in the Church of England but decided not to take holy orders. After the death of his father in 1868, Carroll assumed responsibility for his unmarried sisters, establishing a home for them in Guildford in Surrey.

Carroll never married and had no children of his own, but he was devoted to a succession of little girls he had befriended. The most famous of these was Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, who provided the model for the fictional Alice and for whom Carroll wrote Alice's Adventures Under Ground, which he illustrated himself and never published, presenting it instead as a gift to Alice Liddell. It provided the basis for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. Both works were published under the name Lewis Carroll, a pseudonym Carroll adopted in 1856. He published all of his poetry and fiction under that name, although he continued to produce scholarly texts under his own name. At the same time, he became fascinated with the emerging field of photography and earned a considerable reputation as one of the first art photographers and the nineteenth-century's most celebrated photographer of children. Carroll died at the age of sixty-five in Guildford.

Major Works

Carroll's best-known works, all produced under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, were his fantasy novels, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Famously innovative for their unconventional use of language, the stories were also among the first non-didactic, non-moralizing texts aimed at children. Carroll's nonsense verse, most notably The Hunting of the Snark (1876) and “Jabberwocky” (from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) are usually considered related to his prose works by virtue of the similarity of language. His serious verse, published in several collections, is considered uninspired and is largely forgotten today. The later novels Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893) were his only fictional works aimed at an adult reading audience. Far more serious and didactic than the Alice stories, the two texts have often been treated by critics as a single, two-volume work, and occasionally as a fairly conventional Victorian novel. Far less famous than his fictional works are Carroll's writings on mathematics and symbolic logic. They include A Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry, Part I (1860), An Elementary Treatise on Determinants (1867), Euclid and His Modern Rivals (1879), and Symbolic Logic, Part I: Elementary (1896).

Critical Reception

Carroll's publications as Lewis Carroll, particularly the Alice stories, were enormously popular with juvenile readers at the time of their publication and have since attained an assured place in the canon of children's literature. They have been reprinted countless times in a wide variety of editions and have been translated into virtually every modern language. The two books were originally considered nonsense for the amusement of children and were considered unworthy of analysis by serious scholars. Beginning in the 1930s, however, the Alice stories and the nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark have attracted increasing attention from literary critics and philosophers. Psychoanalytic critics in particular have for many years been preoccupied with the details of Carroll's life, particularly his sex life. In addition to the much-documented phallic and womb imagery of his fiction, his extreme fondness for pre-adolescent girls—he often took them on overnight outings and photographed many of them nude—made Carroll a suspicious character in his own time and even more so today. Morton N. Cohen confronts speculation about Carroll's relationship with his young friends, claiming that the author was a “model Victorian” who never acted on whatever erotic impulses he may have harbored for the young. As Cohen puts it, “Carroll knew that, given his preference for the friendship of children, if he once succumbed to any temptation, he would never be able to befriend them again. His own uncompromising standards, his forthright, pious nature would not permit it. Besides he loved innocence so, how could he ever violate it?” Robert M. Polhemus seems to agree: “Freudians have had grand times analyzing the kinks in Charles Dodgson's personality, but the striking irony is that psychoanalysis and its theories … seem to flow right out of Carroll's wonderland.” Michael Irwin also acknowledges that “the Alice books, of course, are a gift to the Freudian, proliferating as they do in holes, tunnels, doors, locks, keys, fluids and size-changes.” Nonetheless, Irwin claims, “that game is all too easy.” Daniel Bivona reads Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in the context of nineteenth-century imperialism, referring to Alice as ethnocentric because she assumes that the language and behavior of the creatures in Wonderland operate according to no rules simply because they fail to conform to English rules. “Alice's ‘imperialism,’ such as it is,” contends Bivona, “is a semiotic imperialism: she is incapable of constructing, on a model radically different from her own, the ‘system’ or ‘systems’ that give meaning to the behavior of the creatures.” Several critics maintain that Carroll's fictional work anticipates modernism and even postmodernism, and his name has been linked with many of the literary figures of those movements. Polhemus reports: “From out of his rabbit-hole and looking-glass world we can see coming not only such figures as Joyce, Freud, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Proust, Artaud, Nabokov, Beckett, Waugh, Lacan, Borges, Bakhtin, and García Márquez, but also much of the character and mood of twentieth-century popular culture.” Michael Holquist has examined The Hunting of the Snark as a modernist text and concluded that the poem “is the most perfect nonsense which Carroll created in that it best exemplifies what all his career and all his books sought to do: achieve pure order.” Carroll's work does not consist of meaningless gibberish, according to Holquist, but is rather “its own system of signs which gain their meaning by constantly dramatizing their differences from signs in other systems.” Peter Heath also rejects the idea that Carroll was a nonsense writer and claims that the author should be more properly categorized as an absurdist. Heath maintains that the Alice books are rational works “whose frolics are governed throughout, not by a formal theory of any kind, but by close attention to logical principles, and by a sometimes surprising insight into abstract questions of philosophy.” Carroll's two later novels, Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, have generally been considered far inferior to the author's earlier works. Edmund Miller, however, believes that the two books should be treated as a whole and suggests that the resulting two-volume work has much in common with the early Victorian novel, particularly Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. “Both works are infused with the sentiments of the age and yet combine traditional materials in completely original ways,” claims Miller.

Principal Works

A Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry, Part I (nonfiction) 1860

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland [as Lewis Carroll] (novel) 1865

The Dynamics of a Particle (satire) 1865

An Elementary Treatise on Determinants (nonfiction) 1867

Phantasmagoria and Other Poems [as Lewis Carroll] (poetry) 1869

The New Belfry of Christ Church, Oxford [as D. C. L.] (satire) 1872

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There [as Lewis Carroll] (novel) 1872

The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits [as Lewis Carroll] (poetry) 1876

Euclid and His Modern Rivals (nonfiction) 1879

Rhyme? And Reason? [as Lewis Carroll] (poetry) 1883

Curiosa Mathematica. Part I: A New Theory of Parallels (nonfiction) 1888

Sylvie and Bruno [as Lewis Carroll] (novel) 1889

Curiosa Mathematica. Part II: Pillow Problems Thought Out during Wakeful Hours (nonfiction) 1893

Sylvie and Bruno Concluded [as Lewis Carroll] (novel) 1893

Symbolic Logic, Part I: Elementary (nonfiction) 1896

The Three Sunsets, and Other Poems (poetry) 1898

The Collected Verse of Lewis Carroll (poetry) 1929

The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll (novels, poetry, essays, satires, nonfiction, and letters) 1936

Symbolic Logic, Part II: Advanced (nonfiction) 1977

Criticism

Michael Holquist (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Holquist, Michael. “What is a Boojum? Nonsense and Modernism.” Yale French Studies, no. 43 (1969): 145-64.

[In the following essay, Holquist examines The Hunting of the Snark as an experimental work that resists critics' attempts to interpret it as an allegory.]

The other project was a scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever; and this was urged as a great advantage in point of health as well as brevity. … An expedient was therefore offered, that since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express the particular business they are to...

(The entire section is 7594 words.)

Harold Beaver (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Beaver, Harold. “Whale or Boojum: An Agony.” In Lewis Carroll Observed: A Collection of Unpublished Photographs, Drawings, Poetry, and New Essays, edited by Edward Guiliano, pp. 111-31. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1976.

[In the following essay, Beaver explores the alleged connections between The Hunting of the Snark and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.]

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way?

herman melville,...

(The entire section is 8642 words.)

Edmund Miller (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Miller, Edmund. “The Sylvie and Bruno Books as Victorian Novel.” In Lewis Carroll Observed: A Collection of Unpublished Photographs, Drawings, Poetry, and New Essays, edited by Edward Guiliano, pp. 132-44. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1976.

[In the following essay, Miller maintains that Carroll's two novels aimed at adult readers are constructed according to a highly organized plan and conform to many of the conventions associated with early Victorian novels.]

The Sylvie and Bruno books together form Lewis Carroll's most ambitious literary work. Yet the general public is hardly aware of its existence. This is a great shame, for the work is...

(The entire section is 6745 words.)

Richard Kelly (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Kelly, Richard. “Poetry.” In Lewis Carroll, pp. 44-77. Boston: Twayne, 1977.

[In the following excerpt, Kelly discusses Carroll's poetry, maintaining that his serious verse is of poor quality, while his humorous verse is brilliant.]

I SERIOUS VERSE

Lewis Carroll's serious poetry is very dull. Most of his comic verse on the other hand, is generally amusing and sometimes exhibits a genius that remains unrivaled. Nonsense poems such as “Jabberwocky,” “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” and The Hunting of the Snark, and parodies like “You are old, Father William,” “Speak roughly to your little boy,” and “Twinkle,...

(The entire section is 13276 words.)

Lionel Morton (essay date December 1978)

SOURCE: Morton, Lionel. “Memory in the Alice Books.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 33, no. 3 (December 1978): 285-308.

[In the following essay, Morton discusses the role of memory and nostalgia in the poetry contained in the Alice books.]

The afternoon of 4 July 1862, on which the story of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was first told during a boat trip up the Thames, remained “golden” in Lewis Carroll's memory, although the weather is said to have been cool and wet.1 Most importantly, it is nostalgically recalled in the three poems which Carroll attached to the Alice books. These are not parts of the stories, but they express an...

(The entire section is 9326 words.)

Morton N. Cohen (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Cohen, Morton N. “Lewis Carroll and the Education of Victorian Women.” In Nineteenth-Century Women Writers of the English-Speaking World, edited by Rhoda B. Nathan, pp. 27-35. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1984, Cohen discusses Dodgson's views on higher education for women and his personal contributions to the education of women and girls in mathematics and formal logic.]

We are all aware that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, nurtured all his mature life a special preference for the female of the species. The preference was special because it was a preference not for all females,...

(The entire section is 4261 words.)

Morton N. Cohen (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Cohen, Morton N. “Lewis Carroll and Victorian Morality.” In Sexuality and Victorian Literature, edited by Don Richard Cox, pp. 3-19. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Cohen addresses critical speculation about Carroll's sex life.]

A few years ago a well-known writer came to talk with me about Lewis Carroll. He was writing a biography of Carroll, and, as I was then editing Carroll's letters, he thought that I might be able to help him. Most of all, he wanted to know about Carroll's sex life. He asked me a long string of pointed questions, and he wanted specific, factual answers. I could not, in all honesty, supply them,...

(The entire section is 8258 words.)

Daniel Bivona (essay date September 1986)

SOURCE: Bivona, Daniel. “Alice the Child-Imperialist and the Games of Wonderland.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 41, no. 2 (September 1986): 143-71.

[In the following essay, Bivona considers Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as an allegory of nineteenth-century British imperialism.]

Few would dispute the claim that Lewis Carroll was fascinated by games and puzzles. His interest in logical and mathematical games has been well documented. Moreover, although he seems rarely to have turned his attention to politics, on at least one occasion when he did—at the time of the Parliamentary debate over the Second Irish Home Rule Bill—he took a characteristic...

(The entire section is 11612 words.)

Sophie Marret (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Marret, Sophie. “Metalanguage in Lewis Carroll.” SubStance 22, nos. 2-3 (1993): 217-27.

[In the following essay, Marret examines the Alice books and The Hunting of the Snark in conjunction with Dodgson's nonfiction work on symbolic logic.]

The modernity of Lewis Carroll's literary work lies in the reversal of his own theses in the field of logic. Indeed, his intuitions about the role of the subject, discernible in his literary writing, seem to condemn rationality, which nonetheless is one of the foundations of the Alice books. Symbolic Logic, the handbook to which he devoted the end of his life, would thus appear as an ultimate...

(The entire section is 4581 words.)

Robert M. Polhemus (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Polhemus, Robert M. “Lewis Carroll and the Child in Victorian Fiction.” In The Columbia History of the British Novel, edited by John Richetti, pp. 579-607. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Polhemus explores Carroll's representation of children, suggesting that the idea of using children as subjects in fiction was just emerging when the Alice books were published.]

What do you suppose is the use of a child without any meaning?

Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll's two books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the...

(The entire section is 11870 words.)

Gabriele Schwab (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Schwab, Gabriele. “Nonsense and Metacommunication: Reflections on Lewis Carroll.” In The Play of the Self, edited by Ronald Bogue and Mihai I. Spariosu, pp. 157-79. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Schwab considers Carroll's experimental treatment of language, maintaining that his work anticipates the twentieth-century movements of surrealism, modernism, and postmodernism.]

The history of nonsense literature is intrinsically linked to the history of literary realism. With the latter's insistence on the validity of the quotidian as an aesthetic object, nineteenth-century realism led to a radical redefinition of the...

(The entire section is 9482 words.)

Susan Sherer (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Sherer, Susan. “Secrecy and Autonomy in Lewis Carroll.” Philosophy and Literature 20, no. 1 (1996): 1-19.

[In the following essay, Sherer discusses Alice's adventures as representative of the Victorian child's desire to retreat to a secret place in order to establish autonomy.]

Victorian novels quiver with morbid secrets and threatening discoveries. Unseen rooms, concealed doors, hidden boxes, masked faces, buried letters, all appear (and disappear) with striking regularity in the fiction of Victorian England. So many of these secret spaces contain children, and especially little girls, little girls in hidden spaces. The young Jane Eyre sits behind a...

(The entire section is 7373 words.)

Carolyn Sigler (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Sigler, Carolyn. Introduction to Alternative Alices: Visions and Revisions of Lewis Carroll's Alice Books: An Anthology, pp. xi-xxiii. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

[In the following essay, Sigler provides an overview of the critical reception of the Alice stories over the last century and discusses Carroll's contributions to literary modernism.]

It may be thought that in introducing a certain little lady ALICEnce has been taken. But royal personages are public property.

—Jean Jambon, Our Trip to Blundertown (1876)

Alternative Alices brings...

(The entire section is 5285 words.)

Elizabeth Sewell (essay date fall-winter 1999)

SOURCE: Sewell, Elizabeth. “‘In the Midst of His Laughter and Glee’: Nonsense and Nothingness in Lewis Carroll.” Soundings 82, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1999): 541-71.

[In the following excerpt, Sewell explores the themes of death and nothingness in The Hunting of the Snark and “Three Voices.”]

“Nonsense is how the English choose to take their Poésie pure.

This sentence in one form or another keeps turning up in my pursuit of French poetry and of Nonsense over the last fifty years. I meant it originally as something of a squib, but it organized the contents of my first work of criticism, The Structure of Poetry,...

(The entire section is 7432 words.)

Michael Irwin (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Irwin, Michael. “Alice: Reflections and Relativities.” In Rereading Victorian Fiction, edited by Alice Jenkins and Juliet John, pp. 115-28. Houndmills, England: Palgrave, 2000.

[In the following essay, Irwin explores the theme of instability in the Alice stories.]

The Alice books are centrally concerned with instability. In Wonderland the heroine suffers alarming shifts of size. In Through the Looking-Glass (1871) there is much straightforward physical disequilibrium. When the White Knight is sliding down the poker Alice notes that ‘he balances very badly’.1 He and the Red Knight repeatedly fall off their horses....

(The entire section is 5697 words.)

M. S. Ashbourne (essay date spring 2001)

SOURCE: Ashbourne, M. S. “The Cheshire-Cat: Sign of Signs.” Interdisciplinary Journal for Germanic Linguistics and Semiotic Analysis 6, no. 1 (spring 2001): 79-106.

[In the following essay, Ashbourne examines the semiotic implications of the Cheshire Cat in the Alice stories.]

On January 14, 1898, Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll, died at the age of 65 years, leaving the world to grieve the loss of one of its most gifted writers of books for children. Both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (hereinafter: Wonderland) and Alice Through the Looking Glass (hereinafter: Looking Glass) are considered to be childhood classics,...

(The entire section is 10542 words.)

Ben Silverstone (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Silverstone, Ben. “Children, Monsters, and Words in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.Cambridge Quarterly 30, no. 4 (2001): 319-56.

[In the following essay, Silverstone discusses the similarities between the unconventional language employed by Carroll in his fiction and the “speculative morphologies” practiced by children as they master the rules of language.]

In the preface to the fourth edition of his Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Walter Skeat acknowledges a debt to an earlier lexicographer: ‘I have also made some use of the curious book on Folk-Etymology by the Rev. A. S....

(The entire section is 7653 words.)