Themes and Meanings

The Hunting of the Snark belongs to the family of narratives called romance quest: A band of comrades sets out on a journey into a perilous domain on a quest for something of value. Often the exact nature of the object of the quest is a mystery. In the perilous domain the comrades encounter obstacles that test their heroic virtue. In medieval literature the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table engaged in a quest for the Holy Grail. In a mock heroic journey in Victorian England, Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” depicts a similar journey into the perilous unknown carried out by a motley crew, ranging from a banker to a bootblack. In order to find the Snark, they must lose themselves.

Carroll claimed that the poem originated when a single line of nonsense randomly came into his mind, “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.” Many readers have suggested a symbolic meaning for the Snark: wealth, power, glory, honor, love. Unfortunately, the price for attaining the desire is annihilation. The poem invokes the trope of the “possessor possessed.” The hunter thinks he is going to capture the Snark, but the Snark always gets him instead. Perhaps the reader enters the text of Carroll’s poem looking for a meaning, like the Bellman’s crew hunting the Snark, but the meaning is elusive.

The world of the Snark is surreal and absurd. The poem’s central concern is being and nothingness. French surrealist Louis Aragon translated Carroll’s poem into French and believed that such nonsense writings were a subversive political protest against the rigid social and economic structures of Victorian England. The Banker and the Broker are wasting their lives along with the lives of every Baker, Butcher, and Bonnet-maker in a crazy search of worthless, destructive wealth.

Psychological critics see the lonely, shy, celibate Carroll with his penchant for making friendships with pretty, young girls as a fertile domain for exploration. Carroll desperately sought love, approval, and human contact, but the only source of these values in his emotional wasteland was the forbidden and shameful affection of very young girls. Overt expression of such love was strictly forbidden, so what he wanted most was repressed deep in his subconscious.