The main themes in "Jabberwocky" are fantasy versus reality and the heroic quest.
- Fanstasy versus reality: Both the Jabberwock and the Bandersnatch are fantastical creatures that use language senselessly, spouting phrases devoid of meaning. Though their words often sound pleasant and musical, they lack substance. The speaker's son fights the Jabberwock with his "vorpal" ("voracious word") blade, effectively defeating fantastical nonsense with meaningful language.
- The heroic quest: The hero is associated with goodness and sense, whereas the Jabberwock is associated with evil and nonsense. The battle between these two forces gives the poem an epic quality that pits good against evil.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1001
The Heroic Quest
Despite its seeming playfulness, “Jabberwocky” contains a very serious theme as old as literature itself (as seen in such ancient texts as The Odyssey and Beowulf). This theme is the heroic quest, in which a (usually) young male will strike out for parts unknown, encounter some horrific beast, and either triumph over this force of dark- ness or be consumed by it. The roots of the literary heroic quest reach as far back as Greek, Roman, and early Christian mythology, and examples include Jason and the Argonauts encountering all types of fantastical beasts in their quest for the golden fleece, Oedipus’ victory over the vicious Sphinx to rescue the city of Thebes, and David’s encounter with Goliath. The tradition of the heroic quest is prevalent in poetry as well as in drama and fiction, and this theme has long appealed to young boys (remember Jack, the Giant Killer?), who are expected to eventually strike out on their own and conquer their demons (personal or otherwise) in order to “prove” their manhood. Along with Carroll’s memorable fabrication of imaginative new words in “Jabberwocky,” the heroic quest recounted in the poem is a key reason why it remains one of the most popular (if not the most popular) examples of nonsense verse ever penned.
Indeed, once past the disorienting yet fanciful description of the opening stanza, the reader encounters a number of elements that are the heroic quest’s stock-in-trade. These include fantastical and menacing creatures (the Jabberwock, the Jubjub bird, the Bandersnatch), ancient weaponry (the “vorpal sword”), the long journey into a dark forest where the hero’s encounter with “the manxome foe” is to take place, and the mandatory return of the vanquished creature’s head as proof of the heroic deed. In composing “Jabberwocky,” Carroll clearly wanted to evoke mythical battles of long ago, in the knowledge that such action-packed episodes appeal deeply to the youthful audience he so cultivated.
Carroll is known for having directed much of his literary output specifically at young girls, whose company he is well-known to have preferred over that of young boys. “Jabberwocky,” however, is clearly aimed more at young male readers, dealing as it does with the gender-specific theme of the heroic quest. The power of such archetypal material, of course, has by no means diminished in this day and age; one only has to look at the immense popularity of the Star Wars movies among male youngsters for proof of this fact. Yet it is important to note that at the time of the publication of “Jabberwocky,” during the height of Victorian England, young men, more so then than now, were expected (and even pressured by their fathers) to undertake some type of heroic quest, whether it be for queen or country or for personal or familial gain. Back then, there weren’t many people who questioned the ostensible validity of war and aggression under sanctioned circumstances, and such endeavors were even encouraged by most fathers of their sons. The pressure to be a hero, therefore, was very much in the Victorian public mind, and the greater the menace (i.e., the Jabberwock with its “jaws that bite” and “claws that catch”), the greater the glory and paternal pride for the son.
Fantasy versus Reality
One of the remarkable things about “Jabberwocky” is how deftly Carroll synthesizes the worlds of fantasy and reality. Both worlds remain closely balanced throughout the poem, and readers can thank Carroll’s close attention to poetic form for this clever balancing act. The danger with fantasy, of course, is that meaning and sense can get lost if the author creates a “wonderland” without any worldly touchstones or uses nonsense words in such a way that the overall effect baffles rather than enlightens. By mixing unfamiliar words such as “borogoves” and “frabjous” with familiar ones like “sword” and “wood,” Carroll is able to kill two Jubjub birds with one stone. On the one hand, he can appeal to children’s fascination with verbal sounds as well as their sense of playfulness, and on the other, he can transmit warnings to his youthful readers about the all-too-real dangers of the world around them.
Another key point to make with regard to this theme is how the poem’s fantasy elements cast an unsettling, even threatening, shadow on terra firma (“terror” firma?). Ever the logician and champion of rational, civilized society, Carroll may be suggesting in “Jabberwocky” that anything irrational (i.e., “uncivilized”) is to be feared and avoided. Of course, concrete representations of the irrational abound in “Jabberwocky”: the Jabberwock, the Jubjub bird, the Bandersnatch. Such agents of chaos presumably dwell far from the safe confines of civilization, given that the hero must journey a long way to encounter the dreaded Jabberwock, and the fact that Carroll doesn’t describe these creatures in much detail makes them even more mysterious and potentially terrifying to young readers. Indeed, to members of Victorian society, with its obsessive adherence to order and manners, anything that couldn’t be categorized and thus “controlled” would be considered a threat to the desired social order.
Hence the poem’s supreme irony. By giving the uncontrollable forces of nature names (e.g., Jabberwock and Bandersnatch), Carroll is attempting to gain a measure of control and order over an ostensibly irrational universe. Yet the names of these creatures are nonsense words that are themselves expressions of the irrational. Could Carroll be implying that the human mind, with its capacity for irrational acts such as the creation of nonsense words, is as much a threat to the order of things as any jaw-toothed, red-eyed denizen of the dark forest? Perhaps, perhaps not. Still, if the poet’s mission is to use language to impose order on a seemingly chaotic world, Carroll appears to be carrying out this mission in “Jabberwocky,” even if the world described in the poem is more fantastical than the one we’re used to seeing in our waking lives.
Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654
Deliberate nonsense claims, by definition, to be devoid of meaning. Although Carroll’s satirical annotation of the original version of the first stanza produces a painstaking word-by-word analysis, the result is calculatedly silly. Because the five enclosed stanzas constitute a story of sorts, however, it is perfectly reasonable to discuss the theme of the narrative. The tale offers a conventional account of a young man’s quest; like any knight errant—whether of Anglo-Norman romance or modern genre fantasy—he sets out, forearmed by the warnings of his worldly-wise father, to confront a draconian threat, which he despatches with casual ease before returning home to a hero’s welcome. The net effect of the rhythmically interpolated nonsense words is, however, to make the adventure seem utterly absurd.
The implicit meaninglessness and perverse interpretation of the poem’s neologisms are extremely contagious, overspilling the words to call into question both the conventionality of the knightly quest as a generic device and the formality of lyric poetry as a vehicle for conveying that kind of content. It is not surprising that Carroll went on to produce a much more elaborate and more carefully satirical account of a vaingloriously futile quest in the mock epic Hunting of the Snark, nor is it surprising that he should take the trouble to acknowledge the contribution of “Jabberwocky” to the longer poem’s inspiration by reusing several of its key terms, intermingled with new coinages. It is necessary to observe, however, that the flow of contagion is not unidirectional. While the nonsensical vocabulary infects the tale in which it is embedded, the narrative force and energy of the tale infuses the words themselves, casting shadows of meaning where none really exist.
So powerful is this process of infusion that some of the words acquire indelibly clear connotations bestowed upon them by context, and even those that remain the most stubbornly opaque acquire a certain propriety. Even though one cannot say what “vorpal” means, the story links it so inextricably with the “snicker-snackering” sword that it is forever trapped as an adjective applicable to blades. Any claim of meaninglessness, no matter how definitive, is bound to falter when nonsense words are built into sentences, and the sentences into stories.
Only the bracketing stanza of “Jabberwocky,” which scrupulously avoids juxtaposing its nonsense terms with everyday nouns, adjectives, and verbs, can hope to pass muster as authentic nonsense, and even those four lines cannot entirely overcome the handicaps imposed by grammar and rhythm. Meaning springs unbidden from the information that toves can be slithy, that they gyre and gimble together, that borogoves are prone to mimsiness, and that raths—perhaps especially when mome—are liable to grabe exceedingly.
Alice comments, after discovering the poem inscribed in mirror-writing, that “it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!” She is reproducing the response of any child (or adult) confronted with a text replete with as-yet-unfamiliar jargon, whose confusion is ameliorated—if only slightly—by the enthusiasm of discovery. Having found “Jabberwocky,” Alice wants to know what it means, and she is understandably distressed when the explanation she eventually demands from Humpty Dumpty is no help at all.
People are not born with language; it confronts everyone, in the first instance, as nonsense, but within its organization there is always hope of finding meaning. More important is hope of finding the real meaning not merely of the world and its story but also of each person’s hopefully heroic part in the narrative of life. The other side of the coin is, however, the anxiety that even when people have done their utmost to comprehend it, the world will remain stubbornly nonsensical, and the awful certainty that when the “frabjous” day is done people shall again encounter, for a second and final time, the confusion that reigned before they learned to be themselves—and after that, silence.