Jabberwocky Themes

  • Nonsense is the central theme of Carroll's "Jabberwocky." Both the Jabberwock and the Bandersnatch are creatures that use language senselessly, spouting empty phrases devoid of meaning. The speaker's son fights the Jabberwock with his "vorpal" ("voracious word") sword, effectively defeating nonsense with his knowledge of language.
  • In his fight against nonsense, the speaker's son becomes a heroic figure. He's associated with the forces of 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 belies its length.
  • With heroism comes the theme of violence. The speaker's son and the Jabberwock come into conflict in Stanza Four, two stanzas after the speaker warned the boy about the Jabberwock. Note that the speaker doesn't intend the two to come into conflict; the boy goes looking for the fight, intent on destroying the enemy instead of just avoiding it. This is part of what makes him a hero. 

Themes

The Heroic Quest
Despite its seeming playfulness, “Jabberwocky” contains a very serious theme as old as literature itself...

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Themes and Meanings

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....

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