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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...

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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

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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

Michael Holquist (essay date 1969)

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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 discourse on.

Swift, Gulliver's Travels

What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered?

Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

Because the question “What is a Boojum?” may appear strange or whimsical, I would like to begin by giving some reasons for posing it. Like many other readers, I have been intrigued and perplexed by a body of literature often called modern or post-modern, but which is probably most efficiently expressed in a list of authors: Joyce, Kafka, Beckett, Nabokov, Borges, Genet, Robbe-Grillet—the list could be extended, but these names will probably suffice to suggest, if very roughly, the tradition I have in mind. The works of these men are all very dissimilar to each other. However, they seem to have something in common when compared not to themselves as a class, but to past literature. In casting about for specific terms which might define this vaguely felt sense of what was distinctive and yet shared in these works, two things constantly inhibited any progress. The first was one's sense of the ridiculous: aware of other attempts to define the modern, one knew that it was difficult to do so without becoming shrill or unduly chileastic. There is a group of critics, of whom Ihab Hassan and Nathan Scott might be considered representative, who insist on an absolute cut-off between all of previous history and the modern experience. They have in their characteristically humorless way taken seriously Virginia Woolf's remark that “on or about December, 1910 human nature changed.” The work of these critics is easily recognized in the apocalyptic rhetoric which distinguishes their writing, and in the irresponsible application they make of terms derived from modern German philosophy. Some rather thick books on the subject of recent literature could easily be reduced in size through the simple expedient of excising any mention of Heimweh, Geworfenheit, and that incantatory word, Angst. So one thing which made it difficult to get at distinctive features in recent literature was the sense that it was very different from previous literature; and at the same time to recognize that it was not the end of history.

Another stumbling block, much less serious, was the constant recurrence of a phrase, which continually passed through my mind as I would read new works. I would read that Gregor Samsa woke up one morning to discover that he was an Ungeziefer, and immediately a ghostly refrain would be heard in my inner ear: “Aha, for the Snark was a Boojum, you see!” The same thing would happen when in Lolita, one discovered that all those strange men following Humbert were Quilty; or when reading in Gombrowicz that there was nothing to identity but the grimace [gęba]; and so on and on—one kept hearing “The Snark was a Boojum, you see.” Pausing to reflect on this, the association of Lewis Carroll with modern literature seemed natural enough: his name figures in the first Surrealist manifesto (1924); Louis Aragon and André Breton write essays on Carroll; the former attempts a translation of The Snark (1929), the latter includes selections from Carroll in his Anthologie de l'humour noir (1939). Henri Parisot publishes a study of Carroll in 1952, in a series called, significantly, Poetes d'aujourd hui; Antonin Artaud tried to translate the Jabberwocky song; Joyce's use of portmanteau words, without which there would be no Finnegans Wake, is only one index of his high regard for Carroll; Borges admires Carroll, and Nabokov translates all of Alice in Wonderland into Russian (Anja v strane chudes, 1923). But such obvious associations of Carroll with modern authors were not, it turned out, the reason why the Boojum kept raising its head as I read these men.

Finally, I picked up again, after many years, The Hunting of the Snark, and it soon became apparent why its final line kept popping up in connection with modern literature: Lewis Carroll's “agony in eight fits” was not only among the first to exemplify what is perhaps the most distinctive feature of modern literature, it did so more openly, more paradigmatically than almost any other text one knew. That is, it best dramatized the attempt of an author to insure through the structure of his work that the work could be perceived only as what it was, and not some other thing; the attempt to create an immaculate fiction, a fiction that resists the attempts of readers, and especially those readers who write criticism, to turn it into an allegory, a system equitable with already existing systems in the non-fictive world. In what follows, I propose to outline this pattern of resistances in some detail as it exists in The Hunting of the Snark, and then, in a short conclusion to suggest the significance the pattern may have for readers of experimental modern fiction. But before looking at the poem itself, it might prove helpful to have some background information.

Lewis Carroll is, of course, a pseudonym. Characteristically for its bearer, it is an acrostic, based on an inversion of the re-Latinized forms of his two Christian names, Charles Lutwidge. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson is a fascinating object of study in himself, but in what follows I propose to mention only those aspects of his career which bear directly on the significance of the Snark poem.

Dodgson's whole career can best be understood as a quest for order, in some ways not unlike that of the White Knight in Through the Looking Glass. He begins his career as a student of mathematics, and was for many years a teacher of the subject in Christ Church College, Oxford. In his later years even the precision of Euclidian geometry failed to satisfy his lust for order, and he turned to symbolic logic. There are many anecdotes which further point up his compulsive orderliness: when he had packages to be wrapped, he drew diagrams so precise that they showed to a fraction of an inch just where the knots should be tied; he kept congeries of thermometers in his apartments and never let the temperature rise above or fall below a specific point. He worked out a system for betting on horses which eliminated disorderly chance. He wrote the director of Covent Garden telling him how to clear up the traffic jams which plagued the theater; to the post office on how to make its regulations more efficient. And after having written all these letters (more than 98,000 before he died), he then made an abstract of each, and entered it into a register with notes and cross references. When he saw the first proofs of Alice in Wonderland, he refused to accept them because, as his illustrator Tenniel had pointed out, they were not clear enough, a scruple which, however, did not keep him from selling the 2000 copies of this rejected printing to an American publisher, for whose colonial audience he felt the plates were adequate. When going over the plates for the illustrations to his last books, Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, prepared by the artist Harry Furniss, Dodgson put them under a microscope in order to count the lines in the etchings. And then, in a gesture that is pure Nabokov, he compiled an index for these novels, complete with listings for “crocodiles, logic of” and “frog, young, how to amuse,” all arranged from A (“Accelerated velocity, causes of”) to W (“wilful waste, etc., lesson to be learnt from”). It should be clear that Dodgson's life, in the large outline of his whole career and in the smallest details of his everyday existence, was dominated by the quest for a more perfect order. I will return to the significance of this point in a moment. But one further aspect of Dodgson/Carroll's existence should first be mentioned. It concerns the necessity of the slash or hyphen which one must use when referring to this author. That is, he is both Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, student (or Fellow) of Christ Church, and Lewis Carroll, author of books of nonsense.

Queen Victoria herself became aware of the split when, having been delighted in 1865 by Alice in Wonderland, she asked that a standing order be left for the author's next book; in 1866 she was not amused when she was given Dodgson's formidably technical Condensation of Determinants. Another revealing story is told by one of the child friends from Dodgson's later years, Isa Bowman, who grew up to write a book about her benefactor. As a young girl he took her to see one of those static panoramas so beloved by the Victorians. It was a diorama of Niagara Falls, with the figure of a dog in the foreground. Dodgson amused her by spinning a tale in which the dog was really alive, but trained to stand motionless for hours on end. He “… added other absurd details about the dog, how, if we waited long enough, we should see an attendant bring him a bone, how he was allowed so many hours off each day when his brother, who unfortunately was rather restless, would take his place, and how this badly behaved animal on one occasion jumped right out of the panorama among the onlookers, attracted by the sight of a little girl's sandwich, and so on. Suddenly he began to stammer and looking round in some alarm, I saw that a dozen grown-ups and children had gathered around and were listening with every appearance of amused interest. And it was not Mr. Carroll but a very confused Mr. Dodgson who took me by the hand and led me quickly from the scene.”1 Much has been made of this dichotomy between Mr. Carroll and Mr. Dodgson, and psychoanalytical studies, such as Phyllis Greenacre's Swift and Carroll (New York, 1955), suggest that the man was simply a schizophrenic who found a unique means of adjustment.

A more balanced view has been provided in what are probably the two best studies of Carroll: Elizabeth Sewell's The Field of Nonsense (London, 1952) and Alfred Liede's Dichtung als Spiel (Berlin, 1963, 2 vols.). These two critics have suggested that the split between Dodgson and Carroll is only an apparent dichotomy, quickly resolved if one sees that there is a common pursuit at the heart of each avatar, a Drang nach Ordnung which Dodgson/Carroll sought in mathematics and logic, in the strictly ordered life of an Oxford scholar, in the severely proper existence of a Victorian gentleman—and last but not least, in nonsense. In fact it was in nonsense that Dodgson's compulsion toward order found its most perfect expression, a point that has also been made by a professor of logic at Leeds University, Peter Alexander.2 I would further add that the most nonsensical nonsense which Carroll created is The Hunting of the Snark. There is an ascending progression toward the apex it represents in 1876, from the first Alice book (1865) through the second (1872); and all the work after the Snark was a decline, a falling away which is painful in the last books, Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893).

The Snark 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. For nonsense, in the writings of Lewis Carroll, at any rate, does not mean gibberish; it is not chaos, but the opposite of chaos. It is a closed field of language in which the meaning of any single unit is dependent on its relationship to the system of the other constituents. Nonsense is “a collection of words of events which in their arrangement do not fit into some recognized system,”3 but which constitute a new system of their own. As has recently been said, “what we have learned from Saussure is that, taken singly, signs do not signify anything, and that each one of them does not so much express a meaning as mark a divergence of meaning between itself and other signs … The prior whole which Saussure is talking about cannot be the explicit and articulated whole of a complete language as it is recorded in grammars and dictionaries … the unity he is talking about is a unity of coexistence, like that of the sections of an arch which shoulder one another. In a unified whole of this kind, the learned parts of a language have an immediate value as a whole, and progress is made less by addition and juxtaposition than by the internal articulation of a function which in its own way is already complete.”4 My argument here is that The Hunting of the Snark constitutes such a whole; it is its own system of signs which gain their meaning by constantly dramatizing their differences from signs in other systems. The poem is, in a small way, its own language. This is difficult to grasp because its elements are bound up so closely with the syntax, morphology, and, fleetingly, the semantics of the English language.

Some illustrations, taken from Carroll, may help us here. In the book which most closely approximates the completeness of the system in the Snark, Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty says in a famous passage: “‘When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that's all.’” This last remark is a rebuke to Alice, who has not understood the problem: it is not, as she says, to “make words mean so many different things.” It is to make a word mean just one thing, the thing which its user intends and nothing else. Which is to be master—the system of language which says “‘glory’ doesn't mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’” or Humpty who says it does mean that, and in his system, only that. Nonsense is a system in which, at its purest, words mean only one thing, and they get that meaning through divergence from the system of the nonsense itself, as well as through divergence from an existing language system. This raises, of course, the question of how one understands nonsense. It is a point to which I will return later; for the moment suffice it to say that if meaning in nonsense is dependent on the field it constructs, then the difference between nonsense and gibberish is that nonsense is a system which can be learned, as languages are learned. Thus the elements of the system can be perceived relationally, and therefore meaningfully, within it. Gibberish, on the other hand, is unsystematic.

What this suggests is that nonsense, among other things, is highly abstract. It is very much like the pure relations which obtain in mathematics, where ten remains ten, whether ten apples, ten horses, ten men, or ten Bandersnarks. This is an important point, and helps to define one relationship of nonsense to modernism. For it suggests a crucial difference between nonsense and the absurd. The absurd points to a discrepancy between purely human values and purely logical values. When a computer announces that the best cure for brain cancer is to amputate the patient's head, it is, according its system, being logical.5 But such a conclusion is unsettling to the patient and absurd to less involved observers. The absurd is a contrast between systems of human belief, which may lack all logic, and the extremes of a logic unfettered by human disorder. Thus the absurd is basically play with order and disorder. Nonsense is play with order only. It achieves its effects not from contrasting order and confusion, but rather by contrasting one system of order against another system of order, each of which is logical in itself, but which cannot find a place in the other. This distinction may help to account for the two dominant modes of depersonalization in recent literature. The absurd operates in the theater, where the contrast of human/non-human serves to exploit the presence of living actors on the stage. Nonsense, understood as defined above, dominates in prose fictions, where the book may become its own hermetic world, its own laboratory for systematic play, without the anthropomorphizing presence of actors. Thus the difference between, say, Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and the same author's Comment c'est.

Lewis Carroll is one of the most important figures in the movement Ortega y Gasset has called the “dehumanization of art.” Kafka was not the first to reduce his hero to an integer; his K has an earlier analogue in one of the many essays Dodgson wrote on Oxford university issues. In 1865 the Regius chair in Greek fell vacant, and Dodgson used the occasion as an inspiration for a little paper called “A New Method of Evaluation of π”: “Let U=the university, G=Greek, and P=professor. Then GP=Greek Professor; let this be reduced to its lowest terms and call the result I. Also let W=the work done, T=the times, p=giving payment, π=the payment according to T, and S=the sum required; so that π=S. The problem is to obtain a value for π which shall be commensurate with W …”

“Let this be reduced to its lowest terms …” What Dodgson has expressed here in satire is a fundamental principle of his nonsense. For to reduce a word to one meaning is surely to reduce language to its lowest terms. The effect is to create a condition of what the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky has called ostranenie, or “making it strange.” But, again like so much modern literature, the effect in the Snark is not just to estrange a character or an event, but to estrange language itself. The technique is usually employed to render some familiar action unfamiliar by describing it naively, as if perceived for the first time. And this is what nonsense does to language. But it has a purpose for doing so, one which Merleau-Ponty has hinted at in another context: “If we want to understand language as an originating operation, we must pretend never to have spoken, submit language to a reduction without which it would once more escape us by referring us to what it signifies for us, [we must] look at [language] as deaf people look at those who are speaking.”6 Or, it should be added, look at language as children or Lewis Carroll look at language.

In order to understand “language as an originating operation” we must, in other words, see it as a process, as a system in itself. By so doing, one becomes aware of its capacity to present us with something new. But in order to achieve this state of radical linguistic innocence it is necessary to put aside all expectations which arise from the habit of creating meaning through systems other than language. Perception has recently been defined as being “primarily the modification of an anticipation.”7 The unfamiliar is always understood in terms of the familiar.8 This may seem a bit opaque, but it is really quite simple, and an operation we engage in and see performed every day around us. The most common example of it in literary criticism is found in the work of critics who bring to bear on any given text a procrustean system, the sort of thing T. S. Eliot had in mind when he referred to the “lemon-squeezer school” of criticism. A rigidly Freudian critic will never perceive a dark, wet setting as anything but a womb symbol, or an object which is slender and vertical as anything but a phallic symbol, regardless of the fact that, in the system of the text he is treating, the former is a bower in a forest, say, or the latter a cane or spear. This critic has not seen bowers or spears in the one system because his expectations are a function of another system. In order to see a new thing we must be able to recognize it as such, and this is done by the willed inhibition of systems we have learnt before coming upon the novel object, an act performed in the service of learning new systems. If this is not done in literary criticism, all texts become allegories. The Odyssey ceases to be an epic system with properties peculiar to it alone, and becomes an Allegory of Quest; Gulliver's Travels ceases to be a satiric structure with its own distinctive features, and is turned into an allegory of Swift's psychological development, an orgy of Freudian Anality; Dostoevsky's novels become equally orgiastic allegories of Sin and Redemption.

Critics of Lewis Carroll have possibly developed this allegorical urge to its ultimate limits. Phyllis Greenacre, a practicing psychiatrist, cannot forget that Dodgson loved to photograph little girls in the nude, with results for her interpretation of the Alice books which are as predictable as they are unfortunate.9 Louis Aragon, in a 1931 article in Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution does a Marxian interpretation of the Alice books, notable for such insights as: “in those shameful days of massacre in Ireland … human liberty lay wholly in the frail hands of Alice …” William Empson has combined Freudian and Marxian techniques in his reading, “The Child as Swain.”10 Alice experiences birth trauma, and her tears become amniotic fluid; commenting on the famous scene at the end of Through the Looking Glass where Alice pulls off the tablecloth, sending plates, dishes, and guests hurtling to the floor, Empson remarks, “It is the High Table of Christ Church we must think of here …”11 A. L. Taylor makes the Alice books into that easiest to find of all allegories, the Christian.12 I have argued that the Alice books are less perfect nonsense than The Hunting of the Snark; therefore they are less hermetic, less systematic in their own right, and thus more porous to other systems.

But even the Snark has not escaped the allegorist. Alexander Taylor sees it as an anti-vivisectionist tract13 and Martin Gardner, in his otherwise fine annotated version, suggests a crude existentialist reading, full of Angst's, and in which the Boojum somehow becomes the atomic bomb.14 A former dean of the Harvard Business School has argued that the poem is “a satire on business in general, the Boojum a symbol of a business slump, and the whole thing a tragedy about the business cycle.”15 I will not go into F. C. S. Schiller's theory, which states that the Snark is a satire on Hegelian philosophy, because Schiller presents his theory as a send-up. But even W. H. Auden has said that the Snark is a “pure example” of the way in which, “if thought of as isolated in the midst of the ocean, a ship can stand for mankind and human society moving through time and struggling with its destiny.”16

Now there is something remarkably wrong about all this. Dodgson himself would be astounded. We have his word that “I can guarantee that the books have no religious teaching whatever in them—in fact they do not teach anything at all.”17 It may be that, knowing how drearily and relentlessly didactic Victorian children's books were, readers have not been able to accept that the most famous representative of the class is without uplift of one sort or another. However a quick comparison of Alice or the Snark with Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (1863) should be enough to convince any unprejudiced reader of the fact. Kingsley's book, it will be remembered, ends with Tom, the erstwhile fairy, “now a great man of science [who] can plan railroads and steam engines, and electric telegraphs and rifled guns, and so forth.” Not content with this, the author adds, to his little readers in the attached “Moral,” “… do you learn your lessons, and thank God that you have plenty of cold water to wash in; and wash in it, too, like a true Englishman.”

Lewis Carroll does not cloy in this way because he had a very sophisticated image of his audience. One may be highly specific about what the word child meant to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. It meant first of all a girl; further, a girl between the ages of ten and thirteen, who belonged to an upper-middle class family; was beautiful; intelligent; well dressed and well behaved. Anything else was not a child. Now it is obvious that such a restricted view of children cannot be the same one which animates Lewis Carroll the author. Rather, this audience is conceived not in terms of chronology, but as a state of perceptual innocence and honesty. Children are the proper audience of nonsense only to the degree that they let strange things remain strange; to the degree they resist forcing old systems on new, and insist on differences rather than similarities. The allegorists who have written about the Snark without having seen it are obviously long past such a state of open potentiality.

The best argument against the Snark's allegorization remains, of course, the poem itself. The interpretation which follows is based not only on the poem itself, but on the various ways in which it is itself. That is, the poem is best understood as a structure of resistances to other structures of meaning which might be brought to it. The meaning of the poem consists in the several strategies which hedge it off as itself, which insure its hermetic nature against the hermeneutic impulse. Below are six of the many ways by which the poem gains coherence through inherence.

1. The dedication poem to Gertrude Chataway appears at first glance to be simply another of those treacly Victorian set pieces Dodgson would compose when he abandoned nonsense for what he sometimes thought was serious literature. But a second reading reveals that the poem contains an acrostic: the first letter of each line spells out Gertrude Chataway; a third reading will show that the initial word in the first line of each of the four quatrains constitute another acrostic, Girt, Rude, Chat, Away. This is the first indication in the poem that the words in it exist less for what they denote in the system of English than they do for the system Carroll will erect. That is, the initial four words of each stanza are there less to indicate the four meanings present in them before they were deployed by Carroll they at first convey (clothed, wild, speak, begone) than they are to articulate a purely idiosyncratic pattern of Carroll's own devising.

2. Another index of the systematic arbitrariness of the poem is found in the second quatrain of the first Fit: “Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice: / That alone should encourage the crew. / Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice: / What I tell you three times is true.” The rule of three operates in two ways. First of all it is a system for determining a truth that is absolutely unique to this poem. When in Fit 5 the Butcher wishes to prove that the scream he has heard belongs to a Jubjub bird, he succeeds in doing so by repeating three times. “'Tis the voice of the Jubjub!” Now, there will be those who say that there is no such thing as a Jubjub bird. But in fact, in the system of the Snark poem, there is—and his existence is definitively confirmed through the proof which that system itself provides in the rule of 3. In the game of nonsense that rule, and only that rule, works. The system itself provides the assurance that only it can give meaning to itself.

The rule of three also operates as a marker, indicating that the intrinsic logic of the poem is not that of extrinsic logic which operates in systems outside the construct of the poem. In other words, it is a parody of the three components of that core element in traditional logic, the syllogism. As an example of this, take an exercise from Dodgson's own book, Symbolic Logic (1896): “No one has read the letter but John; No one, who has not read it, knows what it is about.” The answer is, or course, “No one but John knows what the letter is about.” The third repetition “'Tis the voice of the Jubjub,” has the same effect in nonsense that the third part of the syllogistic progression has in logic. The Oxford Universal Dictionary defines a syllogism as a major and a minor premise, “with a third proposition called the conclusion, resulting necessarily from the other two.” If you begin with nonsense, and its conclusion, like the syllogism, results necessarily from the beginning, you also end with nonsense. The progression is closed to other systems. It is not, incidentally, without significance for Carroll's play with words that the etymology of syllogism is a portmanteau from the Greek syllogizesthai (to reckon together) and logizesthai (to reason) which has its root, logos.

3. The same effect of an arbitrariness whose sense can be gleaned only from the poem itself is to be found in the various names of the crew members: Bellman, Boots, Bonne-maker, Barrister, Broker, Billiard-marker, Banker, Beaver, Baker, and Butcher. They all begin with a B. And much ink has been spilled in trying to explain (from the point of view of the allegory a given critic has tried to read into the Snark) why this should be so. The obvious answer, if one resists the impulse to substitute something else for the text, is that they all begin with B because they all begin with B. The fact that they all have the same initial sound is a parallel that draws attention to itself because it is a parallel. But it is only a parallel at the level where all the crew members on this voyage will be referred to by nouns which have an initial voiced bilabial plosive. In other words, it is a parallel that is rigidly observed, which dramatizes itself, but only as a dynamic process of parallelism, and nothing else.

4. Another way in which the poem sets up resistances which frustrate allegory is to be found in the fifth Fit. The butcher sets out to prove that two can be added to one. “Taking three as the subject to reason about— / A convenient number to state— / We add seven and ten, and then multiply out / By one thousand diminished by eight.

The result we proceed to divide, as you see, / By nine hundred and ninety and two: / Then subtract seventeen, and the answer must be / Exactly and perfectly true.”

And in fact the answer is perfectly true—but it is also what you begin with. The equation begins with 3—the number the Butcher is trying to establish—and it ends with 3. The math of the equation looks like this:

(x + 7 + 10) (1000 - 8)
————————— - 17 = x

[This] simplifies to x, or a pure integer. The equation is a process which begins with no content and ends with no content. It is a pure process which has no end other than itself. It is thus perhaps the best paradigm of the process of the whole poem: it does what it is about. It is pure surface, but as Oscar Wilde once observed, “there is nothing more profound than surface.”

5. A fifth way in which the poem maintains its structural integrity is found in the many coinages it contains, words which Humpty Dumpty defines as portmanteau words, two meanings packed into one word like a portmanteau; words which Giles Deleuze, in the most comprehensive study of Carroll's significance for language, Logique du Sens, has so charmingly translated as “les mots-valises.”18 Carroll, in the introduction to the Snark writes, “… take the two words ‘fuming’ and ‘furious.’ Make up your mind that you will say both words, but have it unsettled which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards ‘fuming’ you will say ‘fuming-furious;’ if they turn by even a hair's breadth towards ‘furious,’ you will say ‘furious-fuming;’ but if you have that rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say ‘frumious.’”

“If you have that rarest of gifts, a balanced mind …,” in other words, you will find just the right word, and not some approximation. In the seventh Fit, when the Banker is attacked by the Bandersnatch, the bird is described as having “frumious jaws.” And the Banker, utterly shaken, chants “in mimsiest tones,” a combination of miserable and flimsy. For a bird which exists only in the system of nonsense, adjectives used to describe objects in other systems will not do; they are not precise enough, and so the system itself provides its own adjective for its own substantive. Since only the Banker has ever been attacked by a Bandersnatch, it is necessary to find a unique adjective adequate to this unique experience: thus ‘mimsiest.” This attempt to find just the right word, and no other, resulting finally in coinages, is another way in which Carroll's search for precision, order, relates him to language as an innovative process in modern literature. Carroll speaks of “that rarest of gifts, a balanced mind” as the source of his experiment. In our own century it was a man remarkable for not possessing that gift who has best expressed the pathos of its absence in the face of language. In one of his fragments Antonin Artaud says “there's no correlation for me between words and the exact states of my being … I'm the man who's best felt the astounding disorder of his language in its relation to his thought.”19 Carroll's portmanteau words are revealing not only for the way they participate in the self-insuring autonomy of the poem. They also provide an illustration of how Carroll's nonsense is grounded in a logic of surface. The portmanteau word is not only a combination of two definitions, it is a combination of two systems, language and logic. Mention was made earlier of Saussure's insight into the way language means through divergence. The portmanteau word creates a new meaning by phonologically exploiting the divergence between two old meanings. It thus provides one of the most economical proofs of Saussure's insight into language. But the portmanteau word is also the third element of a three part progression, from one, furious, to two, fuming, to three, frumious. Like the rule of three it results in a new “truth,” and like the rule of three it is a unique kind of syllogism. In order to get a logical conclusion to the syllogism, it must grow out of a divergence between two prior parallel statements.

This is an important point if one is to see the logic which determines that Carroll's system is a language and not gibberish. In logic, not all pairs of apparent concrete propositions can result in a meaningful conclusion. Two examples, again taken from our poet's own textbook of Symbolic Logic will make the point. The two statements, “No riddles interest me if they can be solved”; and “All these riddles are insoluable,” cannot lead to a conclusion due to the fallacy of like eliminads not asserted to exist. “Some of these shops are not crowded; no crowded shops are comfortable” cannot lead to a conclusion due to the fallacy of unlike eliminads with an entity-premise. These and other possibilities for false syllogisms are generally subsumed under the fallacy of “post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” That is, the invalidity of the conclusion is a result of incorrect premises. And the criterion for determining whether the primary and secondary propositions are valid or not is provided by the rules of logic itself. These rules make up one system. But if one were to create another system, which would state that the original premises were correct according to its rules, then the same conclusion which the system of logic would call invalid would, perceived as a result obtained according to the new rules, be correct. By extrapolation a true syllogism has been created out of what was in another set false.

The point this arcane diversion into eliminads and entity-premises seeks to make is that the system of Carroll's nonsense is just such an extrapolation, it is the transcendence of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc principle into an aesthetic. Carroll's portmanteaux are words and not gibberish because they operate according to the rule which says that all coinages in the poem will grow out of the collapse of two known words into a new one. Carroll can deploy words he invents and still communicate, because he does so according to rules. Whereas an expression of gibberish would be a sound pattern whose meaning could not be gleaned from its use according to rules: an expression of gibberish would be a sound pattern whose meaning could not be gleaned either from the syntactic or morphological principles provided by its use, or which would be deducible according to such principles in a known language system. Nonsense, like gibberish, is a violence practiced on semantics. But since it is systematic, the sense of nonsense can be learned. And that is the value of it: it calls attention to language. Carroll's nonsense keeps us honest; through the process of disorientation and learning which reading him entails, we are made aware again that language is not something we know, but something alive, in process—something to be discovered.

6. The final structure of resistance I'd like to mention is contained in perhaps the most obvious feature of the poem, its rhyme. William K. Wimsatt, in a well-known essay, makes the point that in a poem the rhyme imposes “upon the logical pattern of expressed argument a kind of fixative counterpattern of alogical implication.”20 He goes on to say that “rhyme is commonly recognized as a binder in verse structure. But where there is need for binding there must be some difference or separation between the things to be bound. If they are already close together, it is supererogatory to emphasize this by the maneuver of rhyme. So we may say that the greater the difference in meaning between rhyme words the more marked and the more appropriate will be the binding effect.” This important insight into verse is contained in a piece entitled “One Relation of Rhyme to Reason.” Now, Lewis Carroll wrote a book entitled Rhyme? and Reason? (1883), and I suggest that the distinctive role which rhyme plays in the Snark is best caught by means of a titular portmanteau here. That is, it is precisely that one relation of rhyme to reason which Professor Wimsatt evokes in his title, which is put into question marks not only by Carroll's title of 1883, but which is also put into question in the function rhyme serves in The Hunting of the Snark.

Professor Wimsatt suggests that “the words of a rhyme, with their curious harmony of sound and distinction of sense, are an amalgam of the sensory and the logical, or an arrest and precipitation of the logical in sensory form; they are the icon in which the idea is caught.”21 I read this to mean that two words which are disparate in meaning result, when bound by rhyme, in a new meaning which was not contained in either of them alone. In other words, you get a kind of rule of three at work. Like the syllogism, two disparate but related elements originate a third. Thus understood, the rhyme of traditional verse has the effect of meaningful surprise; two rhymes will constitute a syllogism resulting in a new association.22

But this is not true of nonsense verse. “They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care; / They pursued it with forks and hope; / They threatened its life with a railway-share; / They charmed it with smiles and soap.” This stanza begins each of the last four Fits, and may stand as an example for what rhyme does throughout the poem. The rhyme words, “care, railway-share,” and “hope, soap” would be very different from each other in traditional verse, and binding effects of the sort Professor Wimsatt has demonstrated in Pope or Byron would be possible. Because the language of most verse is simply a more efficiently organized means of making sense of the sort that language outside verse provides. Thus, while very different, some kind of meaningful association could be made of them capable of catching an idea.

But “care,” “railway share,” “hope” and “soap” in this quatrain have as their ambiance not the semantic field of the English language, but the field of Carroll's nonsense. In traditional verse “rhyme words … can scarcely appear in a context without showing some difference of meaning.”23 But if the whole context of a poem is without meaning, its separate parts will also lack it. There can be no differences in meaning between words because they are all equally meaningless in this context. So the reader who attempts to relate rhyme to meaning in Carroll's poem will be frustrated. The syllogism of rhyme, which in other verse has a new meaning as its conclusion, ends, in Carroll's verse, where it began. Instead of aiding meaning, it is another strategy to defeat it. Language in nonsense is thus a seamless garment, a pure cover, absolute surface.

But if The Hunting of the Snark is an absolute metaphor, if it means only itself, why read it? There are several answers, but the one I have chosen to give here is that it may help us to understand other, more complex attempts to do the same thing in modern literature. It is easy to laugh at the various casuistries by which readers have sought to make an allegory, something else, out of the Snark. But the same sort of thing is being done every day to Kafka or Nabokov. Possibly the example of Lewis Carroll may suggest how far we must go, how much we must forget, how much we must learn in order to see fiction as fiction.

For the moral of the Snark is that it has no moral. It is a fiction, a thing which does not seek to be “real” or “true.” The nineteenth-century was a great age of system building and myth makers. We are the heirs of Marx and Freud, and many other prophets as well, all of whom seek to explain everything, to make sense out of everything in terms of one system or another. In the homogenized world which resulted, it could be seen that art was nothing more than another—and not necessarily privileged—way for economic or psychological forces to express themselves. As Robbe-Grillet says, “Cultural fringes (bits of psychology, ethics, metaphysics, etc.) are all the time being attached to things and making them seem less strange, more comprehensible, more reassuring.”24

Aware of this danger, authors have fought back, experimenting with new ways to insure the inviolability of their own systems, to invite abrasion, insist on strangeness, create fictions. Lewis Carroll is in some small degree a forerunner of this saving effort. To see his nonsense as a logic is thus far from being an exercise in bloodless formalism. That logic insures the fictionality of his art, and as human beings we need fictions. As is so often the case, Nietzsche said it best: “we have art in order not to die of the truth.”

After having stressed at such length that everything in the Snark means what it means according to its own system, it is no doubt unnecessary, but in conclusion I would like to answer the question with which we began. What is a Boojum? A Boojum is a Boojum.


  1. Cited in R. L. Green, Lewis Carroll (New York, 1962), p. 25.

  2. Logic and the Humor of Lewis Carroll (Leeds, 1951).

  3. Sewell, p. 25.

  4. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,” Signs, tr. Richard C. McCleary (Northwestern U. Press, 1964) pp. 39-40.

  5. For raising the problems of the relationship between nonsense and the absurd, and for the computer example, I am grateful to my friend Jan Kott.

  6. Merleau-Ponty, Ibid, p. 46.

  7. J. R. Beloff, “Perpection and Extrapolation,” Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, XXXII (May 1957), 44.

  8. See E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (Princeton U. Press, 1960), pp. 63-92.

  9. Greenacre, op. cit.

  10. Some Versions of Pastoral (London, 1935).

  11. Ibid., p. 294.

  12. The White Knight (Edinburgh, 1952).

  13. Taylor, op. cit.

  14. Martin Gardner, The Annotated Snark (New York, 1962), p. 25.

  15. Ibid., p. 19.

  16. The Enchafèd Flood (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), p. 63.

  17. Letter cited in Roger Lanclyn Green, Lewis Carroll (New York, 1962), p. 52.

  18. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1969, p. 59; see also pp. 268-78.

  19. Artaud Anthology, ed. Jack Hirschman (San Francisco, 1965), p. 37.

  20. The Verbal Icon (New York, 3rd Noonday edition, 1962), p. 153.

  21. Op. cit., p. 165.

  22. For a detailed study of sound/sense patterns in verse see: A. Kibedi Varga, Les Constantes du poème (The Hague, 1963), pp. 39-42, 91-121.

  23. Wimsatt, p. 156.

  24. “A Path for the Future of the Novel,” in Maurice Nadeau, The French Novel Since the War, tr. A. M. Sheridan Smith (London, 1967), p. 185.

Harold Beaver (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8642

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, Moby-Dick, Ch. 42.

It was a Frenchman who first proposed that Lewis Carroll might owe a literary debt to Herman Melville. W. H. Auden had earlier juxtaposed The Hunting of the Snark with Moby-Dick.1 Robert Martin Adams, more recently, discussed both works within the context of a single study.2 Marcel Marnat not only confronted but directly compared the two masterpieces: Whale and Snark, White Whale and Boojum, the majestic prose saga and the inconsequential-sounding ballad. “A passionate parody was it,” he asked, “or merely a teasing echo, dimly caught—with no formal parallelism in mind, of course—just for the fun of it, as a game?”3

Thus what was raised as speculation inevitably hardened in the presentation: Carroll was either adapting, or maybe countering, or even parodying, The Whale. “Symbol matches symbol and the Boojum is all the more horrible for remaining unseen.”4 J. M. Barrie, Carroll's heir as children's favorite, for one, had certainly read his Melville. Much in Peter Pan—above all, the clock-devouring crocodile in pursuit of Captain Hook—ultimately derives from Moby-Dick. The hallmark of Carroll's style, though, is an unselfconscious-seeming display of his own darkest designs. If he had read Moby-Dick, it is true, “he could only have done so with head spinning. Thrilled, yet at the same time feeling a profound unease. …”5 But had he?

Like Melville, of course, he was a master of mirror imagery. With Melville, too, he shared a wide-ranging passion for burlesque of standard authors as well as biblical sources. But where Melville was consciously manipulating his parodies, Carroll remained untouched by, even oblivious of, his deeper inversions and radical skepticism. Or so it seems. While Melville could exultingly boast of Moby-Dick, “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb,”6 Carroll's diary reveals his ambition to publish The Snark as a Christmas poem. The strain was marked, however. Years later, introducing Pillow Problems, and other Mathematical Trifles, he owned:

… There are mental troubles, much worse than mere worry, for which an absorbing subject of thought may serve as a remedy. There are sceptical thoughts, which seem for the moment to uproot the firmest faith; there are blasphemous thoughts, which dart unbidden into the most reverent souls; there are unholy thoughts, which torture, with their hateful presence, the fancy that would fain be pure.7

Bedeviled by insomnia, he would worry away all night over his mathematical teasers to keep worse anguish at bay. But the inversion, twenty years earlier, had seemed merely lighthearted, surfacing backwards from the final line to a final stanza to fit that line to a finished sequence to fit that stanza. Had not “Lewis Carroll,” his very pseudonym, been assembled by a deliberate inversion of his Christian names, “Charles Lutwidge”?

The odd bolt of inspiration came on July 18, 1874, near Guildford:

I was walking on a hillside, alone, one bright summer day, when suddenly there came into my head one line of verse—one solitary line—“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.” I knew not what it meant, then: I know not what it means, now; but I wrote it down: and, sometime afterwards, the rest of the stanza occurred to me, that being its last line: and so by degrees, at odd moments during the next year or two, the rest of the poem pieced itself together, that being its last stanza.8

The poem was not out in time for Christmas 1875. In March 1876, therefore, he added a small pamphlet, “An Easter Greeting to Every Child Who Loves Alice,” not “to lose the opportunity of saying a few serious words to (perhaps) 20,000 children.”

To rise and forget, in the bright sunlight, the ugly dreams that frightened you so when all was dark—to rise and enjoy another happy day, first kneeling to thank that unseen Friend, who sends you the beautiful sun. …

Cardinal Newman, for one, was quite captivated by this reversal of tone. He wrote to the daughter of the Dean of St. Paul's:

The little book isn't all of it nonsense, though amusing nonsense; it has two pleasant prefixes of another sort. One of them is the “inscription to a dear child”; the style of which, in words and manner, is so entirely of the school of Keble, that I think it could not have been written, had The Christian Year never made its appearance. The other “the Easter Greeting to every child etc.” is likely to touch the hearts of old men more than of those to whom it is intended. …9

But how far was Dodgson—as Charles Lutwidge or Lewis Carroll, turn him inside out or outside in—ever aware of his own envelopes and smoke screens? That initial dedication to Gertrude Chataway:

Girt with a boyish garb for boyish task,
          Eager she wields her spade: yet loves as well
Rest on a friendly knee. …

for all its echoes of The Christian Year and self-conscious acrostic riddling, suggests a deeper, unconscious level of inchoate lusts and fears of self-destruction—some covert sexual trauma turned to a mimic tea with muffins, jam, and conundrums.

For unlike his poetic alibi, the Baker—with his “forty-two boxes, all carefully packed,” inside the Agony—we should rouse Charles from muffins, we should rouse him from ice, should rouse him from mustard and cress, should rouse him from jam and judicious advice, and probe his conundrums and press. The obvious place to start is the “Preface”—which, like most prefaces, was written last. On Thursday, February 10, 1876, between composing his first and third diatribe on The Professorship of Comparative Philology, Dodgson records in his diary: “At night wrote a new Preface for The Snark. That preface begins:

If—and the thing is wildly possible—the charge of writing nonsense were ever brought against the author of this brief but instructive poem, it would be based, I feel convinced, on the line, “Then the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes.”

As Lewis Carroll, that is, he opens on a pause—that lingering lilt on “If”—then takes us straight to “The Bellman's Speech,” confronting the blank “Ocean chart”:

He was thoughtful and grave—but the orders he gave
          Were enough to bewilder a crew.
When he cried, “Steer to starboard, but keep her head larboard!”
          What on earth was the helmsman to do?
Then the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes:
          A thing, as the Bellman remarked,
That frequently happens in tropical climes,
          When a vessel is, so to speak, “snarked.”

The paralysis—the loggerhead self-contradiction—of the poem is essential. Every positive will be negated: forwards is backwards; earth is ocean; east is west. This is to be the first and prime lesson, literally, of “non-sense.” He continues:

I will not (as I might) point to the strong moral purpose of this poem itself, to the arithmetical principles so cautiously inculcated in it. …

Secondly, it appears, “The Beaver's Lesson” is essential. Number and nonsense, when merged in the self-reductive algebraic equation:

(x + 7 + 10) (1000 - 8)
————————— - 17 = x

might seem to underlie the bowsprit/rudder entanglements, leading investigation nowhere. Yet arithmetical principles somehow persist. Just as the Grand Geometrician of a Masonic universe reigns in Moby-Dick, through all the global circuits of sun and whale and Pequod, through all Melville's pyrotechnic displays of contrary ebbs and flows in chapters, sentences, even phrases, so too Carroll's miniature universe, he claims, rests on number.10

Dodgson, of course, was an eminent mathematician. He was also forty-two years old in 1874 when he began the poem. But far from “Call me Ishmael” or, rather, “Call me Baker,” Carroll merely intrudes “Rule 42 of the Code” at the opening as emblematic clue. (In Holiday's illustration the number is clearly marked on one of the Baker's many boxes on the quay outside his uncle's bedroom window.)

No one shall speak to the Man at the Helm.

Which the Bellman himself had completed:

and the Man at the Helm shall speak to no one.

An untouchable privacy must enshroud the captain/poet/town-crier, as he paradoxically tolls his bell, with an “oyez, oyez.” The poem is to be locked in silence as the Baker's adventure ends in “silence.” That is the third essential lesson: the clam of contradictory, destructive pressures inside the “Agony” is to be impenetrable. What next then? A few deliberate false trails, expected of the author of Jabberwocky, on portmanteau words. But even here the most relevant portmanteau remains, so to speak, “snarked.” Is it some maritime snail-cum-shark?11 Or, as has been suggested, is it snarl-cum-bark?12

No answer. Instead, elsewhere, Carroll privately echoes the question: “Of course you know what a Snark is? If you do, please tell me: for I haven't an idea what it is like.”13 Or again: “Are you able to explain things which you don't yourself understand?”14 So he plays at allegory. Melville, far more obviously attracted to such learned mirror-writing, shuddered at the idea that Moby-Dick might be deemed “a hideous and intolerable allegory.”15 When Sophia Hawthorne followed her husband's congratulatory letter with more prying formulas, Melville replied offhandedly:

I had some vague idea while writing it, that the whole book was susceptible of an allegoric construction, & also that parts of it were—but the speciality of many of the particular subordinate allegories, were first revealed to me, after reading Mr. Hawthorne's letter, which, without citing any particular examples, yet intimated the part-&-parcel allegoricalness of the whole.16

Carroll, too, appears puzzled by the allegorical potential of his eight “fits.” “Periodically I have received courteous letters from strangers,” he sighed,

begging to know whether The Hunting of the Snark is an allegory, or contains some hidden moral, or is a political satire: and for all such questions I have but one answer, “I don't know!”17

In 1896, twenty years after publication, he saw published in a newspaper (so he claims):

… that the whole book is an allegory on the search after happiness. I think this fits beautifully in many ways—particularly about the bathing-machines: when the people get weary of life, and can't find happiness in town or in books, then they rush off to the seaside to see what bathing-machines will do for them.18

This is his most perverse evasion, his final smoke screen to blot that craggy landscape. For how call a work “allegory” if it contains merely a blank map—that is to say, no map, no complex interpretative guide, but (as in Kafka's The Castle) their very antithesis? If anything it seems a kind of allegory à rebours—a clue to the impossibility of any final map, a clue to mysterious, pervasive, and malicious disorder—that heralds the end of all formal allegorical vision. We gaze at our own risk till “the palsied universe lies before us a leper”! Till blinded by “the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around” the dazzled reader.19

So allegory, with Ishmael, we must reject. We would do better to follow the acrostic advice given to Marion (one of Carroll's many little friends):

Maiden, though thy heart may quail
And thy quivering lip grow pale,
Read the Bellman's tragic tale!
Is it life of which it tells?
Of a pulse that sinks and swells
Never lacking chime of bells?(20)

“Read the Bellman's tragic tale!” But who is the Bellman? His hand-bell, in Holiday's realistic representation, has suggested curious thoughts to one commentator:

It has apparently escaped notice that the Bellman's bell is an ordinary school-bell of the type used before electric bells came into use. It seems to me that Dodgson quite consciously derived his Bellman from the new secular state education of which so much was hoped.21

What satisfies one reader may raise a smile in others. For our analogue—that “wicked book” surreptitiously riddling and jesting with sacred texts (Moses striking water “upon the rock in Horeb”; or glimpsing the “back parts” of God)—suggests other clues. Is the Reverend Dodgson imposing the same inversion on his “tragic tale” that opens with a Bell-man and closes with the picture of a tolling bell-buoy? Is the whole Hunting of the Snark perhaps playing a deliberate (or is it unconscious?) parody of that traditional English carol popularly known as the “Bellman's Song”?

The moon shines bright, and the stars give a light:
          A little before it was day
Our Lord, our God, he called on us,
          And bid us awake and pray.
Awake, awake, good people all;
          Awake, and you shall hear,
Our Lord, our God, died on the cross
          For us whom he loved so dear.
O fair, O fair Jerusalem,
          When shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrows have an end,
          Thy joy that I may see?
The fields were green as green could be,
          When from his glorious seat
Our Lord, our God, he watered us,
          With his heavenly dew so sweet.
And for the saving of our souls
          Christ died upon the cross;
We ne'er shall do for Jesus Christ
          As he hath done for us.
The life of man is but a span
          And cut down in its flower;
We are here to-day, and to-morrow are gone,
          The creatures of an hour.(22)

“Our Lord, our God, he called on us”: or transposed from church bells to hand-bell:

The Bellman himself they all praised to the skies—
          Such a carriage, such ease and such grace!
Such solemnity too! One could see he was wise,
          The moment one looked in his face!(23)

If the whole carol has, in fact, been transposed to “An Agony,” it must be—as the very title suggests—Carroll's agony, containing locked within it his whole self-contradiction of bowsprit and rudder, east and west, Jerusalem and Jabberwock, in numbed indirection.

Both share the same ballad meter, as if the “cross” of the one had been transformed to the riddling acrostic of the other; “fair Jerusalem” to “chasms and crags”; green fields to that “dismal and desolate valley.” As if the “green pastures” of the twenty-third psalm, pervading the carol, had been reduced by Lewis Carroll to “the valley of the shadow of death”—glum with foreboding—where:

… The valley grew narrow and narrower still,
          And the evening got darker and colder,
Till (merely from nervousness, not from goodwill)
          They marched along shoulder to shoulder.

Both move to the same bleak vision of the restless transience of life. For, as its popular title makes clear,

This carol they began that hour—
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino—
How that life was but a flower—
In spring time,(24)

is not a Christmas carol at all. This Bellman is none other than the public announcer of death—to all “for whom the bell tolls,” those “creatures of an hour,” who “are here to-day, and to-morrow are gone”; or, in the Baker's dying uncle's last words, “will softly and suddenly vanish away, / And never be met with again!”25

The Bellman's Song, then, is a Passion carol or Atonement carol. If the Baker, like Christ, “sublime” on that crag must die, the Butcher, transcending the “perpetual passion” of the Jubjub, is restored, like Christ, to perfect harmony, which is perpetual love. But here, as at every other point of The Hunting of the Snark, paradoxes multiply. For should it not have been the Butcher who is “cut down” with his own slaughtering hatchet? Should it not have been the Baker, like his own confectioner's dough, who is “risen indeed”? One thing at least was obvious even to its earliest readers, that the names of all ten crew members began with the initial “B.” But then so did “Bandersnatch” and “Boojum.” “To B or not to B,” was that the universal fit? Snarkophilus Snobbs, with tongue-in-cheek profundity, not only pointed to this “most ultimate of all questions,” but argued that it was “answered in the universal affirmative—B at any cost!”26 “An existential poem, a poem of existential agony,” Martin Gardner more recently called it, indicating that great Chain of Being from Bellman to Boots.27

Carroll's Bellman is certainly “grand”; he is also “musical” as well as “thoughtful and grave.” But his most marked characteristic is that of triple repetition, a belief in the sacred power of three. As if speaking in all three persons of the Trinity in succession, he asserts in his most celebrated assertion:

What I tell you three times is true.

Such threefold verbal concentrations alone seem to carry the full weight of his authority; and his triune presence is suitably greeted at one point by “three cheers.” Yet the “Ocean chart” he brings proves a cartographical fraud—“A perfect and absolute blank!”—an uncontaminated square of whiteness, framed with chaos. Compare the pedantic German Professor of Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. He describes how his country's cartographers experimented with larger and larger maps until they finally made one with a scale of a mile to the mile:

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So now we use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”28

For Carroll it appeared there was no guide, no chart or clue, between everything and nothing, between all-pervasive physical reality and a self-devouring inner emptiness.

Or is it, that in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?29

That blank map, like the Banker's “blank cheque (which he crossed)”—or even the circular blank reasoning of Butcher to Beaver—leads inevitably to an undermining and perverting of meaningful order, a stalemate of self-contradiction and self-confusion, a reductio ad absurdum where words too are deliberately emptied of content, blended (portmanteau-style), and tipped to their abstract, incantatory quality of blank, ecstatic sound.

What is propped at the Butcher's feet (in Holiday's illustration to “The Beaver's Lesson”) but Colenso's Arithmetic and a book On the Reductio ad Absurdum? Whether at the artist's or poet's prompting we do not know. But Bishop Colenso too had once been a mathematical tutor and author of mathematical textbooks; he too had reduced some of the deepest biblical beliefs, by means of arithmetical arguments or models, to absurdity or literal nonsense, while claiming to remain a devoted member of the Church of England. The Deacon of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Bishop of Natal had much in common. As the Bishop's arithmetical logic could dissolve the haphazard battle figures of Israelites vs. Midianites, the Deacon's far more devastating logic of absurdity could dissolve the Song of Solomon—or Isaac Watts' Divine Songs for Children, at the very least—to “the voice of the Lobster” (in Alice in Wonderland) or to “the voice of the Jubjub” in the Snark.30 An Essex vicar apparently did complain, writing a letter to The St. James Gazette; but while the notorious bishop was hounded by his Victorian contemporaries, socially ostracized and excommunicated, the demure Oxford don continued to be quietly feted. One was a heretic; the other, a children's favorite. One refuted Holy Scripture; the other merely parodied it.

As with Melville, such parody was never easy to diagnose; and nonsense, especially, seemed to resist such diagnosis. Only the Butcher and the Baker, with their linked but diverging fates, could conceivably offer a key to the conundrum: both tradesmen, both reckoned dunces, both in their various ways heroic. That stout, ungainly, bewhiskered Baker, above all, is a mysterious character, and the most complex of all that heterogeneous crew. Had he “wholly forgotten his name” perhaps because that name was none other than C. L. Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll? The merest hint of his fame is immediately undercut. “There was one who was famed for the number of things / He forgot when he entered the ship. …” For the Baker is not only anally possessive (with his forty-two inscrutable boxes, neatly packed and stacked), but incurably detached. He manages to leave all his possessions (umbrella, watch, jewelry) behind on the beach; he has wholly forgotten his name; he has even lost the use of his native English, vainly signaling in Hebrew, German, Greek, Dutch—that is, gabbling in double-Dutch. He answers to “Hi!” and he answers to “Ho!” (with a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino). But it is only to “Thing-um-a-jig!”—or “Thingumbob,” to quote the Bellman's parting words—that he utterly responds, as if reduced to some irredeemable, undifferentiated, neutral blank.

Compared to Melville's Ishmael even, it seems a desolating self-portrait of self-alienation. Ishmael also enters the brotherhood of whaling, stripped of all possessions, with nothing but his carpetbag:

For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no,—why, they are in the happy condition of judicious, unincumbered travellers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag,—that is to say, the Ego.31

Yet at least he was still self-possessed, still able to issue his own terse challenge of anonymity. Charles Dodgson's ultimate alter ego behind screen on masking screen (hot and overdressed in seven coats and three pairs of boots) is already spiritually stripped, that is to say, nameless. Only a pathetic trust in various bourgeois securities, such as bulletproof vests or life insurance, still lingers. And he eagerly promotes those securities:

The Beaver's best course was, no doubt, to procure
          A second-hand dagger-proof coat—
So the Baker advised it—and next, to insure
          Its life in some Office of note.

“Evidently he dreaded the loss of his body heat as much as he dreaded the loss of his existence,” Martin Gardner observes. “The name Candle-ends may imply that the Baker is about to burn himself out.”32 Thus “that mildest of men” is a potentially burnt-out case—though mostly humdrum enough in outward appearance, resolutely candid (so he claims) and straightforward. His courage is “perfect” only because it is the courage of perfect despair:

“It is this, it is this that oppresses my soul,
          When I think of my uncle's last words:
And my heart is like nothing so much as a bowl
          Brimming over with quivering curds!
“It is this, it is this—” “We have had that before!”
          The Bellman indignantly said.
And the Baker replied, “Let me say it once more.
          It is this, it is this that I dread!”(33)

We only meet the Baker's uncle—that elderly double after whom he was named and who foretells his doom—at the vanishing point of death. Similarly, we meet the Baker already entranced by the infinite; trapped by the evasive, all-embracing vanishing point of mathematical perspective; engaged “with the Snark—every night after dark— / In a dreamy delirious fight.” For the inner man, far from sturdy and stout, is a quivering, disintegrating, frothy mass, consumed in an ever-repeated round of nightmares.

Yet it is this very dread that binds the “stupid” Baker and “unlettered Ishmael” (an ex-country schoolmaster) to one another. Boojum or White Whale—the same portents, the same doom threatened both. The tormented Baker faints at the mere sound of that dreaded word; “one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air” haunts Ishmael's tormented soul.

I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me. …34

Yet the Baker succumbs; Ishmael, exalted and magnetized by the hunt, escapes. Not only does a love pact, like the Butcher's, soothe his “splintered heart,” but in the terror of the whale chase he transcends death itself. Like Lazarus, like Christ “after his resurrection,” Ishmael can say: “A stone was rolled away from my heart … I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest.”35 Only then, after that “ceremony” of self-transcendence, can he confront the teasing horror of the absurd. Only then can he confront that laughing hyena with a bantering air as a suicidal farce. The Baker's banter with hyenas, however, is a sure sign of self-deception:

He would joke with hyaenas, returning their stare
          With an impudent wag of the head:
And he once went a walk, paw-in-paw, with a bear,
          “Just to keep up its spirits,” he said.

Neither cool nor self-contained, the Baker is far from displaying Ishmael's “free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy.” Such impudent head-wagging and eye-winking is visible proof merely of a suicidal bravado; the “torrent of laughter and cheers” at his vanishing, merely the audible aspect of that same hysterically pulsing throb, or nervous “spasm,” that plunges him over the edge at last—to be released in silence.

But there are three “stupid” hunters, three overt nonintellectuals on board: the Baker, the Butcher, and the shy, lacemaking Beaver. It is these three alone who undergo the decisive, indeed overwhelming spiritual adventures. The impudent absentminded Baker succumbs; the shy single-minded Butcher paradoxically escapes his doom. While natural antagonists (the Beaver and the Butcher) alone are brought to converge, potential soulmates (the Butcher and the Baker)36 are most widely shown to diverge. So, by the antilogic of this excursion into disorder, natural buddies are parted, unnatural buddies bonded and paired. “Two added to one—if that could be done!” Only Melville's Ishmael, it appears, can complete the sum: part monomaniac hunter (like the Butcher), part desperado and wag (like the Baker); the bosom friend of Queequeg and devotee or acolyte of Ahab; a resolution of each and compound beyond all.

The Butcher, too, presents an insoluble logjam of paradoxes. Fanatically obsessed, so he claims, with “Snark,” he turns out to be more single-minded than a Canadian trapper in exterminating Beavers! An even more “incredible dunce” to look at than the Baker, he nevertheless hits on his own independent and “ingenious plan” for a solo foray! No wonder the Butcher turned nervous. But his ornate overdressing for the big occasion, “with yellow kid gloves and a ruff,” seems to spring from some deeper-fixed feeling of social insecurity—or, rather, social inferiority.

“Introduce me, now there's a good fellow,” he said,
          “If we happen to meet it together!”
And the Bellman, sagaciously nodding his head,
          Said, “That must depend on the weather.”

This mixture of personal trepidation (which makes him cling so anxiously to the Bellman) with murderous monomania (for Beavers) produces restless friction, threatening a total breakdown.

“Be a man!” said the Bellman in wrath, as he heard
          The Butcher beginning to sob.
“Should we meet with a Jubjub, that desperate bird,
          We shall need all our strength for the job!”

“Be a man!” That terse reprimand—and “that desperate bird” suddenly swooping into the poem—mark the peripeteia or turning point. The Butcher's shy dependence is converted to resolution and independence; his dumb obsession changes to intellectual resourcefulness; his nervous blubbering (having survived the Jubjub) becomes tears of “delight.” Even a confrontation with pastoral, in this context, must be inverted to a dismally shadowed valley, a desolate nightmare-haunted country, invaded by a scream. Pitched higher and higher to a “shrill,” “shuddering” spasm, that “nervousness” is at last dissolved in an echo of lost childhood.

He thought of his childhood, left far far behind—
          That blissful and innocent state—
The sound so exactly recalled to his mind
          A pencil that squeaks on a slate!

So the peripeteia is confirmed almost simultaneously by the anagnorisis, or recognition:

“'Tis the voice of the Jubjub!” he suddenly cried.
          (This man, that they used to call “Dunce.”)
“As the Bellman would tell you,” he added with pride,
          “I have uttered that sentiment once.
“'Tis the note of the Jubjub! Keep count, I entreat;
          You will find I have told it you twice.
'Tis the song of the Jubjub! The proof is complete,
          If only I've stated it thrice.”

It is a recognition not only of the Jubjub but the Bellman's grand triadic repetitions. Now the Butcher's role is proudly patterned after the Bellman's role, perhaps even after his “musical tone” in that rapturous ascent from “'Tis the voice” to “'Tis the note” to the exalted height of his great argument, “'Tis the song …”

At that word his monomania for Beavers is transformed from a killer's passion to a lover's. Kindred souls marching shoulder to shoulder in that narrow valley, their bond is celebrated with that holiest of bridal rites from the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon. For cementing the friendship, however, another ritual is required:

“The thing can be done,” said the Butcher, “I think,
          The thing must be done, I am sure.
The thing shall be done!”

Merely to contain that erotic frisson (by a childhood trauma) cannot be foolproof; the charged, pent-up emotion must still be abstracted (by the contemplation of pure number). As W. H. Auden put it:

The Beaver and the Butcher, romantic explorers though they are, who have chosen to enter a desolate valley, where the Jubjub bird screams in passion overhead, and the creatures from The Temptation of St. Anthony surround them, escape from the destructive power of sex sublimating it into arithmetical calculations based on the number 3.37

Only now does the Butcher turn “genial.” Only now, ensconced in that Platonic haven, can he shrug off “all laws of propriety.” Only now that he has grasped the mystic import of the Bellman's repeated trinities can he also reject the whole confining semeiology of social etiquette:

“What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
          Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply,
          “They are merely conventional signs!”

Having transcended those intimidating conventions, those self-devouring inhibitions of “Society,” the Butcher, it seems, is free. But that impudent wag of a Baker, who can only bake “Bridecake” unhappily, is trapped. No wedding bells, no Song of Solomon for him! Only a jangle of contraries! For in Baker and Boojum, as in Butcher and Beaver, natural opposites again fuse. Not for salvation this time but for an unholy rape. Bedridden, ponderous, grave, what else is the Snark but a prude? Why else “its slowness in taking a jest”? Why else “its fondness for bathing-machines, / Which it constantly carries about”? What else is “Snark” but the converse of “wag” with whom the Baker (for all his protective anonymity, seven coats and three boots) will collapse by a kind of reciprocal, almost algebraic, cross-cancellation of terms?

All Carroll's descriptions of the Boojum, on Henry Holiday's evidence, “were quite unimaginable, and he wanted the creature to remain so.”38 For a Snark, as “The Barrister's Dream” suggests, is a confused mass of self-contradiction: part counsel, part judge, part jury; now acting for the defense, now ruthlessly condemning that selfsame client—who had, in any case, “been dead for some years.” Is the “Dream,” then, a premonition of “The Vanishing”? Is the pig's fate, yet another deserter, a shadow image of the Baker's? For he plunges to his annihilation through a looking-glass, as it were, whose mirrored reversal merely seems to reflect his own inner turmoil of self-obliteration. The Baker's very heroic posture, “erect and sublime” on that neighboring crag, was prefigured by the Snark, sublimely erect, on passing sentence: “When it rose to its feet, there was silence like night, / And the fall of a pin might be heard.” Such a vanishing—like Kafka's fable of the man before the law, as Robert Martin Adams observed—implies:

that only he could discover the Snark for whom it was bound to prove a Boojum. The conditions of the problem were such as to lead inevitably to the destruction of its solver, while those who were immune to the consequences could not solve it in the first place.39

But the Butcher, in his newfound wizardry, could surely have confronted the problem. If he was immune to the consequences, it was only because he had moved into a realm beyond those paradoxical terrors of the infinite that engulf the Baker:

“In one moment I've seen what has hitherto been
          Enveloped in absolute mystery,
And without extra charge I will give you at large
          A lesson in Natural History.”

The same insight that reveals the name of the Jubjub, in fact, provides a simultaneous and deeper insight into the nature of the Jubjub, striking through the enveloping mystery—the perpetuum mobile or creative pulse of Nature itself.40

“As to temper the Jubjub's a desperate bird,
          Since it lives in perpetual passion”:

But that “absurd” never-ending sexual trauma of desperate passion has far wider connotations, it turns out, than a mere fascination with fashion and the aphrodisiac flavor of oysters and egg white. Such sexual knowledge, once gained (as Adam and Eve discovered), is absolute: “But it knows any friend it has met once before.” There is no going back on that recognition, no evading the Jubjub. Sexual drives, on the other hand, cannot be roused at will or at random: “It never will look at a bribe.” Nor must sexual lust be confused with true love, or charity. “And in charity-meetings it stands at the door,” though it is an aspect of true love and, if distinct, closely linked to it. The Jubjub itself contributes nothing to that spiritual element of true love, called charity: “And collects—though it does not subscribe.” But to survive at all in its human context, true love must pay the Jubjub its dues—pay homage, that is, to the pressures of sex in all its passionate, disturbing forms.

Yet even that seething power is based on mathematical laws—on an infrastructure of equations and symmetrical proportion, which is the very matrix of matter.

“You boil it in sawdust: you salt it in glue.
          You condense it with locusts and tape:
Still keeping one principal object in view—
          To preserve its symmetrical shape.”

Interpreted in gospel language, this might run: For verily I say unto you, that with locuses (or loci) and tape measures for sawing and glueing together the wooden rods to construct the framework of a regular polyhedron you discover the skeletal or X-ray image that shapes and controls the whole flighty enigma of the Jubjub.41 Wrapped in this playful doubletalk is the same tremendous question at which Blake pounded:

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
Tyger, Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?(42)

This “perpetual passion” is no longer Christ's of “The Bellman's Song” (“for the saving of our souls”) but the Jubjub's (for our bewilderment). The Jubjub's symmetry, not Christ's cross, now seems to align on a single intersection “charity” and “passion,” those two key concepts of all hymns of atonement.

Sobs of “delight,” after that rite de passage, are answered by “affectionate looks.” For lovers' tears and lovers' songs without words confirm this intense, unorthodox companionship—or at-one-ment. Thus cannibal Butcher and his prey, like Ishmael and his South Sea cannibal at the Spouter-Inn, are mated:

How it is I know not; but there is no place like
a bed for confidential disclosures between friends.
Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom
of their souls to each other; and some old couples
often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning.
Thus, then, in our heart's honeymoon, lay I and
Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair.(43)
And when quarrels arose—as one frequently finds
          Quarrels will, spite of every endeavour—
The song of the Jubjub recurred to their minds,
          And cemented their friendship for ever!(44)

“Be a man!” the Bellman had warned. But their return “hand-in-hand” confounded even him. Now all roles were reversed. Now he himself was “unmanned”: only momentarily, of course, and not with nervous dread—not the Butcher's inferiority complex at all. With “noble emotion” he speaks the peroration in a formal thanksgiving: “This amply repays all the wearisome days / We have spent on the billowy ocean!”

But it is the Butcher who has the last word. His is the final recognition at their final appearance in that craggy landscape.

“There is Thingumbob shouting!” the Bellman said.
          “He is shouting like mad, only hark!
He is waving his hands, he is wagging his head,
          He has certainly found a Snark!”
They gazed in delight, while the Butcher exclaimed,
          “He was always a desperate wag!”
They beheld him—their Baker—their hero unnamed—
          On the top of a neighbouring crag. …

Now the Butcher is the unacknowledged hero. The dunce has passed his initiation with a new and heightened awareness,45 while the Baker (their so-called hero) is reduced in ironic contrast, on his high-raised perch as melodramatic clown, to antihero. That jovial pun not only unsettles the Boojum in the gathering dusk (it may only just have had breakfast!), and so insures the rest of the crew,46 but in delivering the peroration over the Baker pronounces his epitaph. For “Fry me!” or “Fritter my wig!” or “Toasted-cheese” (call him what you will) is “desperate” in the same sense as the Butcher had declared the Jubjub “a desperate bird.” Perpetually overstewed like the Jubjub, overheated in his seven coats, he too lives “in perpetual passion.” What the Butcher alone seems to recognize is that such boisterous impudence cries out for nervous dissipation; that the Baker's sexual heat—without mathematical insight, uncontrolled to affection—is doomed.

Of the Bellman's crew only the Butcher (with his ruff and yellow gloves) and the Baker (with his multiple coats and boots) could conceivably be ranged among the Jubjub's disciples, whose “taste in costume is entirely absurd— / It is ages ahead of the fashion.”47 With his mountain of lost luggage and lost identity, in fact, this desperate Baker seems as victimized by the Jubjub as the Butcher. As Baker of “Bridecake” exclusively, who was more exposed to its heart-piercing screech? The Butcher, with his “blissful” childhood memories, could overcome that awful shudder, but one must assume the Baker had an unhappy childhood. The Bellman unfortunately cut off the Freudian preliminaries:

“My father and mother were honest, though poor—”
          “Skip all that!” cried the Bellman in haste.

Without a lost Eden of childhood memory, without his “forty-two boxes” even (of harmonious numbers), what could the Baker assert against that shrill assault? How could be mathematically tune that “scream” to a “voice,” a “note,” a “song”? The Butcher's algebraic formula

(x + 7 + 10) (1000 - 8)
————————— - 17 = x

is a triumphant, if irrelevant, proof of identity, that X = X; something of which the Baker, who had identified himself in terms of names and chattels (to his loss), was quite incapable. Harmony equals Number equals Identity equals Love. Each is related to each; and whoever attains one, attains all.

But the Baker attains none. Like the Beaver at its crisis, he “fairly lost heart, and outgrabe in despair,” until quivering, quaking, desperately confused, his Snark becomes that ultimate dread, the all-encompassing mirror image, or expunging Boojum. The crew gaze their last at his sublime erection, at a pitch of shuddering passion that had originally set him off so courageously on his quest. Lacking is the symmetrical balance—that “musical tone” of the Bellman's cajoling presence, that hold on the ultimate woof and warp of existence. His terrible disintegration must be read in contrast to the Butcher's and the Beaver's idyll, reinaugurated forever in memory of the Jubjub's song, forever cemented. Thus the obvious Freudian significance of the Baker's final release with the disintegrating effect of a pent-up orgasm, as he collapses toward the Boojum in “a torrent of laughter and cheers”: one moment “erect and sublime” on that neighboring crag; the next, “(as if stung by a spasm) plunge into a chasm.”48 As the Butcher's and the Beaver's inseparable friendship at the Jubjub's evening appearance proved sexual, so does the Baker's wild twilight collapse toward the Boojum. The creative and destructive forces of sex at root are one.

But that terrible disintegration must also be read in conjunction with the Banker's fate: whose “fit” precedes the Baker's; whose name is distinguishable by only a single letter. Compared to the Butcher, the Baker is antihero; compared to the Banker, the Baker is truly heroic. Both are “inspired with a courage.” The Baker's is “perfect,” however; the Banker's, mad. The oppressive “dread” of the one becomes “that fear-stricken yell” of the other. Terrorized by the Bandersnatch, the Banker offers cash—with a skip and a hop and a flop—till at last he faints, as the Baker had earlier fainted at the mere mention of the Boojum. “It is just as I feared!” declares the Bellman, solemnly mocking such fear. The nightmare visions of the one introduce the groveling terror of the other, as this snatch-and-grab raid on a Banker plays farcical prelude to the Baker's vanishing. His mad shouting, hand waving, and head wagging across that distance among those mountainous crags seems almost a parody at first, an exhilarating burlesque of the other's “senseless grimaces,” word chants, and restless hands. Certainly the crew, which had viewed the Banker's transports with “horror,” views the Baker's mysterious signaling “in delight”—until that awesome, sublimely mock-heroic disappearance.

Far from vanishing, the Banker (a Bandersnatch is no Boojum), merely turns blank, a sort of photographic negative, a black-and-white print in reverse: with black face (for white) and white waistcoat (for black) in perpetual “full evening dress” jibbering con imbecillità.49

Down he sank in a chair—ran his hands through his hair
          And chanted in mimsiest tones
Words whose utter inanity proved his insanity,
          While he rattled a couple of bones.

So white turns black; a rich man, poor man; and the Banker, on that pivotal B, to Mr. Bones playing his black-and-white minstrel castanets whose hollow rattle picks up from his prattle clickety-click, clickety-click ad infinitum.

Such is the range and complexity of this great poem that seems at times almost a meditation on some of those earlier heroic voyages by Carroll's American contemporaries—Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe. The Baker, in the end, seems not so much like another Ishmael or Ahab as another Arthur Gordon Pym swept across that mysterious polar vanishing point of white light; the Banker with his castanets seems like nothing so much as a wittily revised version of Melville's poor demented Negro, the Pequod's bellboy, little Pip!50 Wholly explicable nevertheless on its own portmanteau terms, as Carroll's “Preface” makes clear, The Hunting of the Snark needs no external clues nor allegorical key, but like Moby-Dick (its closest analogue) is symbolically self-contained, concealing its own best and sufficient commentary.


  1. W. H. Auden, The Enchafèd Flood (New York: Random House, 1950).

  2. Robert Martin Adams, Nil, Episodes in the Literary Conquest of Void during the Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), Chs. 4 and 6.

  3. “Parodie rageuse ou seulement réminiscences lointaines, ordonnées (cela va de soi) sans souci de parallélisme strict, dans la sérénité d'un divertissement détaché?” Marcel Marnat, “Du serquin au cachalot blanc,” in Lewis Carroll, ed. Henri Parisot (Paris: Cahier de L'Herne, 1971), p. 132.

  4. “Symbole pour symbole, il double le sien et le Boujeum est d'autant plus terrible qu'on ne l'a jamais vu.” Marnat, p. 131.

  5. “Il n'a pu le faire qu'avec vertige, avec passion. Mais aussi un terrible malaise. …” Marnat, p. 130.

  6. To Nathaniel Hawthorne, 17 November 1851, The Letters of Herman Melville, ed. M. R. Davis and W. H. Gilman (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1960), p. 142.

  7. Lewis Carroll, Pillow Problems, and other Mathematical Trifles (London, 1893).

  8. Carroll, “Alice on the Stage,” The Theatre, April 1887.

  9. The Diaries of Lewis Carroll, ed. Roger Lancelyn Green (London: Cassell, 1953), II, p. 345.

  10. “The last level of metaphor in the ALICE books,” Martin Gardner concludes, “is this: that life, viewed rationally and without illusion, appears to be a nonsense tale told by an idiot mathematician.” The Annotated Alice (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1960), p. 15.

  11. As Beatrice Hatch claims on the authority of Lewis Carroll himself: Strand Magazine, April 1898, pp. 413-23.

  12. By Stephen Barr in The Annotated Snark, ed. Martin Gardner (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), p. 45. All recent readers owe a special debt to Martin Gardner's edition, reprinted by Penguin Books in 1967. Future references to The Hunting of the Snark are to this edition.

  13. To Florence Balfour, 6 April 1876, A Selection from the Letters of Lewis Carroll to his Child-Friends, ed. Evelyn M. Hatch (London: Macmillan, 1933), p. 98.

  14. To Mary Brown, 2 March 1880, Hatch, p. 165.

  15. Moby-Dick, Ch. 45. All references to Moby-Dick are quoted from Moby-Dick, ed. Harold Beaver (London: Penguin Books, 1972). In deference to the large number of editions in use, I cite chapter number only, not page.

  16. 8 January 1852, Letters, p. 146.

  17. Carroll, “Alice on the Stage,” The Theatre, April 1887.

  18. To “The Lowrie Children,” 1896, Hatch, p. 243.

  19. Moby-Dick, Ch. 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Most of the preceding paragraph is quoted from my introduction to the Penguin edition of Moby-Dick.

  20. The Works of Lewis Carroll, ed. Roger Lancelyn Green (London: Paul Hamlyn, 1965), p. 854.

  21. Alexander L. Taylor, The White Knight (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1952), p. 159.

  22. The Oxford Book of Carols (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1928, rpt. 1964), No. 46. “The Bellman's Song,” a popular favorite, was frequently reprinted in broadside form during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

  23. Snarkophilus Snobbs, alias F. C. S. Schiller, in the parody issue, Mind!, 1901, though absurdly identifying the Butcher with Mohammedanism and the Banker with Judaism, more or less lighted on this key: “In the leading figure, that of the Bellman we easily recognize Christianity, the bell being the characteristically Christian implement, and the hegemony of humanity being equally obvious.” In this context, I also like Snobbs's comment on the opening stanza:

    “Just the place for a Snark!” the Bellman cried,
              As he landed his crew with care;
    Supporting each man on the top of the tide
              By a finger entwined in his hair.

    “The meaning evidently is that Christianity ‘touches the highest part of man and supports us from above.’”

  24. Shakespeare, As You Like It, V, iii, 27ff.

  25. Since Lewis Carroll so carefully vetted—and vetoed—the illustrations, I assume, with Henry Holiday, that the uncle's “last words” were literally pronounced on his death bed.

  26. F. C. S. Schiller in the parody issue Mind!

  27. The Annotated Snark, p. 28.

  28. Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), Ch. 11. The passage is quoted by Martin Gardner in The Annotated Snark, p. 57.

  29. Moby-Dick, Ch. 42.

  30. “The voice of the turtle” (Song of Solomon ii, 12) becoming Watts's “the voice of the sluggard” (1715), which Lewis Carroll first parodied in “The Lobster Quadrille” (Alice in Wonderland, Ch. 10). See Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice, pp. 139-40.

  31. Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1851 April 16, Letters, p. 125.

  32. The Annotated Snark, p. 51.

  33. Unlike the Butcher, who will triumphantly master the Bellman's triple repetition, the Baker wildly overshoots that score (to the Bellman's alarm) first by a fourfold, then desperately raised to a sixfold, repeated stake.

  34. Moby-Dick, Ch. 41.

  35. Moby-Dick, Ch. 49, “The Hyena.” See my Commentary, pp. 798-99.

  36. For their common origin in another macabre voyage of the nursery, cf.

    Three men in a tub,
    And how do you think they got there?
    The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick-maker,
    They all jumped out of a rotten potato.
    'Twas enough to make a man stare!
  37. The Enchafèd Flood, pp. 86-87.

  38. Henry Holiday, “The Snark's Significance,” The Academy, 29 January 1898. Lewis Carroll, that is, rejected Holiday's fine illustration of the Boojum as some kind of monstrous, bloated, maniacal walrus.

  39. Nil, p. 98.

  40. Succeeding where Ahab, the Baker's analogue, so dismally and suicidally fails: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!” Moby-Dick, Ch. 36.

  41. I accept and follow the geometrical interpretation given to this concluding stanza by John Leech. See The Annotated Snark, p. 81.

  42. William Blake, “The Tyger,” Songs of Experience, 1794.

  43. Moby-Dick, Ch. 10, “A Bosom Friend.”

  44. I am assuming, of course, that the Butcher and the Beaver, in Martin Gardner's phrase, “became a pair of ship buddies.” In an otherwise masculine crew, the Beaver is certainly odd man out—always neutrally referred to by Carroll as “it.” The idea that the Beaver might actually be feminine must have been influenced by the illustrations. For it was Henry Holiday who first added those whimsical touches of elevating “care” and “hope” to the status of female allegories. (Carroll at first demurred, but was completely won over. See “The Snark's Significance.”) It was a small leap, then, for a reviewer like Andrew Lang to conclude that Holiday's “drawing of the Beaver sitting at her bobbins is very satisfactory, the natural shyness of the Beaver in the presence of the Butcher being admirably rendered.” (The Academy, 8 April 1876.)

    But Lang was peculiarly unresponsive to the poem. For the Butcher and the Beaver, though natural antagonists, from the start showed affinities: both “shy,” both easily moved to tears, both stupid looking, both independently hitting on the same ingenious, foolhardy plan. Despite the blood-curdling image that he projects, it is the Butcher who starts nervously fussing and dressing up at the Bellman's signal for action, while “the Beaver went simply galumphing about”—galloping triumphantly, that is, portmanteau-style. The Beaver too, in the Bellman's judgment, had often “saved them from wreck.” In fact, after the Butcher's epiphany into the nature of number (and number of nature), their mutual discrepancies became more rather than less acute than that obvious antagonism of the opening. Thus their occasional quarrels. At the climax the Beaver is still as physically restless as ever, “bounding along on the tip of its tail,” while the Butcher is enrolled as ship's wag. An intellectual now, he can patronize the Beaver's “poor brains” and worse schooling with an affectionate bid at popularization. Though the Beaver's disarming confession that “It had learnt in ten minutes far more than all books / Would have taught it in seventy years,” suggests its own sudden surge of mathematical virtuosity in converting the biblical “three score and ten,” or lifetime, to exactly seventy.

  45. The Butcher may even have been meant to spoof that other illiterate butcher—from Wagga Wagga, New South Wales—the Tichborne claimant. A bit of farcical icing, at any rate, was provided by Henry Holiday, who clearly caricatured Edward Kenealy, the claimant's counsel, in the role of the Barrister.

  46. As Martin Gardner proposed: The Annotated Snark, p. 94.

  47. The maker of Bonnets and Hoods, though a man of fashion, is himself most soberly dressed in Holiday's illustration.

  48. Cf. Ahab's heroic pose: “when, with body arched back, and both arms lengthwise high-lifted to the poise, he darted his fierce iron …” Moby-Dick, Ch. 135.

  49. Printed on the sheet music lying upside down at the Banker's feet in Holiday's design.

  50. “Leave him here to his fate—it is getting so late!”
              The Bellman exclaimed in a fright.

    Cf. black Pip, that “timorous wight,” so “gloomy-jolly” deserted by Stubb: another Mr. Tambo with his tambourine singing snatches of Old King Crow; another fearful coward crazed in a confusion of black and white; another “castaway.”

Edmund Miller (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6745

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 more interesting and rewarding than it is generally given credit for being. While perhaps not a great work or an ideally conceived one, it contains many delightful examples of Carroll's brand of nonsense and is unique in the Carroll canon in that that consistently attempts to address an adult audience. The antiutopia of Outland, the charming escapism of Elfland (Fairyland), and the witty and significant talk of Elveston (England) are separately interesting.1 However, full appreciation and understanding of the Sylvie and Bruno books depends on seeing that they are based on a carefully articulated plan.

The volume titled Sylvie and Bruno was published in 1889, and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded was published in 1893. This publication history perhaps gives the impression that Carroll first wrote Sylvie and Bruno, that is, Volume I of the full work, as a self-contained work and then produced a sequel four years later. But his own story of the writing is of a general assembling between 1885 and 1889 of substantially the whole of the two volumes. He had been gathering material with a book in view for many years; he claims to have done very little new writing when he came to put these pieces together. It was the great length of the completed manuscript that dictated the two-part publication. We know certainly that some of the illustrations that go with Volume II were among the first illustrator Harry Furniss worked up in consultation with Carroll.2 The narrative (the plot is summarized in note 1) is continuous between the two volumes, and many incidents of Volume I find their natural resolution in Volume II. Carroll has also developed an elaborate pattern of character parallels that unifies the work stylistically.3

But I think it is worthwhile to make the point that Volume I is not complete as it stands. Carroll describes it as having a “sort of conclusion,” which he supposed had fooled all but one of his little girl friends when the volume was originally published by itself. But surely readers of ordinary sensibility would not think a work complete that ended without an overturning of the misrule of the Sub-Warden. And Arthur's sort of conclusion in deciding to set out for India is acceptable only in his personal history. The narrative needs a resolution of Lady Muriel's feelings as well. Yet at the end of Volume I we feel very strongly that Lady Muriel cannot bear to hear Eric talk to her of love despite his official status as her fiancé: “But Lady Muriel heard him not: something had gone wrong with her glove, which entirely engrossed her attention.” (I.xxii.467)

Carroll clearly intended us to have a single work in two volumes called Sylvie and Bruno. The diverse materials of this book are all rather neatly interwoven. There are minor discrepancies. Bruno, the son of the Elf king, should probably not report himself the servant of Oberon or say that he can sneak somebody into that king's hall because he knows one of the waiters, as he does in “Bruno's Revenge.” (I.xv.398, 402) And the Narrator should certainly not condescendingly address the reader as a Child, as he does suddenly in “Fairy-Sylvie.”4 (I.xiv.389) But such discrepancies chiefly involve details in a number of self-contained early stories Carroll has incorporated, stories that inspired the longer work but are not always perfectly consistent with it. Discrepancies do not typically involve details of the English and Outlandish plot or the transition from Volume I to Volume II.


The whole Sylvie and Bruno deserves special critical study of a structural sort. There are thematic implications to the elaborate method of storytelling Carroll has adopted. The great technical skill with which he manages the constant movement between dream and reality is generally acknowledged.5 But I think many readers are unhappy that Carroll chose so often to drift away from the nonsense of Outland and the antiutopia of Mein Herr's other world, and I do not think such readers have typically considered what is illustrated thematically by the very process of this constant movement from one kind of reality to another.

In the Alice books we may say that nonsense exists for its own sake. Perhaps one reason for the lesser popularity of Sylvie and Bruno is that Carroll was not content simply to copy himself in this genre, a point he makes in the Preface to Volume I. The Alice books have a structure of dream and a texture of nonsense. Sylvie and Bruno has the texture of dream itself. It presents dreaming, the various states of eeriness Carroll tabulates in the Preface to Volume II, much the way the Alice books present nonsense. Nonsense may be said to have a higher order of logical consistency than ordinary reality. At least, the way nonsense works is by assuming a higher order of logical consistency than the complexities of our everyday language commonly allow.6 There are many and wonderful nonsense details in Sylvie and Bruno, but these have a different feel than the nonsense details of the Alice books. There often seems to be an insistent moral purpose to the Sylvie and Bruno nonsense. The Alice books are about another reality. In them dream has taken us outside normal reality to a place where we agree to suspend normal expectations. A new logic confronts us with its rigorous but alien consistencies. And we know we are dreaming. The plot is in fact resolved only by a waking up.

Sylvie and Bruno makes no such simple leap to another reality. It concerns the borderline between dreaming and waking, but there is no confrontation. The first line of the dedicatory poem suggests a theme: “Is all our Life, then, but a dream … ?” We learn in the course of the work that the rigorous logic of nonsense is not so unreal after all. Of course, we also learn that the events of life work themselves out with unreal rightness in the end even in the “real” world. Normal expectations are shown to be underestimations of the power of love to influence events. A character such as Arthur Forester could not enter the world of either Alice without destroying the dream. The problem is that he is too logical. He operates in the same way that nonsense characters do, by taking problems to their logical extreme. But the problems are themselves real problems under real rules in his case. That is, the problems are real moral problems. And neither he nor Carroll questions the rules of Victorian Christianity under which moral decisions are to be made. In fact, Arthur often makes us go back and reexamine the full meaning of the rule. Through him we see the assumptions behind the normal expectations of our moral universe. He lectures us wittily on everything—and usually knows what he is talking about.

In a sense Carroll even finally chips away at our expectations of what nonsense itself should amount to. Bruno functions as a normal nonsense character. He is also logically consistent. But through him we see the assumptions behind the most normal things in our natural world, rather than as with Arthur in our moral universe. Bruno talks “real” nonsense. He is the one who can see “about a thousand and four” pigs in a field because, though he cannot be sure about the thousand, it is just the four he can be sure about. (II.v.565) He is the one who can see “nuffin!” in the box of Black Light (“It were too dark!”) because, as the Professor explains, that is exactly what the untrained eye would see. (II.xxi.713)

Mein Herr, the Professor as he appears in the real-world scenes at Elveston, to some extent fuses nonsense and moral purpose. He might even be seen as returning the absolute consistencies of logic to the real world when he inevitably enters that world. On his planet they do everything the English way—but they go all the way. They try the two-party system, for example, not only in politics but in life, dividing their farmers and soldiers into teams of those who try to get the work done and those who try to prevent the others from doing it. Coming from the nonsense world of extreme logic and logical extremes, Mein Herr sometimes seems absurd to the characters of the real world who are incompletely educated to the moral purposes of the universe, as when Lady Muriel asks him to explain the curious experiments he participated in to try to improve dinner-party conversation. She, of course, thinks he is merely talking about “small-talk,” but the whole point of the bizarre series of experiments is that people do not talk to each other enough about serious things. The real world needs the higher logic of Mein Herr just as it needs the invisible matchmaking of Sylvie and Bruno and the circle ruled by Sylvie's Jewel.

The logical nonsense of Mein Herr skirts the arbitrary abandon so appropriate to the two worlds of the Alice books by requiring us to think about the meaning of things in the real world. This is nicely shown in the incident of Fortunatus's Purse, an imaginative literary use by Carroll of the mathematical conception of the Klein bottle. We are familiar with the Möbius strip, a closed band with a half-twist in it that has the peculiar property of being a single continuous surface with only one side. The Klein bottle is the extension of this conception to an additional dimension. It is a single continuous surface without inside or outside. Mein Herr suggests that Lady Muriel construct Fortunatus's Purse, a purse with all the world's riches in it, by sewing handkerchiefs together in a particular way. The first step is to make two handkerchiefs into a Möbius strip with a slit for the mouth of the purse. When Lady Muriel has done this, Mein Herr tells her that now all she has to do is sew a third handkerchief to the four exposed sides and she will have a purse of which the inside is continuous with the outside. Lady Muriel, having grasped the principle, puts the purse aside for final sewing up after tea. (II.vii.577-79) She is wise to do so, for the two-dimensional curiosity of the Möbius strip can assume a tangible physicality in our world, but the Klein bottle exists only in the fantasies of non-Euclidian geometers.7

Mein Herr presents Lady Muriel and us with the conception of inside as outside. But Lady Muriel's discretion avoids a confrontation between logic and reality. Fortunatus's Purse both exists in the real world and does not. All the riches of the world are available to those who love. The task Carroll set for himself in Sylvie and Bruno was to sensitize his readers to this sort of hyper-reality. Fortunatus's Purse may be taken as an emblem of the theme of the work, that love is teachable and its power is boundless. We must learn to reach the depths of love contained in Fortunatus's Purse. And this love is all around us if we know how to look for it aright.

In the Alice books dream may be seen as an escape from our normal reality. Dream has a more psychologically sophisticated (or adult) function in Sylvie and Bruno. The Red God dreams a new game of creation, but the reader is quite awake through it all—or at least confident that he can awake to reality. But Sylvie and Bruno is contrived to make it much more difficult for the reader to maintain this sort of psychical distance from the material.8 He drifts in and out of Fairyland with the Narrator. Thus he is gradually taught to understand that the limits of reality are blurred, that it is not so easy to say that this is the world of reality while that is the world of nonsense and fantasy. Ruth Berman has plausibly suggested that what she calls the dullness of the English scenes (“earnestness” would perhaps be more relevant and charitable) has a structural significance at least for the modern reader of the novel in making the Fairyland and particularly the Outland scenes seem more lively, more free, and finally more “real” in contrast.9

Dreaming functions in Sylvie and Bruno as problem solving—as it often does in life. Dreams can restructure reality by omitting, changing, and adding details so that we can work out at least partial solutions to the continuing problems we have in the real world. This can sometimes be materially helpful, and it can often be psychologically helpful. In Sylvie and Bruno the characters of dream are vitally necessary to the solving of problems in the real world. Because they are, the work becomes a flux of reality and dream. It is no accident that here we find Carroll inventing the Time Machine (he is several years before Wells10). An Outlandish Watch would be pointless in Wonderland because there we have lost all sense of what time it “really” is; the Mad Hatter's watch “doesn't tell what o'clock it is.” But real time and eerie time exist simultaneously in the world of Sylvie and Bruno, and Carroll means for us to discover that neither is all there is. Reality is not enough; we need nonsense too. Drifting into a world of fantasy is not an escape from reality but a significant education about the nature of life. And reality is not an escape from nonsense. Our education goes on everywhere. Arthur teaches us most directly, but there are professors everywhere in this work (and college officers, the Warden and Sub-Warden). And it is only natural that the Narrator's dreams discover Bruno at his lessons, twiddling his eyes to see what letters do not spell, for example, and then seeing in evil only live backwards. (II.i.529) Eric Lindon learns the greatest lesson, that God answers prayer. This too is a lesson of love. And if we do not learn the lesson of love … why, we turn into porcupines.


That Sylvie and Bruno attempts to show the playful underside of a rather prim moral and religious view of reality, that it illustrates what we might call a leavening of reality with nonsense, has probably been understood by everyone who has read it. But the complementary point seems to have been equally important to Carroll, and perhaps too many readers come to the book from the Alice's with fixed expectations. Do we want to hear that nonsense sometimes has to give place to reality, to a Carrollian reality of moral platitudes and sentimentality? And Carroll's moral view of reality does seem to be the source of our trouble. Side by side with his nonsense, Carroll presents an ostensibly real world whose values are sentimental and where events fall out according to the artifices of romance. The plot that animates and coordinates the two worlds is certainly a romance.

The genuine weaknesses of the novel for modern tastes all have to do with its nature as Victorian romance. There is, of course, a kind of general sentimentality to the whole treatment of love and religion. But there are also, admittedly, occasions when Carroll is rather more insistent than he should be even on his own terms if the book is to stand alone and actually demonstrate its theme of love and not simply proclaim it. An instance occurs when the Narrator has described Lady Muriel as “all that is good”:

“—and sweet,” Arthur went on, “and pure, and self-denying, and true-hearted, and—” he broke off hastily, as if he could not trust himself to say more on a subject so sacred and so precious. Silence followed: and I leaned back drowsily in my easy-chair, filled with bright and beautiful imaginings of Arthur and his lady-love, and of all the peace and happiness in store for them.


Most such sentimental excursions occur, however, in the fairy material. Somehow when Sylvie and Bruno pass through the Garden Door of Outland into the larger Fairyland beyond, Carroll seems to lose his sense of proportions and to give over his novelist's task of evoking emotional response. This is a common enough lapse for a Victorian novelist; Dickens lapses this way all too often. What is interesting is that in Sylvie and Bruno Carroll also on occasion manages to satirize what is conventionally sentimentalized. At one point Arthur is asked if he will not allow that someone is a sweet girl. He answers, “Oh, certainly. As sweet as eau sucrée, if you choose—and nearly as interesting!” (II.x.611) While there is much in Dickens that is not sentimental, I do not recall any incident that actually questions the sentimental system of values.

While we may not enjoy Carroll's Victorian sentimentality in this book, we can at least see that it is there for a definite purpose. This is a heavily moral book. It is a perennially difficult task for the writer to make his good characters interesting; Carroll has at least attempted to give some substantive life to his world of good. There is even a kind of narrative plausibility to his sentimentalizing of Sylvie. I find Sylvie the least rounded and least satisfactory of the main characters.11 The ending of the book could serve nicely as a locus classicus of Victorian sentimentality about feminine sweetness. The Narrator listens for a word from “Sylvie's sweet lips” but thinks that he hears instead “not Sylvie's but an angel's voice … whispering.” (II.xxv.749) Yet is not such a characterization of Sylvie as angel better justified by the plot and theme of this book than, for example, the similar characterization of Agnes Wickfield in David Copperfield? Sylvie is in fact a supernatural being who exists to do good. The whole order of fairies exists in the book to show us in outline the workings of love. Sylvie's Jewel is merely the physical embodiment of a psychological truth for Carroll: “For I'm sure it is nothing but Love!” (II.xix.693) The legend of the Jewel is both Sylvie will love all and all will love Sylvie (we cannot tell which) because to love is to be loved. The plot should be seen as a real attempt to demonstrate this point.

The sophisticated modern reader is almost bound to be unhappy with such a qualitative resolution of plot. He has nothing against love, but he would rather see it growing out of plot than magically justifying the most agreeable but unlikely developments. The resurrection of Arthur is like something out of Mrs. Radcliffe. But Carroll obviously did not see it that way. There is certainly a moral purpose behind his vision. And this sort of moral plot manipulation was a common feature of the Victorian novel. Carroll's contrivance is really rather clean and direct compared to the long-missing heirs and mistaken identities of Dickens.

But of course we do not usually come to Sylvie and Bruno from Our Mutual Friend. We come from the Alice books with the expectation of nonsense. And there is enough to reward our expectation so that we do not reshape it but rather find the book interesting in parts and not quite right. If we saw Sylvie and Bruno in its proper context as a Victorian novel, it would not be Bleak House or Vanity Fair or The Egoist because it is obviously not in the mainstream of novelistic development. But it does bear comparison, structurally, with Wuthering Heights. It is even more daring structurally. Both works are infused with the sentiments of the age and yet combine traditional materials in completely original ways.

And like the plot of Wuthering Heights, the plot of Sylvie and Bruno is pure romance. Wuthering Heights is a psychological study of the power of passion. But the conclusion of the plot, when it comes, is still a happy marriage that incidentally resolves the inheritance of two estates. Sylvie and Bruno ends with the conversion of the godless, the metamorphosis of the loveless, the resurrection of the good, and the reuniting of lovers. The complications that delay the righting of the universe in each novel also owe a lot to the tradition of romance. Romance multiplies improbabilities and coincidences to show the underlying neatness of a cosmic plan—exactly the way David Goldknopf has so astutely shown to be typical of the Victorian novel.12 Emily Brontë's young Cathy must symmetrically marry her cousins on both sides to resolve the passions of the senior generation, something the girl can only have the power to do because she was born into a family with such a neat genealogy. Carroll's Arthur must die to live—to live happily ever after with Lady Muriel in the knowledge that Eric has found God.

To say that Sylvie and Bruno is a romance in this sense means that it is a proof through narrative that reality has the moral purpose we wish it did. Such books exist to tell us what life cannot. To put the matter in the sharpest perspective, we may quote Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” Such a view of reality is implied by Sylvie and Bruno, implied structurally as well as thematically. The good do end happily, but the plot of the book exists almost exclusively for the morality. The characters are less important for themselves than because they illustrate the moral. Of course, the texture of the book, the texture of dream movement between Fairyland and the world of reality, often diverts us, sugarcoats the pill. But events are being manipulated to make a point about the way things should work out in the real world. That is the whole reason why things do happen in the book. And the fact that things do work out as they do is explicitly attributed to the power of a higher Providence than the Narrator's art. “I know that God answers prayer!” (I.xxv.501)

The test here is surely the supposed death and miraculous salvation of Arthur. We get to see Lady Muriel's faith bring her through the loss of her lover on their very wedding day. But then the high-comedy lovers get a second chance, and we know that when Arthur recovers they will have a perfect marriage of love.13 Of course the grave objection may be made to such a plot that reality seldom illustrates either perfect grief or happy marriage. This is, in substance, exactly the objection always made to romance (but it isn't true!). If we consider this manipulation of plot for moral purpose against the background of Victorian fiction, we see that Carroll is not only well within the limits of good form but also exercising considerable literary skill to keep the sentimentality in bounds. Arthur's death is handled with a good deal more restraint than the death of Barkis or of Paul Dombey, to pick places where Dickens succeeds beautifully in his gamble for our emotional commitment. The death of Mr. Dorrit's brother is such a muddle of sentimentality and abstraction that one is not even sure it is a death scene. The interminable death of Little Nell is, of course, the classic excess. In contrast, the supposed death of Carroll's Arthur is only inferred by the reader from a newspaper clipping. When it is presented to us, the clipping makes the event seem the properly cold and arbitrary work of fate. But in retrospect the newspaper format serves the more important function of justifying the misleading information. The Narrator did not commit himself to the death. Mistakes themselves are a kind of reality. The reader is tempted to complain that he has been cheated, but his complaints ring hollow in his own mind. We are tricked but not exactly lied to. Both the seeming death and the discovery are plausibly presented. The plan is out of fashion, but it is worked expertly. Even the Narrator's disgust when he believes that Lady Muriel has too hastily agreed to marry Eric after Arthur's death is worked expertly as narrative. We may cringe when he quotes Hamlet to himself, “The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage-tables.” (II.xxv.744) But we also feel that the quotation as well as the sentiment is appropriate to the Narrator. His opinion would be both passionate and literary—and he would keep it to himself.

The whole romance structure of the work builds toward this religious validation of Arthur's supposed death. It is thus interesting that, in his notes on the drawings for Sylvie and Bruno, Carroll suggested Furniss draw Arthur as he would “King Arthur when he first met Guinevere.”14 That the event is arbitrary is not a flaw but a consequence of the moral point proved by it, that love can work miracles. By the standards of moral contrivance in the Victorian novel it works very well. It is a good deal less surprising than Oliver Twist's genealogy or the blinding of Mr. Rochester or the ability of Tess of the d'Urbervilles to sleep through a sexual assault. The magic of Sylvie's Jewel simply works to tie the resurrection of Arthur to the various changes we have made and can make between eeriness and reality; it is one more transmigration from one world to another coexistent world. In this way Sylvie's Jewel performs its magic to make Sylvie and Bruno a single work structurally and a Victorian novel. This is in contrast to the Alice books, which share many elements of point of view with each other and some of these at times with Sylvie and Bruno but are contained by their separate dreams. The antiutopia of Through the Looking-Glass is very obviously structured within its dream of a chess problem. This chess problem is completely arbitrary and so does a wonderful job of organizing everything else in the nonsense book. In contrast, the incident of Arthur's resurrection is structurally arbitrary but demonstrates miraculously the morality expounded by its book. And so it is, in a higher sense, the inevitable culmination of the plot.


We might also profitably consider the sensibleness of Sylvie and Bruno as part of the Victorian character of moral earnestness. Of course nonsense is a variety of logic. But Sylvie and Bruno also contains a lot of serious talk well expressed, serious talk that might be called socially aware. Arthur is, for example, presenting a serious and worthwhile analysis when he argues that the introduction of small stakes in card games raises the whole moral tone of the enterprise by discouraging cheating (because we take all money matters seriously) and by consequently making what cheating does occur seem repugnant rather than amusing. He recommends the introduction of betting as a cure for the silliness of croquet matches. (II.ix.597) On a number of occasions Arthur calls our attention to the difficulties of making conventional moral judgments. Victories over equal temptations, he argues, can have very different effects for the world because of irrelevant differences in environment. (II.viii.590) “If we once begin to go back beyond the fact that the present owner of certain property came by it honestly, and to ask whether any previous owner, in past ages, got it by fraud, would any property be secure?” (II.iii.545) Arthur is clearly Carroll's raisonneur despite the tentative disclaimer in the Preface to Volume II, “I do not hold myself responsible for any of the opinions expressed by the characters in my book.” Nevertheless, he cannot help remarking that he sometimes feels a great sympathy for one of Arthur's arguments. Carroll does not go so far with the aesthetic principle as more modern authors. And other characters sometimes speak with Arthur's voice of earnestness. It is the Earl, for example, who argues that we should take our pleasures quickly so that we can get more of them into life—though his suggestion of listening to music played at seven times its normal speed is perhaps not the most convincing conceivable. (I.xxii.471) But Carroll's personality and thinking are clearly more a part of the personality of Arthur than they are of even the Narrator, the “Mister Sir” of Bruno, who is learning about the structure of life and so needs labels for everything.

It sometimes seems quite clear that Carroll's social conscience guided him in selecting many of the incidents for this work—a work Carroll says “… had to grow out of the incidents, not the incidents out of the story.” Carroll's concern with social causes is parallel to Dickens's. He is not against people who adopt causes. But he is very much against simple moral equations. This we see very clearly in the incident of the Anti-Teetotal Card, which says That's where all the money comes from! in answer to the Teetotal Card's That's where all the money goes to! Arthur's analogy of giving up sleeping to set an example for people who oversleep (II.ix.599-601) shows us the importance of analyzing the problem of drinking to excess as a problem not of drink but of excess.

If anything, Carroll is too much in earnest. The particular suggestions made along the way in the work are often nonsense—betting on croquet matches, high-speed music appreciation, discontinuing overpricing at charity bazaars to cut down on moral self-satisfaction—are often nonsense or at least of no abiding importance. But the principles these suggestions force us to consider are always terribly in earnest and useful in helping us make ethical or moral discriminations. It is ironic that Carroll, who refused to play chess with bishops in nonsense books, should have felt it necessary in the preface to Volume II of Sylvie and Bruno to answer the charge of having in the person of Arthur condemned most sermons as foolish. (I.xix.436) It is precisely because he was one of the few people wishing to take sermons seriously that he was able to have Arthur voice the complaint. Many preachers do misuse their privilege from interruption to talk twaddle. Again we may doubt that Carroll's solution—less frequent sermons—would answer to the problem now or would have answered to it in his own day. Unless we become, like the seventeenth century, an age that wants to learn from sermons and is perhaps even willing to pay lecturers for extra series in the evening, we are not likely to get good sermons no matter how infrequent.

Carroll's earnestness is one of the defining characteristics of Sylvie and Bruno. The fairy material may, in fact, even be seen as existing in the work only because of his earnest religious orientation. We have remarked Carroll's use of Victorian romance but we may go perhaps a step further and say that his specifically religious explanation of the workings of fate marks this work, despite its late date, as of the spirit of the early Victorian novel. Goldknopf has pointed out how a gradual reluctance develops in Dickens to attribute the fortuitous determinism of plot to God. By the time we reach Hardy, there is no God—or rather Hardy has taken over the work of God.15 And the direction of the modern novel has been to eliminate improbability and coincidence from plot because it no longer wants to give them the necessary moral justification. In Sylvie and Bruno Carroll has all the faith in coincidence of Charlotte Brontë. He knows that God orders our lives with love, and he humbly draws back from presuming to speak for God. Because he is a gentleman in religion, he creates the middle world of Fairyland to express the workings of fate. But we know his real characters are finally in the hands of God.


  1. Since the substance of these books is certainly nowhere near so familiar to the general reader as the stories of Carroll's other major works, a plot summary may be helpful:

    The Outland country of Fairyland, we discover as the story begins, is in political flux. The Warden of Outland (who is also King of Elfland), though a saintly man with great power for good, is nonresident. His brother the Sub-Warden arranges through subterfuge and a false report of the Warden's death to have himself elected Emperor, setting aside also the hereditary rights of the Warden's cute young son Bruno in favor of Uggug, his own selfish son. Bruno is being taught goodness by his sister Sylvie. He rebels against the formalities of lessons, but his logical thinking is wonderfully advanced for a boy so young and his heart is full of love, especially for Sylvie. Having ascertained the really great extent of love in the hearts of these two children, a Beggar reveals himself to them as their father and gives Sylvie a magic Jewel to help them grow even further in love. All this history of Fairyland is revealed to the Narrator, an unnamed London lawyer or businessman, in various eerie trances during a country visit to his old friend Dr. Arthur Forester at Elveston. The Narrator meets the charming Lady Muriel Orme, Arthur's beloved. Arthur has just come into money, but he will not speak to Lady Muriel of marriage because he thinks she is in love with her cousin, Captain Eric Lindon. It is obvious Lady Muriel cannot love Eric because he has no religious convictions, yet she is worried about his soul and feels herself promised to him. Soon after Sylvie and Bruno have materialized as children in order to do works of love, the dashing Eric shows his mettle by rescuing Bruno as he is about to be hit by a train. When Eric receives a long-awaited military promotion, he claims his bride. Arthur thinks this is for the best, perhaps, since Eric will have the religious model he needs. Arthur has decided to go to India as Volume I ends.

    Volume II (Sylvie and Bruno Concluded) begins several months later with the Narrator's discovery that Eric, in deference to Lady Muriel's religious scruples, has released her unconditionally from any obligation to him. However, she is fearful that he has released her under duress until she talks the point over with the Narrator. Arthur has hesitated to press his own suit in the circumstances. But, with the fairy help of Sylvie and Bruno and the collusion of the Narrator, the lovers quickly come together. The fairies also bring about the reformation of a drunkard and do other good works in the neighborhood. When plague breaks out in the harbor town, Arthur hurriedly marries Lady Muriel and then goes off the same morning to help. When it is all over, a newspaper clipping reports his heroic death. On his next visit to Elveston, the Narrator finds that Lady Muriel's faith has remained unshaken by the tragedy and that she also can experience the eerie state. Together they overhear Sylvie and Bruno singing about the secret of love. In Outland events reach a climax at a banquet to celebrate Uggug's birthday. The Warden-Beggar-Elfking returns and seems to cast a spell of remorse over his brother, who is left as Emperor of the place. But Prince Uggug, because he has lived without love, turns into a porcupine. In Elveston Arthur is suddenly and miraculously discovered among the survivors of the plague. He was, in fact, rescued by Eric, who now knows that there is a God who answers prayers. The work ends as the Elfking helps his children understand the magic Jewel better and thus see that to love is to be loved.

  2. Carroll has a substantial discussion of the process of writing the book in the Preface to Volume II. My references will be to volume (I, Sylvie and Bruno proper; II, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded) and chapter, and also include page numbers from the most easily accessible edition, the Modern Library (New York: Random House, n.d.). Confirmation of Carroll's story of the writing is provided by the Diaries and by Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (1898; rpt. Detroit: Gale Research, 1967), p. 259.

  3. The character parallels are among the most commented-on features of the work: Ruth Berman, Patterns of Unification in Sylvie & Bruno (Baltimore: [T. & K. Graphics], 1974), pp. 4-10; Alexander L. Taylor, The White Knight (London: Oliver & Boyd, 1952), p. 191; Phyllis Greenacre, Swift and Carroll (New York: International Universities Press, 1955), p. 199.

  4. In a letter to a Mrs. Ritchie dated 24 October 1887, reprinted in Derek Hudson, Lewis Carroll (London: Constable, 1954), p. 285, Carroll refers to his work in progress as “one single book (a story, but for rather older readers than ‘Alice’).” I think Carroll was, in fact, writing a novel and not a children's book at all. A work in which the characters make jokes involving Latin tags and casually use words like oscillations, zoöphytic, adiposity, isochronous, fallible, bonhommie, and rumination is for older children indeed. Whether the fairy material is necessarily for children or not, it is certainly inconsistent with the point of view maintained by the rest of the work for the Narrator to take any notice of the reader at all.

  5. See especially Greenacre, p. 194. Hudson has some interesting notes on the possible influence of the work's point of view, pp. 288-89.

  6. The reader will recognize my theoretical debt to Elizabeth Sewell in this passage, The Structure of Poetry (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951), especially Ch. 7, “Order and Disorder,” pp. 44-58.

  7. Carroll's use of the Klein bottle here has been called to our attention by Martin Gardner in his “Mathematical Games” column, “The Games and Puzzles of Lewis Carroll, and the Answers to February's Problems,” Scientific American, 202, 4 (March 1960), p. 172.

  8. The classical study of psychical distance in literature is Edward Bullough, “Psychical Distance as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle,” British Journal of Psychology, 5 (1912-1913), pp. 87-118.

  9. Berman, p. 15.

  10. Lin Carter, “Have Time, Will Travel!” Fantastic Universe, 7 (January 1960), p. 99.

  11. Critics often assert that the fairy characters in the book are well rounded and the English characters are dull. Even Ruth Berman, who has been so careful to show us that “the line between excellence and failure in Sylvie and Bruno by no means coincides with the line between fantasy and realism,” p. 4, sometimes seems to make this mistake. To me the contrast between Lady Muriel and Sylvie shows a striking exception to the usual generalization. Lady Muriel is charming and intelligent, and in her religious scruples about her engagement she has a real depth of character. But Sylvie does comparatively little to evoke all the sweet verbiage lavished on her. Of course, the fairies are generally more interesting. And Bruno is the most lively character in the book.

  12. The Life of the Novel (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1972), pp. 100-124, 159-76.

  13. I cannot agree with Phyllis Greenacre that we feel Arthur's bout with the plague has rendered him sexless, pp. 196, 219. Unlike Mr. Rochester, who is too overwhelming to make a satisfactory husband without some degree of emasculation, Arthur is all along Carroll's ideal husband. The function of the plague episode is not to change Arthur but to change Eric—and incidentally to bring out certain qualities in Lady Muriel. I think that in her concentration on the implication of the book for a study of Carroll's own psychology Dr. Greenacre has sometimes misrepresented its subtlety as a literary work. There is, for example, nothing villainous about Eric from the beginning—he is simply without faith. His heroism in saving Bruno from the train suggests that Carroll tried to make him as good a man as it is possible to be without faith. And his conversion is in the quality of his life, not in its outward direction; he is not making any plans as the book ends to convert the heathens in emulation of Carroll's brother Edwin. Cf. Greenacre, p. 196.

  14. Letter quoted by Collingwood, p. 260.

  15. Goldknopf, pp. 167-73.

Richard Kelly (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13276

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.]


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, twinkle, little Bat” are inspired works that have become an integral part of our literary and popular culture. The gulf between his serious and humorous poetry is as vast as that between Carroll the Oxford don and Carroll the creator of Alice. Although the focus of this chapter will be upon his humorous verse and its development into pure nonsense, it may be helpful in understanding Carroll's growth as a nonsense poet to look first at his conventional verse.

Most of Carroll's serious verse appeared as part of the first edition of Phantasmagoria (1869) and was reissued in 1898 in Three Sunsets. One of the recurring themes of these poems is the loss of innocence or love. The “Three Sunsets,” for example, deals with a man who has known “the star of perfect womanhood,” a creature who made him bless the world “where there could be / So beautiful a thing as she.” But then the two lovers bid farewell and time begins to wreak its havoc upon the man:

So after many years he came
A wanderer from a distant shore:
The street, the house, were still the same,
But those he sought were there no more:
His burning words, his hopes and fears,
Unheeded fell on alien ears.
Only the children from their play
Would pause the mournful tale to hear,
Shrinking in half-alarm away,
Or, step by step would venture near
To touch with timid curious hands
That strange wild man from other lands.(1)

Cast out of his romantic paradise, the lover is now alienated from the real world, with which he refuses to compromise. Tennyson, of course, in section VII of In Memoriam describes this emotion much more forcefully: “Dark house, by which once more I stand / Here in the long unlovely street, / Doors, where my heart was used to beat / So quickly, waiting for a hand.” Carroll's images are rather abstract and his meter uninteresting. Tennyson's skillfully placed caesuras and surprising adjectives like “unlovely” strengthen his lines.

Carroll's poem continues with the theme of “Mariana” and “The Palace of Art,” namely, that emotional self-indulgence is spiritually and psychologically destructive. Sounding very much like Mariana, the lover sighs, “She will not come to-day”; and he proceeds to invent “new luxuries of agony.” Carroll's didacticism gradually emerges: “So all his manhood's strength and pride / One sickly dream had swept aside.” Finally, his lover does indeed return to him but he was “Too rapt in selfish grief to hear / even when happiness was near,” and thus he dies despising the present and powerless to recapture the past. One suspects, without Tennyson needing to tell us, that Mariana's grief was equally self-indulgent and that her lover's return would spoil the luxury of her gloom. Carroll simply could not resist the impulse to set the moral record straight. But even Tennyson, in “The Palace of Art,” heavy-handedly condemns the immorality of selfish estheticism. What is interesting about both poets, however, is that they are fascinated by and drawn to those very emotions that their rational selves distrust. Carroll, for example, freely indulged himself in wistful memories of the “island farm” of his childhood without any recrimination. “Three Sunsets” simply demonstrates that the past, when it consumes the present, is dangerous and potentially destructive.

“The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” on the other hand, affirms the healing power of the past. An old man on his death bed tells his son the story of how he was rescued from despair by happy, innocent cottage children who were reading from the Bible “Come unto Me, come unto Me— / All ye that labour, come unto Me— / Ye heavy-laden, come to Me— / And I will give you rest” (p. 415). This event not only redeemed his dark day but continues to strengthen his prospects for the future, as he can now interpret his passing years as “home-ward-speeding” towards his departed wife: “So with a glad and patient heart / I move toward mine end.” The poem never makes clear what caused the old man to despair in the first place. There were simply “evil spells that held me thrall” (the language suggests “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and may imply sexual anxiety). The movement from suicidal thoughts (“What need to lag and linger on / Till life be cold and gray?”) to affirmation of life (“Blest day!”) is similar to that in Tennyson's “The Two Voices,” where the sight of a happy family going to church enables the poet to repress the barren voice for one that proclaims “Rejoice! Rejoice!” “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” serves as a companion poem to “Three Sunsets” in that one shows the past to be redemptive and the other to be destructive, the former associated with child-like innocence, the latter with romantic eroticism.

In his poem “Solitude” Carroll makes a wistful attempt to recapture the lost innocence of his childhood. In a pensive mood the poet retreats to a silent woods: “Here from the world I win release, / Nor scorn of men, nor footstep rude, / Break in to mar the holy peace / Of this great solitude” (p. 417). He glories in the memories of “Life's young spring, / Of innocence, of love and truth!” and concludes: “I'd give all wealth that years have piled, / The slow result of Life's decay, / To be once more a little child / For one Bright summer-day.” Carroll was only twenty-one when he wrote these lines, a fairly typical age for a poet to write his “old age” poem. Keenly aware of the passage of time and mortality, Carroll relentlessly sought refuge from decay in memories of golden fairy lands, in photography, and in constantly associating himself with children.

“Beatrice” sets forth the theme that youthful innocence can control and structure the violence and disorder of experience. Beatrice, the “sainted, ethereal maid,” can tame a wild beast:

For I think, if a grim wild beast
Were to come from his charnel-cave,
From his jungle-home in the East—
Stealthily creeping with bated breath,
Stealthily creeping with eyes of death—
He would all forget his dream of the feast,
And crouch at her feet a slave.

(p. 420)

These lines, richly romantic in sentiment, suggest that innocence is a stay not only against a violent eroticism but against mortality—and perhaps those two forces are related in Carroll's mind. Beatrice has the same powers as Robert Browning's Pippa, whose song enabled Sebald to repent his crimes of murder and lust:

And be sure, if a savage heart,
In a mask of human guise,
Were to come on her here apart—
Bound for a dark and a deadly deed,
Hurrying past with pitiless speed—
He would suddenly falter and guiltily start
At the glance of her pure blue eyes.

The entire poem is, of course, sentimental—most of the innocents in Carroll's serious verse are emblems of abstract forces that perform almost magical feats in the real world, such as thwarting murderous erotic crimes or preserving the hope of despairing old men.

Another sentimental poem, “Stolen Waters,” resembles Keats's “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” with the addition of a happy ending. Christina Rossetti's “Goblin Market” appeared the year Carroll wrote his poem and well may have influenced it. A lithe, tall, and fair maiden, possessing sinister powers, offers the narrator (a knight) the juice of “rarest fruitage”: “I drank the juice; and straightway felt / A fire within my brain: / My soul within me seemed to melt / In sweet delirious pain” (p. 423). “Youth is the season to rejoice,” the maiden counsels, and lures the knight into her dark dream of sexual pleasure: “The very heart from out my breast / I plucked, I gave it willingly: / Her very heart she gave to me— / Then died the glory from the west.” Upon his commitment to her, the horrific effects of time and mortality blight his dream: “In the gray light I saw her face, / And it was withered, old, and gray; / The flowers were fading in their place, / Were fading with the fading day.” He flees from the fatal lady, senses that his heart has turned to stone, and longs to die in order to be released from his misery. But, as in “The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” the narrator hears a voice that renews his hope: “‘Be as a child— / So shalt thou sing for very joy of breath— / So shalt thou wait thy dying, / In holy transport lying.’”

As in some of the previous poems, eroticism triggers in the mind of the narrator the horrors of time, decay, and death. John Skinner notes that Carroll “offers a solution to the insoluble dilemma of adulthood by substituting a state of childish existence, aimed not at the realization of a mature adult life, but fixed at a level of innocence in life until the adult-child passes into the larger innocence of death.”2 The fascination with erotic love and the impulse to repress it coexist in Carroll's verse and, possibly, according to Hudson, in his life as well:

He was a man who carried his childhood with him; the love that he understood and longed for was a protective love. He had a deep instinctive admiration for women, yearning for their sympathy and often finding it. But it is possible that he could not reconcile in himself love and desire, and likely that he avoided problems of adult love and intimacy in his own life because he knew that he was pulled in two different ways (ambivalence is the modern term), and that in any close relationship something compelled him to seek distance and detachment.3

In “Faces in the Fire” the poet anticipates his lonely future and idealizes a lost but haunting love. Curiously, this love from his past does not sweep away “all his manhood's strength and pride” as it did in “Three Sunsets.” The romantic melancholy of the poem is real but it is not portrayed as destructive. In fact, there is a kind of pleasurable brooding over the lost innocent: “Oh, Time was young, and Life was warm, / When first I saw that fairy-form, / Her dark hair tossing in the storm” (p. 437). She has since aged, he recognizes, “And she is strange and far away / That might have been mine own to-day.” A. L. Taylor believes that the idealized woman of the poem is Alice Liddell.4 Alice was four years old when Carroll first met her and seven and a half in 1860, when he wrote the poem. If Taylor is correct and Alice is indeed the “little childish form,” then she is merely imagined to have “locks of jet … turned to gray.” Taylor's assumption would help to explain why the love relationship in this poem is not threatening or destructive but simply wistful and melancholy. The “aged Alice” is as safe and beautiful as Keats's unravished bride of silence. She is a haunting face in the fire, a memory stirred from Carroll's recollection of the distant paradise of his own childhood: “An island farm—broad seas of corn / Stirred by the wandering breath of morn— / The happy spot where I was born.” And if his lover's face vanishes among the “dust and ashes white,” leaving him alone in the darkness, at least it is a love he can indulge and understand, one that has been purged of eroticism.

S. D. Collingwood recognized the unhappiness and anxiety that Carroll revealed in his volume Three Sunsets: “One cannot read this little volume without feeling that the shadow of some disappointment lay over Lewis Carroll's life. Such I believe to have been the case, and it was this that gave him his wonderful sympathy with all who suffered. But those who loved him would not wish to lift the veil from those dead sanctities, nor could any purpose be served by doing so.”5


Elizabeth Sewell in her book The Field of Nonsense6 has provided the most perceptive and comprehensive analysis of nonsense to date. Since this chapter will be largely devoted to Carroll's nonsense verse, some of Sewell's observations will be summarized to provide the framework for much of the discussion to follow. The world of nonsense, she contends, is a universe not of things but of words and ways of using them. The straight-forward, unambiguous nature of nonsense is usually reinforced by the use of pictorial illustration. Nonsense is by nature logical and antipoetic and is an attempt to render language as a closed and consistent system on its own. It reorganizes language, not according to the rules of prose or poetry, but according to those of play; and the objects of that play are words. Since what is highly variable cannot be played with, ambiguity must be stripped as far as possible from the language. Nonsense works with discrete units, or words, and organizes them within a strict self referential framework (a Boojum is a Boojum). Nonsense disorders references that words have to the familiar sequence of events in everyday life. The defining characteristic of the game of nonsense, then, is the order-disorder dialect in the mind. Just when a line or passage of nonsense begins to make sense (that is, to be relatable to the everyday world), that sense is cancelled by a subsequent passage that demands one not go outside of the work, outside of the language, for an explanation. The natural tendency of a reader is to ask, what does this line mean? The answer, in nonsense, is that it means what it says and no interpretations apply. If Sewell is correct in her analysis, then countless interpretations of the allegorical and symbolic meanings of works such as The Hunting of the Snark are impositions upon a work that steadfastly begrudges and denies any consistent “reading.” She is probably right. When it comes to the prose works, however, she is on more dangerous grounds—for as she recognizes, “it may be that Nonsense goes better in verse than in prose.”7 There are obviously many aspects of the Alice books that do relate to the everyday life of both Victorian England and our own day.

Thus nonsense selects and organizes words in such a way as to frustrate the mind's tendency to multiply relationships. The nonsense universe must be the sum of its parts and nothing more, the emphasis always being upon the parts and not the whole; for there must be no fusion or synthesis. As an aid in inhibiting imagination and ambiguity, nonsense is usually accompanied by illustrations. As Sewell observes, “they sterilize the mind's powers of invention and combination of images while seeming to nourish it, and by precision and detail they contribute towards detachment and definition of the elements of the Nonsense universe.”8 In summary, she asserts that “all the finer points of the Nonsense game … contribute to the main aim: to create a universe which will be logical and orderly, with separate units held together by a strict economy of relations, not subject to dream and disorder with its multiplication of relationships and associations.”9

It may now be clearer, in retrospect, why Carroll's serious verse is so unsatisfactory. It is the product of a clear and logical mind that shuns the richness of ambiguity and symbolism. At his serious best, Carroll writes lines that resemble in diction and prosody second-rate neo-classical poetry. His romantic impulses are carefully organized, controlled, and submerged through the use of regular meters, strict rhymes, and conventional, often hackneyed, phrases, so that finally there is no feeling, no mystery, that emerges from the work. But exactly those qualities of mind—meticulousness, logicality, orderliness—that hamper Carroll as a serious poet enable him to be the genius of nonsense. He delights equally in puzzles, numbers, and words; and his most elaborate fantasies are as carefully controlled as a mathematical process. His nonsense, according to Sewell, makes him “a central figure, as important for England, and in the same way, as Mallarmé is for France.”10 Such authors as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and Wallace Stevens are all practitioners of nonsense, and in a sense one may see in Carroll's nonsense the roots of much twentieth-century literature.


Very little attention has been given to Carroll's early humorous verse. Much of it is obviously inferior to his later work, but an examination of his youthful attempts at humor will reveal his development into a poet of nonsense. As W. H. Auden pointed out, Carroll was greatly aided in his development as a writer by having an audience with which he was intimate and in which he had no literary rival.11 Carroll therefore was assured of an immediate and personal response to his works, usually from family and friends of the rectory; for most of his early writings and drawings appeared in family magazines such as The Rectory Umbrella, Mischmasch, and Useful and Instructive Poetry. Although many of the pieces which appeared in these family productions were slight, the approval and applause of his family and friends greatly strengthened and reinforced Carroll's determination to continue to amuse those surrounding him, particularly the children.

The first of the family magazines was Useful and Instructive Poetry, written about the year 1845, when Carroll was only thirteen years old. Some of the humorous verses show that he was remarkably precocious. “Rules and Regulations” pokes fun at copybook maxims:

Learn well your grammar,
and never stammer,
Write well and neatly,
And sing most sweetly.
Drink tea, not coffee;
Never eat toffy.
Eat bread with butter.
Once more, don't stutter.
Starve your canaries.
Believe in fairies.
If you are able,
Don't have a stable
With any mangers.
Be rude to strangers.
                                                            Moral: Behave(12)

Still a far cry from the pure nonsense of The Hunting of the Snark, this early piece nevertheless anticipates the later nonsense in several particulars. One of the characteristics of nonsense noted by Sewell is what she calls a “thing series”: “Anything can go into the thing series provided that the list when drawn up will defeat the dream tendency of the mind to run things together.” “Rules and Regulations” sets forth an incongruous list of social commandments that the moral, Behave, simply cannot synthesize, except as a joke. Many of the rules are dictated solely by the requirements of rhyme, not reason: “never eat toffy” is an auditory corollary of “Drink tea, not coffee.” In a sense, rules are arbitrary whether formulated by a disciplinarian or by the necessity of rhyme. In any event, the emphasis in the poem is clearly upon the parts and not upon the whole. Furthermore, there is no ambiguity in any of the lines. It may make no ordinary sense to be told to starve one's canaries, but there certainly is no question about the single meaning of the command. The poem comes close to being pure nonsense in that it does create a logical and orderly (helped by the couplets and regular meter) program of behavior, with distinct units (incongruously welded together by the couplets), not subject to the disorder occasioned by the multiplication of relationships and associations. Some of the lines, however, refer clearly to one's everyday world and make conventional sense, such as the first four lines quoted above. The reference to stammering, in fact, derives from Carroll's own speech difficulty. The entire poem makes an implicit reference to the real world of maxims and moral precepts, although, as with a parody, the poem may still have a life of its own, perhaps a limited one, even when not read in the context of the work it pokes fun at.

Another poem from Useful and Instructive Poetry which illustrates some of the principles of nonsense achieved at this early date is “Brother and Sister.”13 A brother peremptorily orders his sister to go to bed, to which she replies, “Do you want a battered hide, / Or scratches to your face applied?” The brother then resorts to a greater threat: “I'd make you into mutton broth / As easily as kill a moth!” She dares him to do so, and he runs to the cook for a frying pan. The cook asks him what he needs one for, and he answers, “I wish to make an Irish stew.” When she discovers that the boy's sister will be the meat, she refuses to lend him her pan, and the poem ends with the moral, “Never stew your sister.” The poem resists any “interpretation” and could be passed off as simply silly. As with many of Carroll's famous angry and ill-tempered characters, such as the Duchess and the Red Queen, the aggressive behavior of the brother seems gratuitous. Furthermore, his attempt to implement his verbal threat of stewing his sister into mutton broth suggests a literal mindedness that comes as a surprise, horrific and comic at once. There is a great deal of hostility and aggressiveness throughout Carroll's writings, and it is particularly refreshing to find those qualities in poems and stories about children; for it leads away from the conventional pietistic treatment of childhood that grew out of the romantic period and flourished in the Victorian era. The poem's moral, never stew your sister, follows as night follows day. The cook's refusal to lend the boy a frying pan terminates the boy's cannibalistic plan and forces the moral.

Psychoanalytical critics, such as Phyllis Greenacre, have observed that the theme of oral aggressiveness is found in most of Carroll's writings and derives from his jealousy of his sisters who displaced him from his mother's physical and emotional affections: “The wish to eat up and the fear of being eaten up are written over and over again in his fantasies, and appear on nearly every page of Wonderland.14 Miss Greenacre does not mention “Brother and Sister,” but it is a classic illustration of sibling rivalry. The psychoanalytical approach, which uses the poetry to confirm assumptions about the emotional make up of its author, has limited literary value; but it nevertheless highlights some of the more interesting facets of Carroll's personality.

Between 1855 and 1862 while at Oxford Carroll compiled a scrapbook called Mischmasch. One of the more interesting nonsense poems that appeared in that volume is “The Two Brothers”15 (1853), a work which not only embodies the theme of sibling rivalry and oral aggressiveness, but cleverly plays with language. The poem, crudely illustrated by Carroll, is about two brothers who, upon leaving Twyford school, decide to go fishing. When they get to the bridge, the older brother joins his fishing rod together and “then a great hook he took from his book, / And ran it right into his brother.” The unexpectedness of this violence, coupled with the sing-song effect produced by the meter and internal rhyme, creates a scene of comic grotesquerie unequalled since the Ingoldsby Legends. After he hurls his brother into the water the fish come to devour him, “for the lad that he flung was so tender and young, / It gave them an appetite.” The younger brother asks, “What have I done that you think it such fun / To indulge in the pleasure of slaughter.” The response is a series of joking puns:

I am sure that our state's very nearly alike
(Not considering the question of slaughter),
For I have my perch on the top of the bridge,
And you have your perch in the water.
I stick to my perch and your perch sticks to you,
We are really extremely alike;
I've a turn-pike up here, and I very much fear
You may soon have a turn with a pike.

Suddenly language and the delight in punning displace the “real world” of the baited brother. But then, there has never really been a real world to begin with. The older brother, despite his hostility, is a wit, a comic character, and not a sadistic homicidal maniac. Similar to many of the creatures Alice meets in Wonderland, the older brother chooses to play with language at a moment which in the real world would demand anything but detachment and wit for its own sake; and such behavior, of course, in the real world would be deemed mad. In the universe of nonsense, however, as the Cheshire Cat observes, “we're all mad.” “The Two Brothers” ends, as does much nonsense poetry, arbitrarily; for there is no point or thesis or resolution possible. The boys' sister appears, discovers that she has brothers on either end of the fishing pole; and the older brother jauntily exclaims, “I's mighty wicked, that I is!” and says that he is going off to sea and never coming back. The younger brother, not surprisingly, is almost totally forgotten, except for the final detached observation by the sister: “One of the two will be wet through and through, / And t'other'll be late for his tea!”

Mischmasch contains a number of poems that are significant in Carroll's development as a writer of nonsense, including “She's All My Fancy Painted Him,” which formed the basis of the White Rabbit's “evidence” at the trial of the Knave of Hearts, and the first stanza (written in 1855) of what was to become “Jabberwocky.” Because these two works are associated with the mature and successful Carroll it seems hard to account for the transition from “The Two Brothers” to “Jabberwocky.” But the principles of nonsense can be found to be operating in both the early and later poetry. The question then arises, why is one nonsense poem more interesting or successful than another? An attempt to answer that question will be made later in this chapter in the discussion of Carroll's classic nonsense pieces.

“She's All My Fancy Painted Him” copies the first line of “Alice Gray,” a sentimental song by William Mee that was popular at the time. The rest of the poem bears no resemblance to the song except in the alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines. Martin Gardner suggests that the song may have appealed to Carroll because it tells of the unrequited love of a man for a girl named Alice.16 The original song opens, “She's all my fancy painted her, / She's lovely, she's divine, / But her heart it is another's / She never can be mine.”17 Carroll's poem also begins with a sense of loss, but the confusing use of pronouns quickly blocks out any meaning: “She's all my fancy painted him / (I make no idle boast); / If he or you had lost a limb, / Which would have suffered most?”18 By the end of the poem, the relationship between the “I,” “he,” “you,” “she,” “we,” and “they” is totally obfuscated—and the secret, as Robert Frost says, sits in the middle and knows: “Don't let him know she liked them best, / For this must ever be / A secret, kept for all the rest, / Between yourself and me.” Although Carroll made major revisions in his poem before using it in Wonderland, the essential sense unnecessary for a Wonderland trial was already pruned from the 1855 version.

“The Palace of Humbug” (1855),19 which also appeared in Mischmasch, opens with a parody of Alfred Bunn's “I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls, / With vassals and serfs at my side” (from Bohemian Girl): “I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls, / And each damp thing that creeps and crawls / Went wobble-wobble on the walls.” As in Tennyson's “The Palace of Art,” there are decorations on the arras, only here the pictures are dreary and socially decadent: “the humbugs of the social sphere.” While wandering through the palace the narrator suddenly has a vision of “two worn decrepit men, / The fictions of a lawyer's pen, / who never more might breathe again.” The narrator urges the servants of the two fictitious men (Richard Roe and John Doe) to rouse themselves from woe by tales of evidence, suit, demurrer, and defense. The servant of John Doe bends over him and shouts “Law!” at which he smiled and faintly muttered “Sue!”—for “Her name was legal too.” Dawn appears, a hurricane sweeps away the narrator's vision, and the speaker says that to this day his spirit crawls when he remembers “that horrid dream of marble halls!”

The opening tercet of this poem is so striking that the remainder of the verse is disappointing. Here is a good example of a nonsense poem that does not engage the reader's interest beyond a few lines. It is too didactic, too many of the tercets make uninteresting sense, and the legal jokes are not very funny. The delicate balance between the real world (in this case, the law) and the world of nonsense, where words refer to other words, is lost—and the poem becomes silly. Perhaps Carroll was wise not to go beyond the first four lines of “Jabberwocky” in 1855.

Carroll's parody “The Three Voices”20 adopts the meter and stanza form of Tennyson's “The Two Voices” and pokes fun at the grave, complex philosophical questioning of that sententious poem. The loudest of the three voices belongs to an old hag who relentlessly harasses the narrator with her umbrella and endless chatter: “She urged, ‘No knife is like a fork,’ / And ceaseless flowed her dreary talk.” She is filled with pointless truisms: “The More exceeds the Less,” “Each gives to more than each,” and “Notion hath its source in Thought.” The narrator is overwhelmed by her: “When he, with racked and whirling brain, / Feckly implored her to explain, / She simply said it all again.” The narrator, like the poem, gets nowhere. Words and senseless rhetoric become ends in themselves, and the serious philosophic questions about the purpose of existence that Tennyson was seeking answers to are left far behind. Carroll's illustration of the hag with her umbrella sticking into the narrator's ribs makes abundantly clear that her silence will be dearly bought. Verbal oppression and nonsense are the two major thematic aspects of Carroll's verse that make it a parody.

“Upon the Lonely Moor,”21 an early version of the White Knight's Ballad, which appeared in The Train in 1856, is a parody of Wordsworth's poem about the aged leech-gatherer, “Resolution and Independence.” Carroll chose not to use the rhyme royal stanza of Wordsworth's poem but instead focussed upon the tone and subject matter of that work for his parody. The alternating tetrameter and trimeter provide a mocking quality in their relentless regularity: “I met an aged, aged man / Upon the lonely moor: / I knew I was a gentleman, / And he was but a boor.” In his comic verse Carroll treats not only children with irreverence but also the aged. The hostility and violence of “The Two Brothers” has its counterpart here, in a refreshing anti-romantic and sadistic poem. Where Wordsworth reveres the simple honesty and stoical independence of the ancient leech-gatherer, Carroll torments his slightly mad old gentleman—who earns his living in such ways as by baking soap-bubbles into mutton pies which he sells in the street: “I did not hear a word he said, / But kicked that old man calm, / And said, ‘Come, tell me how you live!’ / And pinched him in the arm.” The violence continues: “I gave his ear a sudden box, / And questioned him again, / And tweaked his grey and reverend locks, / And put him into pain.” In an attempt to regularize the rhyme within each stanza Carroll changed several lines of this poem for the White Knight's song; and the hostility, though still present, is better controlled. Here are the revisions of the eight lines quoted above:

So, having no reply to give
To what the old man said,
I cried “Come, tell me how you live!”
And thumped him on the head.
I shook him well from side to side
Until his face was blue:
“Come, tell me how you live,” I cried,
“And what it is you do!”(22)

The revisions are clearly superior in their economy and surprise—“And thumped him on the head” is a delightful nonsequitur enhanced by the funny word “thumped.” The original lines are more violent, and consequently “put him into pain” is anti-climactic and unfunny padding to fill out the stanza.

Wordsworth ends “Resolution and Independence” with the narrator finding strength within himself gained by his remembering the leech-gatherer. The speaker in Carroll's poem concludes on a note of madness induced by his encounter with the absurd and eccentric old man:

And now if e'er by chance I put
My fingers into glue,
Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot
Into a left-hand shoe;
Or if a statement I aver
Of which I am not sure,
I think of that strange wanderer
Upon the lonely moor.

This poem makes no more sense than many of Carroll's earlier verses and yet it is more memorable. The fact that it parodies a well-known poem partially explains its effectiveness, for there is that pleasant tension between the sentimental original and the irreverent imitation. Furthermore, even taken by itself, the poem is comic. The unexplained hostility of the narrator toward the old man, when safely set forth in a jaunty rhythm and comic rhymes, becomes very funny. The fact that the speaker is less than sane himself (for he plans to keep the Menai bridge from rusting by boiling it in wine) enables him to behave towards the old man in the unconventional manner that he does. These early poems demonstrate a distinct move towards Wonderland, where all are mad, save Alice.

The best of Carroll's nonsense verse can be found in the two Alice books and in The Hunting of the Snark, the latter being his Finnegans Wake. There is not enough time nor real call to discuss the many other pieces he wrote, such as Phantasmagoria (1869), a long poem about the antics of an unexperienced little ghost, “Hiawatha's Photographing” (the difficulties of a photographer set forth in the meter of “The Song of Hiawatha”), and numerous topical verses (“The Elections to the Hebdomadal Council,” “The New Belfry of Christ Church, Oxford,” etc.). The rest of this chapter, then, will focus upon the poems in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and The Hunting of the Snark.


Most of the poems in the two Alice books are parodies of poems or popular songs that were familiar to Carroll's contemporaries. The first to appear in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is “How doth the little crocodile,” a parody of Isaac Watts's moralistic little poem “Against Idleness and Mischief.”23 Watts uses the bee as an example of wholesome industriousness: “How skillfully she builds her cell! / And labours hard to store it well / With the sweet food she makes” (p. 39). Carroll's crocodile, on the other hand, does its work by remaining passive and merely opening its jaws: “How cheerfully he seems to grin, / How neatly spreads his claws, / And welcomes little fishes in, / With gently smiling jaws” (p. 38). Again, there is the theme of oral aggressiveness noted by Phyllis Greenacre, and it is very aptly applied here. Watts's sentimental vision of the animal world is replaced by Carroll's Darwinian view of survival of the stronger. There is considerable pleasure to be derived from having such a cold picture of animal behavior, presented in the rhyme, meter, and near language of Watts's storybook view. Only the smile of the Cheshire Cat can exceed the sinister gentleness of the crocodile's smiling jaws. The very human—and non-Darwinian—attributes which Carroll gives to his predator suggest all too graphically the reality of social Darwinism. John Ciardi chooses to read this poem as a criticism of the hypocrisy in Watts's poem: “Is it too much to argue that the crocodile is a happy hypocrite piously gobbling up the trusting fishes (including the poor fishes among the readers who are willing to take Watts's prettily shallow morality as a true rule of life)?”24

Although shaped verse can be traced back to ancient Greece, Carroll's mouse's tale is one of the best known examples of the form. An earlier version, which appeared in Alice's Adventures Underground, tells the story of some mice who were crushed beneath a mat by a dog and a cat that were pursuing a rat. The revision deals with a dog named Fury who suggests to a mouse that they both go to court, for “we must have a trial” (p. 51). The mouse protests that a trial without judge or jury would be meaningless, to which Fury responds: “I'll be judge, I'll be jury,” and “I'll try the whole cause and condemn you to death.” Unlike the original tale, the revision is absurd and violent. Fury wants a trial simply because “this morning I've nothing to do,” and his view of justice is exceeded only by the Snark (which serves as judge, jury, and counsel for the defense). If this poem is a satire on the legal profession that aspect of it is incidental. It is primarily a piece of nonsense, a playing with language—seen in the shape of the poem and the punning introduction: “Mine is a long and sad tale!” said the Mouse. “‘It is a long tail, certainly,’ said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse's tail” (p. 50). The puns, the tail shape of the verse (like an illustration), Fury's lack of motivation (a dog not being the natural enemy of the mouse—whereas, in the early version, a mouse offers a good reason for disliking both cat and dog), and the non sequiturs are the essential aspects of the poem's nonsense. Its “statement,” therefore, must be read in the context of Wonderland, where violence is usually verbal and impotent to harm the real world, represented by Alice.

In Wonderland Alice has difficulty in saying things as she remembered them. When she attempted to recite Watts's poem she spoke the parody. Now, at the request of the caterpillar, when she tries to repeat Robert Southey's “The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them,” she utters still another parody. As the Caterpillar later comments, her recital “is wrong from beginning to end.” This poem is reminiscent of “Upon the Lonely Moor” in its unconventional treatment of old age. Southey's old man is incredibly smug about the comforts that his righteous behavior bestowed upon his age: “In the days of my youth I remember'd my God. / And He hath not forgotten my age” (p. 69). Carroll's old man is also proud of the youthful prowess he still retains, but is wonderfully short-tempered: “‘I have answered three questions, and that is enough,’” / Said his father. “‘Don't give yourself airs! / Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff? / Be off, or I'll kick you down stairs!’” (p. 71). Part of the humor of this conclusion comes from the old man's confusion of a literary convention with a personality—one does not expect him to take on the faceless speaker of the refrain “You are old, father William” because he is simply the conventional questioner who appears in the traditional ballad.

The lullaby which the Duchess sings to the pig-baby is a burlesque of G. W. Langford's “Speak Gently,” which counsels that it is better to rule by love and gentleness than by fear: “Speak gently to the little child! / Its love be sure to gain; / Teach it in accents soft and mild; / It may not long remain” (p. 85). This saccharine advice is translated into that of comic violence and absurdity: “Speak roughly to your little boy, / And beat him when he sneezes: / He only does it to annoy, / Because he knows it teases” (p. 85). In some of the poems previously examined there was no explanation for why the characters behaved the way they did. Here the Duchess's advice is predicated upon the motive of a child teasing its parents, as if he could control his sneezing in a room full of pepper. When one expects motivation in Wonderland, it is not given; and when one does not expect it, it is made explicit. The poem intensifies the nonsense of Wonderland even when one does not know Langford's poem. When one thinks of the image of childhood presented by the nineteenth-century authors, Carroll's parody seems all the more refreshing and innovative.

Jane Taylor's well-known poem “The Star” is parodied in the Mad Hatter's song: “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! / How I wonder what you're at! / Up above the world you fly, / Like a tea-tray in the sky. / Twinkle, twinkle—” (pp. 98-99). Elizabeth Sewell has analyzed the process by which Carroll turned the original four lines (“Twinkle, twinkle, little star, / How I wonder what you are!? / Up above the world so high, / Like a diamond in the sky!”) into nonsense by attempting to answer why bats and tea-trays are more suitable to nonsense than are stars and diamonds:

A star is something exceedingly remote and beyond control; it has no apparent parts and can be assigned by the ordinary observer no definite qualities other than those of size and degree of brightness; it is beautiful … ; it is one of an unnumbered multitude. A bat is something near at hand, reasonably familiar, small; it is a creature whose appearance and habits are familiar; it is grotesque and we feel no attraction toward it; it usually appears alone. The other substitution, that of a tea-tray for a diamond, works on much the same principles, abandoning beauty, rarity, preciousness and attraction for ordinariness. It adds one further distinction, for a tea-tray is the work of man. In other words, the artificial is here preferred to the work of nature. Smallness, ordinariness, artificiality, distinctness of units, and a tendency to concentrate on the part rather than the whole are all helpful in the playing of Nonsense.25

One very important element which Sewell omits is the surprise that comes with the substitutions. Because we know the original poem the appearance of a bat startles us. Even without knowing the original, however, the bat is surprising because the two “twinkles” are totally inappropriate verbs to describe the actions of a bat. Furthermore, as Sewell does point out, the reader is unable to fuse together the image of the bat with the tea-tray, thereby keeping the two images discrete. One's imagination can on the other hand, fuse stars and diamonds without any difficulty.

The Mock Turtle's song parodies the first line and employs the meter of Mary Howitt's poem “The Spider and the Fly.” The opening stanza of Howitt's version reads:

“Will you walk into my parlour?” said
          the spider to the fly.
“'Tis the prettiest little parlour that
          ever you did spy.
The way into my parlour is up a
          winding stair,
And I've got many curious things to
          show when you are there.”
“Oh, no, no,” said the little fly, “to
          ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can
          ne'er come down again.”

(p. 133)

The Mock Turtle sings very slowly and sadly:

“Will you walk a little faster?” said a
          whiting to a snail,
“There's a porpoise close behind us,
          and he's treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the
          turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle—will
          you come and join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you,
          will you join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you,
          won't you join the dance?”

(p. 134)

The Mock Turtle, living up to its name, appears to be mocking here the moral of Howitt's poem. There is clearly no lesson to be learned from the song. Rather, it is an invitation to play, to dance. The rollicking rhythm of Howitt's poem is retained for its energetic playfulness, but the intrusive moral lesson has been left out of Wonderland. The whiting, the lobsters, and the snail, unlike the fly of Howitt's verse, have nothing to fear—for although they will be thrown out to sea, the experience will be “delightful” and, furthermore, as the whiting explains, if they are then far from England, they will be closer to France. It would be wrong to take this as anti-Gallic sentiment. It is a statement of simple optimism—all that is and will be is right. The whiting concludes by exhorting the “beloved snail” to enter in the excitement of the dance, that is, into the amoral world of play. Donald Rackin has this further point: “Note how the Mock Turtle's song that accompanies the Lobster Quadrille twists the sadistic original … into an innocuous nursery rhyme. This parody demonstrates that Wonderland refuses to be consistent to itself: if the above-ground rhymes tend to hide or deny Darwinian theory, Wonderland's poems will be vengefully Darwinian; but if above ground rhymes admit the cruelty of nature, then Wonderland produces harmless nonsense verses.”26

When Alice attempts to recite another moralistic poem by Watts, “The Sluggard,” she again distorts it into an amoral, cruel, Darwinian commentary on nature. While Watts's poem preaches the gospel of hard work, Carroll's parody tells of a panther who “shares” a meat pie with an owl. The panther gets the meat pie and allows the owl to have the dish and the spoon. Then “the Panther received knife and fork with a growl. / And concluded the banquet by—.” (p. 140). The grim final words, “eating the owl,” appear in the 1886 printed edition of Savile Clarke's operetta. This poem not only makes fun of the self-righteousness of Watts's verse but comically subverts the sentimental picture of animal (and human?) behavior that characterized so much of children's literature in the Victorian era. An angry Vicar in Essex actually wrote a letter to The St. James' Gazette accusing Carroll of irreverence because of the Biblical allusion in the first line of his parody.27 Such an attack is surprising, since Carroll's line “'Tis the voice of the Lobster,” is practically the same as Watts's “'Tis the voice of the sluggard.”

The Mock Turtle's mawkish song about beautiful soup is, of course, an appropriate commentary upon his own destiny and, like the poem Alice just finished reciting, depends upon oral aggressiveness for some of its humor. “Turtle Soup” is a parody of the popular song “Star of the Evening,” by James Sayles, which opens,

Beautiful star in heav'n so bright,
Softly falls thy silv'ry light,
As thou movest from earth afar,
Star of the evening, beautiful star.
Beautiful star,
Beautiful star,
Star of the evening, beautiful star.

(p. 141)

The Mock Turtle, in “a voice choked with sobs,” begins: “Beautiful soup, so rich and green, / Waiting in a hot tureen! / Who for such dainties would not stoop? / Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup! / Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!” (p. 141). The substitution of “soup” for “star” turns the parody into nonsense. A romantic apostrophe to a star, suggestive of beauty, aloofness, and purity is fairly conventional. But soup is not usually thought of as beautiful and an exclamatory song of praise for such a common food turns the parody into good nonsense.

The response of a Victorian reader to these poems from Wonderland would, of course, be very different from that of a twentieth-century reader. The poems that are parodied were familiar if not known by heart, to Carroll's contemporaries. The recognizable meter, imagery, and morals of these works had an immediate effect upon them. Carroll's poetry, furthermore, asserted a daring challenge to conventional, didactic children's poetry and satirized Victorian morality. The Victorians took seriously the familiar poetry of Watts, Southey, Langford, Taylor, Howitt, and Sayles. These respectable poets appeared in all the popular readers and, until Carroll, no one had reason to question their sanctity. A modern reader, on the other hand, is likely to be ignorant of the original poems. Nevertheless, Carroll's parodies survive and continue to delight. In their absurdity they have generated new meanings that no longer depend upon the verses that are parodied.


The first poem to appear in Through the Looking Glass is “Jabberwocky,” perhaps the best known and most frequently discussed of all of Carroll's poetry. Martin Gardner draws an interesting analogy between it and abstract painting:

The realistic artist is forced to copy nature, imposing on the copy as much as he can in the way of pleasing forms and colors; but the abstract artist is free to romp with the paint as much as he pleases. In similar fashion the nonsense poet does not have to search for ingenious ways of combining pattern and sense—he takes care of the sounds and allows the sense to take care of itself. The words he uses may suggest vague meanings, like an eye here and a foot there in a Picasso abstraction, or they may have no meaning at all—just a play of pleasant sounds like the play of non-objective colors on a canvas.28

Characteristically, most of the nonsense words are nouns or adjectives. Carroll apparently wanted his sentences to look genuine (nouns, verbs, and predicates are usually easy to detect) so that he could avoid mere gibberish. Elizabeth Sewell offers an explanation as to why most of the verbs are not nonsense words: “In logic, a verb expresses a relation, and this suggests two reasons for the few invented verbs in Nonsense. The first is the impossibility of inventing new relations in logic. The second is that a verb is an expressed relation, and relations in logic have to be simple and exact.”29 Sewell does not accept on face value Humpty Dumpty's explanation of the words in “Jabberwocky” as portmanteaus: “frumious, for instance, is not a word, and does not have two meanings packed up in it; it is a group of letters without any meaning at all … it looks like other words, and almost certainly more than two.”30 The mind will play with a nonsense word and perhaps associate with it several genuine words, but as Carroll says, “if you have that rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say ‘frumious.’” Sewell goes on to comment that “the mind is encouraged by means of these Nonsense words to notice likenesses; but the likenesses are to other words. It is the purely verbal memory and associative faculty which is called into play.”31 The likenesses between images, however, are not perceived in nonsense; and the mind cannot fuse the verbal similarities together into a poetic unity.

There is, nevertheless, formal unity in “Jabberwocky,” inasmuch as it is a mock-heroic ballad about an encounter between a young man and an adversary and appears to have a beginning, a middle, and an end (although the last stanza repeats the first). The young man, after being warned by his father of the Jabberwock, the Jubjub bird, and the Bandersnatch, goes off to do battle, slays the Jabberwock, and victoriously returns to his approving father. The conventional ballad stanza, the clear story line, the traditional syntax, and the many common words all provide a sensible framework of reference. The element of nonsense is restricted to the use of certain neologisms strategically placed in each stanza. If pure nonsense is conceived of as a field of closed language which resists an interpretation based upon some other system (e.g., ordinary prose, allegory, symbolism, etc.), then “Jabberwocky” is not pure nonsense. There are not enough “structures of resistance,” as Michael Holquist calls them,32 to close out of the poem ordinary meaning—in the battle between sense and nonsense, sense wins out in “Jabberwocky,” despite the structures of resistance provided by the nonsense words.

Nevertheless, the central interest in “Jabberwocky” is not in its story line but in its language. Our unfamiliarity with “slithy toves,” “borogoves,” and “Bandersnatch” makes the poem fun. The words conjure up associations in our minds that provide a “feeling” for their meanings. The word “galumphing” illustrates the failure of pure nonsense. In the sentence “He left it dead, and with its head / He went galumphing back,” the syntax makes it clear that “galumphing” describes how he went back. As the only nonsense word in an otherwise perfectly conventional sentence, the tendency of the mind is to break sense out of the word (and not to take it as a collection of letters that only has meaning in the context of the work). Consequently, associated words like “galloping” and “triumphantly” arise to help make sense of the sentence. One may, of course, come to accept “galumphing” as a word on its own, one that suggests a triumphant awkward gallop. If another reader makes similar associations, then we could actually converse with that word and be mutually understood. A. L. Taylor, for example, writes that “the little St. George with his vorpal sword is made very attractive in Tenniel's drawing and could not possibly galumph.”33 Carroll's own interpretation of the nonsense words in the poem, though sometimes whimsical, contributes to the reader's impulse to explain and understand them.

In the final analysis, the poem is a work to have fun with. Martin Gardner in his The Annotated Alice has enumerated the various explanations of the nonsense words and notes that eight of them reappear in The Hunting of the Snark. Some readers, such as A. L. Taylor, insist upon interpreting the poem.34 He argues that Carroll is satirizing the religious controversies around him, and sees the Tum-tum tree as “certainly the Thirty-nine Articles which people like Jowett signed, according to Dodgson, for the sake of their bread and butter.” The Jubjub bird and the Bandersnatch he explains as the Catholic and Protestant aspects of the English Church. “Vorpal” is a concoction of “verbal” and “Gospel.” And the repetition of the first stanza at the end signifies that nothing has really changed, that one controversy (the Jabberwock) has been slain but the “outgribing” is as strident as ever. The difficulty with making an allegory out of the poem, as Taylor has done, is that it is arbitrary, unconvincing, and limits the interest of the poem if we stop with that reading. The poem has survived and perhaps thrived on countless interpretations of that variety. What the poem finally “means,” of course, will never be settled, for it is not a secret language to be eventually decoded but a playful battle between sense and nonsense that can never be completely resolved into simple prose sense. As Alice says, after reading the poem, “‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something; that's clear, at any rate.—’”35 Perhaps with Alice's response, the poem should be left at that.

Tweedledee's poem, “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” satirizes the style of Thomas Hood's Dream of Eugene Aram. When Carroll gave the manuscript of his poem to Tenniel for illustrating, he offered the artist a choice of drawing a carpenter, butterfly, or baronet. Tenniel chose the carpenter. Any of the words would have suited the meter and rhyme scheme, and Carroll apparently had no strong preference as far as the nonsense was concerned. Since words in a nonsense poem are interchangeable, one would be well advised not to press such a poem too hard for a meaning. A butterfly or a baronet would serve equally well as a contrasting member of the pair walking near at hand along the beach. The nonsense would be less effective, however, if the walrus were walking with a seal or the carpenter with an electrician.

The opening stanza sets the tone for the absurdities to follow:

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright—
And this was very odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

(p. 233)

The nonsense of such “darkness visible” is reinforced by the rhyming of “bright” and “night” and the matter-of-fact regularity of the meter. The Walrus and the Carpenter are as mad as any of the creatures in Wonderland or Looking-Glass Land. They say and do things without the logic of motivation and transition. The Walrus, for example, after speculating whether seven maids with seven mops could sweep away all the sand on the beach in a half year, beseeches the oysters: “O oysters, come and walk with us!” After the oysters, who wear shoes even though they have no feet, follow the odd couple down the beach aways, the Walrus speaks his famous stanza:

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”

(p. 235)

The alliteration in the third and fourth lines and the rhyming of “things,” “kings,” and “wings” suggest an affinity between the words that does not, in fact, exist. “Shoes,” “ships,” “sealing-wax,” “cabbages,” and “kings” make up a list of discrete items that can no more be fused together than can the items in a shopping list for a mad tea party. Nevertheless the whole stanza has come to have a meaning almost independent of the poem—namely, that the time has come to get down to essentials and certainties. (In The Adventures of Ellery Queen, for example, the first four lines of the stanza are an important factor in the detective's method of frightening a confession out of a murderer).36 This meaning probably derives from the fact that the Walrus's statement is a chronological, though non-logical, prelude to the eating of the oysters.

The theme of oral aggressiveness reappears in that the Walrus and Carpenter eventually devour all of the personified oysters. The Carpenter is ruthless and the Walrus sentimental, but the fact remains that they both ate the oysters. Alice likes the Walrus best for he was “a little sorry for the poor oysters.” But Tweedledum then tells her that he ate as many as he could get, leaving Alice to conclude that “they were both very unpleasant characters.”37 This poem resembles Mary Howitt's sadistic verse “The Spider and the Fly” in its delicate, playful and fatal seduction of innocent, humanized creatures. The poem surpasses Darwinian vengefulness or “Nature red in tooth and claw,” in that Carroll's creatures are humanized, and consequently their cruelty and indifference become monstrous. Still, like Alice, we do not judge them any more harshly than the phrase “very unpleasant” allows. They exist only in the nonsense world of Looking-Glass Land and are, in fact, further removed from Alice (and us) by having their existence in a poem recited by a Looking-Glass character. Cruelty and sadism, no matter how violent in Carroll's writings, are always carefully controlled and tempered.

After Humpty Dumpty explains away the mystery (and fun) of “Jabberwocky,” he recites for Alice “In winter, when the fields are white” (p. 273), a poem, he tells her that “was written entirely for your amusement.” The trouble is that the poem leaves Alice more puzzled than amused. The narrator of the poem sends a message to the fish: “This is what I wish.” They reply: “We cannot do it, Sir, because—” (p. 274). At this point Alice remarks that she does not understand, and Humpty Dumpty assures her that it gets easier further on. The narrator urges the fish to obey his previous order and when they refuse he fills a kettle with water. Someone comes and tells him that the fish are in bed. The speaker screams into his ear, “Then you must wake them up again” (p. 275). Getting nowhere with this messenger, the narrator takes a corkscrew and goes to wake them up himself. He finds the door closed, and the last line of the poem reads, “I tried to turn the handle, but—” (p. 275). Alice asks if that is all, to which Humpty Dumpty replies, “That's all,” and “Good-bye.” Alice's relationship with Humpty Dumpty ends as abruptly as his poem.

This has to be the worst poem in the Alice books. The language is flat and prosaic, the frustrated story line is without interest, the couplets are uninspired and fail to surprise or to delight, and there are almost no true elements of nonsense present, other than in the unstated wish of the narrator and the lack of a conclusion to the work. But the poem's failure is important for what it reveals about Humpty Dumpty. He is the solemn literary man, the self-appointed critic of language who, though capable of a studious, self-assured explication of hard poems, cannot come up with a successful poem himself.

The last comic poem in Through the Looking-Glass is a riddle:

          “First, the fish must be caught.”
That is easy: a baby, I think, could have caught it.
          “Next, the fish must be bought,”
That is easy: a penny, I think, would have bought it.
          “Now cook me the fish!”
That is easy, and will not take more than a minute.
          “Let it lie in a dish!”
That is easy, because it already is in it.
          “Bring it here! Let me sup!”
It is easy to set such a dish on the table.
          “Take the dish-cover up!”
Ah, that is so hard that I fear I'm unable!
          For it holds it like glue—
Holds the lid to the dish, while it lies in the middle:
Which is easiest to do,
          Un-dish-cover the fish, or dishcover the riddle?

(p. 333)

Commenting on the riddle, why is a Raven like a writing desk, Elizabeth Sewell argues that “it is essential for Nonsense that the riddle should have no solution. It is propounded to keep the dream and disorder side of the mind in play, but there must be no answer which could set up some kind of unity between the parts.”38 Her point is well taken and may be applied to the White Queen's fish riddle. A solution would tie the verse together and make sense of it. Perhaps Carroll had no solution in mind but Martin Gardner offers a solution arrived at by a man named Peter Suckling: an oyster.39 A baby can pick it from an oyster bed, a penny would buy one in Carroll's day, it cooks quickly, it lies in its own dish, it is easily placed on the table, but the “dish-cover” is hard to raise because it is held to the dish by the oyster in the middle. This solution makes perfectly good sense; and one could certainly argue that in Sewell's terms the verse is definitely not nonsense, but simply a conventional riddle. The solution, however, is not important in Looking-Glass Land, for after the White Queen finishes her recitation the Red Queen says to Alice, “Take a minute to think about it, and then guess”; but she then goes on to drink Alice's health and no opportunity is provided for Alice's response.


On July 18, 1874, Carroll went out for a walk in Guildford, the town where his sisters lived, and received the inspiration for his odyssey of nonsense, The Hunting of the Snark:

I was walking on a hillside, alone, one bright summer day, when suddenly there came into my head one line of verse—one solitary line—“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.” I knew not what it meant, then: I know not what it means, now; but I wrote it down; and, sometime afterwards, the rest of the stanza occurred to me, that being its last line; and so by degrees, at odd moments during the next year or two, the rest of the poem pieced itself together, that being its last stanza.40

Carroll secured Henry Holiday, a prominent London painter and sculptor, to illustrate the poem, and his drawings successfully lived up to Carroll's desire that they be grotesque. The poem, which was published in March, 1876, received mixed reviews and at first did not sell many copies. Despite the fact that Carroll intended the book for children, it appealed mainly to adults. Sales began to pick up during the latter part of the century; by 1908 it had been reprinted seventeen times, and the many subsequent issues include several American editions. The following comment on the Snark by an anonymous reviewer in the Athenaeum for 1876 is typical of the bewilderment which the work generated:

It may be that the author of “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland” is still suffering from the attack of Claimant on the brain, which some time ago numbed or distracted so many intellects. Or it may be that he has merely been inspired by a wild desire to reduce to idiocy as many readers, and more especially, reviewers as possible. At all events, he has published what we may consider the most bewildering of modern poems.41

Many attempts have been made to read The Hunting of the Snark as an allegory. Carroll himself responded to the allegorist: “… I have received courteous letters from strangers, begging to know whether ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ is an allegory, or contains some hidden moral, or is a political satire: and for all such questions I have but one answer, ‘I don't know!”42 The allegorists continue into our own century. In 1911 Devereux Court argued that the poem satirizes an unsound business venture. Dean Donham, a former Dean of the Harvard School of Business Administration, said that the Boojum is a symbol of a business slump and the entire poem is a tragedy about the business cycle. Alexander Taylor reads the poem as an anti-vivisectionist tract. Martin Gardner sees it to be an existentialist treatise in which the Boojum is comparable to the atomic bomb.43 Even W. H. Auden joins the allegorists in his suggestions that the ship can stand for mankind and human society moving through time and struggling with its destiny.44

The most interesting commentary on the poem to date is Michael Holquist's “What is a Boojum? Nonsense and Modernism.”45 Holquist's reading of the poem is strongly influenced by Elizabeth Sewell, as can be seen in his following comment:

Lewis Carroll's ‘agony in eight fits’ was not only among the first to exemplify what is perhaps the most distinctive feature of modern literature, it did so more openly, more paradigmatically than almost any other text one knew. That is, it best dramatized the attempt of an author to insure through the structure of his work that the work could be perceived only as what it was, and not some other thing; the attempt to create an immaculate fiction, a fiction that resists the attempts of readers, and especially those readers who write criticism, to turn it into an allegory, a system equitable with already existing systems in the non-fictive world.46

Holquist argues that in the Snark Carroll achieves pure order, that by employing various “structures of resistance” he keeps the reader consistently off balance in any attempt he may make to draw “sense” from the poem. He cites six such structures of resistance which insure the poem's hermetic nature: 1. The acrostic dedicatory poem indicates that Carroll is more concerned with words that will exist in his own idiosyncratic system than in the conventional system of English; 2. the rule of three operates as a system for determining a truth that is absolutely unique to this poem and furthermore indicates that the intrinsic logic of the poem is not that of extrinsic logic which operates in systems outside the construct of the poem; 3. the various names of the crew members all begin with the letter B, a parallel that is rigidly observed, which dramatizes itself, but only as a dynamic process of parallelism, and nothing else; 4. the Butcher's proof that two can be added to one sets up an equation that is a process which begins with no content and ends with no content—it is pure process which has no other end than itself, namely the number 3; 5. the portmanteau words create new meanings (unique to the poem) by philologically exploiting the divergence between two old meanings; 6. the rhyme binds together words through their similar sounds, but no associative meaning links them and no resultant new association is possible.47

Holquist finally asks, “if The Hunting of the Snark is an absolute metaphor, if it means only itself, why read it?” He states that there are several answers, but chooses only to give one, “that it may help us to understand other, more complex attempts to do the same thing in modern literature.”48 It seems ironic for him to have argued so well that the Snark is an autonomous fiction and then to conclude that the reason one ought to read it is to better understand other autonomous fictions, like Franz Kafka's and Vladimir Nabokov's. A much sounder reason for reading the Snark is that it is enjoyable in and of itself. One does not read Virginia Woolf to understand William Faulkner—so why should one read Carroll simply to understand Kafka? The Snark is like an elaborate literary enigma which one need not feel compelled to solve in order to enjoy. It is a poem that one must relax into with no expectations other than to enjoy the process of a voyage through a unique world constructed solely out of words. If one glimpses occasional “meanings” or recognizes occasional familiar landmarks those are simply door prizes of the adventure.

The Hunting of the Snark is a mad adventure story cast in the form of a ballad. A crew, comprised of a Bellman, a Baker, a Barrister, a Billiard-marker, a Banker, a Bonnetmaker, a Broker, a Boots, a Butcher, and a Beaver, set out to hunt a Snark. The Bellman is captain of the ship and the person who organized the Snark hunt. The poem focuses, however, more intensely upon the Baker than upon any other single character. Carroll describes him at great length in the opening fit. He was famed for the number of items he forgot when he entered the ship; his umbrella, watch, jewels, rings, clothes, and, worse of all, his name. He is wearing, however, seven coats and three pairs of boots. He has a small intellect but his courage is perfect and as the Bellman noted, “is the thing that one needs with a Snark.”

The ocean map that the Bellman provides for the crew is an absolute blank. His only plan for crossing the ocean is to tinkle his bell. In a more practical vein, he cites to his crew the five unmistakable characteristics of a snark: 1. its taste is hollow but crisp, 2. it habitually rises late, 3. it is slow in taking a jest, 4. it is fond of bathing-machines, 5. it is ambitious. Then he makes this all important distinction: “For, although common Snarks do no manner of harm, / Yet, I feel it my duty to say, / Some are Boojums—The Bellman broke off in alarm, / For the Baker had fainted away.”49 The Baker explains his seizure by citing his uncle's advice concerning the capture of a snark:

“You may seek it with thimbles—and seek it with care;
You may hunt it with forks and hope;
You may threaten its life with a railway-share;
You may charm it with smiles and soap—”
“But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!”

(p. 56)

In the climactic Fit the Eighth, the warning of the Baker's uncle is realized. The crew discover the Baker, “their hero,”

Erect and sublime, for one moment of time.
In the next, that wild figure they saw
(As if stung by a spasm) plunge into a chasm,
While they waited and listened in awe.
“It's a Snark!” was the sound that first came to their ears,
And seemed almost too good to be true.
Then followed a torrent of laughter and cheers:
Then the ominous words, “It's a Boo—”
Then silence. Some fancied they heard in the air
A weary and wandering sigh
That sounded like “—jum!” but the others declare
It was only a breeze that went by.

(pp. 86-87)

The crew searches in vain for any trace of the Baker's body and the poem closes with the lines, “He had softly and suddenly vanished away— / For the Snark was a Boojum, you see” (p. 89). Holiday's illustration of the scene shows the Bellman's hand ringing his bell for the passing of the Baker. If one looks carefully into the central darkness of the drawing he will see the huge head of the Baker, terror on his face, and a gigantic beak or claw pulling him by the wrist into total darkness.

Perhaps Holquist is correct in arguing that the poem is self-contained, but the paraphrasable aspects of the search for the Snark and its consequences for the Baker have elicited two interesting commentaries. Martin Gardner suggests that the strongest motif in the poem is “the dread, the agonizing dread, of ultimate failure. The Boojum is more than death. It is the end of all searching. It is the final, absolute extinction.”50 This reading is reinforced by Phyllis Greenacre's observation that central to Carroll's life and writing is a voyeuristic theme. In the Snark the penalty for looking is the disappearance of the spectator. She says that “the most constant punitive threat” in his writings “is of extinction, either by disappearance of the whole body or by decapitation.”51 Although it is impossible to establish a coherent allegorical reading of the poem, it does seem possible to go beyond the limits that Holquist sets down for the poem—namely, the poem itself. Despite the “structures of resistance” Carroll does use words, phrases, and structures that permeate the shabby, disordered world of reality. There is, in fact, expressed in this poem anxiety over the threat of annihilation, and the Baker does, indeed vanish. One does not, however, have to go as far as Gardner and argue that the poem is existential. There are simply too many details and characters which have nothing to do with existentialism. It even sounds foolish to speak of the Baker as having existential anguish. His character is too absurd and unreal to accommodate such philosophical gear. Still, the motif of dreading annihilation is a major aspect of the poem; and since this anxiety co-exists outside of the poem, one's response to the Baker's fate is necessarily conditioned by non-poetic circumstances. Such human responses to the poem are not all resisted—and they provide the glimpses of occasional “meaning” and the occasional familiar landmarks without which nonsense would revert to gibberish. “Pure order” may exist in mathematics but not in the world of words. Francis Bacon knew and complained of this in his comments on the Idols of the Market-Place.

Perhaps the best spirit to adopt when reading the poem is the one exemplified in Gardner's explanation of the Snark's five unmistakable marks: “The forks are for eating crisp Snark meat. The railway share appeals to the Snark's ambition to become wealthy and so can be used for baiting a death trap. Smiles are to let the Snark know when a pun has been perpetrated. The soap is of course for the bathing machines that the Snark carries about, and the thimble is used for thumping the side of the creature's head to wake him in time for five-o'clock tea.”52 Finally, it should be pointed out that a Boojum is not simply a Boojum. The dominant letter B closely associates the otherwise disparate crew. When a Snark is a Boojum, it, too, is brought under the umbrella of the B. The emphasis upon was in the line “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see” suggests that it was a Boojum all along, and the recognition of that fact proved to be an alliterative fatality.


  1. The Humorous Verse of Lewis Carroll (New York, 1960), p. 404. All of the poems in section I are from this book and page numbers will be cited in the text.

  2. John Skinner, “Lewis Carroll's Adventures in Wonderland,” American Imago, 4 (1947), 3-31; rpt. in Aspects of Alice, ed. Robert Phillips, p. 299.

  3. Derek Hudson, Lewis Carroll, p. 188.

  4. Alexander L. Taylor, The White Knight (Edinburgh, 1952), p. 31.

  5. Quoted in Taylor, The White Knight, p. 32.

  6. Elizabeth Sewell, The Field of Nonsense (London, 1952).

  7. Ibid., p. 20.

  8. Ibid., p. 112.

  9. Ibid., p. 113.

  10. “Lewis Carroll and T. S. Eliot as Nonsense Poets,” T. S. Eliot, ed. Neville Braybrooke (New York, 1958), pp. 49-56; rpt. in Aspects of Alice, ed. Robert Phillips, p. 119.

  11. “Today's ‘Wonder-World’ Needs Alice,” New York Times Magazine (July 1, 1962), p. 5; rpt. in Aspects of Alice, p. 6.

  12. The Humorous Verse of Lewis Carroll, pp. 10-11.

  13. Ibid., pp. 7-8.

  14. Swift and Carroll: A Psychoanalytic Study of Two Lives, p. 214.

  15. The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, pp. 96-103.

  16. The Annotated Alice, p. 159.

  17. Ibid., p. 159.

  18. Ibid., p. 158.

  19. The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, pp. 136-39.

  20. Ibid., pp. 143-47.

  21. The Humorous Verse of Lewis Carroll, pp. 44-46.

  22. The Annotated Alice, p. 311.

  23. All of the poems quoted below are from The Annotated Alice; subsequent page references will be cited in the text.

  24. “A Burble through the Tulgey Wood,” How Does a Poem Mean? (Boston, 1959), pp. 678-85; rpt. in Aspects of Alice, p. 258.

  25. The Field of Nonsense, pp. 100-101.

  26. “Alice's Journey to the End of Night,” PMLA, 81 (Oct., 1966), 324.

  27. The Annotated Alice, p. 140.

  28. Ibid., p. 192.

  29. The Field of Nonsense, p. 118.

  30. Ibid., pp. 119-20.

  31. Ibid., p. 122.

  32. “What is a Boojum? Nonsense and Modernism,” Yale French Studies, 43 (1969), 145-64; rpt. in Alice in Wonderland, ed. Donald J. Gray (New York, 1971), p. 412.

  33. The White Knight, p. 80.

  34. Ibid., pp. 80-81.

  35. The Annotated Alice, p. 197.

  36. Ibid., p. 235.

  37. Ibid., p. 237.

  38. The Field of Nonsense, p. 113.

  39. The Annotated Alice, p. 333.

  40. “‘Alice’ on the Stage,” The Works of Lewis Carroll, ed. Roger Lancelyn Green, pp. 235-36.

  41. The Athenaeum, 67 (April 8, 1876), 495.

  42. “‘Alice’ on the Stage,” The Works of Lewis Carroll, p. 236.

  43. The above readings of the poem are cited in The Annotated Snark, ed. Martin Gardner, pp. 19-20.

  44. [W. H. Auden], The Enchafed Flood (New York, 1967), p. 63.

  45. Yale French Studies, 43 (1969), 145-64; rpt. in Alice in Wonderland, ed. Donald J. Gray, pp. 402-18.

  46. Ibid., pp. 404-405.

  47. Ibid., pp. 412-16.

  48. Ibid., p. 417.

  49. All of the quotations from the poem are from The Annotated Snark; page numbers for subsequent quotations will be cited in the text.

  50. The Annotated Snark, p. 23.

  51. Swift and Carroll: A Psychoanalytic Study of Two Lives, pp. 244-45.

  52. The Annotated Snark, pp. 65-66.

Selected Bibliography

Primary Sources

Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, ed. Martin Gardner. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1960.

———. The Annotated Snark, ed. Martin Gardner. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962.

———. The Humorous Verse of Lewis Carroll. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960.

———. The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, with a foreword by Florence Milner. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971.

———. The Works of Lewis Carroll, ed. Roger Lancelyn Green. Feltham: Spring Books, 1965.

Secondary Sources

Ciardi, John. “A Burble Through the Tulgey Wood,” How Does a Poem Mean? Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1959. Reprinted in Aspects of Alice, ed. Robert Phillips.

Gray, Donald J., ed. Alice in Wonderland (a Norton Critical Edition). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971.

Greenacre, Phyllis. Swift and Carroll: A Psychoanalytic Study of Two Lives. New York: International Universities Press, 1955.

Holquist, Michael. “What is a Boojum? Nonsense and Modernism, Yale French Studies, 43 (1969), 145-64. Reprinted in Alice in Wonderland, ed. Donald J. Gray.

Hudson, Derek. Lewis Carroll. London: Constable, 1954. The best biography to date.

Phillips, Robert. Aspects of Alice, Lewis Carroll's Dreamchild as seen through the critics' looking-glasses. New York: The Vanguard Press, Inc., 1971.

Rackin, Donald. “Alice's Journey to the End of Night,” PMLA, 81 (October, 1966), 313-26.

Sewell, Elizabeth. The Field of Nonsense. London: Chatto and Windus, 1952.

Taylor, Alexander L. The White Knight. London: Oliver and Boyd, 1952.

Lionel Morton (essay date December 1978)

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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 essential part of the meaning which his creations had for Carroll—an undercurrent of a certain kind of nostalgia. And though nostalgia does not seem to be of much importance in Alice's adventures—the original audience wanted “news of fairyland,”2 not anything they had experienced already—the current of memory which comes to the surface in these poems is a vital part of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

The first version of the story, Alice's Adventures under Ground, was not meant to be published and is inscribed “A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child in Memory of a Summer Day.”3 For publication Carroll wrote a poem describing the boat trip in its first six stanzas and then concluding:

Alice! A childish story take,
          And with a gentle hand
Lay it where Childhood's dreams are twined
          In Memory's mystic band,
Like pilgrim's withered wreath of flowers
          Pluck'd in a far-off land.(4)

This is not very specific, but it calls up more than a single afternoon: the mystic power of Memory, the loneliness of the pilgrim, the dreams of Childhood. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland—of no importance in itself, “a childish story”—is to be a memorial of something important and to express a deep longing for the past.

In the second poem, at the beginning of Through the Looking-Glass, the boat trip is described again, the note of nostalgia sounded, and now both are explicitly associated with Carroll's sense of the fleetingness of his relation with Alice Liddell, no longer a little girl but well into adolescence when the second book was published in 1872:

No thought of me shall find a place
          In thy young life's hereafter—
Enough that now thou wilt not fail
To listen to my fairy-tale.
A tale begun in other days,
          When summer suns were glowing—
A simple chime, that served to time
          The rhythm of our rowing—
Whose echoes live in memory yet,
Though envious years would say “forget.”


As these verses show, a longing for the past is inextricably entwined with the feeling Carroll had for Alice. She and all the other “child-friends” will grow up almost as fast as Alice's dream-rushes fade away in Through the Looking-Glass; and knowing this, Carroll sees them and their setting in a nostalgic haze and tries to fix them in memory before they fade.

The same pattern of fixing experience in memory appears at the close of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Alice wakes up and, after telling her dream to her sister, goes home to tea. The sister goes through the dream again in reverie, then imagines a grown-up Alice remembering her dream and telling it to her children. In other words, Alice's adventures are framed in memory by being reinvoked not once but twice. The ending of Alice's Adventures under Ground is similar, but here the memory of the boating trip and Alice's dream are combined. Her sister falls asleep and dreams of “a boat with a merry party of children on board … and among them was another little Alice, who sat listening with bright eager eyes to a tale that was being told, and she listened for the words of the tale, and lo! it was the dream of her own little sister.” The book ends like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: she imagines an adult Alice retelling the dream to her children and “remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.”5

What Carroll does at the end of both books suggests the ending of Wordsworth's “Tintern Abbey.” There the speaker addresses his sister and describes her in the future, remembering the present and thus saving her brother and his present moment of inspiration from oblivion. The adult Alice will tell her dream to her children, and perhaps Alice Liddell will read her story to her children and remember her odd but entertaining friend Mr. Dodgson. His almost bitter prophecy, “No thought of me shall find a place / In thy young life's hereafter,” will not be fulfilled. More generally, it seems that Carroll is like Wordsworth in believing that present feeling and the ability to call up past feeling may die and that he must therefore try to preserve and “enshrine” his experience. The golden afternoon is like one of Wordsworth's “spots of time,” an exceptional experience of illumination and unity, and it has to be enshrined in the Alice books and the three poems attached to them. (No doubt Carroll's photography expressed the same desire to preserve a present experienced as painfully fleeting.)

There is, of course, a vital distinction to be made between Wordsworth's view of childhood and Carroll's, as Peter Coveney points out. For Wordsworth childhood is part of growing up, and the child is father to the man. But for Carroll nostalgia for childhood is “a means of detachment and retreat from the adult world,” which leads to a “dreaming denial of the reality of life” in the poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass.6 The difference between Wordsworth's stern belief in growing up—in growing up at any cost, Carroll might have said—and Carroll's nostalgic withdrawal into childhood lies behind the wonderful parody of Wordsworth's great poem of “Resolution and Independence” in the White Knight's song. “Resolution and Independence” is about memory and about setting one's experience in a larger perspective of time, that of a whole life rather than of the immediate moment. Carroll reacts against this stern, adult morality by exposing Wordsworth's lack of humor. But at the same time he evokes a nostalgia which reveals his shared anxiety about memory. Thus the White Knight's song is given a retrospective frame, almost unique in Alice's stories: “Of all the strange things that Alice saw in her journey Through the Looking-Glass, this was the one that she always remembered most clearly. Years afterwards she could bring the whole scene back again, as if it had been only yesterday” (307). Listening to the song “in a half-dream,” she takes the scene in “like a picture.” Sung to the tune of “I give thee all, I can no more,” the song is lugubriously but touchingly wistful beneath the hilarity, and ends, appropriately enough, by recalling “That summer evening long ago” (313).

Carroll, then, has surrounded the two stories of Alice's adventures in a golden nostalgic haze—deliberately evoking the sense of the past in presenting them to his readers. Within the stories, however, longing for the past rarely appears: the introduction to the White Knight's song is an exceptional intrusion. (In Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, by contrast, the desire to return to childhood is continually enacted in the shifting back and forth among different levels of reality.) Alice is always “curious,” that is, eager to go forward and discover new things, not to go backwards and revisit the past. Nevertheless, memory and the past are important presences within the Alice stories. Exploring them reveals an important paradox. In the material surrounding Alice's stories memory is essentially pleasant, a means of possessing and preserving something desired—even though it is tinged with anxiety. But within the worlds that Alice visits the experience of memory is disturbing, even threatening. The characters whom Alice meets find their own memories vaguely distressing, and Alice discovers that her memory has gotten disconcertingly confused.

In keeping with this pattern, allusions within the stories to the boating trip take on a different tone, as if the sunset hue of the golden afternoon has darkened. The story of the pool of tears and the Caucus-race in Alice's Adventures points back to an earlier expedition spoiled by rain. In Through the Looking-Glass, when Alice finds herself rowing with the Sheep, there is something almost nightmarish in the transformation of the dark shop into a river with “tall riverbanks frowning over their heads” (256). Even the water has “something very queer” about it (254), so that Alice finds rowing frustrating. The dream-rushes which Alice picks are frustrating too, for “there was always a more lovely one that she couldn't reach” (257). Yet it becomes clear that the sadness of this gloomy river is really the narrator's, not Alice's, when he intrudes to ask reproachfully,

What mattered it to her just then that the rushes had begun to fade, and to lose all their scent and beauty, from the very moment that she picked them? Even real scented rushes, you know, last only a very little while—and these, being dream-rushes, melted away almost like snow, as they lay in heaps at her feet—but Alice hardly noticed this, there were so many other curious things to think about.


The nympholeptic rushes belong to the narrator's dream, not to Alice's: perhaps the tears in which Alice nearly drowns are his too. The rushes appear again to add a nightmare touch to the final scene, when the candles at the dinner party grow “up to the ceiling, looking something like a bed of rushes with fire works at the top” (335).

When Alice plunges into Wonderland, following the White Rabbit, she is certainly not entering a timeless world. The Rabbit, afraid that he is late, is the victim of a time that is going too fast for him: what startles Alice into action and begins all her adventures is the sight of him taking a watch out of his waistcoat pocket (26). His panic about time is an appropriate introduction to Wonderland, even though most of the characters Alice will meet are not pressed for time as he is. The railway guard whose “time is worth a thousand pounds a minute” (217), the Red Queen, running furiously to get nowhere, and the Anglo-Saxon Messengers are exceptions. Most of the characters live at a leisurely pace, spending their time at games (croquet and chess), at meals, or in conversation. The Lion and the Unicorn stop their battle for refreshments, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee plan to stop theirs for dinner. But in these leisurely worlds things still can go wrong with time.

The “Mad Tea-Party” is a much-discussed example. Here the Mad Hatter seems to have realized the desire expressed in Carroll's nostalgia: for him, time has stopped in the late afternoon. But this has not brought him happiness: he is melancholy and irritable. He tells Alice that Time is a person and that one can be on good terms or bad terms with him. In other words, as Donald Rackin says, “Time is now like a person, a kind of ill-behaved child created by man, [and] there is the unavoidable danger that he will rebel and refuse to be consistent.”7 Elizabeth Sewell has argued that “the emphasis in the Alices is towards giving time a greater controllability, at the direction of the will”: for example, Humpty Dumpty tells Alice that with help she might have left off growing at seven (266), and the Red and White Queens talk grandly of “taking” several days or nights together (324). The Mad Hatter's “Time” belongs to this pattern too.8 But the desire to make time controllable, which certainly exists, expresses a hidden fear of the reality of time as something uncontrollable and impersonal. Only the imaginary control of neurotic withdrawal from the experience of time is possible: in the endless tea party, in the Queens' differing kinds of franticness, in Humpty Dumpty's sitting forever (so he thinks) on his wall watching time go by. James R. Kincaid presents Alice as an invader in Wonderland and at the tea party, disrupting “the comic joy with her linear perspective of finality.”9 But though Carroll rebelled against linear finality, in his books as in his life, he could not present the rebellion as joyful. Thus the Hatter is on bad terms with “Time,” who seems to be explainable as a paranoid fantasy, based on a misunderstanding of the Queen of Hearts' outburst, “He's murdering the time! Off with his head!” (99). Donald Rackin argues that at the tea party the concept of time is “laughed out of existence,”10 so that Alice in Wonderland is in a world without time. Certainly Wonderland is a sort of improvised world where strange things can happen, but time is still very much a presence. It can be laughed at, but Carroll knew, and his creatures seem to sense, that laughter cannot affect it.

Thus, the memory of past time is often distorted by strange anxieties, and most characters seem to be on bad terms with their own pasts. Many are willing, even eager, to tell Alice about their pasts, but what comes out is dreamlike and often nightmarish. The Mouse, for example, has his “tale” and the Mock Turtle his “history.” But the Mouse's tale turns out to be not straightforward fact but a poem about being condemned to death; it baffles and almost hypnotizes Alice, who visualizes it as a tail. As for the Mock Turtle, it seems that the Gryphon is right when he says that really he has no “history”: “it's all his fancy, that: he hasn't got no sorrow, you know” (126). What the Turtle does tell Alice is mysterious and elusive, dissolving into puns—“Laughing and Grief” (130)—like the Mock Turtle himself. At the mad tea party the Dormouse is badgered into telling about the three little girls at the bottom of the treacle-well, who draw “mousetraps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness” (103)—a suggestive combination. The story is absurd but fascinating, like the Mouse's “tail,” and Alice keeps wanting to hear more. The inquiry into the question, “Who Stole the Tarts?” is unlikely to arrive at a conclusion: the main item of evidence is the entirely baffling set of verses “They told me you had been to her” (158). Humpty Dumpty breaks off his poem about his visit to the fishes abruptly and tyrannically, as if to show his power over time—but time will end his life just as abruptly.

The White Knight's song, also autobiographical, is about an insignificant event completely misunderstood. It begins frankly enough: “I'll tell thee everything I can: / There's little to relate” (307). But the White Knight unwittingly reveals a part of himself by transforming the situation he describes into something quite different. The old man whom he meets sitting on the gate is a sly rogue with a fine sense of fantasy and an eye for the main chance: he wants to be tipped by the dotty old gentleman who is questioning him. The Knight is too much preoccupied with his inventions to notice this, and so the old man he remembers later is quite different:

And now, if e'er by chance I put
          My fingers into glue,
Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot
          Into a left-hand shoe,
Or if I drop upon my toe
          A very heavy weight,
I weep, for it reminds me so
Of that old man I used to know—
Whose look was mild, whose speech was slow,
Whose hair was whiter than the snow,
Whose face was very like a crow,
With eyes, like cinders, all aglow,
Who seemed distracted with his woe,
Who rocked his body to and fro,
And muttered mumblingly and low,
As if his mouth were full of dough,
Who snorted like a buffalo—
That summer evening long ago,
          A-sitting on a gate.


Where does this figure, who does not resemble the shrewd old man presented earlier in the poem, come from? He does not occur in the earlier version of the parody “Upon the Lonely Moor” (1856).11 He makes sense as a projection of the White Knight's melancholy and, in particular, of his experience of the past: in trying to remember, the White Knight produces an image of his inner self. The newly resurrected Wasp in a Wig, who was to have come just after the White Knight, also has an unhappy past. Old, his old age set off by the wasp newspaper and its “Latest News,” bitter, contrary, he shows the effects of time most painfully of all the characters: Alice gets him to tell his story in rhyme, and learns that when young he had been persuaded by “them” (unspecified) to shave off his “ringlets.”12 These would not grow back, and now “they” perversely hoot at him for wearing a wig to hide his baldness. Perhaps the real reason why the Wasp was cut out was not Tenniel's difficulty in drawing him but the bitterness with which the Wasp shows the effects of age and repression (shaving off one's ringlets).

In short, what is produced in these excursions into the past is not clear and factual but dreamlike and unreal, usually in verse rather than prose, usually with a good deal of comic violence or comic grief. Thus, understandably, many of the characters are vague and absent-minded, as if they cannot bring themselves to remember the past. The jurors have to write down their names to be sure of remembering them until the end of the trial. The White King has to keep a memorandum book:

“The horror of that moment,” the King went on, “I shall never, never forget!”

“You will, though,” the Queen said, “if you don't make a memorandum of it.”


(Alice carries a memorandum book too but does not use it for records [268].) The White Queen has the gift of remembering both past and future, but her memory does not seem to be of much use to her: she is foolish and confused. Her famous rule, “Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day” (247), seems to sum up the rather unsatisfactory terms she is on with Time. The White Knight is also absent-minded: constantly inventing useless things and guarding against possibilities which will never occur, he is oriented away from past and present toward an imaginary future:

“Now the cleverest thing of the sort that I ever did … was inventing a new pudding during the meat-course.”

“In time to have it cooked for the next course?” said Alice. “Well, that was quick work, certainly!”

“Well, not the next course,” the Knight said in a slow thoughtful tone: “no, certainly not for the next course.

“Then it would have to be the next day. I suppose you wouldn't have two pudding-courses in one dinner?”

“Well, not the next day,” the Knight repeated as before: “not the next day. In fact,” he went on, holding his head down, and his voice getting lower and lower, “I don't believe that pudding ever was cooked! In fact, I don't believe that pudding ever will be cooked! And yet it was a very clever pudding to invent.”


The White Knight is rather helpless in relation to time: thus he must wait for his inventions to strike him when they will, like happy accidents. This suggests Carroll's statement about his writing, that “whenever or however it comes, it comes of itself. I cannot set invention going like a clock, by any voluntary winding up.”13 But Carroll was more cunning in his relations with time than the Knight. Phyllis Greenacre says, “He seemed always to be in some kind of battle with time, attempting to avoid being caught by time or trying to entrap time himself. He often refused invitations for a specific time but would announce his intention to come at a later, unspecified time.”14

There are other characters who are not absent-minded but are still forgetful. The Queen of Hearts somehow overlooks the fact that her executions are never carried out. The Red Queen bristles with facts and rules, all of them proof of the power of her memory. But she defines herself by this willed kind of memory, not by personal experience. In this she is similar to many other characters. The White Queen's rules, the White Knight's inventions, the Duchess's morals, the Gnat's puns, Humpty Dumpty's tyranny over language—in fact, everybody's comic pedantries—are all signs of an effort to replace experience and the personal past with something safer. They reveal a desire to forget and, underneath that, a lingering desire to remember.

The White Queen speaks for all these characters when she says to Alice, “I wish I could manage to be glad! … Only I never can remember the rule” (250). Trapped in her artificial memory, she has forgotten that being glad is not a matter of rules. Though Alice too takes rules very seriously, as Kathleen Blake shows,15 she does not live in a world of rules like the chess queens. When the Red Queen first appears, she asks Alice, “Where do you come from? … And where are you going?” (206), and at the end of the interview she says, “remember who you are!” (212). Similarly, when Alice bursts into tears, the White Queen implores her to “consider,” that is, to remember: “Consider what a great girl you are. Consider what a long way you've come to-day. Consider what o'clock it is. Consider anything, only don't cry!” (250). With both queens, Carroll is making fun of the sense of a coherent past and future, based on memory, which is the foundation of a mature identity. Thus the Red Queen introduces Alice into the chess game, and both queens initiate her as Queen at the eighth square. When they ask her to “remember” and “consider,” they are asking her to see time in the adult way and so to be adult. But of course they are not really adults themselves, only elderly children: Carroll is ridiculing the process of growing up which will divide him from Alice.

Thus in Wonderland Alice's memory is confused because her identity with her past—and so with her future—has been suspended or postponed. She cannot remember her lessons correctly and her memorized poems come out as nonsense. Sometimes it seems that a malicious spirit has crept into her memory: forgetting herself she recalls her cat Dinah at the wrong moments, frightening the Mouse and the birds. Similarly, her memory replaces Isaac Watts's industrious bee with the lazy and predatory crocodile, and Southey's pious Father William with an unedifying old rascal. Moreover, she cannot remember who she is. That is, she can remember details of her past life and that of other little girls she knows, but she cannot remember which of the little girls she knows is herself. She may be Ada or Mabel—or Alice. As she says to the Caterpillar, “I can't explain myself. I'm afraid, Sir … because I'm not myself, you see” (67). The first two poems that Alice tries to recite16 in testing her memory are, like “Resolution and Independence,” about establishing a coherent identity through time, indeed through a whole life:

In-books, or work, or healthful play,
          Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
          Some good account at last.

Isaac Watts, “Against Idleness and Mischief”

“In the days of my youth,” father William replied,
          “I remember'd that youth could not last;
I thought of the future, whatever I did,
          That I never might grieve for the past.”

Robert Southey, “The Old Man's Comforts, and How He Gained Them”

In getting them wrong Alice is for the moment escaping or rejecting this kind of identity. She has not “thought of the future” but gone down the rabbit hole “never once considering how in the world she was to get out again” (26). Similarly, the third and last of these tests of memory, “'Tis the voice of the lobster” (139-40), parodies Isaac Watts's “'Tis the voice of the sluggard,”17 whose moral is that one should spend time wisely, reading and improving one's mind. With Carroll's assistance, Alice's mind, especially her memory, rebels and refuses to be improved.

By contrast, when it comes to nursery rhymes, Alice's memory works very well: for example, the “old song” about Tweedledum and Tweedledee keeps “ringing through her head like the ticking of a clock” (230). Alice remembers them so well in fact that the rhymes, all in the past tense and ostensibly about past events, come alive before her, so that somehow she has gone backward in time. Alice can meet the celebrities of the nursery as living beings: perhaps this is a reward for her childish faith that the rhymes are true. But what becomes present to her is still fixed as if by the rhymes: it does not have the freedom of the present but is determined like clockwork or like a nightmare. Alice is in the position of someone who has gone back in a time machine but is helpless to change history. The tarts are stolen, the Crow comes, the Lion and the Unicorn are drummed out of town, and Humpty Dumpty falls forever. In all these cases Alice's memory makes her the witness of the calamities of the nursery-rhyme characters, and though she is not seriously affected or moved, there is a kind of silent reproach. These characters exist—like storytellers—to amuse children, but in order to amuse them they have to suffer, and in this sense their suffering is Alice's fault.

In the two fantasy worlds, then, memory is something essentially unpleasant—vaguely disturbing and baffling for Alice and an elusive, even painful enigma for the other characters. Why should this be so? Carroll suggests the answer in his repeated returns to the golden afternoon when the story was first told. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is, after all, a very unusual book not only in its content but also in the situation that produced it. Alice is not only the heroine of the story but also in a sense its inspiration and the most important member of its first audience. Of course the fictional Alice and Alice Liddell are not the same—but in the present context they can be identified. The fictional Alice was Alice Liddell for Carroll and for Alice Liddell as she listened to or read the stories: both must have seen, not the fair-haired girl whom Tenniel drew, but the dark beauty of Carroll's photographs. The Alice who follows the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole, half forgetting herself, is also the Alice who half forgets herself in listening to Carroll's story: Alice waking up from her dreams is also Alice leaving when the story is told, and leaving Carroll behind.

In the poem that introduces Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Carroll presents the telling of the story as something that was forced on him by the Liddell sisters, three stern little Fates:

Ah, cruel Three! In such an hour,
          Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale of breath too weak
          To stir the tiniest feather!
Yet what can one poor voice avail
          Against three tongues together?
Imperious Prima flashes forth
          Her edict “to begin it”:
In gentler tones Secunda hopes
          “There will be nonsense in it.”
While Tertia interrupts the tale
          Not more than once a minute.
And ever, as the story drained
          The wells of fancy dry,
And faintly strove that weary one
          To put the subject by,
“The rest next time—” “It is next time!”
          The happy voices cry.

(21, 23)

The first two stanzas suggest, not Wordsworth, but the mock-heroic style of The Rape of the Lock with undertones of malice and masochism. No doubt they reveal something of the truth about Carroll's feelings for Alice and her sisters. Perhaps he really would have preferred to be silent: after all he was being forced into an adult role, that of the avuncular storyteller, which would divide him from Alice and her sisters. But the role of the storyteller did have its advantages for Carroll as well, and it seems likely that he was willing to enjoy them. Alice Liddell later wrote that Carroll's reluctance was mostly a game:

Sometimes to tease us—and perhaps being really tired—Mr. Dodgson would stop suddenly and say, “And that's all till next time.” “Ah, but it is next time,” would be the exclamation from all three; and after some persuasion the story would start afresh. Another day, perhaps the story would begin in the boat, and Mr. Dodgson, in the middle of telling a thrilling adventure, would pretend to go fast asleep, to our great dismay.18

Carroll no doubt enjoyed teasing Alice, but as storyteller he has her attention and her affection. Many of the characters Alice meets look through her or over her but he has Alice's gaze, her “eager eye and willing ear” (345). As well, he has a sort of magic power over her: “the magic words shall hold thee fast” (174). And in his created world he can make her do what he chooses: dictate her thoughts and modify her memories and her identity.

For in this situation Alice Liddell's memory is both a tool Carroll must use and a threat to his power. He must refer to things she knows—cards, chessmen, mock turtle soup—but all these things are from her past and her family.19 They carry the sense of her real identity which could break his spell and bring her back from Wonderland to Oxford. The mournful Gnat seems to be conscious of this problem when it says to Alice:

“I suppose you don't want to lose your name?”

“No, indeed,” Alice said, a little anxiously.

“And yet I don't know,” the Gnat went on in a careless tone: “only think how convenient it would be if you could manage to go home without it! For instance, if the governess wanted to call you to your lessons, she would call out ‘Come here—,’ and there she would have to leave off, because there wouldn't be any name for her to call, and of course, you wouldn't have to go, you know.”


More generally, if Alice gives up her identity in real time she can escape governesses and growing up and instead go boating with Carroll. But the Gnat seems to know from the start that he will fail, that everything he has to offer is merely “looking glass,” and that Alice will never leave the real world for his:

“Crawling at your feet,” said the Gnat (Alice drew her feet back in some alarm), “you may observe a Bread-and-butter-fly. Its wings are thin slices of bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.”

“And what does it live on?”

“Weak tea with cream in it.”

A new difficulty came into Alice's head. “Supposing it couldn't find any?” she suggested.

“Then it would die, of course.”

“But that must happen very often,” Alice remarked thoughtfully.

“It always happens,” said the Gnat.


It is as if the Bread-and-butter-fly is a sort of invention, like one of the White Knight's, and like his inventions it does not work. Through the looking glass it seems that Alice can escape her old self and her past (“Oh, what fun it'll be, when they see me through the glass in here, and can't get at me!” [185]). The mirror that normally confronts one with his identity and with the time in which that identity arose—that showed Carroll how much older he was than Alice—will dissolve and let her through. But the world he conjures up for her is, he knows, merely a reflected world, still always pointing back to her past and the beginning of her future.

This is part of the secret of memory within the Alice books: the fictional Alice is cut off from her memory because Carroll wants Alice Liddell to be cut off from hers and brought into a world he controls. Memory brings the knowledge of Time, the great enemy of lovers. But Carroll's own memory is a threat too. Besides the listener the storyteller himself must be under the spell of his story—in that creative state which the thought of the realities left behind on the boat trip would end. He has to forget the hopelessness and ludicrousness of his relation with Alice—to forget that she is the daughter not only of Memory but also of the Dean of Christ Church. He has also to overlook the qualities of the “little goose,” as the Sheep calls Alice (255). Little girls must make very frustrating love-objects, after all, and it is unlikely that Carroll can have borne his enslavement to them without some resentment. No doubt this was largely unconscious, though it comes to the surface ironically (“Ah, cruel Three!”) and in the words of many of his characters, who often exasperate the fictional Alice—no doubt to the delight of the real one, and no doubt to Carroll's satisfaction as well. The arrogance of many of the characters, especially the male ones, suggests the hurt and the pretense of self-sufficiency of a rejected lover, the pride fragile as an eggshell. When Humpty Dumpty claims that he will not know Alice if he sees her again, he is perhaps expressing something that Carroll felt without knowing it, the desire to be free of Alice and to forget her. As Humpty Dumpty says, “Your face is the same as everybody has” (276): why should Alice's be so important to Carroll? But it seems that Humpty Dumpty cannot get along without Alice, because he falls the minute she leaves him.

At a deeper level what has to be forgotten is that the love that inspires the Alice books is itself a disguised remembering. The nostalgic haze was there all along because the experience of 4 July 1862 was itself a recalling of something from Carroll's past. After the work of biographical writers with a psychoanalytical orientation such as Phyllis Greenacre and Jean Gattégno, few are likely to argue that Carroll loved Alice Liddell and the multitude of other little girls in his life simply for themselves. Carroll's love for his “child-friends” points to a fixation on some unresolved problem in his own early childhood. For the purposes of this essay there is no need to be specific about what it was: the essential point is simply that Carroll's mind and feelings were directed towards some past trauma. And there is no reason to suppose that this was a single event. It is more likely to have been a long series of unrecorded experiences—in effect Carroll's whole early experience of the world, and especially of his family. In this, women, his mother and probably his sisters, seem to have been far more important that men—so, at least, the Alice books seem to show. As has been pointed out before, the worlds Alice visits are dominated by women: the Queen of Hearts and the Red and White Queens, not to mention Alice herself. Male figures are usually weak and ineffectual, or doomed to some sort of downfall like Humpty Dumpty (who foolishly counts on the King's horses and men to save him). As well, all the real characters, the ones outside the dreams, are female: Alice, her sister, and her cats. (The rabbit, before it is the White Rabbit, is a sort of exception.) According to Greenacre, this female dominance shows Carroll's fixation on his early relations with his mother at “that period when the mother is nearly everything, good and bad, to the children of both sexes; and is the desired one for protection and nurture or the feared one whose anger or withdrawal is devastating.”20 Gattégno points out the paradoxical difference between the picture one gets of Carroll's mother from biographical sources and Carroll's “serious” writing—loving and self-denying—and the picture to be constructed from the Alice books.21 This paradox mirrors the relation between nostalgia and the fear of memory that we have been exploring.

Memory is a threat within the Alice books because it could, if Carroll recalled his painful past experience, destroy the psychological balance on which Carroll's relations with Alice Liddell, and so with the fictional Alice, are based. When he is outside the stories writing the framing poems or the nostalgic close to Alice's Adventures, he can remember only what he wants to remember about the past, and it can be seen as pleasant and dreamlike, with the painful realities kept down. But down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass he is closer to the reality of his own childhood: he is looking through a child's eyes, even though speaking in an adult voice. The truth about his past is closer, and he defends himself from it by projecting his anxieties onto his “creatures.” Characters such as the Mad Hatter, the Mock Turtle, the Red Queen, and the White Knight are unhappy with time in their wonderfully varied ways because they are unknowingly suffering from Carroll's past. If they ever remembered what is bothering them they would vanish away like the Baker when he meets (or remembers?) the Boojum in The Hunting of the Snark. Their world, Carroll's inspiration, would vanish like a dream.

Carroll's relations with time to a great extent determined the structure of his narratives. In order to understand how, we must first explore the ambivalence of the worlds Alice finds herself in, especially as this affects Alice's character, which is after all the one thing that links everything else together. Then we can explore the important question of the endings and with it the relation between the two books. It is endings that make one most poignantly aware of time, and so the storyteller needs to create “the sense of an ending” in such a way that our return to real time is not too painful. And he does this not just for his audience but for himself: in Carroll's case the ending of the story is like the ending of his relations with Alice, and he does not want to say goodbye. For Carroll endings were difficult, in fact impossible: really to end would be to accept time, which Carroll could not do. He could not follow the King's sensible advice to “go on till you come to the end: then stop” (158).

The ambivalence in remembering, the strange juxtaposition of nostalgia and forgetfulness, points towards an ambivalence in what is remembered, which pervades the worlds of the books. Carroll and his characters seem to be remembering something that is both loved and feared—and lovable and fearful in an unpredictable and bewildering way. The love is real: that is why Wonderland and the Looking-Glass world are not unhappy or oppressive in spite of their darker elements. The characters are not exactly happy but they are not in pain, nor are they capable of serious malice or evil. There is a kind of childish exuberance in the Mock Turtle's Hamletizing or the Queen of Hearts' passion for slaughter that keeps either from being emotionally threatening for most readers. The landscapes the characters inhabit are somehow serene, even paradisal: paradise is present in the ability of animals, even cards and chess pieces, to speak. Yet this happiness, though pervasive, is also elusive. The characters cannot lay hold of it; neither can Alice, though she never stops trying till the end.

The deepest memory of the Alice books, then, seems to be of a love which is confusingly unpredictable, that comes and goes bewilderingly. “Wonderland” suggests not so much a child's delighted wonder as the sense of bewilderment caused by this love, the teasing contrariness and inconsequence that runs through the two fantasy worlds—affecting both physical objects, which can change unpredictably, and the psychology of the characters. “We're all mad here,” the Cheshire Cat tells Alice, and helpfully explains:

“To begin with … a dog's not mad. You grant that?”

“I suppose so,” said Alice.

“Well, then,” the Cat went on, “you see a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased. Now I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry. Therefore I'm mad.”


This is not a very good argument but it makes explicit the emotional ambivalence of the Cheshire Cat—which pervades the two worlds Alice visits: the Cat's disconcerting grin is to be expected anywhere, perhaps because it is contained in the demure irony of the narrative voice.

Thus, Wonderland logic is almost systematically illogical and contrary. Logic, after all, is in practice a kind of memory: it requires one to remember premises long enough to get a valid conclusion from them. The creatures mimic this process nicely but never actually follow it; they live in worlds of non sequiturs. In such worlds an ordered memory and a continuing identity would be impossible. Over and over again, Alice explores the logic of a Wonderland or Looking-Glass situation, arrives at some logical impasse and has to move on, in frustration, and since she is Alice, in hope. But the illogic of the trial and the banquet are too much: Alice wakes up, leaving Wonderland and the Looking-Glass world behind.

Though Alice opposes a stern common sense to the illogic of the creatures, she is beginning to absorb a kind of Wonderland doubleness into herself. We are told that “this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people” (33), so that in her thoughts she takes “first one side and then the other … making quite a conversation of it altogether” (59). Carroll's brilliant dialogue is becoming the medium of her thoughts: this is an expression of the creative duplicity of Carroll's relations with Alice Liddell, as (with her approval) he puts his thoughts into her mind. In Through the Looking-Glass Alice is beginning to display a kind of emotional inconsequence as well:

“Oh, you wicked wicked little thing!” cried Alice, catching up the kitten, and giving it a little kiss to make it understand that it was in disgrace.


This is like the Cheshire Cat: Alice is growling when she is pleased. The tone is that of Carroll's letters to his child-friends, which show, in Greenacre's words, a “fluctuating aggressiveness with an urge to cruelty and then to affectionate playfulness.”22 Sylvie treats Bruno in the same way, kissing him to “punish” him, and so making the kiss into an assertion of power. Alice's behavior is not very different from the Duchess's treatment of her little boy or the Queen of Hearts' beheadings. Reward and punishment are illogical and unpredictable. W. H. Auden stated persuasively that “according to Lewis Carroll, what a child desires before anything else is that the world in which he finds himself should make sense”—especially in regard to the “commands and prohibitions” of adults.23 But here Alice is treating the kitten as she has been treated in Wonderland, with the same teasing inconsequence. If the kitten were a child, it might well grow up with a Wonderland sense of logic, or with Bruno's crippled seductiveness. But cats cannot say yes or no, a fact which Alice regrets (341), and so are safe from logic and inconsequence.

During the stories, Alice is the object of the narrator's and the reader's affection, though not without an undercurrent of criticism,24 while anger and fear are focused on other characters, notably the three Queens. But at the end of the stories, for an almost invisible moment Alice becomes the object of fear, the annihilating Boojum who makes everyone vanish away. During the stories the narrator can to some extent possess Alice—identify himself with her, and on the boat trip, persuade her to identify herself with him. Alice functions as a mediating figure between Carroll and the mother hidden in memory, comprising elements of both. To some extent she is Carroll himself, expressing his sense of what it was like to be a child. And she is also a Victorian little mother, like Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop (though “curious” in a very different way), always wiser and nicer than the characters she meets and ready to take care of them. But for that moment at the end of each story she is the terrible mother withdrawing her love. Her evidence at the Wonderland trial, “you're nothing but a pack of cards!” (161) is far more powerful than the Queen's “Off with his head!”: it destroys a whole world. It turns out that what was on trial was Wonderland itself—that is, Carroll and his attempt to steal away the hearts of Alice and her sisters. Alice's awakening is the end of the story and the breaking of the spell of half-unreal love that has united Alice and her Scheherazade. But this ending is contained within the text, for there follows the passage describing Alice's retelling of the story and her sister's redreaming of it. With the ending of a story, time resumes its power—but Carroll tries to prevent this by putting one version of the ending into the narrative, trying to make it into something the narrative contains and controls. He is not prepared simply to make an end—to let Alice go.

Perhaps for this reason, Through the Looking-Glass follows. It is sadder and more nostalgic than the earlier book, because it is an attempt to remember what it meant, to call back its inspiration. Alice Liddell is no longer a child; the beloved Alice is only in the past. Carroll's sense of the passage of time is expressed through the only Wonderland characters who reappear, the March Hare and the Mad Hatter, now Haigha and Hatta. It is appropriate that they should be the ones to return: it is as if arrested in time at the mad tea party they cannot even leave time and must continue. But now, instead of moving at a leisurely pace around the tea table they are breathless messengers, always in a hurry, and in someone else's hurry at that. That they are now “Anglo-Saxon” shows how far and how strangely the sunny day of Wonderland has receded into the past. (In “Jabberwocky” part of the meaning of the fake Anglo-Saxon is that Anglo-Saxon is a strange language and yet it is English, our language: it symbolizes a past which seems utterly alien and yet still belongs to Carroll, the repressed world of his earliest experiences.) The Messengers are like Carroll himself: they are arrested in time and yet have become ancient in having left unimaginably far behind the only time that makes sense for them. Alice does not recognize the Messengers—though Carroll had hoped that she would remember the Wonderland dream and tell it to her children. The Messengers do not recognize her and have no message to bring from Wonderland. Any such message would raise the question of the relations between the two Alice books and thus the question of Carroll's relations with Alice and with time.

The ending of Through the Looking-Glass is quite different from that of Alice's Adventures. Its beginning presents us with an Alice only six months older but in a new role. Dinah has had kittens, and Alice is playing at mothering them, instead of being mothered by her sister. In a mock-maternal way she proposes to punish the black kitten—for the offense of not folding its arms properly in order to be the Red Queen in chess—by putting it through the looking glass. Here we see the confusion of rewards and punishments again: kittens do not even have arms, and it soon becomes clear that going through the looking glass is not a punishment but something Alice wants for herself. For Alice is tiring of her unreal adult role: it is Dinah who is the real mother after all. And going through the looking glass will be to go back to the time before self-consciousness, before the self seen from outside that mirrors give us. Thus Alice goes through the glass, shrinks in size, and becomes a pawn, even a kitten in a sense: she replaces the White Queen's Pawn, whom the White Queen calls “my imperial kitten” (187). But again Alice wants to grow up—to become a Queen. At her banquet she finds she does not like the role and turns on the Red Queen, “whom she considered as the cause of all the mischief” (336). She shakes the Red Queen into a kitten—the black kitten—as she wakes up herself. But she cannot really shake off the Red Queen, because the Queen is in her, not the kitten: the Queen is the desire to dominate and to punish, which began the whole dream and caused all the mischief. This desire is also the desire to grow up and be adult, as Carroll sees it.

Alice is growing up whether she likes it or not, and whether Carroll likes it or not. She is becoming a woman. And the moral of that is that there is no escape from time. Carroll would have liked his art to be like the Outlandish Watch in Sylvie and Bruno, which makes time move backwards as its hands are moved backwards. But no such invention is possible. Again, Carroll shows a fascination with games—pastimes which are also ways of shaping time and giving it a meaning. But time cannot be controlled by the rules of a game, for as Kathleen Blake points out, every game needs a “stop rule” to guarantee a conclusion,25 and time can have no such rule.

At the end of Through the Looking-Glass Alice and Carroll glimpse but cannot really accept the relentless passage of time. As a result Alice is left in doubt about the reality of her experience and wonders, “Which dreamt it?”—herself or the Red King? The reader is left with this question in the last sentence. For Alice it is only part of her playful teasing of the black kitten—but it is serious for Carroll. He is split between two selves or two times, which are “half a life asunder” (173). His child self is represented by Alice. His adult self—the real adult self that never came to the surface in Carroll, that might have dealt with the Red Queen—is represented by the sleeping King. Each, we are told, dreams of the other, but they never communicate. Because Carroll is divided between the two times, he belongs to neither: he has neither youth nor age and so is outside of life, which seems unreal and dreamlike.

Through the Looking-Glass ends with a question and so does the final poem, which asks, “Life, what is it but a dream?” (345). But to end with a question is not to end at all, to leave everything in suspense, to refuse to accept the only terms time offers. Thus, in the final poem Carroll presents himself as lost and purposeless without Alice. She is gone: the poem is not addressed to her, and Carroll laments her loss and her haunting of him like a ghost. The boat trip is recalled once again, but the sunlit river which symbolized an escape from time is now time itself. Down it the child-friends always drift away, leaving Carroll, apparently on the shore or motionless in the stream, with nothing but his sense that life is a dream.

The poem at the beginning of Sylvie and Bruno takes up this question again:

Is all our Life, then, but a dream
Seen faintly in the golden gleam
Athwart Time's dark resistless stream?
Bowed to the earth with bitter woe,
Or laughing at some raree-show,
We flutter idly to and fro.
Man's little Day in haste we spend,
And, from its merry noontide, send
No glance to meet the silent end.(26)

This does give an answer and provide a sort of ending: but the silent end of death is outside of life and time, as the silence at the end of a story is outside the story. An ending that could also be a beginning, coming to a conclusion inside time, seems to be impossible for Carroll. Similarly, in “An Easter Greeting to Every Child Who Loves ‘Alice,’” Carroll encourages Alice's little readers to look forward hopefully, almost longingly, to death.27

There could, in theory, have been a third Alice book, and the preface to Sylvie and Bruno suggests that Carroll considered one.28 For there is no obvious way to bring the Alice books to a definitive end: the Alice formula does not seem to include a stop rule. Marriage is the traditional ending for comic works, but Carroll could hardly give Alice away, or let her grow up. She could not be reunited with a lost parent, as in the fairy plot of Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, because leaving “them” behind is an essential part of the formula. And Alice could not go the way of Little Nell; it is inconceivable, given the tone of the books. Most importantly, nothing that happens in a dream is final: the only stop rule in dreaming is waking up. Dreams can, of course, be visions and produce a sense of revelation, but not the kind of dream Alice has: for Carroll, dreaming is escaping. The pattern of an escape from time by going down a rabbit hole or through a looking glass into a dream liberated Carroll's imagination but it also trapped him because within this pattern he could not use his imagination to deal with the realities of time. Thus, the Alice books are essentially unfinished: there is and could be no Alice Concluded. To conclude Alice would have meant letting go of her and of what she represents and beginning life in time without her. Carroll could not or would not do this, and so in the poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass he presents himself as haunted by an eternal, inescapable Alice outside of time:

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.



  1. For the different accounts of the boat trip see Derek Hudson, Lewis Carroll: An Illustrated Biography, new illus. ed. (London: Constable, 1976), pp. 112-16.

  2. Lewis Carroll, “Alice on the Stage,” in Alice in Wonderland, ed. Donald J. Gray (New York: Norton, 1971), p. 283.

  3. Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures under Ground: A Facsimile of the Original Lewis Carroll Manuscript (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1964).

  4. The Annotated Alice, ed. Martin Gardner (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1960), p. 23. References given in the text are to this edition.

  5. Alice's Adventures under Ground, pp. 89-90.

  6. The Image of Childhood, rev. ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), pp. 241, 247.

  7. “Alice's Journey to the End of Night,” PMLA, 81 (1966), 320.

  8. The Field of Nonsense (London: Chatto and Windus, 1952), pp. 89-90.

  9. “Alice's Invasion of Wonderland,” PMLA, 88 (1973), 97.

  10. Rackin, p. 320.

  11. The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll, Modern Library (New York: Random House, n.d.), pp. 813-15.

  12. Lewis Carroll, The Wasp in a Wig (London: Macmillan, 1977), pp. 34-35.

  13. Carroll, “Alice on the Stage,” p. 282.

  14. Swift and Carroll: A Psychoanalytic Study of Two Lives (New York: International Universities Press, 1955), p. 168.

  15. Play, Games, and Sport: The Literary Works of Lewis Carroll (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 108-48.

  16. Reprinted in The Annotated Alice, pp. 38-39, n. 4; p. 69, n. 2.

  17. Ibid., p. 139, n. 6.

  18. Quoted in The Annotated Alice, pp. 21-22, n. 1.

  19. William Empson points out the social meaning of many of the props in the Alice books: they assure Alice that she has not left the well-to-do world to which she belongs (Some Versions of Pastoral [Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1938], pp. 278-80).

  20. Greenacre, p. 221.

  21. Lewis Carroll: Fragments of a Looking-Glass, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Crowell, 1976), pp. 179-80. For a psychologist's discussion of Carroll in the context of literary paedophilia, see Morris Fraser, The Death of Narcissus (London: Secker and Warburg, 1976).

  22. Greenacre, p. 181.

  23. “Today's ‘Wonder-World’ Needs Alice,” in Aspects of Alice, ed. Robert Phillips (London: Gollancz, 1972), p. 11.

  24. Kincaid explores the implicit criticism of Alice and her determination to be adult in “Alice's Invasion of Wonderland,” cited above.

  25. Blake, pp. 92-93.

  26. Complete Works, p. 275.

  27. Printed at the end in Macmillan editions of the Alice books.

  28. Complete Works, pp. 279-80.

Morton N. Cohen (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4261

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, but for young girls. Even in Victorian times—some would say particularly in Victorian times—the idea of an unmarried Oxford don, however respectable, pursuing friendships with pre-pubescent girls offended some sensibilities.

But now, more than three quarters of a century after Dodgson's death, when virtually all those young friends of his have also died, we should be able to look at the evidence coolly and clinically. The record of these friendships is formidable, not only because Dodgson himself kept diaries and wrote mountains of letters, but because those little girls collectively left behind yet another treasure trove of memorabilia—their own personal reminiscences. But nothing in these private documents reveals any greatly guarded secrets; there lurked behind the features of that benign Oxford cleric no sinister Mr. Hyde. The evidence makes us realize that, ho hum, nothing scandalous entered into those relationships. They were all open and free, something that both parties greatly enjoyed. No sordid details await us, nothing will titillate the prurient. Dodgson did not possess wandering hands, he made no attempt upon the chastity of those young female friends.

Psychoanalysts have a good deal to say, of course, about the Reverend Charles Dodgson's suppressed desires, and we may ourselves be certain that the man regarded any sexual promptings that he may have felt as inspired by the devil. So genuine and devout a Christian was he that he chained his natural instincts and allowed them, at least those that were sexual, no conscious expression. The result is that in his life we find idealized relationships, where purity and beauty are worshipped, where young girls become young angels and, when they mature, young goddesses. Sex does not enter at all. Dodgson wants to admire the girls aesthetically, he enjoys their companionship, he seeks to contribute to their intellectual and social development, and, perhaps most of all, he tries to amuse them.

For that is, after all, the aim to which he devoted much of his life, helping his young friends in every possible way. He wrote his two great children's classics to amuse the most famous of those young girls, and he wrote dozens of other works in order to entertain hundreds, thousands of other young friends, both seen and unseen, the world over. The young girls he actually knew and cared for he aided in a multitude of ways. He supervised their careers, he gave them spiritual guidance, he took them on outings to London, he received them as house guests at the seaside, he bought them railway tickets, he gave them books and other presents, he took them to the theater, he fed them and clothed them, he photographed them, he paid some of their dentists' bills, he told them stories, and, most relevant for our purpose, he tutored them in mathematics and logic, he arranged for them to have lessons in elocution, he paid for them to get instruction in French, music, and art, and he took a constant interest in cultivating their talents and in helping them to cultivate their minds.

Because a hundred years or so have passed since Dodgson engaged in all this tutelage, and attitudes have changed enormously in that time, we ought perhaps to remind ourselves what standard attitudes Dodgson's contemporaries held towards women, young or mature. True, Dodgson lived in an age of chivalry, when, at least in polite circles, gentlemen treated ladies with mannered courtesy. Often, womanhood was idealized, even idolized. This worship of the female, we know, was an extension of attitudes that prevailed during the Romantic Period that regarded women as closer to heaven's angels than to earth-bound men.

But that was not the whole story. All Victorians, even those who idolized women, saw them as the “weaker sex,” requiring protection and support. Those famous lines from Tennyson's The Princess capture the Victorian assessment of woman's place in the universe:

Man for the field and woman for the hearth:
Man for the sword and for the needle she:
Man with the head and woman with the heart:
Man to command and woman to obey;
All else confusion.

Perhaps even more striking is that some of the medical authorities and scientists of the time pronounced the female inferior. Sir Almroth Wright, who invented the anti-typhoid inoculation and was one of the greatest pathologists of his time, as late as March 28, 1912, argued in The Times (London) that a woman's physiology, her “hyper-sensitivity,” her “innate unreasonableness,” her periodic “loss of proportion” made her unfit to vote. In earlier Victorian days the notion of woman as a weaker vessel was even more deeply rooted. The female body was capable of bearing children, but not of performing any other chores requiring physical prowess or endurance; to subject it to “manly” tasks would be to abuse it. Similarly, if one strove to educate the female mind, if one, as it were, subjected it to mental exercise for which the female brain was unfit, one would tax it beyond endurance and it might shatter. Women were, for the Victorians, quite distinct from men: they functioned differently, their purpose on earth was different, and one had a clear duty to recognize, protect, and even encourage that difference. Only by keeping woman in her place, in the home, as a mother, as a supervisor of the servants, a keeper of keys, a social butterfly—only in these ways were the true and natural functions of both woman and man fulfilled.

In most matters, Charles Dodgson was a man of his time. In spite of his great gifts of imagination, he did not often, as a person, transcend Victorian structures. True, he had a mind of his own and indeed decided major issues for himself. In the face of a dictum of Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, proclaiming the theater a form of godless entertainment, Dodgson was courageous enough, for instance, to insist openly that the English theater offered wholesome and uplifting experiences, and he attended theatrical performances and often took his young friends to them. Dodgson also had the courage to depart from the “high church” fold of his father and earlier progenitors because he found high church formality and ceremony too elaborate for his simple tastes. He was more comfortable as a broad churchman and he became one.

These examples attest to an independent man who thought for himself and made significant decisions either with or against the tide, according to his own lights. And yet, in examining Dodgson's whole life, one must conclude that he did not often break new ground, nor did he frequently break with convention. He was, in the main, in religion, in politics, even in art, conventional.

We should not be surprised, then, to find that in his attitudes to women he tends to accept past standards, to hold the line, to resist change. In his general attitude to work, for example, and in particular to the studies of mathematics and logic, he is stern. He believed in a carefully thought out and disciplined approach, he would not compromise and he would not be compromised on the requirements he set for himself, for his colleagues, or for his students. He regularly opposed lower standards of admission to Oxford and lower standards for passing examinations. He showed compassion for the unqualified and for those who failed to make the grade, but before any of them received Dodgson's “seal of approval,” they simply, each and every one, had to climb the steep cliffs of Higher Mathematics on their own.

Of course, most of Dodgson's pupils—certainly all of his official ones—were men, the men of Oxford. When we ask about Dodgson's attitude towards women and women's education—how he stood on the issue of opening the gates of Oxford to women, to granting them degrees, to accepting them as equals—when we ask these questions, knowing the man and his time, we have every right to expect a conventional reply: a woman's mind, like her body, is inferior to a man's, women are not capable of higher education and granting them university educations would be contrary to their best interest and to the best interest of society. Certainly, that is the sum and substance of conventional Victorian attitudes.

But on examining Dodgson's record on the subject of women's education, we come in for some surprises. We cannot cast him as a champion of change—it would have violated his character if he took a liberal stance on these issues—but, on the other hand, he is not a dyed-in-the-wool Victorian.

As we know, higher education for women began, more or less, at Queens College in London in 1848, but Queens was a college only in name and offered women separate and far-from-equal education. Queens College apart, real education for women in England still had to arrive at the established male universities. Of these, Cambridge first allowed women to sit for examinations, and that landmark was passed in 1868, when Dodgson was thirty-six years old. At Cambridge, too, in 1869, the first important woman's hall was established, if not as part of the university itself, certainly on the fringe: Newnham Hall, later Newnham College. And in 1873, again at Cambridge, the hall that would become Girton College was founded. Oxford, you see, lagged behind.

Although women could attend lectures and take examinations at the University of Oxford from 1875, no hostels for women existed there until 1878, when the earliest women's halls, Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville College, opened. From time to time, the women of Oxford struggled fiercely against the iron gates of the University, but they made slow progress. Not until 1894 were all University examinations in arts and music open to women. But no woman could yet earn an Oxford degree.

Actually, the question of degrees for women first became a real issue in 1896, two years before Dodgson's death, and he took a genuine interest in the debate. In March of that year, Congregation, the University governing body, was to vote on whether Oxford should grant degrees to women. In the months before the crucial vote, newspapers were full of articles and letters stating arguments for and against the proposal. People in Oxford, and it seems from the widespread material that appeared on the subject, people everywhere in England, took one side or another and believed, in each case, that he or she had something new or freshly persuasive to say on the subject. The letters columns in The Times were largely devoted to the debate, public meetings were held and reported in the press, and a good many dinner tables groaned under the fists of pundits all too eager to pronounce on the merits or, more likely, the demerits of degrees for women.

Now, we have seen that Dodgson was not an adventurous trail blazer, and I should add, too, that when on April 29, 1884, twelve years earlier, the University, by a large majority vote, admitted women to additional examinations, Dodgson recorded in an unpublished passage of his diaries that he had voted “nonplacet.1 In the crucial vote on March 13, 1896, the vote was overwhelmingly (215 to 140) against giving Oxford degrees to women, and, no doubt, Dodgson voted with the majority. But, although in 1884 he was opposed to giving women access to more Oxford examinations and in 1896 to awarding women Oxford degrees, he certainly did not oppose giving women higher education. Quite the contrary. After the vote was taken and the women lost, Dodgson composed an essay on the subject and, like some of the other quieter souls in the Oxford community, he took the trouble to publish his views privately. His pamphlet, Resident Women-Students, consists of merely four pages and is dated four days after the crucial vote in Congregation.2

Characteristically Dodgson frames the issues involved as logical propositions. He begins thus:

In the bewildering multiplicity of petty side-issues, with which the question, of granting University Degrees to Women, has been overlaid, there is some danger that Members of Congregation may lose sight of the really important issues involved.

The following four propositions should, I think, be kept steadily in view by all who wish to form an independent opinion as to the matter in dispute.

The first proposition is that “One of the chief functions, if not the chief function, of our University, is to prepare young Men … for the business of Life. Consequently”—and here Dodgson presents his second proposition—“The first question to be asked … is ‘How will it affect those for whose well-being we are responsible?’” He then puts his third proposition, that any scheme for admitting women students as full-fledged members of the University will eventually make residency at the University compulsory. Consequently—and now we have his fourth proposition—“Any such Scheme is certain to produce an enormous influx of resident Women-Students.” Considering that three thousand undergraduate men were then enrolled at Oxford, Dodgson predicts that before long, an influx of some three thousand young women students would occur. “Such an immigration,” he goes on, “will of course produce a rapid increase in the size of Oxford, and will necessitate a large increase in our teaching-staff and in the number of lecture-rooms.” Then he asks this question: “Will the mutual influence, of two such sets of Students, residing in such close proximity, be for good or for evil?” Dodgson recalls at this point that he often discussed the issue with his old late friend Henry Parry Liddon, Canon of St. Paul's Cathedral, and that Liddon had expressed “most warmly and earnestly, his fears as to the effect … flooding Oxford with young Women-Students would have on the young Women themselves.”

Dodgson does not go on to say that he agreed with Liddon on this or on any other particular. Instead, he proceeds to offer a solution to the problem. “Surely, the real ‘way-out,’ from our present perplexity,” he wrote, is for Oxford, Cambridge, and Dublin to “join in a petition to the Crown to grant a charter for a Women's University. Such a University,” he continues, “would very soon attract to itself the greater portion of young Women-Students. It takes no great time to build Colleges; and we might confidently expect to see ‘New Oxford,’ in the course of 20 or even of 10 years, rivaling Oxford, not only in numbers, but in attainments. At first, perhaps, they might need to borrow some teachers from the older Universities; but they would soon be able to supply all, that would be needed, from among themselves; and Women-Lecturers and Women-Professors would arise, fully as good as any that the older Universities have ever produced.”

He adds one last paragraph showing that he is aware that his proposal is not new and that one strong argument against it is that “it is not what the Women themselves ‘desire.’” But he rejects that argument as logically weak. Like the proper Victorian he was, Dodgson insists that “Even men very often fail to ‘desire’ what is, after all, the best thing for them to have.”

Dodgson's position, his propositions, and his proposals are not remarkable either for the man or for his time. They reflect, in fact, precisely the sort of person he was—not a great educational reformer, he was not in the forefront of social change. But having said that, we must add that he was at core a decent human being with sensitive feelings and a “sensible” outlook on life. What is remarkable about the man is not that he opposed making Oxford available to women students, but that he opposed their admission to degrees only on social, and not on intellectual grounds. He makes it quite clear that he has a deep respect for the intellectual potential of women and that women, in his view, were capable of the highest intellectual accomplishments. Indeed, had he believed otherwise, he would not have spent as much of his time and energy as he did in tutoring individual girls. Actually, even while Dodgson opposed opening Oxford to women, he spent much of his effort educating females, and he did that in three distinct ways.

One way was on a personal one-to-one basis. He gave individual instruction to a good many growing children throughout the years. He either went to their homes or they came to his rooms at Christ Church, and he took great pains with their instruction. He also carried on individual “correspondence courses” in letters, setting problems for his pupils to solve, correcting answers they sent him, and trying to explain their errors when they went wrong. Toward the end of his life, he conducted a long correspondence with one of his sisters, herself a woman of some age by then, instructing her in formal logic.3

The second way that Dodgson taught young girls was by inventing games and puzzles and by writing texts for them. Many of his writings are mathematical or logical games and exercises created for his young friends. Among his published works that fall into this category are Castle-Croquet, Court Circular, Doublets, The Game of Logic, Lanrick, Mischmasch, Syzygies, and A Tangled Tale. Some of these games appeared in print first in ladies' or girls' periodicals, as set exercises for readers to solve. Readers' answers were printed in subsequent weeks' issues and prizes were awarded. Respondents often became correspondents of Dodgson's, and in fact that is how he made some of his fastest friends. The books that resulted when Dodgson assembled these periodical exercises between hard covers were usually dedicated to one or another of his child friends.

The third way that Dodgson taught young girls was in a more formal school setting. He often took the opportunity, when he met schoolteachers or head mistresses socially to inquire whether they would like to have him come and give logic lessons to any of the girls at their schools. The result was that classes were especially arranged for girls and even mistresses who wanted to take logic lessons. One of Dodgson's most interesting triumphs took place at the distinguished Oxford High School for Girls where over a number of years he gave what amounted to “mini-courses” in logic. The school “adopted” him as a special friend, and the girls wrote about him affectionately both in memoirs they left behind and in the school magazine they published regularly during the years while he was there. Dodgson also gave logic lectures at Oxford colleges for women, notably at Lady Margaret's Hall and at St. Hugh's.

By all accounts, Dodgson was a great success at these lectures, in spite of the notorious and troublesome stammer that kept him from taking up regular parish preaching. And his special gift seemed to lie in his allowing Lewis Carroll to take over from Charles Dodgson. New claims have been made recently for Dodgson as an innovator in the history of mathematics and logic.4 I am not equipped to judge how valid these claims are, but I know that Dodgson brought to his works in mathematics and logic, as to his classroom teaching of these subjects, an imagination and inventiveness that we do not normally associate with such “dry” subjects. The exercises he invented, the paradoxes he posed, the examples he supplied are all couched in drama and suspense and infused with an intrinsic laughter and sense of fun, a quality of real life. In all, he made mathematics and logic live for his students as they never lived before. No wonder that professional mathematicians and logicians the world over readily smile as they recognize Dodgson's “Barber-Shop Paradox” or his “Paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise.” These problems and many more bear the genius of humor and creativity characteristic of the Alice books.

So it was in those classrooms when Charles Dodgson drilled his female students in the strict exercises and arguments of higher mathematics: he drew them into interesting situations, he inspired them to use their own imaginations, he aroused their interest and made them laugh at his examples. Of course he adored the rows of young females hanging on his every word; no doubt, the very nature of his audience sparked him on to new creative heights. But, all the same, he never lost his sense of proportion about the relationships, nor did he ever think that what he was doing was at all ordinary. Writing to a friend in his early days of lecturing at the Oxford High School for Girls, he reported: “Every afternoon, oddly enough, I have an engagement, as I have taken to giving lectures, on my Game of Logic, to young people. … Girls are very nice pupils to lecture to, they are so bright and eager.”5 In turn, the students appreciated him. “When Mr. Dodgson stood at the desk in the sixth-form room and prepared to address the class,” one of his pupils wrote in later years, “I thought he looked very tall and seemed very serious and rather formidable … [but] as he proceeded I think the facts became rather more and more fanciful and the fancies more fantastic.”6 Another student remembered that “the girls adored him; he entertained them with written games on the blackboard. He was perfect with children,” she added, “and there were always tribes of little girls attached to him. He made everyone laugh.”7 And yet one more girl's testimony must be given. Enid Stevens, one of his all-time favorites, was an Oxford High School student. “I never realized,” she wrote after Dodgson's death, “—as I do now—what jewels were being poured out for my entertainment. I know now that my friendship with him was probably the most valuable experience in a long life, and that it influenced my outlook more than anything that has happened since; and wholly for good.”8

Charles Dodgson may not have done much to advance women's entrance to the sacred halls of Oxford University, to secure them degrees there, but he influenced many a female's own education in his time, and who can doubt that he has had an enormous influence in shaping women's minds in general and, incidentally, men's. The two great English classics he wrote have, indeed, made Alices of us all. He wrote many other books for the instruction and amusement of girls, and he devoted his entire life to instructing and entertaining young females. “And so you have found out that secret,” he once wrote to his friend Ellen Terry, “one of the deep secrets of Life—that all, that is really worth the doing, is what we do for others?”9 Dodgson profoundly believed that maxim, and he did more for young girls than for any other group.

Dodgson's name will not enter scholarly tomes devoted to the struggle for women's rights. But many women in the world have benefitted from his having trod the face of the earth and inhabited those rooms at Christ Church. But perhaps, for our purpose today, we ought to recognize one thing about Dodgson that was not true of most Victorian males. Over and over again, he shows a deep respect for female intelligence, and nowhere does he make any distinction whatsoever between a good “male mind” and a good “female mind.” For Charles Dodgson, a good mind was a good mind. In that one regard if in no other, he was ahead of his time and transcended its prejudices.

In 1920 Oxford University got round to giving women degrees. This past summer, I sat at High Table at Christ Church with women dons noticeably present. And one day, the Porter said as he handed me my mail, “Yes, the last bastion has crumbled. We are to have thirteen ladies here in October.” For the first time in history, last month women were admitted to study in that masculine holy of holies, Christ Church.

Charles Dodgson has been dead for eighty-two years now, but I like to think of his spirit still hovering over Tom Quad, and I believe that, in his wisdom and with his whimsicality, he is concocting some special rhymes to celebrate the first thirteen women to become full members of Christ Church. I don't think that, now, he would disapprove.10


  1. Dodgson's manuscript diaries are in the British Library.

  2. It is reprinted in The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll (London, 1939), pp. 1068-70.

  3. For a record of this correspondence, see Lewis Carroll, Symbolic Logic, ed. William Warren Bartley III (New York and London, 1977).

  4. See the editor's introduction in ibid.

  5. Morton N. Cohen, ed., The Letters of Lewis Carroll, 2 vols. (New York and London, 1979), p. 680.

  6. E. M. Rowell, “To Me He Was Mr. Dodgson,” Harper's Magazine, CLXXXVI (February, 1943), 319-23.

  7. Ethel Sidgwick, Oxford High School, 1875-1960, ed. V. E. Stack (Abingdon, Berkshire, 1963), pp. 56-57.

  8. “Mrs. Shawyer's Reminiscences,” The Diaries of Lewis Carroll, 2 vols., ed. Roger Lancelyn Green. (New York and London, 1954), pp. xxiv-xxvi.

  9. The Letters of Lewis Carroll, p. 813.

  10. For background material for this essay, I have also drawn on the following works: Vera Brittain, The Women at Oxford (London, 1960); Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (New Haven and London, 1957); and Josephine Kamm, Hope Deferred (London, 1965).

Morton N. Cohen (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8258

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, and I fear he was disappointed. I did not know whether Carroll had sexual dreams; I could not speculate about Carroll's sexual fantasies or even say if he had any.

And yet, in spite of those negative and uninformative replies, I believe that I know Carroll as well as anyone else does and that, on the basis of twenty years' work with the man's published writings, his diaries, and his letters, I can be fairly sure about his likes and dislikes, his political and religious views, his social outlook, and the general pattern of his relationships. It follows, too, that I can venture some reasoned views about his attitude to sex as it emerges from a careful examination of his personal writings.

One uncontrovertible fact is that Lewis Carroll was a model Victorian. He was born in 1832, five years before Victoria ascended the throne; he died in 1898, three years before the Queen herself. But Carroll was a model Victorian in more than chronology; he was particularly Victorian in his voluminous record keeping. The Victorian age was an age of record, perhaps the last in the conventional sense, the last age of paper record. With the telephone not yet in common use, people still wrote letters to one another. But besides that, the Victorians were obsessed with the need to write things down, as if to keep score, to justify themselves to themselves.

Lewis Carroll himself was a record keeper of mind-boggling proportions. One wonders, indeed, how he managed to perform his duties as Mathematical Lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford, to carry out his clerical tasks, to write twenty or so books, to take hundreds of photographs, and to do all the other things he did, indeed, to live so full a life and still maintain his voluminous records. The detailed diaries that he kept for half of the nineteenth century must have taken an inordinate amount of his time. And then there is the myriad of letters he wrote. But even they offer no reasonable explanation of how he managed to do all that he did.

We all write letters, and certainly the Victorians wrote more of them than we do, but Carroll was one of the most formidable letter writers who ever lived. When he was nearing his twenty-ninth birthday, in 1861, he began keeping a letter register, where he assigned a number to every letter he wrote and received and entered beside the number a précis of the letter's contents. He kept the register until he died, thirty-seven years later. The last entry in that register, which accounts for his letters for just over half his life, numbered 98,721.

By examining Carroll's diaries and letters, we get a fairly comprehensive view of this Victorian, and we learn a good deal about his milieu, the age in which he lived, and, in particular, Victorian Oxford. But most of all, we get to know the man who created the Alice books. We learn how he thinks, what he believes in, and we become acquainted with his opinions, his manner of living, and, perhaps most important for our purpose here, with his emotional responses.

One obstacle that stands in the way of seeing Lewis Carroll plain is, ironically, the critical attention he has received. Sad to say, most literary critics who write on Carroll, like my visitor, bring to their work a good many preconceptions, if not misconceptions. And many of them appear less interested in knowing Carroll than they are in grinding away at some theory they have, whether based on fact or not. Everyone who has read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland knows that it contains levels of feeling and meaning that are not readily accessible. Critics have been working overtime trying to get at that inaccessible substructure of the books, most particularly critics with a psychoanalytical bent. But the fact is that the more one reads of these critics' work, the more confused one grows. If we take them seriously, we enter a world of chaos.

One critic has conclusively proved that Alice was not written by Lewis Carroll at all and that the real author was Queen Victoria. An earlier writer toys with the notion that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is an allegory of the Oxford Movement, another an allegory of Darwinian evolution. Still another tells us that the story of Alice represents Charles Dodgson's own birth trauma in the isolated Cheshire rectory where he was born. Other psychoanalysts tell us that the book is about a woman in labor, that falling down the rabbit hole is a hidden expression of Dodgson's secret wish for coitus, that Alice is a phallus (that one, at least, rhymes), or that she's a fetus. Or, if we prefer, we can take the view that she is a transvestite Christ. A more recent essay claims that Dodgson was the first “acidhead,” while Kenneth Burke tells us that the story is about toilet training and bowel movements.1 It's almost as though these analysts are competing to advance the most unusual, some would say the most outrageous or fantastic, interpretation of Dodgson the man and his brainchild Alice in Wonderland. I listened not long ago to a paper on Alice as a symbol of the fallen woman. Well, after all, she does fall down the rabbit hole.

There is no consensus; nowhere do we find even the hope of agreement on what the story really means. Certainly the day will come when we shall have better techniques for understanding the real meaning of the book and what Dodgson's subconscious was getting at here. But our tools and techniques are not yet sufficiently refined for that exercise; we do not yet know how to interpret Dodgson's psychological pyrotechnics in the story.

We are all products of our own time, and I confess that when I first began to work on Carroll, I thought that some of these critics might be right. After all, Dodgson did prefer the company of little girls to adults, and perhaps we could learn about that preference through psychoanalytical speculation. I half expected to find suspicious, or at least ambiguous, evidence about his relationships with his child friends in the letters that he wrote to them. Actually, at first my expectations seemed to be working out when photocopies of the letters started pouring in. A huge proportion of the letters were addressed to little girls, and some of the girls were saluted as “Darling,” “My own Agnes,” and the like. But with closer acquaintance, I had to abandon my earlier suspicions.

In fact the psychologists and the psychoanalysists have not helped me to understand Carroll. My understanding has come from my work with original material, Carroll's diaries, his letters, and the reminiscences that the little girls themselves have left behind. For one thing, I have grown convinced in the process that we have more to learn about Carroll and his fellow-Victorians by seeing them in their day-to-day dealings with one another, that is by examining their conscious lives, than we can from symbol hunting and psychological theorizing. Most of these intelligent Victorians were exceptionally self-conscious, and they constantly sought to assess their own worth, to justify their behavior. Lewis Carroll is a good case in point: he is most revealing when he appraises himself to himself, to the society in which he lived, and to God.

I don't mean to suggest that we should look at these people in a vacuum; indeed the surroundings they grew up in are extremely important. Oddly enough, some of Dodgson's biographers have failed to examine his environment carefully and have not dealt sufficiently with two powerful influences that helped to shape him.

The first important influence was the Yorkshire rectory where Charles Dodgson spent his childhood. Dodgson's father was the curate of a Yorkshire congregation (later he became Archdeacon of Richmond and Canon of Ripon). Dodgson père had come from a long line of clergymen, among them a sprinkling of bishops, and it seemed quite natural that three of his four sons should go into the church. The family in the rectory was a large one of eleven children; Lewis Carroll was the third child, the eldest son. It was a “good” family on both sides, with family trees going back for centuries. It was conservative, steeped in tradition, pious, devoted to social service—and morning, noon, and night the family prayed together. Although we know that Carroll's father could be witty on occasion and display a good sense of fun, the essential picture we get of him is of a strong, solid, authoritarian, rather gloomy high and dry churchman.

We know less about Carroll's mother. She died before he was nineteen. She must have been a gentle creature, and, what with eleven children, a very busy one. In the few allusions that Carroll makes to her, he shows genuine affection. But it is clear from the evidence that Carroll's relationship with his father was one of the powerful facts of his life. The two developed close mutual sympathies and understanding early, and the father soon became a model for the son to emulate. The father died in 1868, when Carroll was thirty-six, but even years later, when Carroll himself was an older man, he characterized the loss of his father as “the greatest sorrow of my life.”

Dodgson certainly had pleasant memories of childhood. After all he had a good number of sisters and brothers to play with, and we know that he enjoyed walks and rambles in the Yorkshire countryside. He was adept at mechanical things, and he built a miniature railway in the back garden and a puppet theater for which he wrote original plays. We know, too, that he was a constant reader, had a good memory, liked to sketch and to write poetry and short stories. But perhaps most of all, he had learned, early, under his father's guidance, to live a purposeful life. It was a life of prayer and charity and duty and love. Selflessness and hard work were part of the code by which he lived. Today we would say that Charles Dodgson and a large number of his contemporaries never really had any childhood—they had to study too long, they had to pray too much and too often, they had to perform too many rituals, and they had to work too hard. But they did not object: this was the only way to live. They enjoyed reading the Bible (it was, after all, the best of all storybooks), and they even looked forward to the Sunday sermon almost as much as children in our time look forward to Sesame Street on television. They believed in Christ as a real phenomenon; He was, in a sense, a member of the family. And they genuinely strove to do good deeds and to think noble thoughts.

When we teach about the Victorian age, some of us tend to characterize it as a time when all the traditional values, and especially traditional religious faith, came under severe attack. The new science, the developmental theory, Benthamism, Darwinism, Agnosticism, the new geology, Higher Criticism—these new movements called everything into doubt. And indeed they did, but the truth is that they called everything into doubt for only a handful of top-drawer intellectuals like Alfred Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, and a few others. For most people, the traditional faith endured, and when the onslaught from all the 'isms began, they turned, in panic, back to the old verities. They had earlier been shocked by the outrages of the Regency, and they had already barricaded themselves against the sins of the world. Now it only remained for them to reinforce the barricades against the new threats.

The Victorians' faith reached back to the Puritans, beyond the moral looseness of the eighteenth century, and the Puritan scenario was what it had always been. The protagonists were a jealous God and an omnipresent Devil who fought for the human soul. One's conduct here on earth ultimately earned a reward in Heaven or punishment in Hell. The old faith was based on authority: God, parents, elders, betters, upper classes. It had nothing to do with any modern notions of democracy or equality. Most Victorians were not taught to cultivate open minds, to consider all sides of a question. The flexible, searching mind was truly exceptional; most minds were rigid, dogmatic. They feared new ideas; they sensed danger and evil in change and innovation.

Earnestness was an essential Victorian characteristic, transcending the limits of specific religions, and it underscored everyone's behavior, regardless of his or her religious convictions. Kingsley, Newman, Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, Tennyson, Browning—even they, while they cultivated different spiritual vineyards, all emerged with a central concern for the way one must behave. They all endorsed the same quality of living, the same moral code. And the ordinary Victorians as well as the great thinkers all agreed on an uncompromisingly Christian ethic that required self-discipline and good habits, that demanded that all action conform to a Christian conscience and all behavior be characterized by honesty, good manners, and generosity. You might not believe in God, but you behaved according to His Commandments anyway.

Lewis Carroll embraced this ethic at an early age, in the family circle in Yorkshire, with his father setting the tone and spirit of his faith. He was, to begin with, a bright lad, but he must have worked unremittingly, for when he left home to go to Richmond School at the age of twelve, he was already proficient in higher mathematics and could read and write Latin easily. He entered his school with more in his head than most young people today have in theirs when they enter—some would say leave—college.

But what about the whimsey that was to make him famous? Where does that come in? Well, that is there as well, or the roots of it are. The youthful jottings that survive are delightful, the compositions, the stories, the verse, the drawings are all inventive, clever, spellbinding. Yes, the moral tone is always present too.

The Dodgsons, like other good Victorian families, produced family magazines. The earliest one is appropriately entitled Useful and Instructive Poetry, and it was composed entirely by the young Lewis Carroll, aged thirteen, especially for a younger brother and sister. It contains a string of humorous verses and some pencil sketches. Three of the verses are entitled “Punctuality,” “Charity,” and “Rules and Regulations.” While the verses are often clever and witty, some of the titles and the accompanying moral tags couch the fun in an earnest context. The first verse in the magazine is entitled “My Fairy”:

I have a fairy by my side
          Which says I must not sleep,
When once in pain I loudly cried
          It said, “You must not weep.”
If, full of mirth, I smile and grin,
          It says, “You must not laugh,”
When once I wished to drink some gin,
          It said “You must not quaff.”
When once a meal I wished to taste
          It said “You must not bite,”
When to the wars I went in haste,
          It said “You must not fight.”
“What may I do?” At length I cried,
          Tired of the painful task,
The fairy quietly replied,
          And said “You must not ask.”
Moral: “You mustn't.”

This playful rhyme is an apt comment on Victorian childhood and, by implication, on Victorian parenthood and adulthood. After all, these children who were taught that they mustn't did in time go on to become adults, and they carried the lesson of mustn't to the four corners of the earth. Certainly mustn't becomes one of the strongest themes of Charles Dodgson's mature life.

Carroll remained at the Richmond Grammar School for only a year and a half, boarding with the headmaster and his huge family in what was surely a close replica of his own home. When he left Richmond, the headmaster wrote to Carroll's father: “I shall always feel a peculiar interest in the gentle, intelligent, and well-conducted boy who is now leaving us.”2 The emphasis on good behavior was not perfunctory.

Carroll spent the next three years at Rugby. Those years did much to convince him that all he had learned in his family circle was absolutely and irrevocably true. Biographers have missed much in not examining more carefully the influences that must have impinged upon Carroll at Rugby: they offer us some of the more important insights into Carroll's personality and indeed into the shaping of Victorian character generally.

In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Rugby was enjoying the result of the reforms initiated by Dr. Thomas Arnold. Arnold came to Rugby in 1828 determined to turn the school, which had been labeled a “nursery for vice,” into a training ground for Christian gentlemen. In Arnold's view the school's chapel was as important as its classrooms: Christian faith and Christian learning would, if blended well, produce a superior breed of man, a new brand of Englishman. To achieve his goal, Arnold made changes: he instituted the preceptor system, he selected his staff carefully, and he instilled in them and in the boys they taught a missionary zeal. His Sunday sermons in chapel—he was Rugby's chaplain as well as its headmaster—bore a distinct, martial tone, and the boys later recorded that they often felt that the headmaster was speaking to each one of them personally. Arnold told the boys that this life on earth was no fool's paradise: it was a battlefield where everyone must fight and where the stakes were enormous.

The boys listened, they were mesmerized, they quaked. They well knew Arnold's list of six supreme evils, which included sensual wickedness and evil companionship. They learned, too, that Arnold placed religious and moral behavior ahead of gentlemanly conduct, and gentlemanly conduct ahead of intellectual achievement. Arnold also taught a kind of spiritual introspection: he believed that all sinners must look for help within themselves even as they must constantly vindicate themselves to themselves. He sought to build strong individual temples in his boys. He believed that if they cultivated strong wills, strong minds and strong bodies would follow automatically. Truthfulness was one of Arnold's special values, and no one came in for so much reproof and punishment as a boy caught lying. It is no secret that Arnold's army of private soldiers went forth to become the eminent Victorians and that Rugby became the model for all good schools, not only in England but in the entire English-speaking world.

Lewis Carroll never actually heard Dr. Arnold preach. He arrived at Rugby in 1846, three years after Arnold's death, and his headmaster was A. C. Tait, who, if he did not possess Arnold's fiery personality, certainly matched Arnold's dedication to high ideals. Tait, too, made the chapel the heart of the school and in his eight years there did much to reinforce Arnold's missionary spirit. No mean preacher himself, Tait soon went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was he whom Lewis Carroll heard preach at Sunday chapel. But we can be sure that Carroll also read Arnold's sermons, published in 1848, while Carroll was a Rugby boy.

Certainly not all Rugby boys emerged in their headmaster's image, but Lewis Carroll needed no prodding in his conduct or his studies. He had formed his habits earlier, in Yorkshire. What is especially interesting, in reading the Dodgson diaries and the letters, is that one finds echoing in these pages the very principles that Dr. Arnold had laid down before Dodgson ever arrived at Rugby. By some quirk of descent, Dodgson becomes, in some respects, a reflection, at least spiritually, of the headmaster he never knew. Life for Dodgson is indeed an armed battle against the Devil, and one wins that battle by being ever vigilant, by exercising a strong will, by practicing merciless self-denial, by engaging in constant and unremitting labor, and by living in perpetual communion with God in thought and in prayer.

We have no diary for the years Dodgson was at Rugby, but we do have one for his early years as a mathematical lecturer at Christ Church, beginning in 1855. On one occasion he writes: “With God's help I desire to begin (1) daily reading and meditation of the Bible (best before chapel), (2) cleaning off arrears of lecture-work before doing anything else, (3) denying myself indulgence in sleep in the evenings, (4) methodically preparing outlines of sermons. Oh God,” he concludes, “I repent of my past life: I long to do better … for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.”3 Similar resolutions appear regularly in the diaries, and they are accompanied by hasty, modest entries about his accomplishments: his working at mathematical problems, the proofs he has readied for the printer, and, here and there, an account of the number of hours he has worked that day, on some days as many as fourteen.

Here is another entry from the diary: “I here record my intention of beginning, next term, a habit of evening work, and also of trying the experiment of taking regular Sunday duty” (January 24, 1865). Another entry: “Term begins tomorrow. I must try to get into regular habits, and a life of more direct preparation for the Ministry. Oh God, purify me, and help me to live ever as in thy sight, for thy dear Son's sake” (October 17, 1862). On the last day of 1863: “Here, at the close of another year, how much of neglect, carelessness, and sin have I to remember! I had hoped, during the year, to have made a beginning in parochial work, to have thrown off habits of evil, to have advanced in my work at Christ Church—how little, next to nothing, has been done of all this! Now I have a fresh year before me: once more let me set myself to do some thing worthy of life ‘before I go hence, and be no more seen.’ Oh God, grant me grace to consecrate to Thee, during this new year, my life and powers, my days and nights, myself. Take me, vile and worthless as I am: use me as Thou seest fit, help me to be Thy servant, for Christ's sake. Amen” (D, I, 208). The humility, the deep and genuine religious feeling and devotion was his to the end. Less than six years before he died, he writes, after preaching in church on Sunday: “Once more I have to thank my heavenly Father for the great blessing and privilege of being allowed to speak for Him! May He bless my words and help some soul on its heavenward way” (April 3, 1892).

By most standards, Dodgson's life was one of considerable accomplishment. Most people know his two children's classics and some know that he wrote some works on mathematics and logic. But few realize that his bibliography contains some three hundred separately published items. Apart from his writing, he taught mathematics diligently and, although he never had his own curacy, he took his clerical duties seriously and often preached in church. On a number of occasions, in fact, he filled St. Mary's, Oxford, to capacity with a university congregation. He served for almost ten years as Curator of Christ Church Common Room, and he made a name for himself as one of the earliest art photographers and certainly the finest photographer of children in the nineteenth century.

Dodgson constantly befriended the poor and visited the sick, and, we are told, when he realized that his children's books would bring in a modest income for the rest of his life, he actually asked Oxford University to reduce his salary. All his life he lived simply in college rooms, allowed himself pleasures but no extravagant indulgences, ate little when he ate at all, and usually dressed in black. Only once in his life did he travel abroad. For most of his life he helped support his six unmarried sisters and a good many other people—relatives, friends, even strangers. He always took on new students to teach and was ready, however modestly, to offer young and old alike religious or spiritual instruction. In Dodgson, Dr. Arnold's lofty Victorian standards were incarnate: we never find an allusion to anything sensual, and he holds truthfulness to be as noble a virtue as Arnold did.

Dodgson's faith, like Arnold's, had been worked out logically: if his faith could not stand the test of logic, it was not worth having, and there was no place for compromise or exceptions. He knew precisely what he believed in and why. “I believe, first and before all,” he wrote a friend, “that there is an absolute, self-existent, external, distinction between Right and Wrong. … By ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong,’ I mean what we ought to do, and ought not to do, without any reference to rewards or punishments. … Secondly, I believe I am responsible to a Personal Being for what I do. … Thirdly, I believe that Being to be perfectly good. And I call that perfectly good Being ‘God.’”4

And so what have we here in this selfless, hard-working, devout Victorian—a saint? Hardly. Although he is charitable and understanding, he is not flawless. As good a man as he is, he is equally beset by foibles and shortcomings. His own exceptional abilities make him impatient with those of lesser gifts. His uncompromising standards frequently turn him into a prig. His determined honesty leads him sometimes to deal with others brusquely. He is a snob. Occasionally he writes testy, disagreeable letters to tradespeople, to the Steward of Christ Church, to Oxford colleagues, to hosts and hostesses, to fellow-clerics (once to a bishop) complaining about their behavior.

Even for Victorian England, when formality reigned, Carroll's social stance is stiff and unbending. Imagine, never, not once in his life, did he address an adult outside his family by a first name. No friend, no colleague ever got called John or Fred or Harry. In spite of his multifarious interests—in the theater, in photography, in medicine, in art—he lived a carefully ordered life. He not only regulated his outer behavior but imposed strict rules upon his inner life as well. He kept his emotions in check, harnessed, and while this uncompromising rigor turned him into a thoroughly repressed human being, that was the only possible way for Carroll to live. “God has implanted sexual desires [in us all],” he wrote in an essay, “[and] … God forbids us to arouse or encourage these desires except for the object for which He gave them, marriage.”5 Carroll's repression was probably good for his art, but it could not have added to his happiness as a human being. We have no evidence anywhere that he ever lost control or that his defenses ever crumbled.

When we discuss Carroll's emotional life, we at once encounter the little girls. If Dodgson's posture was so stern, his principles so uncompromising, how do these little girls fit into the life? Some part of the answer is to be found in the Victorian man's attitude toward women and children generally.

Never since the Middle Ages had woman been worshipped for her innocence and for her goodness as she was in Victorian times. After all, she and her sisters composed a breed of humanity closer to angels than men; they were models of virtue. They had no sexual appetites to plague them, and their instincts were unsullied. They could even draw men heavenwards and help them achieve salvation. And so men nurtured and admired these blessed beings; they shielded their sisters, their wives, and their daughters from the gross and brutish world; they protected and cherished their natural piety.

Along with this cult of feminine purity came the cult of childhood innocence which the Victorians inherited from the Romantics. They read their Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, and they knew that the child, and especially the female child, was a sprite living an idyllic existence. She had recently come from God and she still possessed a modicum of divine knowledge. And so the Victorian male devoted himself to the child's needs, thought himself privileged to witness the visionary gleam inherent in these creatures, and encouraged the expanding heart and mind. Men valued the prerogatives of helping to mold the child's mind, of loving those beautifully natural beings, of being loved by them, of devoting one's energies to educating them, to amusing them, and to making them laugh.

When Dodgson first discovered his deep affinity for the child, we do not know, but it was probably in the Yorkshire rectory where he grew up with his younger brothers and sister. It must have been a remarkable event, for he went on to devote much of his life to children. Over and over again, one is astonished at his patience and his willingness to endure the rebuffs, the impetuous outbursts, and the thoughtlessness both of the children he knew and of their mothers. But all the while, he reveals an almost magical insight into the hearts and minds of the children. He built his friendships with them carefully, always aware that they could come tumbling to the ground like a house of cards. “It takes some time to understand a child's nature,” he wrote to the mother of a young girl, “—particularly when one only sees them all together, and in the presence of their elders. I don't think anybody, who has only seen children so, has any idea of the loveliness of a child's mind. I have been largely privileged in tête-à-tête intercourse with children. It is very healthy and helpful to one's own spiritual life: and humbling too, to come into contact with souls so much purer, and nearer to God, than one feels oneself to be” (L, II, 980).

But there is another side to Dodgson's friendships with these little girls, a less earnest side, that appears when he meets with them or when he writes them letters or stories from afar. Say that Dodgson was an arrested child himself, if you wish, or, like Kipling and Barrie, a permanent adolescent. But what is more important is that these children sparked his creative fire. The little girls were natural, honest creatures: they laughed easily, and he enjoyed making them laugh. What is more, he felt thoroughly relaxed and at ease with them: in their presence his stammer often disappeared. I shudder to think how many original Lewis Carroll stories have been lost—the dozens, perhaps hundreds, that he invented for these little girls on the spur of the moment, as he did Alice in Wonderland, but which he never wrote down. But I suppose we must not be greedy; at least we have a great many of his letters to the little girls, overflowing as they do with fantasy upon fantasy that he created for them.

How serious was he really about these child friends? Enormously serious. He pursued these youngsters, he negotiated with their parents for visits with them, and he took them on railway journeys, on outings to the theater, to art galleries, for long walks. He fed them, he gave them inscribed copies of his books, he sent them presents, he paid for some of their French lessons, art lessons, singing lessons, and he even paid some dentist bills. He made sketches of them; he photographed them. He entertained them in his rooms at Christ Church; he wrote them amusing and loving letters; he cuddled them; he kissed them.

Certainly eyebrows were raised, there was gossip, and some mothers complained. But Dodgson was no fool. In face of the criticism, he defended himself. He had committed no sin; his friendships with little girls gave them and him only pleasure; why should he deny his friends or himself that pleasure?

Dodgson's married sister, Mary Collingwood, learned that he was having child friends to stay with him at the seaside (he rented rooms in the home of a proper Victorian landlady in Eastbourne, and this landlady's maid looked after all the needs of his young guests), and when his sister wrote to inquire about these guests of his, Dodgson replied directly:

I do like getting such letters as yours. I think all you say about my girl-guests is most kind and sisterly, and most entirely proper for you to write to your brother. But I don't think it at all advisable to enter into any controversy about it. There is no reasonable probability that it would modify the views either of you or of me. I will say a few words to explain my views: but I have no wish whatever to have “the last word”: so please say anything you like afterwards.

You and your husband have, I think, been very fortunate to know so little, by experience, in your own case or in that of your friends, of the wicked recklessness with which people repeat things to the disadvantage of others, without a thought as to whether they have grounds for asserting what they say. I have met with a good deal of utter misrepresentation of that kind. And another result of my experience is the conviction that the opinion of “people” in general is absolutely worthless as a test of right and wrong. The only two tests I now apply to such a question as the having some particular girl-friend as a guest are, first, my own conscience, to settle whether I feel it to be entirely innocent and right, in the sight of God; secondly, the parents of my friend, to settle whether I have their full approval for what I do. You need not be shocked at my being spoken against. Anybody, who is spoken about at all, is sure to be spoken against by somebody: and any action, however innocent in itself, is liable, and not at all unlikely, to be blamed by somebody. If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much!

(L, II, 977-78)

In spite of the gossip and in spite of his sister's concern, Dodgson simply went on entertaining child guests and making new child friends. After all, he had no misgivings about the friendships: he never forced them upon anyone; he kept them alive only when both parties enjoyed them and only when he had approval from the parents in every detail. If he happened to talk to a pretty child in the charge of her governess, on the beach, in a railway carriage, or wherever, he immediately wrote a note to the child's mother reporting the incident and requesting permission to see the child again. Then, depending on how the friendship ripened, he asked permission to write to the child, or he sent a letter to the child by way of the mother, requesting that the mother hand the letter to the child if she wanted the friendship to continue. If all went well, he invited the child to his rooms for tea or dinner, to look at photograph albums. Later, he asked to “borrow” the child for a day's outing in London. If he thought the child beautiful, he asked permission to photograph her, and on some occasions to photograph her “without drapery,” that is, nude. But in this delicate circumstance, he preferred always to have the mother or someone else present “to arrange the dress,” by which he means to undress the child.

He knew, of course, that photographing children in the nude, and in his college rooms to boot, would cause tongues to wag. But here, too, he defended himself eloquently. Here is an explanation he wrote to the mother of a group of sisters he hoped to photograph:

Here am I, an amateur-photographer, with a deep sense of admiration for form, especially the human form, and one who believes it to be the most beautiful thing God has made on this earth—and who hardly ever gets a chance of photographing it! … and now at last I seem to have a chance of it. I could no doubt hire professional models in town: but, first, they would be ugly, and, secondly, they would not be pleasant to deal with: so my only hope is with friends. Now your Ethel is beautiful, both in face and form; and is also a perfectly simple-minded child of Nature, who would have no sort of objection to serving as model for a friend she knows as well as she does me. So my humble petition is, that you will bring the 3 girls, and that you will allow me to try some groupings of Ethel and Janet … without any drapery or suggestion of it. … I need hardly say that the pictures should be such as you might if you liked frame and hang up in your drawing-room. On no account would I do a picture which I should be unwilling to show to all the world—or at least all the artistic world. … If I did not believe I could take such pictures without any lower motive than a pure love of Art, I would not ask it: and if I thought there was any fear of its lessening their beautiful simplicity of character, I would not ask it.

… I fear you will reply that the one insuperable objection is “Mrs. Grundy”—that people will be sure to hear that such pictures have been done, and that they will talk. As to their hearing of it, I say “of course. All the world are welcome to hear of it, and I would not on any account suggest to the children not to mention it—which would at once introduce an objectionable element”—but as to people talking about it, I will only quote the grand old monkish … legend: They say: Quhat do they say? Lat them say!

It only remains for me to add that, though my theories are so out-of-the-way (as you may perhaps think them), my practice shall be strictly in accordance with whatever rules you like to lay down—so you may at any time send the children by themselves, in perfect confidence that I will try no experiments you have not previously sanctioned.

(L, I, 338-39)

Seen in the historical context, Dodgson's sketching and photographing undressed children is not all that exceptional. Anyone who works with Victorian illustrated books is accustomed to encountering frequently drawings and paintings of unclothed, sexless children. It is simply another offshoot of the cult of worshipping childhood innocence. After one of his photographic sessions, Dodgson wrote to the mother of the girls who sat for him: “Their innocent unconsciousness is very beautiful, and gives one a feeling of reverence, as at the presence of something sacred” (L, I, 381).

In the pre-Freudian air of Victorian England, cuddling and kissing children was accepted behavior, and it is not surprising that Dodgson sat children on his knees and kissed some of his young friends. “Being entrusted with the care of Ethel for a day is such a great advance on mere acquaintanceship,” Dodgson wrote to the child's mother, “that I venture to ask if I may regard myself as on ‘kissing’ terms with her, as I am with many a girl-friend a great deal older than she is. … Nevertheless, if I find you think it wiser that we should only shake hands, I shall not be in the least hurt. Of course I shall, unless I hear to the contrary, continue to shake hands only” (L, II, 1062-63). Here is a much earlier entry in the diary: “I promised a [copy of The Hunting of the Snark] to a quite new little friend, Lily Alice Godfrey, from New York, aged 8, but talked like a girl of 15 or 16, and declined to be kissed on saying goodbye, on the ground that she ‘never kissed gentlemen.’ It is rather painful to see the lovely simplicity of childhood so soon rubbed off: but I fear it is true that there are no children in America” (D, II, 390).

Whatever one chooses to think about Lewis Carroll's subconscious, one must conclude from the evidence that he followed some perfectly clear precepts in ordering his life and that these precepts governed both his inner responses as well as his outer behavior. Love was a strong force in his life, love of innocence and purity. But this innocence and purity were strongly tied to his personal God. Beauty to him is the beauty of nature, and nature is a creation of God. When innocence and beauty exist together, then for him a supreme, even divine, joy results.

What about marriage? And what about sex? Indeed Carroll thought much about marriage. He recorded some of those thoughts in his diaries. For instance, on July 31, 1857, when he was twenty-five, he consulted his father on the subject of taking out life insurance: should he and, if so, when? Both being accomplished mathematicians, they had no difficulty in deciding that it would be best for Carroll to “save at present, and only insure when the prospect [of marriage] becomes a certainty” (D, I, 117).

Carroll wrote an essay entitled “Marriage Service,”6 in which he considered carefully the problem of who might and who might not marry for a second time and which conditions, in the eyes of God, permitted remarriage and which did not. He set down some remarkably sensible guidelines.

In Carroll's works and, perhaps more significantly, in his diaries and in his letters, he uses the language and the imagery of marriage both seriously and whimsically. Two examples from the letters will suffice here. In a letter to a friend aged twenty-three, Carroll wrote: “Dear Miss Dora Abdy, May I have the pleasure of fetching you, for a tête-à-tête dinner some day soon? And if so, will you name the day?” In a postscript, he adds: “Now please don't go and tell all your friends, in the strictest confidence, ‘I've just had a letter from a gentleman, and he asks me to name the day!’” (L, II, 1058). In another letter, one that Carroll wrote in 1889 to an earlier child friend who was by this time a grown woman, he reports to her on a visit paid him at Eastbourne, in his summer lodgings by the sea, by Isa Bowman, a child actress he had befriended: “Isa is one of my chiefest of child-friends,” he wrote. “I had her with me at Eastbourne last summer … for a week's visit, nominally: but we got on so well together, that I kept writing to Mrs. Bowman for leave to keep her longer, till the week had extended to five! When we got near the end of four, I thought ‘At any rate I'll keep her over the normal honey-moon period!” (L, II, 730). Carroll was, by his own confession, at the time he wrote these two letters, “a very old fogey,” and all hopes of real marriage and honeymoons had fled. But marriage and honeymoons were nonetheless the language of thought, perhaps of dreams, for him still.

I would contend that, although Dodgson never married, he was a family man, a marrying man, and he remained a bachelor only because his efforts to marry were thwarted, because he never won the hand of someone he wished to marry. I recently tried to show that he may very well have expressed an interest in a possible alliance with Alice Liddell, but that Dean and Mrs. Liddell, related to the aristocracy and being extremely ambitious for their daughters, would have rejected a mere Oxford mathematics don with no important family connections and, what is more, hampered by a stammer and a deaf right ear.7 I believe he may also have proposed marriage to one or possibly two other friends.

Carroll was denied marriage and, given his standards, denied sexual experience as well. That meant that he had to retain a strict hold upon his outer behavior and his inner instincts. A letter he wrote to a young friend in 1893 is illuminating. He first assures her that he has remembered his promise to pray for her. “I have done so ever since, morning and evening,” he writes, and then goes on to another subject:

Absence of temptation is no doubt sometimes a blessing: and it is one I often thank God for. But one has to remember that it is only a short breathing-space. The temptation is sure to come again: and the very freedom from it brings its own special danger—of laying down the weapons of defence, and ceasing to “watch and pray”: and then comes the sudden surprise, finding us all unprepared, and ready to yield again.

(L, II, 952)

Lewis Carroll fought his battles with the Devil—and, as we know, for the Victorians, sex was often the Devil. I am convinced that Carroll won his battles. Search as one may through the nine volumes of the diaries, through the thousands of letters, and through the mound of reminiscences that his young friends later added to the record, absolutely nothing indicates that he ever lost a single skirmish. He had exiled the Devil early, when a boy, and there was no place for him in Carroll's life thereafter. It had to be that way. Somewhere deep down inside, 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? He was not, as James Joyce would have him be, Lewd Carroll. He was a sort of Victorian Catcher in the Rye, but he was not a Humbert Humbert. In him came together the stern Puritan godliness of home and the lofty spirit of militant Christianity of Rugby. These Victorian forces produced a man so thoroughly controlled that we find it difficult to believe in him as he really was. But the fault, as someone once said, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves. The evidence is there, in the written record, and in Carroll's case, the written record brings us closer to the object than do the surviving papers of most luminaries. Dodgson kept his diaries as a way of accounting to God for what he did in His service and as a way of prodding himself on to greater work in the service of his Savior. They tell the truth, for Dodgson knew as well as anyone that you could not lie to God.

The truth is that he loved much and many, and his love helped a succession of young people find their footing in life and grow up happier and more self-confident than they might have done had he not trod this earth. He also left two great children's classics, which, in their way, try to do for all children of all places and all times what Charles Dodgson was able to do for the relatively few that he knew personally. Perhaps he would have been happier had he married and given expression to his sexual promptings. But that was not to be. As a celibate, he left behind a greater and kinder legacy than most men are able to do who lead what we think of as more conventional lives.


  1. Most of the writings by critics alluded to are anthologized in Aspects of Alice, ed. Robert Phillips (London: Penguin, 1974), including Burke's essay, “From ‘The Thinking of the Body.’”

  2. Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1898), p. 26.

  3. Nine of Dodgson's thirteen diary volumes survive and are now in the British Library. Almost three-fourths of the text appears in The Diaries of Lewis Carroll, ed. Roger Lancelyn Green, 2 vols. (London: Cassell, 1953). Dodgson wrote this entry on February 6, 1863, and it appears almost entirely in the published edition (I, 191). The quotations from the Diaries (D) that appear below carry citations in the text. When the text in fact includes material from the manuscript diaries only, merely the date of the entry appears after the entry. When the quotation in the text includes material not in the published version, that material comes directly from the manuscript diaries.

  4. This letter, dated June 28, 1889, appears in full in The Letters of Lewis Carroll, ed. Morton N. Cohen (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979), II, 746-47. In subsequent quotations from the Letters (L), the volume and page numbers appear at the end of the quotation.

  5. “Theatre Dress,” Lewis Carroll Circular, no. 2 (1974), 10-11.

  6. Ibid., 12-13.

  7. “Who Censored Lewis Carroll?” The Times, Jan. 23, 1982, p. 9.

I owe a special debt to two books that do not appear in the notes below: Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1957), and David Newsome, Godliness & Good Learning (London: John Murray, 1961). Lewis Carroll's diaries and letters are the private property of the C. L. Dodgson Estate; the excerpts here may not be reproduced without permission.

Daniel Bivona (essay date September 1986)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11612

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 delight in reducing this heated political debate to a puzzle. In fact, his “Home-Rule Mystery” was just one of many Home-Rule puzzles and games introduced to the English market in the months following Gladstone's introduction of the Bill in February of 1893.1

A man who could construct a parlor game out of an emotional political issue must, one imagines, have had an extraordinarily detached outlook on politics. Yet one need not be overly surprised that Carroll could find the imaginative material for a puzzle in the debate over Ireland's place in the Empire. Indeed, a close look at his earlier classic, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, reveals a fascination on his part with the imaginative possibilities latent in a “confrontation of cultures”—the kind of encounter that the imperial experience of the nineteenth century was bringing to the forefront of European consciousness. In this work Carroll seems to have been intrigued by the same kind of dilemma that fired the imagination of Swift, a writer with anything but a purely playful intellectual interest in political issues: what happens when one deposits a representative of English culture in a foreign land populated by beings who live by unfamiliar rules? In short, it is time to examine Alice's relationship to imperialism because the dilemma in which she finds herself seems designed to raise questions about her “imperial” assumption that all discourses are either self-evidently commensurable or can be made to seem so.2 In Alice, Carroll renders a world organized by gamelike social structures in which mastery of the game promises mastery of others.3

An “ethnographic” approach to Alice's adventures is authorized by the fact that Alice is placed in a world that appears to be, at least potentially, rule-governed, although the rules that give meaning to the behavior of the creatures are beyond her ken and must be discovered by inference. To put it another way, more often than not, what would be “natural” behavior in an English setting is inappropriate in Wonderland; the social codes that determine what is or is not “natural” are very different in the two spheres. Moreover, as Kathleen Blake has argued, language itself is viewed as a kind of game here:

To Huizinga, to the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and … to Carroll too, language itself is a gamelike system of reciprocally accepted terms and rules, arbitrary, meaningful only by social agreement. From this point of view a realm without games is hard to imagine.4

However, rules take on an even greater importance in this text than Blake will allow because, paradoxically, they are so difficult to infer. Not only is it difficult to imagine a realm without games, but the very notion that there might be a realm of experience not governed by rules is rendered highly problematic in Alice. The text leaves indeterminate—so, one could say, does “life”—the question of whether or not all spheres of social existence conform to a canon of laws of one sort or another.5 Thus the commonplace critical assumption that rule violation can provide a clue to unmask the semiotic structure of the Wonderland world is rendered doubtful by the very fact that no one, and especially Alice, can honestly claim to have privileged access to the rules governing the behavior of the “creatures,” and lacking such access, cannot decide such central questions as to whether or not the “creatures” are engaged in competitive games or other noncompetitive activities such as rituals.

Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in the Queen's croquet match, in which Alice's confidence that she knows the boundaries of the game of croquet leads her to assume that she can easily distinguish orderly behavior from disorderly, rule-observing from rule-breaking, sense from nonsense, behavior that is part of the game—say, hitting the hedgehogs with flamingos—from behavior that intrudes on the game from beyond its bounds, for instance, the Queen's awful command, “Off with his head!” However, Alice's confidence in her ability to distinguish inside from outside is but a sign of her own unexamined ethnocentric outlook.

Alice recognizes, but only to a limited extent, what her inferential task must be. We know, for instance, that she is especially concerned with correctly inferring rules from the strange behavior she sees around her, and this concern of hers extends even to herself: her own physical stature is determined by her following written rules. One of her first orders of business after falling down the rabbit hole (uninvited, of course; her adventure begins as an intrusion into the White Rabbit's home in complete disregard of even her own English canon of politeness) is to attempt to shrink herself; yet this shrinking is enabled only by her having followed the instructions written on the label attached to a bottle of liquid: “drink me.”6 The stakes in this game of rule inference are rather high, Alice knows, at least at this point in the narrative, because one's bodily integrity is somehow tied to one's ability to follow rules successfully: “For she had read several nice little stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts, and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them” (p. 31). Alice's assumption that bodily shape is somehow connected to following rules is not as odd as it might sound, given the preoccupation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with the ways in which systems of rules construct behavioral norms for what is “natural.” Bodies are not recognized here until they are named, that is, classified; but even then, misrecognition is an ever present pitfall because of the lack of a universal code. Bodies are as closely linked to the semiotic structure of the Wonderland social system as are the “events” in which Alice participates. Alice's use of the term “creatures”—both an insulting term that diminishes the Wonderland beings and a class name that raises questions about their place in the scale of creation (are they animal or human?)—renders their fuzzily indeterminate status: to her they are, perhaps, merely animate or “animated.”

In the case of Wonderland social “events,” the resemblance between their Wonderland names and the names of events in nineteenth-century England mislead Alice into mistakenly assimilating them to those familiar to her. For instance, the famous “caucus-race” in which Alice finds herself involved bears few of the features an English public schoolboy would associate with racing: the shape of the race course seems arbitrarily designed; the contestants do not line up together; and the “race” has no clearly defined beginning or ending in time (p. 48). The fact that the event ends with all contestants declared winners and all handed prizes suggests that it is not a contest at all, an inference justified by its name: the word “caucus,” at the time a relatively recent linguistic import into Victorian England from the United States, carries the implication of a meeting to iron out differences in order to present a united front for exerting political pressure, a local game of political accommodation within a larger adversarial context rather than a contest with winners and losers.7 If there are to be “losers,” they exist outside of the caucus, not within it. In fact, the entire “race” aspect of the “caucus-race” is de-emphasized in favor of the ceremony of awarding prizes, a ritual which even Alice is forced, quite against her initial impulse, to observe with a show of outward solemnity (p. 50).

The event is significant because it raises the same crucial question about Alice's problems of interpretation throughout her Wonderland adventure. Rituals, like games, are rule-governed social events; unlike games, however, rituals are seldom held for the purpose of sorting out winners from losers. Obviously, the whole notion of a “winner” is irrelevant to most ritual events. But Alice fails miserably at this central hermeneutic task of sorting out rituals from games in Wonderland because the names of the events misleadingly obscure the important differences between the “large events” here and the events bearing the same names in English life.

Alice's inability to make these distinctions is the kind of myopia that will eventually result in her complete disruption of Wonderland society in a fit of almost “missionary” zealotry at the end of the book. Thus, not surprisingly, her entrance into the garden and onto the Queen's “Croquet-Ground,” another of her many intrusions, is preceded by a vow that takes on a rather sinister appearance when seen in this light: “I'll manage better this time” (p. 104). What she “manages” is to assimilate the game of Wonderland “croquet” into her own English version of croquet, judge the Wonderland version to be an impossible version of the English one, and completely misinterpret the significance of the Queen's infamous command “Off with his head!” as an event that intrudes on the game from beyond its structure of rules, despite the evidence that it may well be an event within the “game” rather than outside it.

Although Wonderland “croquet” does bear some superficial resemblance to the English game (taking out the garbage bears a superficial resemblance to checkers as well, if one views the event from a certain angle and allows for differences of scale), Alice is convinced that she can compete successfully, even when she becomes frustrated with the difficulty. Characteristically, her exasperation soon boils over into the childish assumption, not that it is a difficult game, but that it is a game without rules. As she tells the Cheshire Cat,

“I don't think they play at all fairly … and they all quarrel so dreadfully one can't hear oneself speak—and they don't seem to have any rules in particular: at least, if there are, nobody attends to them—and you've no idea how confusing it is all the things being alive.”

(p. 113)

Alice has no vantage from which to judge whether the creatures are following or breaking the rules. In circular fashion she infers that there are rules from the fact that she has just been struggling to play by them correctly; moreover, her assumption that this Wonderland “game” of “croquet” is identifiable with the English version is a doubtful one, given the fact that the Wonderland event is one which one of the players, the Queen, cannot “lose.” Her leap to the conclusion that there are “no rules” governing this event on the Queen's croquet ground is merely one of many instances in the text wherein her exasperation with her own ignorance or lack of skill is projected onto the “creatures.” Alice has an imperial penchant for producing her own self-justifying evidence as well as an exasperating (although understandably human) tendency to rationalize her own failures of comprehension.

Thus, Alice's judgment that the Queen's execution orders make her “savage” (“Mad Tea-Party”) comes from her too-comfortable application of the rules of English croquet to the Wonderland game. Although she notes that no one ever seems actually to get beheaded (p. 112), she is incapable of processing the implications of that observation. The “order” “Off with his head!” does not seem to be a performative in the Wonderland linguistic universe (nor, for that matter, does the Duchess's “Chop off her head!” in the “Pig and Pepper” chapter); but because Alice has only her own English framework on which to fall back, she assumes that it must carry performative force. A more reasonable inference would be that the Queen's “savage” order is actually a part of the game rather than an event that intrudes from outside the game. After all, Alice does notice that the King pardons all those the Queen has condemned. Alice might have more reasonably inferred from that fact that the event called “croquet” in Wonderland is actually a ritual intended to reinforce the power of the King and Queen over life and death, possibly by enacting a pageant of condemnation followed by forgiveness. Not only does this inference help explain the strange fact that no one in Wonderland is ever beheaded, but by identifying the event as a ritual, one accounts for the odd fact that this “game” is a game that one player cannot lose. However, such an inference would require of Alice the flexibility to assign different boundaries to the “game” of Wonderland croquet.

My intent in offering this interpretation is not to insist on a unitary decoding of the behavior of the “creatures,” nor, tiresomely, to take Alice to task for childish naïveté. Other equally reasonable explanations might be adduced to account for the same evidence. My point is that Alice's assumption that Wonderland “croquet” is a competitive game says more about her own ethnocentrism than it does about the behavior of the “creatures.” Carroll has constructed a world that is radically indeterminate, a world from which most of the “frames” that guide perception of the meaning of events, “frames” usually unreflectively assumed by Victorian children (or adults, for that matter), have been removed. One needs to know the langue as well as the parole, the system as well as the individual gesture that has meaning only within that system, to make valid inferences about the meaning of events and behavior. Alice's “imperialism,” such as it is, 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.8

Alice's encounter with the hookah-smoking caterpillar underlines the kind of invasive intruder she has become in Wonderland. The hookah, itself a stock “orientalizing” feature, highlights the caterpillar's foreignness; and the tautological turn that their conversation takes demonstrates, not that the caterpillar is incorrigibly illogical, but rather that he refuses to be comprehended by Alice's categories of meaning. In this instance Alice attempts to read the caterpillar's feelings by analogy with her own in order to impose her own feelings on him (a gesture simultaneously naive and imperious). He should feel that physical metamorphosis is “very confusing” because she has. Of course, where metamorphosis is the norm, the illusion of stasis would “feel very queer,” so another sign of Alice's naïveté is the fact that she has it all wrong here. When the caterpillar resists her attempt to comprehend his experience, “Not a bit” (p. 68), she immediately resorts to her favorite form of aggression—making herself look larger:

“Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,” said Alice: “all I know is, it would feel very queer to me.

“You!” said the Caterpillar contemptuously. “Who are you?”

Which brought them back again to the beginning of the conversation. Alice felt a little irritated at the Caterpillar's making such very short remarks, and she drew herself up and said, very gravely, “I think you ought to tell me who you are, first.”

(p. 68)

In the quasi-Hegelian game of “comprehension” that is being played out here, Alice's frustration with her inability to comprehend the experience of the caterpillar (he who closes the circle of the tautology defeats the other's attempt to know him) causes her to resort to literalizing what she is talking about: she tries to look as if she is larger than he. The pun on “short” shifts the discourse back to a literal surface, and Alice attempts to grow to meet the caterpillar's challenge, the challenge of incomprehensibility, by bullying. But the disjunction in the text between “comprehending” and “growing larger than” (Alice knows least when she is the largest, as in the White Rabbit's house, where she cannot perceive what is going on outside, or at the end of the trial when she surrenders all hope of understanding the event in favor of pure disruption) is reinforced in this passage, and suggests that Carroll is undermining the Hegelian equation of “comprehension” with knowledge—precisely the equation which Alan Sandison notes underlies the epistemological form of nineteenth-century imperialism.9 “Growing” becomes a poor substitute for “knowing” here, and its insufficiency inevitably draws Alice into a game of violent disruption. Growing is both Alice's substitute for the object of knowledge that she cannot successfully appropriate, and a sign of her incomprehension—thus, the disjunction.

To Hegel, of course, the route to knowledge is via appropriation: the highest form of consciousness is self-consciousness, but self-consciousness that is recognized by an other.10 Just as the philosopher writing the Phenomenology of Mind in his study within hearing range of Napoleon's guns at the Battle of Jena “comprehends” the world-historical figure of Napoleon by constructing a history that includes him in a teleological process culminating in Hegel's own moment of writing, so Alice must grow to “comprehend” that which she would know; although, as already mentioned, the few times she does experience “growth” in Wonderland take her away from self-consciousness—knowledge—rather than toward it.11 Alice's struggle for recognition by the creatures, her will-to-master, drives her beyond any bounds of decency (if there were any such conception of the rules of decency not bound by constraints of time, place, and culture). If there is rule violation in this text, surely Alice is the violator par excellence.

The relevance of Hegel's notion of the desire for “recognition” as the driving force behind Alice's will to manage the “creatures” casts some light on some of the more puzzling problems of identity that she confronts. Alice perfectly embodies the Hegelian paradox of identity, the “doubling” that is at the basis of his notion of subjectivity. The imperative that drives the Hegelian “master” to risk his life for recognition involves him in a kind of enslavement to the other: he seeks to attain pure “self-consciousness,” but “self-consciousness” that is “recognized” by the other, the “slave,” who is himself unselfconscious and fears to put himself at risk.12 Thus Alice's initial splitting of self in the “Pool of Tears” episode (she becomes both addresser and addressee of her own discourse, performer of feats and self-applauder, the measurer and the measured) fills the gap left by a lack of “slaves” to recognize her and presages the way in which she will treat the “other” when she confronts him: as a screen on which she may project her own idea of the other. Not surprisingly, when she meets the mouse after having fallen into her own pool of tears, she immediately gives offense, “Ou est ma chatte?” And in no time, she is adding insult to injury by attempting forcibly to embrace him in a false community with herself, signaled by her use of the word “We” (p. 42). The “otherness” of the other is barely acknowledged by Alice in this book; yet, paradoxically, recognition by the other is precisely what she most avidly seeks. All discourse is a species of oneiric discourse here, as the Hegelian “master's” drive for recognition is marked by a condition impossible to satisfy: to be recognized by the other is implicitly to reduce the other forcibly to the condition of recognizing without himself being recognized in turn; however, the price one pays for being recognized as master is the knowledge that the recognizer is not himself a “master,” and, ultimately, not one whose recognition is worth acquiring.

Alice's frustration with the contradictions inherent in her Hegelian drive to attain mastery is evident virtually everywhere. She desires recognition but is frustrated with those who ought to be according it to her, the mere “creatures” who have the effrontery to resist her, the beings whose “illogical” games she is incapable of mastering. Her complaints about how the “creatures” argue, such as in her confrontation with the Frog-Footman in the “Pig and Pepper” chapter, display her propensity to return this frustration by projecting it outward:

“How am I to get in?” asked Alice again, in a louder tone.

Are you to get in at all?” said the Footman. “That's the first question, you know.”

It was, no doubt: only Alice did not like to be told so. “It's really dreadful,” she muttered to herself, “the way all the creatures argue. It's enough to drive one crazy!”

(p. 81)

Thus, she slides immediately from the dim recognition that she perhaps has no right of entry into the Duchess's house to the abrasive assumption that the “creatures” are overly argumentative because they too frequently frustrate her will. Her “will-to-mastery” has both these contradictory “subjective” and “objective” facets: she is incapable of understanding the “creatures” because of her own ethnocentrism, and is frustrated in her attempts to get them to recognize her. In some fundamental respects the “creatures” refuse to engage her at all, neither acknowledging her right to “read” them in her own ethnocentric way nor surrendering their right to “read” her as they please. At times in this book, such as in her confrontation with the caterpillar, their outright refusal to be “read” goads her into the bullying gestures that are the last resort of one driven to be recognized by those she refuses to recognize.

Alice's difficulty with understanding the references of names casts light on the disjunction between her own linguistic categories and those of the “creatures.” She gains a taste of what it is like to be mistakenly classified when the pigeon calls her, in one of her long-necked moments, a “serpent.” The pigeon's “mistake,” if one might call it that, is one to which Alice is continually prey: the pigeon abstracts certain essential properties (long-necked, egg-eating) and classifies Alice accordingly with the name that she uses for all creatures who exhibit those qualities (p. 75). This lesson in mistaken classification, however, apparently avails Alice nought, for in the Duchess's house she generates a great deal of misplaced sympathy for the “creature” the Duchess calls “Pig”:

“Oh, please mind what you're doing!” cried Alice, jumping up and down in an agony of terror. “Oh, there goes his precious nose!” as an unusually large saucepan flew close by it, and very nearly carried it off.

“If everybody minded their own business,” the Duchess said, in a hoarse growl, “the world would go round a deal faster than it does.”

(p. 84)

As Alice later discovers, the “baby” really is a pig, and thus one would think Alice “ought” to have gleaned the lesson that names attempt to arbitrarily arrest the phenomenal flux by “picking out” as essential properties those that are perhaps characteristic of merely one stage of metamorphosis and, thus, are not then truly “essential.” Hence, the caterpillar's privileged role in this book is to act as a counterpart of Alice: what is the “essence” of the being we call, at merely one stage of his metamorphosis, “caterpillar”? Carroll later parodies this form of essentialist classification in the Mock Turtle episode in which bodily “essences” come to be defined in teleological fashion as meat for the table.

When Alice next invades the “Mad Tea-Party” to which, as the March Hare reminds her, she was not invited, her problems with “naming” multiply as she attempts to make sense of what seems on the surface a quintessentially English activity—the tea party. However, the activity in which the Mad Hatter and company are engaged can only be yoked by violence to the English conception. Once again Alice is oblivious to the few clues to the meaning of the “creatures'” behavior that do come her way. As occurs often in the history of imperialism, however, the intruder and natives do achieve at least a provisional sort of mutual accommodation that disguises, at least temporarily, the fact that they live by completely different social codes.

For instance, Alice is initially puzzled about the fact that the table seems to be laid for a great number of guests, although only the Hatter, Hare, and Dormouse are present. Yet the Hatter offers an explanation that seems to be provisionally acceptable to both the “creatures” and Alice:

“Well, I'd hardly finished the first verse,” said the Hatter, “when the Queen bawled out ‘He's murdering the time! Off with his head!’”

“How dreadfully savage!” exclaimed Alice.

“And ever since that,” the Hatter went on in a mournful tone, “he won't do a thing I ask! It's always six o'clock now.”

A bright idea came into Alice's head. “Is that the reason so many tea-things are put out here?” she asked.

“Yes, that's it,” said the Hatter with a sigh: “it's always tea-time, and we've no time to wash the things between whiles.”

“Then you keep moving round, I suppose?” said Alice.

“Exactly so,” said the Hatter: “as the things get used up.”

“But what happens when you come to the beginning again?” Alice ventured to ask.

“Suppose we change the subject,” the March Hare interrupted, yawning. “I'm getting tired of this. I vote the young lady tells us a story.”

(pp. 99-100)

This passage casts interesting light on Alice's problems of interpretation for the paradoxical reason that it seems to be one of the few moments in the text when Alice can find common ground with the “creatures.” However, when she judges the Queen's order “savage,” she does so only after having made a leap across linguistic levels of which she is oblivious. To judge the order “savage,” she must interpret the statement “He's murdering the time!” figuratively and the statement “Off with his head!” literally, yet she gives no hint that she is aware she has made such a leap. Had she read both literally, she would have been bound to hold the Hatter in some sort of moral abhorrence, regardless of whether she felt he was unjustly served by the Queen's order. (The Hatter's later personification of “Time” suggests he may well be justifiably seen as a “murderer” in at least a provisional sense; like Alice, though, the reader has no privileged access to the Hatter's system either.) Lacking a framework for interpreting the “creatures” words in their own way, she has no metalinguistic indicators to help her decide when to take something literally or figuratively.

The one seemingly successful inferential leap Alice makes in this passage—her determination that Time's decision to stand still has frozen the Mad Hatter and March Hare into a perpetual teatime—is actually a glaring example of the limitations imposed by her rigid conventionality: she “naturally” assumes that teatime is determined by the position of the hands on the clock. A more complex inference might be that in a world of perpetual teatime, there is no other time from which teatime may be distinguished—in effect, that there is no “time” in the English sense, since time is an inference one ordinarily makes from changing events. Alice is the “illogical” one here (if one takes “illogical” to refer to her being haunted by metaphysical ghosts) because she takes “time” to be the grounding of events rather than events to be the grounding of time. Thus, the Mad Hatter's response that “it's always teatime, and we've no time to wash the things between whiles” might well refer to the lack of a servant named “Time” who will do the dishes for them—at least potentially a “reasonable” response from one whose thinking is not afflicted, as Alice's is, by the reified metaphysical entity she calls “time.” (It is an open question whether or not the Hatter's “time” is a reified metaphysical entity, an actual animate being or something else entirely; the few hints he offers—“If you knew Time as well as I do … you wouldn't talk about wasting it. It's him” [p. 97]—raise more questions than they answer.)

As the child in all of us, Alice must press on with her metaphysical inquiries, seemingly unconscious of their metaphysical nature. Having been told that the party moves on as the “things get used up,” she asks the question that one eventually hears from all children: “But what happens when you come to the beginning again?” In one sense, the answer is death: the end of the chain of nourishment, the end of the process of displacement. Yet the March Hare's yawning response suggests that he has taken the question in its most boringly trivial sense: a question of the same order as the child's query about the infinite regress, “If God made us, who made God?” It is unanswerable because it is a question about a cyclical process cast in linear terms: a circle has no “beginning.”

Thus Alice finds herself posing riddles that have no answers, the very thing for which she reproached the Hatter earlier (p. 97). The cyclical nature of her adventure in Wonderland—pure metamorphosis without a telos, a process which denies her the retrospective “knowledge” that closure brings—resembles the way the society of the Mad Hatter and March Hare “appears” to her. As should be clear by now, Alice's quest to master the game of Wonderland is doomed to failure because she will never achieve the kind of self-transcendence necessary to “comprehend” (and dominate) the “creatures.” Her quest to learn the rules that will “explain” their behavior—a “mastercode” which will provide the key to understanding their behavior without itself presupposing the categories of their language—is doomed to frustration. She is bound to repeat the mistakes she attributes, in her pigheaded way, to them. Like any good imperialist, then, Alice assumes that because she comes to play a role in the “creatures'” drama by virtue of her undismissible presence, she can thereby dominate it, and successful domination must be the inevitable reward of “comprehension.” Of course, as has been certainly clear from at least the time of Freud, playing a role in a drama is precisely that which disqualifies one from offering a useful interpretation of the meaning of that drama, for that is the privilege of him who stands outside.13 Although Alice stands outside of the “creatures'” social system (or systems), she does not stand outside her own, which she has instead elevated into a universal interpretive system called upon to explain all behavior everywhere.

Fittingly, the Hare's request for a story (a narrative might, because it is finite and linear, provide at least a provisional closure to remove Alice and the “creatures” from their cyclical stasis) is picked up by the Dormouse, who begins to tell a tale that is ultimately disrupted by Alice's persistent questioning. The Dormouse's story appears to take him across linguistic boundaries in ways unacceptable to Alice: the pun on “drawing” sends him from describing how the “three little sisters” were attempting to “draw” treacle from a well they were “in,” to describing how they “drew” “everything that begins with an M” (pp. 102, 103). Whether this story is an “acceptable” tale or not cannot be judged without assuming the kind of universal perspective that Alice's conventionality leads her to believe she has always had. For instance, only the conclusion of the tale (which, ironically, Alice ultimately disrupts) could cast retrospective light on the meaning of its elements.14 Thus the Dormouse casts his frustration with Alice's interruptions in the form of a sulky remark which, for all that, forecasts Alice's role as the writer of her own story in Wonderland: “If you can't be civil, you'd better finish the story for yourself” (p. 101). What Carroll presents in Alice is a world in which those who cannot be “civil” have no choice but to “finish” the story for themselves, but “finishing” here means “enacting” it, “playing it out,” rather than “telling” it from a safe preserve beyond the point of closure.15 Like the three sisters in the Dormouse's tale, Alice lives at the bottom of the well out of which she is trying to draw treacle.

In a sense, one can see Alice's “problem” as a problem of living with the consequences that stem from her living in a “decentered” world: she must reestablish “precedence” in all its senses for herself—temporal, spatial, political, and interpretive—so that her own position as, impossibly, both master in the master/slave drama and Hegelian “Wise Man,” who lives beyond a point of closure outside of the “game,” is preserved. She must reestablish herself, in effect, in the center (which is also the end).16 Thus, throughout her adventures, Alice seeks to establish temporal precedence (see, for instance, the trial at the end where she insists on the “proper” order of “evidence to judgment to sentencing”), spatial precedence (e.g., at the tea table and elsewhere), political precedence (does the Queen actually have the power to execute her?), in order, ultimately, to impose her own “interpretive” precedence—the power of the interpreter to dominate her material, the ability to “manage” and “make sense out of” unruly matter by extracting herself from that which she would interpret, ultimately an assertion of the “primacy” of the interpreter over the mere material, the right of Alice the child-imperialist to impose a meaning on the behavior of the illogical “creatures.”

Ultimately, all of these forms of precedence are based on the Hegelian epistemological model, which privileges the geometric or “spatial” metaphor of “comprehension.” To “comprehend” is to metaphorically enclose within a field some matter that is thereby made available to be “known,” or mastered.17 Alice stands “outside” of that which she would master only in the limited sense that she does not share the social codes of the “creatures.” However, that position—the privilege of the alien—affords her no advantage here; in fact, it is her prime disadvantage. To play the game without knowing the rules is to be played by the game: to be inside the game while pretending to “comprehend” it from the outside. However, to be inside the game on these terms is to be at the distinct disadvantage that he who plays without knowing the rules experiences.18

“The Queen's Croquet-Ground” chapter, then, is dominated by Alice's attempt to gauge the power of the “savage” Queen, a task at which she is unsuccessful because of the ethnocentric cast of her outlook: her knowledge is perfectly circular in the sense that it consists solely in what she already knew before coming to Wonderland, basically, the rules of the English game of “croquet” and the official power of the King and Queen over life and death. When she visits the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon, though, she becomes involved in a wholesale questioning of the value of “explanations” (“translations” might be a better word) over “repetitions” that casts new light on the tautologies of the caterpillar (or rather, would cast new light on it for Alice if she were capable of processing it).

The Queen had earlier warned Alice (in an oblique way, of course, guaranteed to go right over her head) that the “Mock Turtle” is but a creature whose purpose it is to become a meal. “It's the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from” (p. 124). Not surprisingly, when Alice meets the Mock Turtle and Gryphon, she finds them addicted to the same kinds of teleological explanation which she favors (albeit of an unfamiliar sort). In addition, the Mock Turtle seems dissatisfied, as was Alice, with mere tale-telling; he purports to want “explanation” cast in a metalanguage (“Explain all that”; p. 138).

Thus, it is not surprising that the beings about which they discourse all seem to be creatures whose “animal” existence is but a prelude to their ultimate end as meals: they can be “understood” as “essentially” meals.19 In fact, Alice even describes (unwittingly, of course) the whiting as configured in a way (tails in mouths; cf. “tales” in mouths) that represents emblematically the circularity of all her attempts to find an explanatory metalanguage. As the Mock Turtle so aptly puts it: “No wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise” (p. 137). The mere fact that “eating” or “being eaten” is the telos of most of the creatures discussed suggests that events in Wonderland have assumed a distinctively oral “Alicean” cast, a hermeneutic circle from which Alice will never break free.20 Carroll's “obsession” with “orality” or oral forms of incorporation here is his way of working out the visible consequences of the kind of “imperialistic” “recentering” in which Alice engages: to define animals teleologically as meat for the table is but a thin disguise for a process which “recenters” Alice at the “end” of the chain of nourishment; for in Alice's universe, “meals” ultimately exist for the purpose of being eaten by human beings like herself.21

One of the other senses of “repetition” here must be understood in opposition to “explanation”—reinscription in a different language. However, Alice's confessed inability to “repeat” (everything comes out “wrong,” i.e., different) is a sign of her inability to close her own Hegelian circle and achieve “self-consciousness.” What she asks of herself is “repetition”; what she demands of the “creatures” is “explanation.” In both quests she is frustrated. In the Mock Turtle, she meets a “creature” who throws her own demands back upon her: he “repeats” her own imperial high-handedness. He is dissatisfied with her recitation of “'Tis the voice of the Lobster” (p. 139) because he is finally only interested in “explanation” (as Alice was dissatisfied with the caterpillar's manner of escaping her attempt to capture his meaning), but in reproaching Alice for not casting her account in a language outside of the language of the “original,” he insinuates that he takes a slightly different sense of “repetition”: “‘What is the use of repeating all that stuff,’ the Mock Turtle interrupted, ‘if you don't explain it as you go on?’” (p. 140). Thus he apparently ignores the fact that Alice, as she just “explained,” cannot “repeat,” and he does this in order to distinguish his sense of “explanation” from mere “repetition”—tale-telling or poetic recitation, regardless of whether or not the teller has ever “told” the tale before.

Thus this ambiguity inherent in the term “repeat” (it means both “recite” and “repeat,” but is any poetic recitation ever truly a “repetition” of a previous recitation?) becomes a play on words. The interplay between Alice and the Mock Turtle returns their discourse once again to the linguistic surface, and Alice misses another opportunity to read her difference from the “creatures” out of the differing ways in which each uses words. Ironically, then, the Mock Turtle “appears” different from Alice (and thus, difficult to understand) for the paradoxical reason that he “appears” to be her repetition, the annoyingly obtuse visitor constantly in search of “explanation.” In effect, the circularity of her journey in Wonderland, a circularity guaranteed by the failure of her powers of inference, places Alice in a position guaranteed to feed her already prodigious megalomania. The Mock Turtle is thus aptly named for his propensity to “mock” the alien intruder by parodying her. More generally, Alice is incapable of drawing the line between the mockery directed at her and behavioral customs that have their origin in Wonderland but which we need not necessarily see as directed at her.

What I have implicitly been arguing is that the imperial attempt to “know” is not stymied by its inevitable failure; on the contrary, the “failure” to know is itself converted into a “successful” act of imperial appropriation through the imposition of a discourse that, in circular fashion, finally “produces” the sought-for objects of knowledge. However, it is necessarily important to distinguish this form of recuperation from, say, a discovery of the ultimate commensurability of seemingly incommensurable discourses, the kind of untenable claim to universal truth which “epistemology” makes, according to Rorty. Thus, Alice's “failure” to “comprehend,” say, the game of Wonderland “croquet” is appropriated as a “success” of an imperial sort (albeit of the solipsistic variety) when she “naturalizes” it as an English game that the “creatures” merely play badly out of an “understandable” fear of the Queen and out of an “incomprehensible” use of inappropriate instruments (flamingos and hedgehogs rather than wooden mallets and balls, as any good Englishman would use). As we have already seen, other ways of accounting for the same appearances are possible. The trial of the Knave of Hearts, then, extends this process even further. Because, in Alice's view, the “creatures” really “botch” the whole business of justice, they must be set straight by her teaching them the rules for conducting “proper” trials. Nevertheless, in the process of appropriating the Wonderland notion of “trial” to her own, Alice violently reinscribes the activity she observes into her own conventional canon of precedence, and, in consequence, makes herself the center rather than the periphery of the action: another solipsistic recentering, which ultimately appoints this rather limited little girl as judge, jury, and executioner of all the “creatures.”

That Alice's Wonderland adventure comes to a close with a “trial” is only fitting, given the fact that the social ritual of the trial holds an obviously preeminent place in the English system of determining truth. The English “trial” is, above all, a linearly structured event that produces truth retrospectively by closure: when the accusation has been read, the evidence presented and then weighed by the jury, and the sentence pronounced by the judge, the trial is over and the truth is known.22 The evidence is presented so that the jury (or judge) can place it in a retrospective order, enclose it in a field, and make it suitable for judgment. Because the truth cannot be known until all the evidence is in and weighed, the truth cannot be given an accessible form until after the point of closure. Ultimately, this is but to say the obvious: that judgment and guilt (as well as retrospection itself) are necessarily tied to a linear model of the unfolding of events.

Not surprisingly, when the King follows the reading of the accusation with what to Alice is a seemingly peremptory charge, “Consider your verdict” (p. 146), she must assume the position of judge of the judge in order to impose her own notion of “proper” temporal precedence: first accusation, then presentation of evidence, and, finally, judgment. This role of Alice's is reemphasized later when, in the process of giving her testimony, she lectures the King on the necessity of attaching the “proper” label to the “oldest rule in the book,” “It ought to be Number One” (p. 156), which is another glaring instance of her own presumptuous elevation of the merely conventional to the status of universal.

Once again, however, Alice's aggressive attempt to reshape the Knave's “trial” in a way acceptable to her guarantees that she will be unable to understand what is going on while insuring that her only possible response can be an aggressive one: in this episode a reduction of the “creatures” to a “mere” pack of two-dimensional cards that, nevertheless, somehow unaccountably have played her. Certainly, Alice is oblivious to the cultural significance of the event once again: what kind of “trial” is it in which the guilty party is foreordained by a nursery rhyme cited at the beginning and in which the allegedly “stolen” tarts are entered in evidence because of the impossible fact that they haven't been eaten? Like the Queen's “croquet-match,” this event bears the signs of a predestined ritual rather than of an open-ended “contest” that can be decided only as it draws to a close.

Not surprisingly, it is the Hatter who is called as the first “witness.” When he enters the courtroom carrying his everpresent teacup still filled with some “unfinished” tea, we are reminded of the endless (and beginningless) tea party which is simultaneously a hint of the difference between Wonderland and nineteenth-century England as well as a sign of the hermeneutic circle in which Alice is caught. In giving his “evidence,” the Hatter is asked to perform what seem to be the usual acts of retrospection that Alice would “naturally” expect of a witness. His testimony, however, is a brilliant defeat of the very notion of “testimony,” and, a fortiori, retrospection: not only does he never succeed in re-presenting what the March Hare and Dormouse “said” (pp. 148-49), but he punctuates his account by returning again and again to the banal events of his everyday life (drinking tea, buttering bread), events which are notable only for their unhistoricity, singular only in the unsingular way they repeat themselves endlessly, marking the cyclical repetitiveness of his static, undifferentiated, tea-party life (assuming, perhaps unfairly, that the Hatter's account is governed by an imperative to render his “life,” rather than by some other alien discursive imperative that has nothing to do with such a task). The Hatter ironically demonstrates the link between history and retrospection by subverting the latter: asked to “remember,” he can only dredge up a litany of the same.

The various threats of execution that pepper the book thus “appear” to be futile attempts to impose a closure on the otherwise cyclical events, a closure that would generate meaning by enabling a retrospective sorting: precisely the kind of “closure” Alice so avidly seeks. Thus when the King threatens execution for the Hatter's poor powers of retrospection—“You must remember … or I'll have you executed” (p. 149)—he suggests, in inverted form, that execution, the closure of death, is precisely what would enable the retrospective imposition of meaning: precipitating the Hatter out of his cyclical life of endless repetition, of endless substitution of teacup for teacup. As we have already seen, however, none of the Wonderland execution threats carries performative force. Thus it is left to Alice to perform a final “execution” of all the “creatures” by reducing them to “only” a pack of cards, a violent closure which, ironically, merely shuffles them rather than sorts them out and assigns them a meaning. The ending precipitates Alice out of the “creatures'” universe while denying her the power to “frame” her experience in a meaningful way (although she does “recuperate” it as the pure dross of a “dream”), a “framing” power which is ostensibly the boon granted to one who steps “outside.” The price she pays for stepping out of the “card game” in which she was somehow played is the inability to “make sense” of the game.

The final chapter, then, merely leaves Alice enclosed within her own ethnocentric system while suggesting that the Wonderland ritual of the trial follows rules quite different from any that Alice has ever heard. The debate over the origin of the verses that are entered as evidence (are they the Knave's? they neither bear his signature nor are inscribed in his handwriting) underlines the impossible hermeneutic task faced by any representative of Western civilization who wishes to actually “understand” what is going on here. For one thing, the question of precedence is introduced immediately by the Rabbit's question, “Where shall I begin … ?” The King's banal response—“Begin at the beginning … and go on till you come to the end: then stop” (p. 158)—immediately calls attention to the purely conventional status of a manner of reading that would seem necessarily “natural” and “universal.” For Alice to make such a statement would be taxing the limits of our readerly patience by having her render a truism; for the King to say it, though, is to suggest both that he has assumed the Mock Turtle's role as a parodic “repetition” of Alice the “privileged” interpreter and that, perhaps, such a statement is actually necessary because it is not self-evident to the “creatures” attending at the ritual (or, possibly, that the ritual nature of the event renders all statements made within it purely incantatory). Given what we know of the “circular” appearance of events in Wonderland, the King's words might well be taken as a novel prescription for properly unfolding “evidence” (or the King's lunacy might well be ignored by the others as a pro forma gesture of respect for his symbolic role).

The verses themselves are interesting because of the way in which they seem to defeat all attempts to attribute meaning to them. Their deictic indeterminacy undermines attempts to recuperate their meaning by referring the pronouns to actual beings while simultaneously tempting the reader to construct an interpretation of them that would account for the fact that they seem to be about circulation and appropriation, important themes in this chapter and elsewhere. The seemingly arbitrary way in which ownership of the verses is assigned to the Knave despite the lack of proper “Alicean” evidence is echoed in the words, “They all returned from him to you, / Though they were mine before” (p. 158). Insofar as the verses have any meaning, they seem to have something to do with circulation and ownership, which are privileged themes here because, from Alice's point of view, the Knave can only be condemned on the evidence of the verses if his ownership of them can be proven. Nevertheless, the possibility of assigning the reference of one pronoun to the Knave is doubtful, given the fact that the verses themselves float in a deictic free space.

When the King then proceeds to gloss the verses, he does so not because it matters to the prosecution of the case (“If there's no meaning in it … that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn't try to find any”; p. 159) but because such an effort is its own reward—for obscure reasons. In this, he recapitulates Alice's own hermeneutic effort with similar results: the verses are pressed into service of the King's intention of condemning the Knave by being shown to imply that the return of the tarts to the Queen is evidence of the Knave's guilt (p. 160). Once again, the cyclical nature of Alice's hermeneutic adventure is recapitulated in the “creatures'” own tautological enterprises.

The return to the frame at the end of the book provides a rather ambiguous closure. Alice's sister substitutes herself for Alice and recapitulates the Wonderland adventures in her own dream, although with an important difference: in Coleridgean fashion, she only “half believed herself in Wonderland,” aware that she would eventually awaken to a “dull reality” (p. 163). But this awakening promises a metamorphosis that is a teleological devolution: the “rattling tea-cups” degenerated into “tinkling sheep-bells,” the “Queen's shrill cries” declined into merely the “voice of the shepherd boy,” the odd Wonderland noises settled into the form of the dull because overly familiar farmyard “clamour” (p. 163). It is hard to miss here both the note of Romantic nostalgia for a lost experience of youth as well as the anti-Romantic repudiation of the sublimity of the pastoral: the sister awakening from the vivid complexity of Alice's dream into the dull “reality” of Wordsworth's rural visions.

Ultimately, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland traces the defeat of the diachronic form of comprehension that Hegel's philosophy envisions, and it does so in a way that constitutes one of the century's greatest comic critiques of its ethnocentric premises. Because Alice fails successfully to frame the events of her adventure, she must flee what has become a nightmare, although that “nightmare” is already being recuperated (by her sister at the end) as a wonderful dream more vivid than the dull life (which is really nothing but boring pastoral narrative anyway) “outside” that dream. One could observe that Alice's inability to capture in her words to her sister the nightmarish quality of her Wonderland adventures encourages that sister to recuperate the narrative of the dream in a way that clearly falsifies it by sugarcoating it, by, in effect, practicing a bit of Alice's own high-handed imperial reconstruction on us readers—another insidious kind of repetition that by now can be seen for what it is. In this sense Carroll may be absolved of the crime for which he has often been condemned: the so-called “crime” of attempting to insulate his readers from the far-reaching lessons of Alice's Wonderland dream by constructing a frame narrative that deliberately trivializes it. If anything, by suggesting that the frame is reconstructing the Wonderland dream under the guise of recapitulating it, Carroll drives home the “lesson” that there is a bit of the imperial Alice in all of us who engage in the twin activities of both “comprehending” and “repeating.”


  1. See Dodgson's references to his puzzle in letters to Mrs. G. J. Burch and R. H. Collins in 1893, in The Letters of Lewis Carroll, ed. Morton N. Cohen, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979), II, 962, 969-70.

  2. I am extrapolating Richard Rorty's notion of “incommensurable discourses” here by applying it to Alice's failed attempt to “read” the meaning of the “creatures'” words and actions by imposing an interpretive schema which is nothing other than her own English conventionality hypostatized into a metasystem or metalanguage. Rorty argues that “epistemology” performs an analogous trick by attempting to render all discourses translatable through imposing its own set of favored terms: “There is no such thing as the ‘language of unified science.’ We have not got a language which will serve as a permanent neutral matrix for formulating all good explanatory hypotheses, and we have not the foggiest notion of how to get one. … So epistemology—as the attempt to render all discourses commensurable by translating them into a preferred set of terms—is unlikely to be a useful strategy” (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979], pp. 348-49). Many critics have discussed Lewis Carroll's obsession with rules and rule-governed behavior. Indeed, one might argue that some of the best criticism of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has focused on his interest in games and play, whether it be Kathleen Blake's discussion of the play/work dichotomy (both of which spheres of experience Carroll is said to place in a rule-governed context) or Roger Henkle's identification of Carroll's timid proposal of “free play” as an alternative to a mid-Victorian life of stultifying, repressive, rule-governed work. See Kathleen Blake, Play, Games, and Sport: The Literary Works of Lewis Carroll (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1974), p. 88, and Roger B. Henkle, “The Mad Hatter's World,” Virginia Quarterly Review, 49 (1973), 102-3. The standard work treating the creatures as spokesmen for various sorts of nonsense is Elizabeth Sewell's The Field of Nonsense (London: Chatto and Windus, 1952). In contrast, my position is that what appears to be “nonsense” in Alice is simply “sense” of an alien kind. Lest it be objected that I am overlooking the obvious fact that the “creatures” speak “English” words here, it is worth making the point that such may simply be Carroll's concession to the needs of an English-speaking readership. After all, no modern viewer of a Hollywood World War II film mistakes the Japanese soldiers depicted in it for Americans simply because the director has them speaking English.

  3. Blake, Play, Games, and Sport, p. 16. Blake's book is by far the best critical discussion of play as mastery in Carroll. Relying especially on Jean Piaget and Johan Huizinga, Blake sees play as an active drive to incorporate: “Play—spontaneous, disinterested, nonutilitarian—is characterized by a fundamental urge to mastery through incorporation of experience to the ego rather than by adjustment or accommodation of the ego to experience” (p. 18). This definition, however, disqualifies much of Alice's experience in Wonderland from inclusion in the realm of play: Alice's attempts to master the “creatures” by inferring the rules governing their “games” are thwarted at almost every turn, even though her growth spurts do afford her occasional opportunities to bully the “creatures.” Bullying, however, is hardly what Blake means by “playing the game.”

  4. Blake, Play, Games, and Sport, p. 16.

  5. Through the Looking-Glass very clearly raises (without answering) the question of what sort of controlling rationality governs Alice's “moves” on the chessboard. See Roger B. Henkle, “Carroll's Narratives Underground: ‘Modernism’ and Form,” in Lewis Carroll: A Celebration, ed. Edward Guiliano (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1982), pp. 92-93.

  6. Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, introd. and notes by Martin Gardner (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1960), p. 31. Hereafter, references to this edition appear in parentheses in the body of the text.

  7. See the OED definition of the use of “caucus” in England: “In English newspapers since 1878, generally misused, and applied opprobriously to a committee or organization charged with seeking to manage the elections and dictate to the constituencies, but which is, in fact, usually a representative committee popularly elected for the purpose of securing concerted political action in a constituency” (The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971], I, 350). Obviously, the popular nineteenth-century British view of the meaning of the word is evoked here on the level of appearances: the Dodo does seem to stage-manage the “race.” My point, however, is simply that because Alice lacks an interpretive framework for judging whether or not the “creatures” are actually improvising when they appear to be (there is no universal code that allows people to make definitive judgments about whether inhabitants of foreign cultures they know nothing about are improvising or strictly following rigid rules laid down in antiquity), the American sense of the word “caucus” offers itself as one plausible sense of the word “caucus” here, especially in light of the other compelling evidence against assimilating the Wonderland “caucus-race” to the English notion of a “race.”

  8. The two best critical studies of the Alice books to insist on the possibly “logical” (i.e., “rule-governed”) basis for the “creatures'” behavior are George Pitcher, “Wittgenstein, Nonsense, and Lewis Carroll,” Massachusetts Review, 6, Pt. 2 (1965), 591-611, and Patricia Meyer Spacks, “Logic and Language in Through the Looking-Glass,” in Aspects of Alice, ed. Robert Phillips (London: Gollancz, 1972), pp. 267-75. Pitcher usefully notes that the text foregrounds Alice's problems of rule inference while demonstrating that Carroll plays with notions analogous to the “language-games” of which Wittgenstein would write years later, although he is not concerned in this essay with attempting to recuperate any of the “creatures” games as “sensible.” In her essay, Spacks argues that Carroll satirizes, through Alice, the illogical everyday use of language, or perhaps more appropriately, the illogicality of those who, like Alice, attempt to fit everyday language into the demands of logical rigor. See also Gilles Deleuze, “The Schizophrenic and Language: Surface and Depth in Lewis Carroll and Antonin Artaud,” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué V. Harari (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1979) for the interesting contrast he draws between Carroll's stark depiction of the linguistic “surface” and Artaud's “howl,” which defeats all attempts to recuperate it within a linguistic system of meaning. Deleuze argues: “Without this surface that distinguishes itself from the depths of bodies, without this line that separates things from propositions, sounds would become inseparable from bodies, becoming simple physical qualities contiguous with them, and propositions would be impossible. This is why the organization of language is not separable from the poetic discovery of surface, or from Alice's adventure. The greatness of language consists in speaking only at the surface of things, and thereby in capturing the pure event and the combinations of events that take place on the surface. It becomes a question of reascending to the surface, of discovering surface entities and their games of meaning and of non-sense, of expressing these games in portmanteau words, and of resisting the vertigo of the bodies' depths and their alimentary, poisonous mixtures” (pp. 284-85).

  9. The Wheel of Empire (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1967), pp. 59-60.

  10. “Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or ‘recognized’” (G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), p. 229.

  11. Self-consciousness is the next step: for instance, the philosopher's realization that it is he who “comprehends” Napoleon.

  12. The master “exists only for himself, that is his essential nature; he is the negative power without qualification, a power to which the thing is naught. And he is thus the absolutely essential act in this situation, while the bondsman is not so, he is an unessential activity. But for recognition proper there is needed the moment that what the master does to the other he should also do to himself, and what the bondsman does to himself, he should do to the other also. On that account a form of recognition has arisen that is one-sided and unequal. In all this, the unessential consciousness is, for the master, the object which embodies the truth of his certainty of himself. But it is evident that this object does not correspond to its notion; for, just where the master has effectively achieved lordship, he really finds that something has come about quite different from an independent consciousness. It is not an independent, but rather a dependent consciousness that he has achieved. He is thus not assured of self-existence as his truth; he finds that his truth is rather the unessential consciousness, and the fortuitous unessential action of that consciousness” (Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, pp. 236-37).

  13. In his lecture of 1917 in Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Part III, Vol. 16 of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey, Standard ed., 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), Freud acknowledges not only the existence but the therapeutic necessity of transferential relationships between doctor and patient. Acknowledging that once the doctor comes to play an important role in the patient's drama(s), his ability to influence the patient's “intellectual beliefs” (as opposed to the root cause of his illness) by simple “suggestion” is greatly enhanced. Freud argues that the doctor must work to extract himself sufficiently from the transference so that he will eschew these “easy” interpretive “successes” and draw the patient's conscious attention to the fact that he is playing a role in his drama: “We look upon successes that set in too soon as obstacles rather than as a help to the work of analysis; and we put an end to such successes by constantly resolving the transference on which they are based. It is this last characteristic which is the fundamental distinction between analytic and purely suggestive therapy, and which frees the results of analysis from the suspicion of being successes due to suggestion. In every other kind of suggestive treatment the transference is carefully preserved and left untouched; in analysis it is itself subjected to treatment and is dissected in all the shapes in which it appears. At the end of an analytic treatment the transference must itself be cleared away; and if success is then obtained or continues, it rests, not on suggestion, but on the achievement by its means of an overcoming of internal resistances, on the internal change that has been brought about in the patient” (p. 453). Thus the analyst must rise “above” the transferential relationship to the extent of bringing it to the patient's attention and subjecting it to criticism.

  14. Note the privilege Hegel accords himself in The Phenomenology of Mind: he is the “Wise Man” because he writes at the “end” of history, comprehending the deeds of the world-historical figure Napoleon. This is the privilege of the interpreter of a narrative: beyond the point of closure, one can cast previous events into meaningful order—as events “leading up to” the end—in Hegel's case, the moment of writing the Phenomenology. See Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, assembled by Raymond Queneau, ed. Allan Bloom, trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. (New York: Basic Books, 1969), pp. 34-35. See the somewhat analogous argument in Peter Brooks' “Repetition, Repression, and Return: Great Expectations and the Study of Plot,” New Literary History, 11 (1980), 503-26. Examining Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle as an implicit narratological treatise, Brooks argues that the individual death (or the promise of the individual end) has increasingly assumed a privileged position as point of narrative closure: “Freud's essay may offer a model suggestive of how narrative both seeks and delays its end. In particular, his concept of repetition seems fully pertinent, since repetition of all sorts is the very stuff of literary meanings, the basis of our creative perception of relation and interconnection, the means by which we compare and combine in significant patterns and sequences, and thus overcome the meaninglessness of pure contiguity. In the narrative text, repetition constitutes a return, a calling-back, or a turning-back, which enables us to perceive similarity in difference, consequence in contiguity, metaphor in metonymy” (p. 512). This perspective also allows one, obviously, to sort out linguistic levels, to “master” the game by distinguishing the figurative from the literal, metaphorical “execution” from “real” execution. The various execution threats which pepper Alice appear to be threats to impose this kind of closure, although, significantly, the executions are all deferred.

  15. Note Derrida's identification of Hegel's need to master play only by excluding it (Jacques Derrida, “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve,” in his Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978], p. 260).

  16. In this context it is interesting to note an important necessity governing the Hegelian “Wise Man”: he must be an atheist. On the other hand, as Kojève argues, Plato is bound to accept God because to deny the possibility of the “Wise Man” is to transform philosophy into theology (Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, p. 91).

  17. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), has usefully pointed to the important implications of this kind of knowledge of the exotic as a kind of “framing” or “corralling”: to enclose it, to delimit its boundaries, is to “domesticate” it to an extent, to make it available for the person doing the framing. Said writes: “Like Walter Scott's Saracens, the European representation of the Muslim, Ottoman, or Arab was always a way of controlling the redoubtable Orient, and to a certain extent the same is true of the methods of contemporary learned Orientalists, whose subject is not so much the East itself as the East made known, and therefore less fearsome, to the Western reading public” (p. 60).

  18. The play/work dichotomy that informs Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture is recapitulated by Kathleen Blake in her discussion of Lewis Carroll (play must be “spontaneous, disinterested, nonutilitarian”; p. 18) as well as by a number of other Carroll critics. The distinction, which might seem to carry all the weighty authority of “intution,” is actually a quite recently contrived opposition that corresponds to the materialist/idealist metaphysics underpinning the early industrial phase of Western civilization (Jacques Ehrmann, “Homo Ludens Revisited,” Yale French Studies, No. 41 [1968], p. 46). In deconstructing Huizinga's use of this opposition in Homo Ludens, Ehrmann makes the important observation that the application of this distinction to other cultures constitutes an ethnocentrism of the worst sort: “If play as the capacity for symbolization and ritualization is consubstantial with culture, it cannot fail to be present wherever there is culture. We realize then that play cannot be defined as a luxury. Whether their stomachs are full or empty, men play because they are men. To say that play ‘implies leisure’ is to set forth the problem while placing oneself in an ethnocentric perspective that falsifies the basic data to be analyzed: it is to oppose the notion of work to that of leisure (an opposition which carries with it all the others we have already noted: utility-gratuitousness, seriousness-play, etc.). Such an opposition may be valid in our society (and even there, less and less), but it certainly cannot be generalized to include cultures other than our own” (p. 46). Thus Blake's otherwise fine analysis of the Alice books in Play, Games, and Sport is flawed by her assumption that it is possible to distinguish Alice's being “in the game” from being “outside the game” and her “playing” the game from “being played by” the game (pp. 69-70), as well as to distinguish those moments when she masters her experience by incorporating it from those when she is mastered or incorporated by it (pp. 18-19). Alice, however, offers no such guideposts for its readers. As we have already shown, not only does Alice subvert facilely ethnocentric distinctions between “game” and “life,” but, moreover, any attempt to exclude ritual from the discussion of play and games in this text requires one to buy into a number of questionable assumptions that Alice herself makes. Thus Blake is placed in the ethnocentric position Ehrmann identifies: attempting to read Alice by the categories inherited from the very recent history of the West, categories which the book itself masterfully calls into question.

  19. The oysters seduced by the Walrus in Through the Looking-Glass are the best Carrollian examples of creatures with whom one discourses serving ultimately as meals.

  20. Nina Auerbach, “Alice and Wonderland: A Curious Child,” Victorian Studies, 17 (1973), 36, has observed this about the book. She argues that Dinah the cat functions as the “personification of Alice's own subtly cannibalistic hunger.”

  21. One might speculate on a possible ethical motive for Carroll's famous anti-vivisectionism: an attempt to preserve the “otherness” of the other, to keep it safe from appropriation for purely human purposes.

  22. See Dr. Johnson's antiplatonic definition of juristic truth: “Sir, you [Boswell the barrister] do not know it [the legal case he is arguing] to be good or bad till the Judge determines it. I have said that you are to state facts fairly; so that your thinking, or what you call knowing, a cause to be bad, must be from reasoning, must be from your supposing your arguments to be weak and inconclusive. But, Sir, that is not enough. An argument which does not convince yourself, may convince the Judge to whom you urge it; and if it does convince him, why, then, Sir, you are wrong, and he is right” (James Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. R. W. Chapman [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980], p. 388).

Sophie Marret (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4581

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 attempt to save ontology, imperilled by his literary work.

The mathematization and formalization of logic that developed in the second half of the nineteenth century tried to extricate this science from natural languages and to free it from their ambiguities. This resulted in a complete re-shaping of logic that broke with the tradition of the ontological import of language. Although he knew of Boole's and Venn's earlier works, Lewis Carroll seems to have tried to integrate some of the contributions of his contemporaries into traditional logic in order to save Aristotle's theses and to protect logic and language from this attack on ontology. His literary work, notably the Alice books and The Hunting of the Snark, can thus be read in the light of his Symbolic Logic, which reveals that what was at stake were questions of sense and of the ontological import of language. Jean-Jacques Lecercle has shown that Nonsense as a “meta-literary” genre aims to disclose the structures generating sense and is a way of structuring Lewis Carroll's work against the chaos that threatens it.1 Chaos indeed finds its expression in the mathematician's work on geometry and logic, in the figures of emptiness and infinity. In the Alice books, these two figures are linked to his intuition of emptiness and “non-sense” as the basis of the subject and of language, as well as being linked to jouissance, which threatens the classical rationality on which his work nevertheless relies. The dialogue between logic and literature seems to develop between the two poles of conscious and unconscious knowledge, which the mathematician sensed when he realized that the price of the formalization of logic was ontology, which had to suffer a major blow in order to be saved. If Carroll never conceived of a fully formalized logic, although his work tends in that direction, it was not because he lacked genius nor because of his conservative position towards classical ontology, but because his intuition of the subject condemned the rational claims of formalism itself, as testified by his literary work. He would thus have let this dialectics develop, this nightmare be inscribed within his literary work, without ever theorizing about it or having it become conscious knowledge. The knowledge about the unconscious which surfaces in his literary work should thus be distinguished from the unconscious as knowledge which remains “unknown knowledge” or “unconscious knowledge” although it is silently and incessantly at work in the structure of the subject, and thus leaves its mark not only on Lewis Carroll's literary work but also on the foundations of his logical work. This hypothesis will be developed through the examination of one aspect of the dialogues between logic and literature: the question of metalanguage.


Lewis Carroll's logical paradoxes seem to present little difficulty to contemporary logicians, but they testify to the deadlocks reached by traditional logic, due to lack of a sufficient formalization. In a short essay entitled “What the Tortoise said to Achilles,” Carroll staged yet another conversation between the famous heroes of the paradox of Zenon, this time about logical inference. This is the question with which they are now preoccupied: If one considers the hypothetical proposition “If A and B are true, Z must be true,” isn't it necessary to accept as true the inference itself—i.e. the hypothetical proposition C: “If A and B are true Z must be true,” in order to accept Z as true? This then results in “if A and B and C [the hypothetical proposition] are true, then Z must be true.” If it is so, then the new inference, taken as a hypothetical proposition, must in turn be accepted as true, and so on, infinitely, so that the conclusion can never be accepted.

In “Lewis Carroll logicien,” Ernest Coumet showed how Lewis Carroll confused inferences and implications, rules and laws, since a rule of inference is a normative statement, not true or false, but either good or bad. In the same way, Robert Blanché explained that whereas a law is expressed within the logical calculus, and belongs to language, a rule remains exterior to it, and belongs to metalanguage—it is a meta-logical statement that says something about the statements of logic (72).

Lewis Carroll would thus have been guilty of not being able to discriminate between two different types of statements, of being unaware of the level of metalanguage. Indeed, his paradox, like the famous Liar Paradox was not solved until the establishment of Bertrand Russell's Principle of Deduction, which founded propositional calculus on an axiom enabling one to proceed from the premises to the conclusion, or until his later Theory of Types, which made it necessary to distinguish between mutually exclusive hierarchic levels. Can we conclude that Lewis Carroll was simply the victim of his attachment to traditional logic, as well as of his insufficient formalization, which led him to question the rule of inference and to consider it as an implication since he could not distinguish the level of language from that of metalanguage? Such a confusion would have been all the more difficult to avoid since logic in his time still relied on natural languages and on the linearity of written sentences. It must be noted in his defense that Russell himself came up against a major difficulty in his Principles of Mathematics when he considered that the Principle of Deduction marked the limit of formalism, because he had to formulate it in the terms of a natural language. Besides, he was criticized by his followers for keeping the confusion between the levels of language and metalanguage alive because of his latitudinarian use of inverted commas. Tarski made this distinction explicit when he stressed the necessity of acknowledging that two different languages had to be used to deal with these different levels.


When considering the question of metalanguage in the work of Lewis Carroll, our attention cannot fail to be drawn to a passage from Through the Looking-Glass since it turns just such a confusion in the hierarchy of language levels into a humorous dialogue. The White Knight's suggestion to sing a song to Alice gives rise to the following logical imbroglio:

“Let me sing you a song to comfort you.”


“The name of the song is called ‘Haddock's Eyes.’”

“Oh, that's the name of the song is it?” Alice said, trying to feel interested.

“No, you don't understand,” the Knight said, looking a little vexed. “That's what the name is called. The name really is ‘The Aged Aged Man.’”

“Then I ought to have said ‘that's what the song is called’?” Alice corrected herself.

“No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The song is called ‘Ways And Means’: but that's only what it's called, you know!”

“Well, what is the song, then?” said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

“I was coming to that,” the Knight said. “The song really is ‘A-sitting On A Gate’: and the tune's my own invention.”

(TLG [Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There] 305-306)

There is no doubt that the White Knight's logic is faulty, but the reader still finds it hard to grasp his mistake unless he takes a closer look at the text. One could think, like Alice, that he is the victim of a semantic confusion, and that he should have said “The name of the song is ‘Haddocks' Eyes’,” but he points out that he did not make a mistake and that he knows the difference between the name of the song and the name of the name of the song. Alice is mistaken when she thinks she can make a distinction between “the name of the song” and “what the song is called.” The difference, if any, the White Knight points out, is purely semantic, because of the ambiguity of the expression “what it is called” (in French, the distinction has to be made between “c'est ainsi qu'elle s'appelle” and “c'est ainsi qu'on l'appelle”). Alice's error thus finds a logical justification in the explanation of the White Knight, who takes advantage of it to underline his mastery of the subtleties of semantics, preventing us from interpreting his first assertion as a faulty performance. Equivalents may actually be found for the expression “what the name is called,” such as “a title” or even “a noun phrase.” The most disconcerting thing in the first assertion of the White Knight is that he should choose an expression from the same level as the name to qualify the latter. He remains within the register of the specific, instead of finding an equivalent in a generic category—a class of names. If he makes it a point of honor to distinguish between the level of language and metalanguage (the name of the name), he contents himself with bringing metalanguage down to the level of language, thus confusing these two levels again.

In order to make the White Knight the victim of such a confusion, it seems that Carroll himself had to be able to make the distinction between these two levels, and we may go as far as saying that to set his paradox, such an intuition was necessary. In both cases he seems to point out that the distinction between language and metalanguage does not go without saying. In contrast to Alice's discourse that remains concerned with the relationship between name and thing (“That's the name of the song;” “that's what the song is called;” “what is the song?”), the White Knight sets the subtlety of his own logical processes, which imply the necessary distinction of the level of metalanguage (“what the name is called”) although he immediately makes it equivalent to the level of language. The White Knight thus stands out as a parodic double of the author, but the question remains as to why, a few years later and with extreme seriousness, Carroll made the same mistake as his character, thereby embarrassing at least two generations of logicians? It might be answered that the theorization of what remained some kind of common-sense intuition was too big a step forward to take. However, we may further try to grasp what, in Lewis Carroll's work, invalidates any attempt at theorizing about such a distinction, and try to understand the true nature of the question he raises in these two passages. The beginning of an answer may be found in his literary work, where his paradoxes are developed in a discursive environment which tells us about the knowledge at work which remains unformulable and unformulated on a theoretical level, but which is inscribed in a text whose writing reveals what emerges at the surface as an intuition.


Through his provocative utterance: “il n'y a pas de métalangage” (107) (“there is no metalanguage”), Jacques Lacan criticized Russell and his followers, saying that the existence of a metalanguage would imply that a system of axioms, postulates and rules might enable us to reach the true nature of language. In other words, this metalanguage would have an ontological import as it would be a “language of being” (“un langage de l'être”), a language able to tell the essence, and enabling us to express “the truth about Truth” (“le vrai sur le vrai”)2. Such a thing is inconceivable, Lacan thought—there is only language, first because a referent always remains real (its being is impossible to designate) and because there is no object-language (it is doomed to remain elusive, impossible to articulate as a language; there is no primary language that is the condition of existence of metalanguage). Second, there is no metalanguage, according to Lacan, because any kind of law is subjected to the very principle of the Law, so that no law can give a full account of it, and all are subjected to the arbitrariness that founds the Law. On the level of linguistics it might be said, similarly, that metalanguage is necessarily subjected to language as a pure differential system founding any kind of articulate system.

The questions at play in Lewis Carroll's work cannot fail to evoke this criticism of the ontological import of the conception of metalanguage, which should not, however, concern the logical level of the concept. (Lacan did not invalidate the distinction between “langue” and “métalangue” as the two concepts describing the different aspects of “language” in French—“langue” and “langage”—show). This criticism thus questioned logic on its ontological claims, beyond the views of the logicians and the recognized foundations of their systems.

Indeed, in this short passage, Carroll questioned the existence of a “language of being.” When the White Knight teaches Alice the difference between “what the name is” and “what the song is called,” she responds with a rather strange question: “Well, what is the song, then?” She might have been expected to have the White Knight confirm that the original name of the song wasThe Aged Aged Man” but that it was called (for some reason) “Ways and Means.” But, irritated by such complex linguistic issues, she finally turns to the object itself, which she demands to know, and which seems to have disappeared behind these subtle distinctions about its name. But what is Alice really asking? Isn't it a new name that would be the real name of the song and which would express its very being? The ambiguity of her question is that of common language (this song is such or such a name), as the White Knight stresses, when instead of starting to sing, he gives another name for it, overlooking the fact that he should have given the name of the song—i.e.The Aged Aged Man.” This confuses the reader, since no name is sufficient to present the very essence of the song. The illusion that naming should have an ontological import is here clearly denounced. Names appear as pure signifiers—they cannot express the object itself. Only a linguistic ambiguity, which does not mark the difference between the principle of identity and the predicative function of the linking verb to be, is responsible for our belief in such a possibility. The abundance of names in this passage tends to invalidate the existence of a name for the essence.

On the other hand, the object itself cannot be reached by the reader through the signifier, since he has no access to the voice of the Knight (“the tune's my own invention”)—to the Real dimension of this linguistic object. So Alice is immediately led to juxtapose name and object again, pointing out that the object is not presented by the name, when she thinks “But the tune isn't his own invention … It's ‘I give thee all, I can no more.’” With the verb “to be,” the logician does not stress the symbolic identity of the name and the object, but the distance between them, emphasizing that symbolization implies the loss of the object. This strange conversation indeed teaches us that no name can designate the essence of an object, even if it is a linguistic object. The difference of level between name and object or the name and the name of the name implies that the object can only be referred to by an empty signifier (a proper name which does not say anything of its referent) or by a name related to a category, which only allows one to construct it partially, but never to express or reach its essence or being.

Carroll's tour de force was to consider linguistic objects on a par with extra-linguistic objects, and to point out that linguistics touches the real through the voice and enunciation. We may thus wonder whether Carroll was not questioning the possibility of metalanguage itself being a “language of being,” when he chose to tell of the relationships between the linguistic and the metalinguistic fields—all the more so since he emphasized the function of enunciation on the level of metalanguage. Indeed, Alice notes that “the name of the song is” is equivalent to “what it is called,” and the White Knight adds, “and it is only what it is called,” thus clearly relating the function of naming to a subject or a group of subjects—i.e. to enunciators. But doesn't this apply to metalanguage then, since from the beginning the White Knight explains to Alice that the name of the name is “what the name is called”? Carroll seems to point out that metalanguage is also language, since it is related to enunciation and to a subject.

Pondering over “the name of the name,” Carroll finally started an infinite series, going from signifier to signifier, since the name of the name of the name etc. can then be conceived of and the series can only be stopped by the arbitrary decision of a subject. Infinite regression is also what haunts the protagonists of the logical paradox when they question metalanguage as a language. Their impossibility to conclude is only relieved by the narrator's choice to leave the scene, thus cutting the conversation short, or by the bad puns of Achilles and the Tortoise on which the author arbitrarily decides to end his text. If the question of infinite regression became a matter of concern for the logicians, Carroll in his way had solved the problem, not as a purely logical issue but by considering the level of enunciation.


This leads us to reexamine this paradox to see whether the issue is not similar to that of the literary work. Undeniably, Carroll considered the question of Truth on the level of metalanguage and not language. He thus raised a logician's nightmare: the arbitrary nature of the Law, so that it is finally the Turtle's responsibility, as a subject, not to allow the hypothetical proposition, although he has to allow it for language to be possible. The arbitrary nature of the Law as the principle which founds language is then seen, invalidating the ontological claims of metalanguage. Inscribing logic in its enunciative context, Carroll's paradox indeed leads us to conclude that his puzzle can only find a solution if one admits the inadmissible: arbitrariness (the axiomatic foundation of inferences), as well as the impossibility of ontology. Metalanguage can no longer claim to express the law of language since it is subjected to language and the arbitrariness of the Law. The only Law which governs the rest, and the nature of which remains arbitrary, is the one which makes us accept the hypothetical proposition as true, as a rule and not as an inference, and this law cannot be inscribed nor comprehended within the laws of logic.

This logical puzzle, like the passage from Through the Looking-Glass, cannot therefore be ascribed to Carroll's unawareness of metalanguage but rather to a deep questioning of the very principle of metalanguage even before it was formulated. What is inscribed in the literary work, and which reappears in the guise of a logical paradox invalidating the Aristotelian theses, is the logician's intuition of the chaos which threatens him and ruins his constructions—that is, the intuition of the function of the subject and of the arbitrary nature of the Law as a limit to logic and to ontology. It is in the literary work that the question of the subject is then raised in a radical way, questioning even the foundations of formalism.

Fantasy stands out as another mode of exploring a problem dealt with on a purely logical level in the paradox “What the Tortoise said to Achilles,” but it also seems a way of integrating fiction into logic—of comprehending it within a rational frame. Conversely, in the Alice books, logic is questioned by fiction and its enunciative context, revealing with a humor tinged with nightmare the issue underlying the logician's constructions, that he tried to ignore—the subject. His considerations about metalanguage are thus developed in a context where the formal rigor of logic is a source of laughter, fantasies dominate the scene and logic as well as poetry aim at delighting us, pointing out what they owe to jouissance as well as to a pure pleasure of the signifier and the letter.

The dialogue between Alice and the White Knight is indeed introduced by a parody of logical reasoning:

“Let me sing you a song to comfort you.”

“Is it very long?” Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of poetry that day.

“It's long,” said the Knight, “but it's very, very beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it—either it brings the tears into their eyes, or else—”

“Or else what?” said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.

“Or else it doesn't, you know.”

(TLG 305-306)

The rigor of logical argumentation triggers laughter since it becomes a pure form, overcoming the demand for meaning contained in Alice's question. In the same way, the rigorous exposition of the White Knight disconcerts Alice and irritates her by what she considers nonsense. The reader is likely to feel just as irritated, since he has the same feeling of being faced with nonsense, but there is every chance that his irritation will turn into laughter, into pure pleasure in this apparent parody of language. Logical reasoning is here the source of delight and humor, and is paradoxically assimilated to nonsense.

Let us recall that Alice seems to dislike these poems because they do not make sense and weary her. Alice's demand for sense is similar to that of the logician. Besides, it must be noted that these poems all evoke the death of one of their protagonists, which might be why Alice shrinks from being sung another song. The ambiguity of Nonsense and the logician's anguish may also be related to the link which is established in this text between absence of meaning and death fantasies. However, suffering is here relieved by the aesthetic pleasure associated with the evocation of those fantasies in a kind of parody of romantic canons, since the White Knight offers to sing a sad song to Alice and to make her cry in order to console her. Romantic aesthetics appears as a means to reverse the anguish generated by such fantasies, and to point out that it is possible to derive satisfaction from them. Such emotion, however, is not the only possible reaction to this poem, as the White Knight points out when he sets the alternative “either … or.” The other term of this alternative would simply be no emotion at all. Yet the nonsensical poem, a parody of Wordsworth's “resolution and independence,” does not make the reader cry—it is more likely to make him laugh, since it is so disconcerting—just as it was meant to amuse the children for whom it was written. This alternative thus seems hidden, if not repressed, behind the formal rigor of the White Knight's logical reasoning, although it is powerfully revealed by our reading of the nonsensical poem. In Symbolic Logic, Carroll stated that it was always possible, in a given universe of discourse, to find a value x' equal to non-x, an hypothesis which is now rejected by contemporary logicians. Could it not be assumed that what Carroll here designates as x', as the repressed of the White Knight's logical discourse, is the pleasure of the signifier and of the letter, valid equally in nonsensical poems and in logical arguments? This pleasure reaches its peak in the neological poem, “Jabberwocky” (TLG 191-197), and is the source of our delight in the conversation between Alice and the White Knight. Carroll pointed out that it is this dimension of a pleasure originating in the vacuity of meaning and of the signifier that is lacking in logical discourse, as seen in the attitude of the White Knight, although it contributes to the logician's pleasure. In this case, the rigor of logic appears as a means of containing within the signifier a threatening and loathsome jouissance partaking of the Real, which Carroll's text turns into a pure pleasure of the signifier and of the letter, a pleasure which has its source in nonsense and the emptiness inherent to language. It must be noted that his logical work interests readers nowadays only because it bears the signature of the author of the Alice books and that it has thus implicitly been assimilated with his literary work, because of the humor and fantasy that characterize it. The Alice books, on the contrary, have been referred to by logicians and philosophers (namely Russell and Deleuze) to develop their modern conceptions of meaning.


What Carroll pointed out through literary writing was what lay under the discourse of the logician, but also what was irremediably left out of it. He could only write it without actually saying it—letting his intuition of the subject, which sets a limit to logic, show on the surface, although this intuition could not find a place in his own discourse. It thus seems that some knowledge of the unconscious governs the Alice books, like an intuition felt by Carroll to be the limit of his own discourse, and which he preferred to inscribe in the form of fantasy, while trying to deny it. His logical work would then mark an ultimate attempt to integrate fiction and perhaps the subject within a rational frame—to achieve what was outlined in the literary work as the impossible plan of the logician. This plan of course remained impossible to achieve, since it relied on the rejection of the subject outside the field of logic, as the Alice books pointed out. This failure is also what his logical paradoxes testify to, since the very form of the paradox reveals inextricable knots shaping the impossible on the frontiers of logic. The questions raised by Carroll about metalanguage were therefore not definitively solved by the solutions Russell and his followers gave to Carroll's paradoxes: contemplating the issue of the subject, he was already pointing out what would later constitute the limit of formalism in logic.


  1. Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Le Nonsense: genre, histoire, mythe. Doctoral thesis, Université de Paris VII, 1981.

  2. Jacques Lacan. D'un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant. Unpublished seminar, 1970-71.

Works Cited

Blanché, Robert. Introduction à la logique contemporaine. Paris: A. Colin, 1968.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, in The Annotated Alice, ed. M. Gardner. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

———. The Hunting of the Snark, an Agony in Eight Fits, in The Annotated Snark, ed. M. Gardner, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.

———. Symbolic Logic. New York: Dover, 1958.

———. “What the Tortoise said to Achilles.” The Penguin Complete Lewis Carroll. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

Coumet, Ernest. Lewis Carroll, Logique sans peine. Paris: Hermann, 1966.

Lacan, Jacques. D'un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant. Unpublished seminar, 1970-71.

———. Le séminaire, livre XX: Encore. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975.

Russell, Betrand. The Principles of Mathematics. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1903.

Robert M. Polhemus (essay date 1994)

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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 Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871), regarded when they were first published as amusing pieces in the developing subgenre of “children's books,” turned out to be major works of nineteenth-century literature and part of the history of serious imaginative writing. Carroll's words and images created art so radical and variously appealing that it could, did, and does bring many kinds of readers to look with fresh wonder at the structure and meaning of experience. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), the shy, eccentric bachelor, mathematician, logician, Oxford don, and cleric, made up tales for little girls, turned them into books by Lewis Carroll—his pen name—and, in doing so, astonishingly expanded the possibilities for art, fiction, and speculative thought. In creating the Alice texts, he became a master of what we might call a stream of unconsciousness that others could tap into and use. He points the way to both modernism and postmodernism, but he is also a writer who shows the fact and importance of the emergence in the nineteenth century of children as subjects in the enterprise of fiction—a key cultural fact that deserves recognition and attention.

Carroll's Alice is, after all, the most famous child in nineteenth-century prose. She de-centers, de-constructs, and de-familiarizes the Victorian universe. A telling passage in Through the Looking-Glass, when Alice first passes through the mirror and sees the chess-piece kings and queens come alive and appear as befuddled parents and incompetent self-managers, offers a symbol for Lewis Carroll's subject and method:

Alice looked on … as the King … began writing. A sudden thought struck her, and she took hold of the end of the pencil, which came some way over his shoulder, and began writing for him.

The poor King … at last … panted out “My dear! I really must get a thinner pencil. I can't manage this one a bit: it writes all manner of things that I don't intend—”

The child takes hold and writes what it wants, taking writing in new directions. That makes a good epigraph for Carroll's Alice fiction, and it can serve as a metaphor for the role of unconscious intention in all art. It points up the source of Charles Dodgson's imagination and also represents a process of high significance at work in nineteenth-century English literature. The royal road to the Freudian unconscious runs not only through dreamland, but through childhood.

Carroll's way is the way of regression. By befriending small girls, identifying with them, seeking to divert them, projecting himself back into childhood, and imagining stories explicitly for children, he managed to create two texts that have been, and are, as widely read, known, and quoted as any imaginative literature of the past two centuries. The Alice books do not directly address our serious, responsible, moral selves; Carroll turns his back on the adult world—the so-called real world. Nevertheless, this man who retreats into juvenility and dream states, reverts to play and nonsense, toys with language, avoids any overtly didactic or practical purpose, and escapes from society, history, and maturity into the fantasy of his own regressive mind, appears before us as a prophet of the twentieth-century romance with fantasy life and a father of the future in psychology, art, and literature.

Carroll represents his child in her dream visions, and he brings together in imagining her experience the literary convention of the dream, the mood and feeling of real dreams, and the full play of his fantasy—and he exploits their potential for comedy. Nobody before had done anything quite like that. In all that is comic, as in dreams and fantasy, there is something regressive that takes us back to the mental experience and the world of play that we first knew as children. Comedy, dreams, and fantasy all somehow involve regression, a word that may have frivolous, even pejorative connotations. But the regression in Lewis Carroll—comic or not—is the opening to progress.

Carroll's Alice implies and affirms the tie-in of fiction and the child to the processes of regression and the unconscious. Henry James, describing his girl-heroine Maisie in What Maisie Knew (1897), alludes neatly to the intimate relationship between the child and fiction, between child psychology and novelistic practice: “She was at the age for which all stories are true and all conceptions are stories.” One point on which Lewis Carroll, the novel, and psychoanalysis agree is that no matter how we age, we keep this fiction-loving child somewhere, literally, in mind.

Regression means a going or coming back; it can be defined as a reverting to earlier behavior patterns, perceptions, and experiences so as to change or escape from undesirable situations and mental states. It is both radical and conservative: radical in rejecting the present and in juxtaposing material from both conscious and unconscious processes; conservative in holding on to time past. In Freudian dream psychology, regression means the translation of thoughts and emotions into visual images and forms of language when something in the mind resists or blocks their path to normal consciousness. It is a way of expressing and elaborating suppressed conflicts, memories, and daring psychic formations from infancy and childhood and letting them play on present realities. Regression can thus be a means of seeing life anew—of seeing it in Wonderland, for instance, as a falling into unknown territory beneath the surface of things, a mad tea party, and a farcical trial; or in Through the Looking-Glass, as an involuntary game, a series of dialogues with strange beings, an exercise in interpreting puzzling language, and a living out of preexistent linguistic formulas. The child's fantasy can be the generator of the adult's changing perception and world.

In Finnegans Wake, James Joyce, parodying the Holy Trinity, invents a Carrollian trinity that sums up the content and pattern of Carroll's creative regression: “Dodgfather, Dodgson & Coo.” The words and syllables, in their order, suggest the Carrollian movement away from manly, rigid patriarchy, away from the fixed single self, and toward the child and its identity with some wondrous spirit of freedom and comic wordplay. That happy “Coo” can signify the coup by which the Holy Ghost, its symbol the gentle dove, and Carroll himself merge into the girl Alice; the company that makes up his metamorphosing plural selves; and the sound that, mocking sentimentality and pomposity, connotes skepticism and bespeaks the voice of the new turtle heard in the modern lands of the absurd and irrational. 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.

One of the main projects of the novel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been to give expression to the child and a plot to childhood, and in this collective effort Lewis Carroll played a crucial part. Carroll and Alice give us a chance to see what the term “child” could mean in their Victorian society. The “child,” of course, is not a static, given entity but a social construct that develops and changes in history. Focusing on Carroll and the Alice books can show why they have lasted and also how his child heroine relates to the children and childhoods represented by other important makers of fiction. That writers have made children subjects and objects of their work in the last two centuries has helped definitively to form people's thoughts and feelings about children. Our whole conception of childhood and children derives, in some degree, from the imaginative power of such writers as Rousseau, Wordsworth, Dickens, George Eliot, Freud, and, not least, Lewis Carroll.

Like Dante's Beatrice, Carroll's Alice is named after a real person. It was Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, who inspired the Alice books, and who, with her sisters, made the first audience for the stories from which the book grew. The comparison is not as far-fetched as it might appear, for Dodgson loved the girl Alice as surely as Dante loved the girl Beatrice; and he found, like many others of his era, a genuine faith in his sense of devotion to his idea of the child. The personal circumstances of Dodgson's life that led to Alice in Wonderland are well known and need only be mentioned briefly. He was the third child and eldest son in a large family of eleven children (seven sisters); his father was a patriarchal cleric, his mother a sweet, loving, child-burdened woman who died before Charles turned nineteen. Though he grew up a stammerer, he seems to have had a happy childhood at Daresbury and Croft, where his father was rector. He loved to care for, amuse, and entertain his siblings—his sisters especially—with stories, games, and nonsense. Though he respected his father's forceful personality and intellect and held him in awe, he identified emotionally with his mother. At school at Rugby, he seems to have been rather a misfit, but he did well in his studies and matriculated to Christ Church, Oxford. There he took a first in mathematics, won a scholarship, and eventually became a master and tutor in his subject. There also he lived out his life as a bachelor. Conventional, adult, genital sexuality and marriage were not for him; in fact, there is no evidence that he ever engaged in physical sex with anyone or wanted to. It was a sublimated libido that flowed compulsively, but with kindness and propriety, toward the figure of the child.

According to his biographer Derek Hudson, the psychological lesson of Dodgson's childhood above all others was that he could never, so long as he lived, be without the companionship of children, and by children he meant little girls. They were a necessity to him; “They are three-fourths of my life,” he once said. In 1856 he befriended the Liddell children, offspring of the dean of his college, and fell in love with Alice just at the time when he took up photography (he became a leading amateur photographer and one of the century's outstanding photographers of children). On an afternoon boating excursion with the girls in 1862 he began diverting them with a tale of nonsense and wonder that he elaborated into Alice's Adventures Under Ground (a private book, which he illustrated, meant expressly as a gift for the “real” Alice) and, later, the two published Alice books. His art of fantasy is thus rooted in real occasions, aimed at particular people with their particular wants and needs, and created for very personal reasons. Many incidents in the history of his relationship with Alice and the other Liddells, such as getting caught and drenched in the rain on an outing, find their way into his texts. The genesis of Lewis Carroll's fiction is the wish to give pleasure to a child—to children—whom he adored and idealized, to make his specific audience happy, and to seduce its goodwill and affectionate regard for himself. His desire was to project himself into the life of a child, to bind that child to his imagination, to break down the social and psychological barriers between adult and child, and to re-create the child in his own fantasy life. Virginia Woolf wrote that “childhood was not dispersed in Dodgson as it usually is in adults, but remained in him entire, so he could do what no one else has ever been able to do—he could return to that world; he could re-create it.”

As it happens, Carroll's desire and practice here—his intense subjectivity—signify a good deal about his originality and importance, and about fiction, literary transaction, and the emergence of the child in fiction. The child, according to Jacqueline Rose, in The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction, appears in literature when the relationship between adult and child becomes a concern, a problem, a cultural issue. For many reasons—the rise of the middle classes, the subtle assaults on supernaturalism, the growing emphasis on the moral value of the family the changing world's need to stress formal education, for example—that relationship, by the mid-nineteenth century, was much in question. With Carroll, however, we are talking of an adult's desire for the child—the desire, specifically, to serve the child, to make the child an icon and fetish, to use it to distance and dissolve threatening erotic energy, to introject the child into his psyche, and to live vicariously through the child. Freudians have had grand times analyzing the kinks in Charles Dodgson's personality, but the striking irony is that psychoanalysis and its theories that stress the determining significance of childhood experience and the importance of language, fantasy, dreams, jokes, and puns in showing the workings of the unconscious and the mind's reflective games, seem to flow right out of Carroll's wonderland.

In the Alice books Carroll can be seen working in the developing, often overlapping nineteenth-century traditions of children's literature and the child protagonist in fiction, but the immediacy of his original audience and the conflation of his central character, his hearers, himself, and the imaginative recreation of experiences he has shared with Alice Liddell and other little girls led him to break with convention. The purpose of most children's literature had been mainly didactic and moral: it was supposed to educate and lead children to adapt certain kinds of behavior, become better, grow up to be good people—for example, obedient Christians and productive citizens. And in the novels of Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot, children are generally portrayed either as agents who reflect on the moral condition and worth of the other characters and their world (Oliver Twist [1837], Silas Marner [1861]), or, most significantly, who show the development and logical relationship between a character's childhood and his or her later life and consciousness (Great Expectations [1861], Jane Eyre [1847])—“the continuity, the unity of human experience,” as Peter Coveney puts it. Lewis Carroll's first intention would seem to have been to make his audience find him wonderful through his imaginative ingenuity and ability to delight, divert, and play seductively in language. What originally motivates the Alice tales, it seems, is a wish to break through to a new state, to go underground, to get through the usual conventional reflections to a new site of reflection behind the traditional moralizing mirrors of art—to move into the wonderland of the unconscious and the “other” where the beloved not-self somehow mirrors the self.

Carroll imagines such literary mirroring in the form of a picture—almost a photograph—in the memory of a child whom he has imagined. This becomes clear in a passage from Through the Looking-Glass describing the White Knight—a virtual self-portrait by the writer:

Of all the strange things that Alice saw in her journey …, this was one that she always remembered most clearly. Years afterward she could bring the whole scene back again, as if it had been only yesterday—the mild blue eyes and kindly smile of the knight—the setting sun gleaming through his hair, and shining on his armour in a blaze of light that quite dazzled her—the horse quietly moving about …—and the black shadows of the forest behind—all this she took in like a picture.

It is the invented Alice who validates and preserves Dodgson/Carroll's being and lets him make art out of the mirror stage, in which, according to Lacan, we take our image of ourselves early on from what we find another perceiving and desiring.

He particularized the audience for his fiction, writing both for a child—whom he was out to please, honor, and fascinate, not change, or use for moral propaganda, or show to be the parent of the adult the child would become—and for himself, a witty, repressed, curious intellectual with a brilliantly intuitive imagination and an obvious need to express safely the contents and fantasies of his complexly fissured mind. Because Charles Dodgson loved a real child, Lewis Carroll was moved to write fiction—a fiction that broke with realism, rejected a traditional marriage plot (staple of both the novel and the fairy tale), and mocked reality as “dull.” The focus in Carroll is on the child itself, as in a portrait or photograph of a young girl, not on the state of childhood as a prelude to something else. His writing is for fun—the fun of Alice—but it also calls attention to a sense of life's alienation and to both the continuing presence and otherness of childhood for grown-ups.

Through the child, Carroll pushed the limits and conventions of fiction, expanded them, and made fantasy probing, speculative, radically comic, and intellectually rewarding. His libido drove him beyond memories and representations of realistic childhood experiences, such as Dickens depicts, into the unconscious, where, for example, he finds and reflects through the mirror of his art an image of himself as a shy, joke-making insect—Victorian ancestor of Kafka's Gregor Samsa—fluttering helplessly about the flame of a little girl (see “Looking-Glass Insects,” chapter 3, Looking-Glass). He moved from conscious social or practical purpose to comic subversion and new perspectives. Carroll pointed toward specialized and diverse audiences developing for fiction—for instance, children, nostalgic adults, teachers, child-rearers, academics, logicians, and intellectuals—and also toward the complicated and various motives that bring one to read and write fiction. (One motive that became important in the developing countercultural tradition in art would be to turn outsiders into insiders, giving them the last laugh.) The motives and circumstances behind the making of Alice let us see how the reading public was fragmenting into special groups and also into what we might call a collection of myriad-minded, private reading selves.

The child as subject and the literary transaction were for Carroll ends, rather than means. Paradoxically, therefore, this outwardly orthodox, but odd, little-girl-struck author of what may have been the favorite children's book of the century helped to rid fiction of its heavy load of Victorian moral baggage and move it toward something like sovereign play in and for itself—pleasure for pleasure's sake and art for art's sake too. Thus, strangely enough, it previews both popular culture and modernism's high art of fiction with its exalted, romantic notions of “creative writing” and the writer. “Alice” was born out of the need to please some little girls and to turn the rational world upside down. A little child destined for the commercial stage, movies, cartoons, amusement-park rides, and TV—the whole money-making Alice industry whose history shows perfectly how the child has been commercialized in modern times—would lead the avant-garde.

The cult of the child flourished in Victorian times, and other authors, particularly Dickens, exploited to the last emotional pang the sympathy and identification that people had come to feel for children in print, especially orphans and lonely, misunderstood, victimized children. Of the major writers in the language, however, only Carroll and Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, used the child primarily for comic purposes. Natural symbols of regeneration, children—in modern times normally much closer in years to birth than to death—live relatively free of the fear of time and give themselves to play, games, and the pursuit of pleasure. And if you write for them, you can give way to fantasy, say things that in another context might be construed as wild or blasphemous, and claim you're doing nothing but amusing children. But before you can fully realize the comic potential of the child, you have to rebel against the powerful idea that adult life is somehow superior to child life. You must really admire, even envy, want to be, the child, and choose the child over the parent—even the parent in yourself and the parent that you are in your imagination. Lewis Carroll did. This laureate of growing up absurd knew that a part of the self resents having to grow up, and he insisted that maturity, whatever else it may be, is somehow a sham and a joke.

Such a writer and such a vision can succeed only when there is a deep, if repressed, skepticism about the authority—and authoritarianism—of the past, both individually and collectively. (cf. Günter Grass's Little Oskar in The Tin Drum in post-Nazi Germany.) The intensive questioning of authority and power that the Alice texts render could take place only when people, feeling themselves to be children of an incomprehensible or disappearing God, of the state, of a ridiculous universe, or of some other sort of unfathomable, but oppressive authority, and consciously or unconsciously resentful, were ready to defy and mock the omnipotence, mystery, wisdom, and reason of a rigid adult order—the internal and external ancien régime.

Philippe Aries, the pioneer historian of childhood, and his followers, critics, and revisers have tried to chronicle the processes by which childhood began to be recognized as something more than a period when, as Kimberley Reynolds puts it, “miniature adults were stuffed with food, information, and attitudes with which to become fully-developed adults”—when, in other words, children began to be perceived as different from adults. Whether this changing perception occurred in the early Renaissance, the seventeenth century, or, on a widespread scale in the early nineteenth century, by the late-Victorian period the child in art and literature reflected a concern for helping middle-class adults identify and resolve their problems by identifying with children. If we compare the nature of fiction through the Victorian era and the twentieth century with what it was at the beginning of the nineteenth century we see how a mushrooming emphasis on the child has changed things and led novelists to the rendering of children's points of view (Dickens, Proust, Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Woolf), children as featured characters (George Eliot, Christina Stead, Thomas Mann), children as magnets for twisted, dangerous eroticisms (Joyce, Nabokov, Toni Morrison), children as lovely, innocent figures whose well-being is the touchstone of the good (Henry James), and children as a targeted audience (Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, J. M. Barrie, T. H. White). For the more privileged classes in the nineteenth century, home and family came to be idealized as sacred places. But, as Reynolds says in words that bear on Carroll, “The image of the child was simultaneously sentimental, escapist, the repository of all that was good and pure, and also the domain of covert desires and fantasies.”

When Lewis Carroll began to write, there had been increasing public and private concern for more than a century about the condition of children. In the nineteenth century the state, mostly at the behest of the evangelical movement, had begun to take official notice and make some early efforts at regulating child labor, protecting child welfare, and mandating at least some schooling. Attitudes were changing. In the eighteenth century new interest and sentiment for children and new idealizations of family affection had appeared. Romanticization of childhood, though it had been slow to develop, went together with middle-class romanticization of women and motherhood. Historically, capitalism, the expansion of the empire, and the coming of industrialism had made a great many people richer and brought for the growing numbers of the privileged classes more leisure for their children and a longer period of childhood before beginning the work of the world. This led to growing emphasis on education and also on the aestheticizing of the child as people took pride in their progeny and wanted to show them off. The development of scientific method, rationalism, and new areas of knowledge challenged ideas of personal immortality and drove many to find hopes for a regenerative future in their children. Also, as time passed and the rudiments of modern medicine appeared, people saw greatly increased chances for infant survival; in many cases, that perception appears to have opened the floodgates for wholehearted sentimental feelings for children, who would no longer so often discourage their parents' by dying young.

Meanwhile, of course, print technology developed and literacy was spreading. It was necessary to teach children to read and to give them material suited to the education adults deemed proper for them, but some also thought that giving them things they might want to read for pleasure would develop their literacy skills. Later, in the Victorian era, came another technology highly significant in the history of the child as subject: the development of the camera, which made the personal fetishizing of the past and widespread preservation of familial images possible. Photography, as Lewis Carroll, like the later billion-dollar camera industrialists, knew so well, went hand in hand with the contemplation of children and childhood; the hugely popular loving, aesthetic contemplation of children in culture seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon—and one in which Carroll has surely had a hand.

In the nineteenth century, boarding schools proliferated, as did various other professional educational practices, and, Aries suggests, these were important in creating a separate sphere for children and a distinct juvenile literature because they increased the distance between the worlds of adult and child and cast doubt upon the suitability of shared reading material. Literature from the eighteenth century on, of course, was a growing enterprise that included a developing market for books aimed at children; and by the time Lewis Carroll started inventing stories for the Liddell girls, commercial as well as heuristic and religious motives were coming to figure more and more in the making of children's fiction. Publishers of children's books, then, though they were mainly interested in getting across theology, moral ideology, and pragmatic lessons that would make people more industrious, had nevertheless printed The Arabian Nights' Entertainments for children (1791), collections of Mother Goose tales or nursery rhymes (1744, 1780, 1810, 1842), fairy tales (1729, 1768, 1849), and, in the mid-nineteenth century, a number of boys' adventure stories relating to school, exploration, colonialism, and travel (e.g., Frederick Marryat's Masterman Ready [1841] and Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays [1856]). Such reading, among other things, inculcated a sense of wonder and a penchant for fantasy, nonsense, pleasure, adventure, and vicarious power. (Fiction for girls, as it slowly developed and differentiated itself in the nineteenth century, tended to stress their domestic and Christian duties and their chances of demonstrating the moral responsibility and moral superiority of their gender, and it allowed much less scope for fantastic adventures.) But before Alice, children's books, whether by Rousseau-influenced, neo-Enlightenment humanists like Thomas Day (The History of Sandford and Merton [1783]) and Maria Edgeworth (Early Lessons [1801]) or by God-fearing Calvinists like Hannah More and Mary Martha Sherwood (The Fairchild Family [1818-1847]), were under the restraining thumb of the moralists.

Moral controversy swirled about the developments of children's literature and fantasy modes. Historically, fairy tales seem to have been connected with the mythology of superstitions and magical cults—in other words, with outlawed religions. At first, fairy tales were condemned for lacking ethical purpose and religious seriousness, but then more flexible educators and guardians of orthodoxy found they could be expropriated and used to inculcate correct behavior in much the same way as traditional Christian dream visions had been used. By the time Carroll wrote the Alice books, nearly all children's stories pushed religion and ethics, and even fantasy was serving disciplinary ends. (Later in his life, in Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno Continued [1889 and 1893], Carroll—perhaps I should say Dodgson—would use it for the same ends, and spoil his genius.) Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, which he calls a “fairy-tale,” mock this sort of thing and claim fantasy, miracle, dream techniques, and the child for comedy.

Fantasy as a literary genre was developed in the Victorian era most notably by Carroll, Thomas Hood, George MacDonald, Charles Kingsley, and William Morris. It grew out of the Romantic movement—specifically from such late eighteenth-century historical phenomena as intensified interest in childhood, the collecting and setting down of folk tales and verse, the revival of interest in beast fables, and the burgeoning market for children's stories. It seemed important to some that children's powers of fancy be developed—especially since the Romantics prized imagination—and that people should find ways to stay in touch with the playfulness of childhood. The cult of the exotic, the cultivation of the self's visionary powers, the fascination with irrational states of mind (including dream states), the felt need for new or rejuvenated myths and symbols to meet the breakdown of religious orthodoxy and the crises of faith, all helped to produce fantasy fiction and make it respectable. Victorian fantasy proclaims the continuing need for a renaissance of wonder (Carroll, at the end of Wonderland, calls the waking world “dull reality”—an astounding assertion if you think about it).

Before the Christian era, the classical male mind-set of the Greeks and Romans—in which children, being immature, were considered less human, less complex, and therefore less interesting than adults—had seemed relatively uncurious about the child as such. Christian dogma would change that indifference, though it would take a long time and involve much historical contention. Robert Pattison has shown how deeply a divided early Christian heritage has colored thoughts about children. On the one hand there was Augustine's expounding of the orthodox doctrine of Original Sin and the damnation of human offspring without Christian salvation, baptism, and intervention into the corrupt, selfish nature of children. On the other side, preparing the way to see the child as a religious symbol, were the scriptural “massacre of the innocents,” the advent and representation of Christ as a miraculous babe, the words of Jesus, “Suffer little children … to come unto me for of such is the kingdom of heaven,” and the influential Pelagian heresy arguing for a primary innocence in the child. Pattison says that Augustine, in his Confessions, brought confessional autobiography and Original Sin into the world together, and if this is so, he pioneered the psychological novel: “Augustine's doctrine laid the foundation for the child as literary image. He had connected childhood [including his own] and sin, made the infant an adult of sorts, and surrounded him with a fallen nature, which existed in that condition because of man's fallen will.” That doctrine, which makes salvation of the child a precarious matter of the utmost religious urgency, became especially influential in the Reformation and helped lead, in the age of growing literacy, to the severely moralistic, often Calvinistic religious tracts, manuals, education literature, and monitory children's stories that proliferated especially in the first half of the nineteenth century and that were popular at least until World War I. More generally it has fostered the influential notion that the child's fate is crucial but the child's moral nature is, by itself, lost, or at least dangerously weak and in need of vigilant adult protection from the world's wickedness and its own innate propensities to do wrong.

In the social and intellectual upheaval of the last half of the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most influential theorists of childhood, countered such ideas in Emile (1762), his treatise on proper education, and in his own famous Confessions (1781): A Pelagian, he sees the child as naturally good and ideology about Original Sin as pernicious, but he does support the Augustinian idea of childhood's importance. Education is vital—that is, education which leads the maturing human being to preserve in itself the goodness of the natural child and harmonize the excellence of nature with culture. The natural child, for Rousseau, is conceived as innocent of the contradictions and conflicts that disrupt a harmonious relationship with the world. Jacqueline Rose observes that for him sexuality—as culture had distorted it—and social inequality “were realities that the child could be used to circumvent” or remedy. His idea, which he expresses both theoretically and autobiographically, is that, as Rose puts it, “it is sexuality which most totally sabotages the child's correct use of language and its exact [proper, accurate] knowledge of the world.”

Rousseau himself was deeply influenced by John Locke, whose rejection of innate ideas, stress on a blank-slate image of the child, and belief in empirical experience as the determiner of the child's being and the adult's fate have been of great moment in shaping the ways people imagine and educate children. Locke put forth the idea of the child's proper education through direct encounter with the real world in which the problematic nature of language and its imperfections did not figure. According to Rose, for many to this day who follow these philosophers, the child is set up as an uncontaminated, “pure point of origin in relation to language, sexuality, and the state.” Thus, Carroll's comic focus in the Alice books on the problematics of language for children and adults alike (e.g., puns, the involuntary nature of language, its subjectivity, Humpty Dumpty's assertion that words mean whatever he wants them to, “the wood of no names”) is one of his fiction's most original and important features. Rose notes that “literature for children first became an independent commercial venture in England in the mid-to late-eighteenth century, … when conceptualisation of childhood was dominated by … Locke and Rousseau,” and one could say the same thing about the novel in general, whose advent as the dominant popular genre parallels the advent of the child as a popular subject of representation. For both these philosophers, however, as for the strict Christian believers, moral, social, and practical education, however defined, is the proper end of literature—not pleasure or any intrinsic interest. But they opened up childhood as a state of innocence, purity, and blankness, an enticing space for the projection of faith, hope, love, and desire. One key comparison to make between the child as a concept developed in the last two centuries and fiction is to see them both as sites where people could project themselves, could identify, could read what they wanted, could have hope of vicarious life for their own desires.

Adapting Rousseau's mode of introspection, his feeling for the goodness and the intensity of early life, and his sense of childhood's determining power, William Wordsworth gave nineteenth-century Britain its romantic image of the child: the child as “seer blessed,” “father of the man,” the “best philosopher,” “trailing clouds of glory,” a “darling of the pigmy size,” the seed from which the poet's mind grows, and a little intimater of immortality. His visionary contemporary Blake also made children central, showing how the child could be featured as both religious symbol—image of innocence and holiness—and social symbol of a fallen, exploitive world (victim of industrial cruelty, poverty, disease, neglect). Following Augustine, Rousseau, and Wordsworth, the child becomes in fiction a figure leading to self-identity and self-knowledge, and following Blake, the child becomes a sacrificial social victim or an innocent little lamb of God, a natural stand-in for the mystical, holy Christ. “The purpose of the romantic image of the child,” according to Peter Coveney, was “above all to establish a relation between childhood and adult consciousness,” but it was also to serve, in a world increasingly skeptical of supernaturalism, as an image of faith. The Romantics, Coveney asserts, “were interested in growth and continuity, in tracing the organic development of the human consciousness, and also, in lowering psychic barriers between adult and child.” In writing of the child, their interests were adult. Nevertheless, in finding certain superiorities in a child's being over an adult's, they opened the way to the cult of the child. And the fear of losing touch with childhood, so pronounced in Wordsworth, is one of the chief generating motives not only for Carroll's work but for much of the distinguished fiction of the last two centuries. The novel needed the subjectivity of the child in order to become a powerful mode of psychological exploration and suggestiveness.

It was Charles Dickens, more than any other writer, who made children crucial subjects of faith, erotics, and moral concern, and nothing he did as a novelist was more influential than choosing to represent children. To know and tell the stories of life, it was necessary to understand and imagine what happened to children—to Oliver Twist, Smike, Little Nell, Tiny Tim, Paul and Florence Dombey, David Copperfield, Esther Summerson, Jo the Sweep, Amy Dorrit, Pip, and the rest of his fiction's boys' and girls' chorus. Traumatized by experiences from his own childhood, he stamped the romantic image of the child upon the imagination of millions and taught people to feel and identify with abused, exploited children and with the psychology of early life. Two passages, one from David Copperfield (1850) and the other from the preface to The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), get at his vision of the child as a mirroring image of self-pity, imaginative vindication, and regenerative possibilities:

When my thoughts go back, now, to that slow agony of my youth, I wonder how much of the histories I invented for such people hangs like a mist of fancy over well-remembered facts! When I tread the old ground, I do not wonder that I seem to see and pity, going on before me, an innocent romantic boy, making his imaginative world out of such strange experiences and sordid things!

(David Copperfield)

I had it always in my fancy to surround the lonely figure of the child [Little Nell] with grotesque and wild … companions, and to gather about her innocent face and pure intentions, associates … strange and uncongenial.

(The Old Curiosity Shop)

Of this mass impulse to regression that Dickens tapped, expressed, and helped to form, Carroll made his fiction.

Dickens regards the child as both a center of innocence (Nell, Oliver, Florence) and as the crux of developing personal and cultural history (David, Pip). For the light it brings to the concept and figure of the child as moral savior, the revealing custom of feminizing and infantilizing the essence of virtue, and to Alice, The Old Curiosity Shop is especially relevant. People devoured the novel and its pathetic child-heroine Nell not for its literary merit or for simple diversion—no character in Dickens has been more severely criticized or raucously mocked—but for the sake of faith: the girl-child is presented as something good to believe in, a narrated icon. The power of Little Nell is the power of religious feeling. As I have shown in Critical Reconstructions (1993), she represents quite literally an assumption of the traditional religious power of the Virgin Mary and holy Christian sacrifice into the female child. The aura, effects, and influence of the girl-child as moral guide and redeemer show up not only in the popular sentiment of the age but in the work of such intellectual sophisticates as George Eliot with her little golden-haired Eppie in Silas Marner (1861), John Ruskin in his quasi-devotional writings about feminine purity and the sanctity of girlhood, Henry James in What Maisie Knew, and, naturally, Lewis Carroll. The child had traditionally been seen as the proper object for religious and educational instruction. Now, in The Old Curiosity Shop, she becomes popularly the subject, embodiment, and teacher of worthy and sacred values.

That “she,” of course, matters: it is almost always a girl, not a boy, who stands for pure goodness (the sacrificial—and feminized—Paul Dombey is the exception). Why? The boy in Dickens usually represents the struggling self; the girl is often the morally and spiritually perfect other, the ideal projection. The still-prevalent sexist Manicheism about children (see, for example, bad-boy Bart, good-girl Lisa in the animated hit TV show “The Simpsons”), famously summed up in the nursery rhymes “snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails; that's what little boys are made of,” and “sugar and spice and everything nice; that's what little girls are made of,” feeds The Old Curiosity Shop and Lewis Carroll too (for example, note, in Wonderland, chapter 6, the quick change from boy baby to pig and the lines, “Speak roughly to your little boy, / And beat him when he sneezes: / He only does it to annoy, / Because he knows it teases”). The rise of the novel, children's fiction, and the number of juvenile characters in literature did not create separate gender spheres, nor gender-specific social functions for males and females, but literature was a primary means of reflecting, transmitting, defining, and redefining important social images of gender. A boy in the time of the novel as dominant literary mode was supposed to grow up, find his manhood, become somebody, follow a vocation, make a living, achieve status, accomplish something, and, all in all, see and live life as a worldly process and profession of becoming, rather than just being. A girl was supposed to find love, which meant that she had to be, or at least seem, lovable and loving. A middle-or upper-class girl's fate, according to cultural ideology, would likely depend on being “attractive” and learning to please, serve, and ameliorate—to preserve and regenerate domestic harmonies and uphold spiritual and moral values. For the richer classes, the girl-child could be encouraged to behave modestly and nicely, dressed up and made pretty—aestheticized, idealized, and fetishized as a repository of civilized value. She was appreciated not for what she would become, but for the way she might appear to be: a breathing treasure, a pearl of great price, a lovely looking glass that would give people back pretty reflections in which they could find evidence of their noblest desires and their best selves. The expansion of wealth and of the middle classes meant that more and more families could aspire to have their own little Velazquez princesses.

In her cozy setting at the beginning of Looking-Glass, Alice typically represents the Victorian and modern wish to see the time of childhood as a bastion against the dangers and troubles of the grown-up world—a paradise at the beginning instead of the end of life. The Victorian girl-child could be posed and imagined as living proof that in a hard and changing world it was possible to maintain and nurture sweetness and natural purity. She made an ideal raison d'être for life's struggle and also symbolized an escape from it. Childhood became a kind of wildlife refuge for the fancy and wonder that might seem impractical in adult life. It is true that the privileged Victorians tended to make ornaments of their little girls (and often their little boys too), but to see what that means, we must understand that “ornament” had the radiant force behind it that the “ornament” of stained glass would have had at Chartres: visible evidence for faith.

Like Dickens, the great female novelists of mid-nineteenth-century England—Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and George Eliot—also render the subjectivity of the child, using it to explore the inseparable questions of gender and self-identity. They adopted and also rejected gendered stereotypes of children. Jane Eyre represents in Helen Burns (closely modeled on Charlotte's older sister, Maria, cruelly mistreated at school and dead at eleven) the same sort of martyrdom of an idealized, sacrificial girl-child as Dickens shows in Nell and Florence Dombey. Brontë, however, effectively dismisses Helen as a model for living girls to emulate, makes Jane the hero and first-person subject, and focuses on her childhood victimization and her progress from an abused girl to an assertive, vocationally competent, erotic, and successful adult. This governess manqué and creative genius doesn't sentimentalize children in her fiction, doesn't even seem particularly to like them, but renders childhood experience and trauma as crucial in forming character and fate.

Her sister Emily, in the early chapters of Wuthering Heights (1848), imagines in the childhoods of Cathy and Heathcliff the turbulent passion, polymorphous perversity, and determining effects of infantile sexuality that psychoanalysts, shocking propriety, would later claim to be natural—even normal. Like her sister, she breaks through conventional decorum, ridicules notions about little angels-in-the-house, and gets at the violence of childhood and its spawning of obsessions. But she does represent the second Cathy as the moral redeemer of the novel's world. George Eliot makes the girl-child of Silas Marner the figure that upholds civilization and leads to moral progress, but in The Mill on the Floss (1860) she addresses the issue of the gendered, sugar-and-spice stereotypes and the damage they can cause. Maggie Tulliver's long childhood is a depiction of how the girl is mother to the woman, but it is also a relentless narrative of steady, restrained, feminist anger and resentment about the horrors of abstracting girls and boys and making them conform to conventional, rigid gender roles.

As do the Alice books, the fiction of these novelists who seized upon childhood as a major subject revealingly renders tension between a passionate, sometimes sentimental will to identify with the child, together with a sense of the irrecoverability of childhood and alienation from the myth of the sanctified girl. The child who is seen as part and parent of the adult consciousness and point of view has already lost its being in the very act of that reflection. Edmond de Goncourt, using the documentary procedures of French realism and aiming exclusively at an adult audience, wrote the novel Cherie (1884), featuring a child protagonist, because he thought his role as novelist was to be “un historien des gens qui n'ont pas d'histoire”: children before the novelists got at them, in other words, were people without history; but then, with the coming of novelistic retrospection, they tended to become part of the history of adults, rather than “people.” The unself-conscious nature, special innocence, and uncurbed potential of the child are time-doomed, as Blake, singing of experience, knew. Moreover there is a serious psychological flaw in putting faith in the saintly child, because people, especially the introspective, remembering that they have been children, usually know somehow that—no matter how they want and try to deceive themselves—they were never pure, never angelic; an innocent child, in some dark recess of the psyche, is a falsehood and a moral reproach. Still, the Victorian writers of fiction, led by Dickens, moved people to identify with children, to take the child's part; and Carroll's subversion of the adult world—his identification of the self with a child rather than an adult—marks a revolution of sensibility and outlook.

Lewis Carroll actually loved and wanted to be the girl-child, the other, the not-self in a way that his distinguished older contemporaries in fiction did not. Dickens and George Eliot, writing of the child in David Copperfield and The Mill on the Floss respectively, seem to be working out the problem of How did I come to be the person I am? by answering imaginatively the question What was my childhood like? With Carroll, however, the questions seem to be about self-effacement and the suppression of the adult: How can I get away from a self-identity that seems ineffectual, irrelevant, bound for extinction, like the Dodgson Dodo in Wonderland or the autobiographical Gnat in Looking-Glass? How would it be possible not to be the person I am? How can I escape my sex? The answer: by sticking imaginatively close to the child Alice. “No novelist,” Harry Levin says of Carroll, “has identified more intimately with the point of view of his heroine.” He moved beyond looking to the child for unworldly perfection, for a symbol of allegorical virtue, and for the analytic key to his own personality. In his Alice texts the child becomes the means to fantasy, to mental traveling, to play and comic liberation from the tyranny of adulthood with its pride, pretentiousness, and incessant moralizing.

Fantasy indicates the secularization of wonder, and Carroll, through the emergent child, is its prophet. Dreams for him sanction fantasy. Creating fantasy is, like dreaming, a way of internalizing miracles; but, of course, it is consciously done and historical. One reason he links dream vision and fantasy to childhood is that empirically, as psychology has since shown, the way people revisit their childhoods and the mental nurseries of their fantasy lives—and the way the child intrudes on the adult with its continuing presence—is often through dreams. Like dream work, fantasies, according to Freud and his followers, grow out of childhood experiences, words, and imaginings. They, too, are animated images of repressed hopes and stifled wishes set free.

Animation, the breath of life, motivates Carroll's comic dream and fantasy world: he animates fantastic images. Nursery rhymes, words, thoughts, poems, animals, chess pieces, and flowers all come alive, take visual shape, move and talk. As everything in a dream is part of the dreamer, so everything in wonderland and through the looking-glass is part of the fantasist's personality. Carroll animates new forms of life on every page. The cinematic movement of dreams in Carroll is the movement of animation. Tenniel's illustrations in the Alice books (Carroll's fussiness about them nearly drove the artist out of his mind) are as important to the text as those in any book I know. Repressed thought turns to visual images, and such images move and live in Carroll's fantasy of childhood. Try to think of Humpty Dumpty without benefit of the Carroll-Tenniel image and you can see the force of Carroll's animation. If you could combine his fantastic literary animation with his photographic interest, you would get “motion pictures”; and he is spiritual father, as sure as any technological innovator, to that revealing progeny of the twentieth century, animated cartoons. In these visions, whose main audience is supposedly children, horrendous falls, accidents, fights, murderous intentions, and carnivorous frenzies seem not only harmless but funny. Animation by definition excludes death, and these visual fantasies—classic examples of comic regression—present a world where infantile wishes predominate and mortality has no sway. It may be that one of greatest sources of pleasure in animation is that it seems to take us back to a time in childhood when we felt ourselves to be the center of life and made no distinction between the self and the other—when everything we knew was alive and personal, and we had no need to care about the alien. The animation of all, which we find in Carroll, the personalizing of objects, may express a craving to be all, to ingest all, and to eliminate boundaries—between people and things, between stories and life, between kinds of animal life, between differentiated physical drives and the different body parts signifying the oral, anal, and genital modes of sexuality, between mother and child.

In Carroll's hands fantasy becomes a comic mode to ponder and enjoy; it can purge contradictions and hard realities from the mind or at least turn them to play and jest. His comic fantasy depicts a world so outlandish that it never could be and therefore provides some relief from social pressures and moral responsibility; but his imagination very often gives us exactly the sort of silliness that goes on all the time in the real world. “We're all mad here,” the Cheshire Cat insists; “Sentence first, verdict after,” proclaims the King of Hearts; “I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” says the White Queen to Alice, and “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day”: fantastic and funny lines, but also true to life.

The way to grow up and participate in experience in wonderland is to grow little, and the way to go forward in looking-glass land is to go backward—back to origins, early years, first principles, early pleasures, early fears, early desires—in order to see with fresh clarity what, through habit and personal and social repression, you have come to accept as the real and true and to find in a place of make-believe, in a world of fiction, that make-believe—fiction—is reality. The way to freedom and curious wonder is to recognize and comprehend the arbitrary, predetermined, and artificial structures of your life. The way to knowledge of culture and society is to explore your inner fantasy life. The way to honor intelligence is to know and laugh at its limitations. The way to celebrate creation is to play with its silly mysteries. The intention—conscious or not—that comes through in the Alice texts is, in effect, one meaning of humanity's comic capacity and literary capability: I will play with and make ridiculous fear, loneliness, smallness, ignorance, authority, chaos, nihilism, and death; I will transform, for a time, woe to joy.

Carroll offers a metaphorical, metonymical compendium of the obsessions and urgencies of the modern world of collective individualism, and the rhetoric of his fiction, persuading people that they can read and find reverberating significance in the child and her dream-life, makes him a major writer. The child, as psychology would show, just would not stay in a bracketed-off area, remote from serious adult life and history. Like the transmitters of myths, legends, sacred writings, and folklore, Lewis Carroll and such modern writers as Kafka and Beckett give people open-ended metaphors—word images that have the suggestive quality of their own dreams and eschew directly stated meanings. Carroll allows us to read our own stories, desires, fears, and to make fun of them. Through two very short and very funny books, Carroll shows us the frightful self-consciousness of modern times (“Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle!”), the fantastic shapes of the inward journey (objects come alive; physical being becomes unstable; Alice never quite knows just where she is), the quest for innocence and withdrawal from a rude, jostling, intrusive society (“‘No room! No room!’”; “At this the whole pack … came flying down upon her”). He conveys loneliness (“‘Only it is so very lonely here!’ Alice said … and, at the thought of her loneliness, two large tears came rolling down. … ‘Oh, don't go on like that!’ cried the poor Queen … : ‘Consider what a great girl you are. Consider what a long way you've come today. Consider what o'clock it is. Consider anything, only don't cry!’”). He shows the frustration of intimacy (“She looked back, once or twice, half hoping that they would call after her: the last time she saw them, they were trying to put the Dormouse in the teapot.”) and conveys the sense of living on the verge of hysteria (“His voice rose to a perfect scream”; “‘I can't stand this any longer!’”). He gets at the feeling of existing in a dream or game whose form is constantly changing. He expresses a typical ambivalence toward authority, a rage for chaos (the witty and entertaining “mad tea-party” in Wonderland and Looking-Glass's wild “coronation” banquet) along with a desire to find and keep order and meaning without losing a sense of humor (the intricate chess-game structure of Looking-Glass). He imagines the relativity of being (sudden size changes in Wonderland), the problems of identity (“Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I'll come up: if not, I'll stay down here till I'm somebody else”), and of split, diced personality (e.g., Wonderland's “This curious child was fond of pretending to be two people” and the Carrollian self-portraits in the Gnat, Humpty Dumpty, and the White Knight in Looking-Glass). He renders for us the fictional nature of reality as it is registered in the inevitably distorting mirrors of our perception (“Why, you're only a sort of thing in his dream!”). He shows us our necessarily equivocal fate as word-centered creatures who experience language both subjectively and objectively. (Alice's comment on the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky,” “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don't know exactly what they are!” describes his sense of language perfectly, provided that we stress “exactly” and keep in mind the bizarre, utilitarian richness of those “ideas.”)

Carroll is important as a writer who makes fun of what Jacqueline Rose calls “the whole ethos of language as always reliable or true.” As the child knows and shows, language is anything but a neutral, transparent medium that simply reflects an existing reality. Linguistic power creates a joyous surge of identity and also a knowledge of otherness, as Alice learns in Looking-Glass when she finds herself alienated from the faun once they pass out of the “wood of no names” and back into the realm of human language. Carroll stresses throughout both the delight and the farce of misunderstanding that are inherent in words and dialogue. The texts render what children feel about language as they struggle to master it: that it is slippery, confusing, hard, rule-ridden, and frustrating, but also creative, pleasurable, and full of play. Language proves our social being and determines our fate, but, as a child learns, it is also the means for defining and expressing our desires, our individuality, our confusions, our subjective freedom, and our bonds. We live by linguistic fictions. In Carroll, many of the characters act out verbal structures, for instance, Humpty Dumpty, the Tweedles, and even Alice, whose movements in Looking-Glass exactly conform to the predictive words of the Red Queen at the beginning.

Carroll helped to lead in making language a great subject for thought and comedy and literature, but for him it is nothing to be idealized. It can never be a precise communication system because it is inseparable from its users. From the first in Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll tells us that Alice moves in a dream world composed of words that exist independently of personal will. When the White King exclaims of his pencil, “It writes all manner of things that I don't intend,” he is talking about the unmanageable nature of language, and he previews its role in the book, and in twentieth-century intellectual history. And when “Jabberwocky” appears to Alice, we know that we are in a fictional world of sense, absurdity, and wordplay all at once, like a child trying to fathom language.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

The verse foreshadows the whole book. The extreme tensions in the poem—between the unconventional use of language (invented vocabulary) and the conventional (normal syntax, grammar, rhythm, and rhyme), between referential significance and self-contained nonsense—define and energize Carroll. “Jabberwocky” puts the focus on the very fact of language itself, whose very existence—as children see and feel—is just as marvelous, just as fantastic, as any of the meanings it conveys.

Even as the figure of the child in the last two centuries has called forth interpretation, assertions of authority, and projection, so has Carroll's fiction. Lewis Carroll's work is particularly susceptible to the regressive tendencies of critics and writers who find in it images, words, meanings, and emotions that liberate, clarify, articulate, and give play to their own ideas, longings, and obsessions. Alice defines her readers as their dreams and childhoods do.

Read what has been written about Carroll and you find a wonderland of interpretation. It has been argued, for example, that Queen Victoria wrote the Alice books, that Alice is a phallus, that she is an imperialist, that she is an existential heroine, a killjoy, a sex-tease, or a symbol for what every human being should try to be like in the face of an outrageous universe; it has been claimed that her pool of tears represents the amniotic fluid, that the Caucus race parodies Darwin, that it sports with Victorian theories about the Caucasian race, that the Alice books may contain a secret history of the Oxford movement, that they allegorize Jewish history, that the “Pig and Pepper” chapter is a description of toilet training, that the White Queen stands for John Henry Newman and the Tweedles for Bishop Berkeley; that these tales are dangerous for children, that they are literally nonsense and do not refer to the real world; that Carroll was a latent homosexual, an atheist, a schizophrenic, a pedophile, a faithful Christian, a fine man. Some of this criticism is brilliant, some is lunatic, some is both by turns, some is hilarious, much of it is fascinating and insightful, nearly all of it is entertaining, and most of it is offered with the dogmatic surety of Humpty Dumpty, who says, “I can explain all the poems that ever were invented—and a good many that haven't been invented just yet.” My purpose here is not to patronize other commentators but to show that something in the nature of the writing itself—some vacuum of indeterminacy—sucks in a wide variety of reaction and engagement. Children are subject to authority, but Carroll puts authority in doubt and questions it. The Alice fiction deals with the crisis of authority in modern life, and readers are drawn to solve it. People project their wishes and beliefs and concerns onto these fictions as they lay them upon children. Like the parables of the Bible, like dreams, like depicted fantasies, Carroll stimulates a hermeneutics of subjective ingenuity and a multiplicity of views. These malleable texts resist closure of meaning; they remain open-ended and dialogical.

Of course, I am giving my own interpretation of Carroll, and obviously it stresses his use of a problematic dream-child in an antiauthoritarian, carnivalesque literary comedy and centers on the way that child opens up the play of language, the unconscious mind, and floating, contradictory desires. The world he creates is both referential and nonreferential, both like the world we live in and a different, fantasy world of nonsense. When the Mock Turtle tells Alice that in school he learned “Reeling and Writhing” and the different branches of arithmetic, “Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision,” the text offers both an example of nonsensical, creative wordplay that breaks free of “reality” and a satire on what real children actually do learn in real schools. Through the child, Carroll gets across his sense of a fantastic, alternative world of being, a sense of rebellious knowledge of actuality, a sense of humor (i.e., putting life in a play-frame), and a sense of the importance and imprecision of language. The comic fantasy of chapters like “The Mock Turtle's Story,” “A Mad Tea-Party,” and “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” have the improvisation, the inventive drive, the Dionysian upswing of the best twentieth-century comic ensembles, such as the Marx Brothers and Monty Python's Flying Circus. This whirling dialogue of whimsy, wisecracks, puns, nonsense talk, and verse moves to overthrow the drabness of routine and predictability.

In “The Emperor's New Clothes,” a child exposes the ruler's nakedness by cutting through lies and illusions to give people the perspective they need for seeing their own gullibility and the ruses of power. That's how Carroll works. He makes the child his protagonist, her dreams his narrative; and he pretends that children are his only audience so that he can rid himself and others of inhibitions and repressions. Through the child, he strips away both personal and social conventions and prejudices (e.g., you must not think or talk disrespectfully of parents, royalty, or “sacred” things; life should make sense; we all speak the same language; personalities are coherent; poetry is elevated; a well-brought-up little girl does not harbor murderous thoughts; the world of childhood is simple); he holds them up to ridicule and sets loose possibilities for imagining the unthinkable (e.g., original words and fantastic physical beings, the pleasure of the obliteration of others, the animation of the inanimate, the stupidity of mothers and fathers; the joys of madness). In the reversed looking-glass of his art, Carroll uses Alice to show up the silly childishness—in its pejorative sense—and the arbitrary limits of the so-called adult world. He proves in the Alice books that even in the most outwardly conventional and time-serving of adults there may be a wild and brave child struggling to get out and mock the withering realities that govern life. Such is the hope of this comedy of regression.

Carroll's way is to begin and frame his text with mawkish, sentimental descriptions of childhood. It is as if, in his introductory poems and in the opening monologue of Looking-Glass featuring the girl-child, he is trying to represent the most morally unobjectionable being that he and his fellow Victorians could conceive of in order to smother his psychic censor in a well of treacle. Watch a child alone at play with its toys and dolls and after a while you may begin to hear and see these figures taking on roles that dramatize aspects of the child's life. Different tones and voices arise, words come out that reveal thoughts and visions neither you nor the child knew it possessed. Carroll's fiction is like that. In Looking-Glass, after Alice babbles, “I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields that it kisses them so … and … says ‘go to sleep, darlings’” and Dr. Dodgson appears to lull himself to sleep, Mr. Carroll suddenly bursts through the looking-glass and through the double wall of superego and sentimentality: he quotes Alice saying, “Nurse! Do let's pretend that I'm a hungry hyaena, and you're a bone!” That explodes the pious little-girl image and releases manic, unpredictable energy into the text and a typically resonant complexity into the character of Alice.

To show how significant the approach and the sudden move in portraying Alice here are and what is at stake with respect to both the fuller rendering of children's psychology in fiction and the relationship of Carroll and his heroine, I quote a passage from What Maisie Knew. Henry James is imagining his girl-child—about the same age as Alice—alone, confused in her feelings, and at odds with an awful adult world of arbitrary power and mysterious sexuality, and he begins to relate the subject of the child to fictional projections and transference: “The stiff dolls on the dusky shelves began to move their arms and legs; old forms and phases began to have a sense that frightened her. She had a new feeling, the feeling of danger; on which a new remedy rose to meet it, the idea of an inner self or, in other words, of concealment.” The developing child in the history of the novel means an inner life and psychological conflict—the psychodrama of alienation, conscious and unconscious repressions, contradictory motives, and imaginative identifications. Edmund Wilson says that “the creatures that [Alice] meets the whole dream, are Alice's personality and her waking life,” but, of course, they are Carroll's personality and life too.

Not surprisingly, the character and function of Alice have become bones of critical contention. I have put her by and large in a favorable light, but some in the late twentieth century, focusing on problems of race, class, and gender, judge her more negatively. She has been seen as a quintessential figure of Victorian ethnocentrism for her continual attempts to bring her own standards, customs, mores, and manners to bear on the beings and circumstances she meets in her wonderlands. Carroll does sometimes betray his own upper-class biases, and he does render Alice's privileged-class assurance, especially in her occasional bouts of snobbery and patronization in the early chapters of Wonderland. She can also be seen as an example of essentialist gender stereotyping that makes the Victorian girl into a litany of virtues (and Alice surely displays most of humanity's good qualities). Such views have merit and interest, but they miss the dream psychology and the plurality of being Carroll imagines for her and also, I think, the main historical point: this writer moved one of history's most notoriously marginalized groups of beings, children, to the center of existence.

He could identify with the otherness of childhood, and its diversity; and in narrating the progress of Alice on her journeys he could reveal, as Freud would do in his famous essay “A Child is Being Beaten,” one of the momentous secrets of childhood—and life: the imaginative processes of transposed and projected violence. Of course, Carroll is, among other things, a colonialist of childhood. He imposes upon a child and children his own dream of childhood, his sense and definition of a child. But this dream is fluid, and he is also a liberator of childhood. The Alice tales end with the question of whose dream this is, and here Carroll touches upon the imperialism of desire. The question suggests a sense of fiction's mediation between author, audience, and cultural context, and, fittingly in a book about a child, it opens up the subject of custody.

Henry James, writing in the preface to his prophetic novel What Maisie Knew about a child-custody battle, captures the feeling and the general conception that Carroll has for Alice and the child's role: “… the case being with Maisie to the end that she treats her friends to the rich little spectacle of objects embalmed in her wonder. She wonders, in other words, to the end.” James goes on to discuss his own faith in the imaginary girl:

Truly, I reflect, if the theme had had no other beauty it would still have had this rare and distinguished one of its so expressing the variety of the child's values. She is not only the extraordinary “ironic centre” I have already noted; she has the wonderful importance of shedding a light far beyond any reach of her comprehension. … I lose myself, truly, in appreciation of my theme on noting what she does by her “freshness” for appearances in themselves vulgar and empty enough. They become, as she deals with them, the stuff of … art; she has simply to wonder, as I say, about them, and they begin to have meanings, aspects, solidities, connexions—connexions with the “universal!”—that they could scarce have hoped for.

No words better indicate the far-ranging significance that Lewis Carroll's Alice and the emergence of wonder and respect for the child that she represents have had for modern fiction, history, and culture.

Selected Bibliography

Aries, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood. Trans. Robert Baldrick. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

Coveney, Peter. The Image of Childhood. Rev. ed. Baltimore: Penguin, 1967. Originally published as Poor Monkey. London, 1957.

Gray, Donald J., ed. Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland. 2d ed. New York and London: Norton, 1992.

Darton, Harvey. Children's Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life. 3d ed. Revised by Brian Alderson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Gardner, Martin, ed. The Annotated Alice. New York: Random House, 1990.

Hudson, Derek. Lewis Carroll: An Illustrated Biography. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1977.

Kincaid, James. Child-Loving. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Lennon, Florence Becker. The Life of Lewis Carroll. New York: Collier, 1962.

Pattison, Robert. The Child Figure in English Literature. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978.

Rackin, Donald. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: Nonsense, Sense, and Meaning. New York: Twayne, 1991.

Reynolds, Kimberley. Girls Only?: Gender and Popular Children's Fiction in Britain, 1880-1910. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Gabriele Schwab (essay date 1994)

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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 traditional notion of mimesis. The novel is supposed to portray the life of its hero within a realistic fiction of the social world. Even the so-called psychological novel, with its attempt to evoke the “inner lives” of its characters, is still concerned with realism and mimesis.

The new Victorian genre of nonsense literature, by contrast, emerges at the beginning of a far-reaching break with the mimetic tradition. Writers begin to free the materiality of language from meaning and reference. Caring more about sounds than sense, they play with words and create silly puns or discover the pleasures of children's sound-games in order to produce nonsense. Long before the surrealists use automatic writing in their attempt to gain access to the unconscious, Lewis Carroll experiments with this very technique in order to disrupt the willful control of speech in his literary production of nonsense.1 Surprisingly enough, Carroll's break with the mimetic tradition anticipates many new literary techniques developed later during the proliferation of multiple forms of experimental literature in the twentieth century—ranging from surrealism, data, and high modernism (especially James Joyce and Gertrude Stein) to the manifold simulacra of postmodernism.

Like all experimental literature, literary nonsense seems to draw its energies from an antimimetic affect. Refusing to serve as a “mirror of nature,” it thrives in the delirious space of the looking-glass world in which language no longer “re-presents” but mocks its very foundations and speaks on its own against rhetorical conventions, rules, and codes. Literary nonsense uses the excess of the signifier over the signified—which has always characterized the poetic use of language—in order to disturb and to recreate the relation between words and worlds and to fold language back upon itself. Rather than referring to imaginary objects and worlds, this language refers to linguistic and mental relations.2 It unsettles mental habits formed by rhetorical conventions and thus induces the pleasures of both a temporary relief from the boundaries of internalized rules and an increased flexibility of mind.

And yet, this antimimetic core of literary nonsense is not predicated upon a rejection of narrative—a trend developed later in experimental literature and appropriated by certain literary theories. Even though the narratives of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass follow a dynamic of their own and are more fragmented than their realistic counterparts, it is no coincidence that Lewis Carroll—the “double” of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a Victorian mathematician of Christ Church, Oxford—has created two of the most unforgettable imaginary worlds.

I am interested here in this nonmimetic if not antimimetic relationship between words and worlds and the statement it makes about our mimetic mental habits. I therefore propose to analyze Carroll's texts as an eccentric form of literary communication, a communication which celebrates the excess that literary language is able to produce in relation to a signified imaginary world, a narrative of “mere nonsense.” This reading will explore the cultural function of literary nonsense within the larger framework of an “ecology of mind and language,” by folding the delirious space of nonsense back upon the “potential spaces”3 that it dynamically mobilizes in the reader: the dream and logic. I will end with a playful construction of a “culture contact” between two imaginary worlds that share a delight in the effects of surfaces: Victorian nonsense and postmodernism. If we filter our most cherished (theoretical?) constructions of postmodernity—schizophrenia and simulacrum—through Carroll's looking-glass of nonsense, we might perhaps discover a tacit complicity of these categories with a tradition of thinking in terms of mimetic representation that we otherwise claim to have abandoned.

Alice in Wonderland begins with a dream-like displacement of its main character. During a free fall through the rabbit-hole Alice loses the ground of her own culture and lands in a “wonderland” whose inhabitants—a weird and colorful bunch of creatures, animals, cards, legendary beings, and all sorts of nonsense characters—have their own anthropomorphic culture, live and dress like humans, and speak their language but ostensibly disregard its conventions and rules. Seven-year-old Alice encounters this world as alien, nonsensical, unpredictable, and threatening—especially since she herself, shortly after her arrival, changes so profoundly that she is confused about her sense of herself.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass belong to the Victorian genre of nonsense-literature, a genre whose very label indicates a refusal to make sense while at the same time engaging in aesthetic communication. The denomination “I am nonsense” provides a metacommunicative frame, which claims that the refusal to make sense is meaningful. We are thus faced with the aesthetic paradox of literary nonsense as sense.

The following reading highlights a possible aesthetic experience of nonsense located in a realm which engages dream and metacommunication. This space could also be viewed as profoundly nonmimetic, as a space that carefully avoids the middle ground of an imaginary world constructed according to conventions of realism or verisimilitude. Critics have often compared the surface phenomena of Carroll's textual wonderland with the dream, the fairy tale, or the projection of an alternative world whose meaning is constituted through its differences from conventional systems of meaning in our quotidian world. As we can infer from the designation “nonsense,” these differences lie less in the order of things than in the order of sense: that is, the symbolic order.

“Where there is sense there has to be complete order,” says Wittgenstein—an assumption immediately and immensely complicated by Carroll's texts. This very assumption, in fact, remains controversial to this day, when the most diverse theories of language have challenged not only the codes and conventions of symbolic orders but the status of order itself. The most profound challenge concerns the very notion of referentiality in language and, as a side-effect, some of the most basic categories in literary criticism such as mimesis on the one hand and realism on the other.

Nonsense is a sense produced by a disorder in the system of meaning. According to Rudolf Arnheim, disorder results not from a lack of order but from a collision between different systems of order within a larger system. Nonsense can be defined accordingly not as a lack of sense, then, but as a collision of systems of meaning—a collision that invites a new relationship between the involved systems or even causes them to collapse.

In both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass the plot is framed by a form of culture contact.4 At a superficial level, the cultural systems brought into contact are the culture of a Victorian girl and the cultures of wonderland as well as the looking-glass world. But there is also a contact between cultural sub-systems, such as that between formal logic and the symbolic order, or the language of the dream or schizophrenia and so-called ordinary language. In her attempts to mediate her own cultural presuppositions with those she encounters in the foreign culture of wonderland, Alice becomes a pilot figure for the reader. Throughout the texts her perspective maintains a constant awareness of both cultures and their differences. Far from observing a fusion or amalgamation of different cultures or a blurring of the boundaries between them, we thus experience in Carroll's textual world a sequential chain of collisions that maintains and even highlights the boundaries, while at the same time challenging them in the production of meaning. Gradually Alice develops a perspective that can change instantly and at will between her own and the “alien” cultural system.

However, her acculturation is a merely pragmatic one: her sense of the other culture as irreducibly alien remains intact and continues to determine her responses. She learns to speak and to act “inside” while observing from the “outside.” Without ceasing to perceive the otherness of wonderland as bizarre, she nonetheless begins to experience otherness as the norm of an ‘inverted world.’ Most often the effects of otherness are produced by a particular use of language, namely a complex game of ‘referentialities’ in which the characters constantly choose references that violate the conventional use of a word or a phrase.

Carroll's texts also play with certain mimetic effects, that is, with specific similarities to forms of alternate consciousness such as the dream or schizophrenia. At the beginning and the end of Alice in Wonderland the narrator evokes the dream as a metacommunicative frame. The fiction of a completely alien and nonsensical world is thus mediated by a familiar framing perspective. Like the dream, Carroll's wonderland displays a proliferation of rhetorical condensations and displacements, as well as a high degree of visual language. Free from the constraints of linguistic codes or a mimetic reality principle, the narrated events dispense with the familiar relationship between cause and effect as well as time and space. Surprising yet smooth metonymic transitions govern a set of narrative sequences in which actions or dialogues are constantly disrupted, while seemingly unmotivated shifts are taken for granted.

The plot is governed by phantasms of changing bodies: Alice's first culture shock consists of the sudden changes of her size, and further transformations of bodies occur throughout both tests—prominent examples include a baby that transforms into a pig, an egg that becomes Humpty-Dumpty, or a cat that melts into a mere grin. Thoughts materialize as images and wishes are instantly fulfilled: the Cheshire cat can make herself partly or wholly invisible, while insects are visible from afar. Time, personified and treated like a bodily creature, may simply stop moving. Often Alice's adventures recall typical nightmares—such as, for example, her falling into a deep hole, trapped in a tiny space, or barred by a locked door. As in a dream, language is both malleable and concrete: words are condensed, dialogues stripped of their pragmatic function, meanings are displaced metonymically, are suspended or transformed; released from its ties to the pragmatics of a world of familiar causes and effects, language becomes a material that is formed and used according to different rules that must be discovered as we go along.

But a close reading reveals that Carroll's texts are very different from a quasi-mimetic representation of a dream. The dream model, in fact, turns out to be a deficient if not deceptive framing device—deceptive, however, in a significant way. While dream elements indeed help to constitute the textual world, they are organized and shaped such that they do not create a dream but nonsense. This “nonsense” is mediated by Alice's subject position, which combines the role of an active agent exposed to the hazards of culture contact with that of an observer who, instead of becoming absorbed by her dream world, stays at a safe distance. In order to gain a primary orientation to her new cultural environment, Alice uses the whole arsenal of her Victorian school wisdom—preferably logical operations and rational argumentation. Logic, or more precisely the logic of a child, is called upon to keep her from dissolving into the dream-like dissolutions and transformations of wonderland. But it is precisely with this logic that she produces nonsense.

Thus dream and logic become the first two signifying systems that collide in Carroll's text. Alice's precocious references to her Victorian book-learning and her diligent “logical” argumentations themselves appear nonsensical within the cultural context of wonderland. The wrong conclusions typical for the mechanically applied logic of a child enforce this effect. For example, Alice imagines that after her free fall through the earth, she will meet people on the other side who walk on their heads. This fantasy of a world turned upside down is at one level, of course, nothing but the literalization of an idiomatic image extrapolated from the logic of her own perspective. At another level, however, the same image playfully evokes an ironic concretization of a non-Euclidean space.

But perhaps more important than the rational result of such mental operations is the abstract trace of an effaced emotional cathexis. Each contact with a foreign culture threatens one's own constructions of a cultural identity, all the more so when, as in the case of Alice's wonderland, the foreign culture is based on modes of thought that resemble the dream. Alice has a fundamentally ambivalent experience of this dreamlike structure. While its negative effects appear to be a loss of self, its positive lures are the wish fulfillments of fairy tales. Her first experience in wonderland is a sudden transformation of her body in which fairy tale elements are mixed with characteristics that define a schizoid dissolution of the self. As in a fairy tale, food and drink display the labels “eat me” and “drink me.” As we know from fairy tales, such oral seductions always contain the threat of black magic, that is, of the use of a poison or potion that leads to an unwanted transformation. After succumbing to this oral temptation, Alice shrinks to the size of a mouse or grows instantaneously into the tops of the trees.

At the basic structural level of bodily transformations, these corporeal changes resemble schizoid sensations of the body ranging from a dissociation of body from self to the independent development of distinct body parts, which are then personified and perceived as foreign to the self. This “disorder” in the relationship between parts and whole also entails a loss of control over bodily functions, as exemplified by Alice's perception of her feet being so distant from herself that she plans to send them Christmas presents in order to make them favorably disposed toward her.

Alice reacts to these diverse images of a loss of self and body with a double strategy of rational distancing. In her favorite game, of being two persons, she enters into a rational discourse with herself in which she tries to convince herself that in her transformed body she can logically no longer be “I” but must be an other. Through this paradoxical construction, which follows the rules of logical nonsense games cherished by children, Alice nonetheless secures her “I” in a double way, a strategy which appears as a completely formalized reflex of a possible psychic economy of such pseudological operations. If Alice were right, the threatening changes in her new cultural environment would no longer affect her, but the “other.” At the same time, however, Alice also manages to maintain herself linguistically, since the act of saying “I am Not-I” presupposes within the logic of language an “I” that sustains its linguistic boundaries.

The collision of dream and, by extension, schizophrenia and logic characterizes not only the actions of literary characters, but also the fictional construction of the textual world and the devices that generate nonsense. Like the dream, schizophrenia, too, provides only certain structural affinities or, more precisely, a negative foil for the nonsense world. Nonsense absorbs crucial features of both the dream and schizophrenia, such as the condensation and flexibility of its images and the freedom from logical constraints. However, the precise operations of nonsense mark a clear distinction from the unboundedness of the dream or schizophrenia. Critics who have compared Carroll's wonderland or his looking-grass world with the dream or a schizoid world have often emphasized structural affinities between the two at the expense of the distinctive features of nonsense.5 Such equations tend to turn the dream into a referential world and nonsense into a mimetic effect. They thus totalize dream and schizophrenia as modes of experience that Carroll does evoke, but only to transform their characteristics into the decidedly different effects of nonsense. After all the dream is, as Elizabeth Sewell has convincingly argued, only an opponent in a game that nonsense plays with logic.6

The characters in wonderland or in the looking-glass world show a tenacious insistence on logical operations that even exceeds the one displayed by Alice herself. The caterpillar, for example, challenges Alice's logical construction of her identity with a different logic. Its simple question, Who are you? is only a pretext for a quasi-philosophical dialogue about the linguistic and psychological foundations of the self. The caterpillar's discourse reveals that Alice can say “I,” but only at the price of losing her identity. Asked to explain what she means when she says “I am no longer myself,” Alice answers: “I can't explain myself because I am not myself, you see.” The caterpillar's laconical answer, “I don't see” is characteristic in its insistence on a literality which is, of course, nonsensical, given the familiar rhetorical use of “I see.” But this “nonsense” is inspired by an implicit philosophical reflection of a formal, symbolic logic—a reflection that plays with the tension between pronoun and speaker-reference.

Due to the nonsense-characters' fanatic insistence on literality, Alice increasingly loses the rhetorical securities of her own symbolic order. This insistence on literality harbors at its core the dream of an absolutely unequivocal language, a language that is either completely formalized or else establishes an absolutely mimetic relationship to the world. Carroll's texts show that any dream of a totalized mimesis, that is, a dream that attempts to efface the difference between map and territory or signifier and signified, will in fact produce nonsense. This is epitomized in Humpty-Dumpty's absurd request that a name mimetically represent the shape of a person—a request in which he consciously uses the dream of a mimetic equation between word and object in order to assert his power over the discourse with Alice.

As Alice's internalized tacit rule of using language and rhetoric conventionally—that is, nonliterally—becomes problematic, the links between sound and sense emancipate themselves from the conventional linguistic code. The newly generated forms, however, continue to reflect upon these conventions and their cultural implications. Poems, for example, turn into parodies of Victorian education. Unmoored from their coded signification, free to follow an economy of pleasure and desire, sounds can generate significant displacements and ambiguities. The ethic of the duchess, “Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves,” is obviously not shared by most of the wonderland characters. Rather, they invert this ethic, an inversion which, for that matter, is in perfect tandem with the fact that the duchess's formulation itself is a sonorous echo of the English proverb “Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves.”7

Under close scrutiny it becomes quite obvious that the characters' obsession with referentiality and literality serves—as in the case of Humpty-Dumpty—a much more mundane purpose than the pursuit of a puristic philosophy of language. One aim of their unconventional use of language, especially their mania of contesting and arguing, as well as their competition as smart-alecks—seems to be their desire to control language and communication. They entrap Alice in weird language games, the rules of which change not only from character to character but from case to case. The most salient common feature of these language games is, in fact, the characters' insistence that they determine the rules of the game and, whenever necessary, that they can change them or spontaneously invent new ones. For example, despite his preposterous request for mimetic name-shapes (ironically replicated and subverted, for that matter, in the tail-shaped tale), Humpty Dumpty has developed his own absurd philosophy of a private language, in which the meaning of a word can be defined independently from a cultural context or a linguistic convention—a philosophy that guarantees him absolute sovereignty over language and communication. The fact that he personalizes this language—assuming that verbs are proud and have a temper while adjectives can be manipulated at will—only adds to his imperial gesture of a master of language, since it feeds into his general fantasies of controlling inferior beings.

Linguistic imperialism and power are also the motifs of numerous language games played by other characters. Mutual understanding and exchange as a basis or a motif of communication is replaced by the overarching goal to use or twist specific rules and arguments in order to win the language game. To this end, the characters develop their own rhetorical system in which their favorite figure appears to be metonymy. Alice can hardly start a conversation without her “opponents” changing the conversational frame, preferably by a metonymic displacement that allows them to criticize her inadequate use of language, thereby forcing her to engage in a meta-level of conversation that focuses on its very rules. Alice's “inadequacy,” however, is the result of the deliberately “foreign” gaze of the other characters who, by ignoring Alice's linguistic and cultural context, are able to reveal linguistic ambiguities that would disappear within the adequate context.

The characters' “language-game” is thus less a Wittgensteinian “language-game” than a competitive rhetorical game based on restrictive rules and oriented toward a winner. Within the frame of this game, communication is most successful where it would fail according to the rules of so-called ordinary language or communication. The winner in this language game is the one who most successfully outsmarts the other with linguistic puns or other tricks. “Language game” thus primarily means a game with language. But in order to outsmart another rhetorically, characters must know their linguistic and cultural conventions and rules, allowing them then to focus on their weak spots. The “weakness” of language that the characters exploit for their own purposes of asserting a linguistic imperialism results from the very fact that language generates a nonmimetic referential system full of ambiguities. “Weakness” in language is produced by words that allow for a double or multiple meaning, rhetorical figures of speech or idiomatic phrases that play with double meanings, homophones or homonyms—in short, all imaginable ambiguities of language. The structural foundations of such ambiguities are precisely those domains which deviate from the characters' nonsensical insistence on a mimetic equation between words and objects and form the core of Carroll's nonsense, namely metaphor, metonymy, and metacommunication.

Alice in Wonderland is, then, a text about literality. Strictly speaking, the characters' language games place a taboo on metaphor. In all of their dialogues, the characters in wonderland seem to obey the tacit rule that one must—literally—say what one means and mean what one says. They in fact use this very rule strategically in order to produce deliberate “misreadings” of Alice's metaphorical speech. Moreover, they indulge in metonymic language-games and in displacements of a word from its context in order to take advantage of the resultant linguistic ambiguity. Whether the characters insist upon a literality that defies linguistic conventions or upon a linkage between sound and sense that defies context, they invariably blame Alice for ambiguities and require that she adhere to a literality which they themselves are far from applying. Their insistence on literality plays out the ideal of symbolic logic: the notion that there could exist a logically constructed language so formalized that it would be completely free of ambiguity.

From a different perspective, this ideal of symbolic logic converges with the ideal of mimetic unequivocality. In both cases language would provide an absolutely infallible map for reading the world. The characters oppose the ideal of such a formalistic or else a completely “mimetic” language to the ambiguities of so-called ordinary language. If each word and each utterance had only one logical or one mimetic reference that would remain the same through all possible uses, there would be no metaphorical or metonymical speech, since metaphor and metonymy play with multiple meanings and displacements of meaning. The characters thus challenge what belongs to the most habitual forms of rhetoric, namely to say one thing and to “mean” another.

The second dimension of Carroll's nonsense, metacommunication, functions in a similar way. Metacommunication emerges in the space between map and territory and presupposes an acknowledgement of their difference. In the characters' dialogues, metacommunication follows as a logical consequence of their verdict on metaphor. At the very moment that characters render the tension between “saying” and “meaning” explicit, they simultaneously discard the initial frame of communication and establish a metaframe within which they communicate about communication. Whether through their obstinate insistence on literal meanings, their sophistic game with metonymic displacements, or their playful shifts from one level of communication to another, they always seek to destroy an established frame of discourse—in most cases the one established by Alice. The dialogues thus become “metalogues.”8

The master of this strategy is Humpty Dumpty, who already sets up his questions as linguistic traps:

“How old did you say you were?” […] “Seven years and six months.”—“Wrong!” […] “You never said a word like it!”—“I thought you meant ‘How old are you?’” […] “If I'd meant that, I'd have said it.”

(p. 265)

Such strategies of argumentation lead to an artificial metalinguistic discourse that takes advantage of our unconscious use of habitual forms of speech. According to de Saussure, we acquire the use of such forms of speech as a kind of tacit knowledge that never becomes conscious. When we turn this tacit knowledge into an object of metacommunication, we create an artificial practice of speech that precludes any spontaneous communication. Under certain conditions, the only possible escape from internalized patterns of communication is to establish a metacommunication about the conditions and patterns of communications. But to shift systematically and regularly to a metacommunicative level and to consciously bring to mind and challenge the tacit rules of speech, as the characters in wonderland do, means to give up any regular communicative exchange. In this sense, the characters resemble a driver who consciously reflects on every single act of steering a car and becomes incapable of driving.

The characters' metacommunicative language games thus unsettle the referential relations within speech. Its pragmatic dimension is shifted toward the games with language and the strategies of metacommunication as such. In conjunction with the characters' insistence on literality and univocality, this metacommunication sharply distinguishes the language games from the dream, which ignores the logical exclusion of contradiction and hierarchical distinctions among different levels of communication. The dream acknowledges only its own frame, which marks a different mode of consciousness and experience. Within this frame, the dream elements interact with each other in a highly flexible and nonhierarchical way, thus producing the condensations and displacements that characterize the dream's mode of representation.

Alice, however, does not dream; she rather falls with her waking consciousness into the different culture of the wonderland, which has many resemblances to but as many differences from the dream. One of the most crucial differences is its inhabitants' obsession with logic. As we have seen, Alice's adventures in wonderland are based on a collision between these different orders. The order of the dream collides with the order of logic, and both are mediated through but also collide with the order of Alice's Victorian culture—which by now forms a kind of impossible or lost middle ground. Alice measures the speech of the characters in wonderland according to the norms of her own symbolic order. But in its confrontation with the different order of dream and logic, this very order is in a way threatened by its own extreme poles, namely, its origins in the dreamlike primary processes of early infancy and its utopian ideal of univocality and the self-identity of formalized logic.

During Alice's adventures in wonderland, the collision of her symbolic order with dream and logic performs a parody of this symbolic order by turning it into nonsense. At the same time, however, dream and logic form a complementary challenge for Alice, since she must reconcile both their order and the new order of the wonderland with her own symbolic order. On the one hand, the affinities between the wonderland and the dream force Alice to learn how to dedifferentiate her own system of order, to deal with condensations and displacements, and to tolerate the dissolution of familiar boundaries and identities or unities. On the other hand, the affinities with logic and especially the taboo placed on metaphor and idiomatic speech force Alice to satisfy the requirements and differentiations of a metacommunicative language game that questions the very premises of her own discursive practice. From both directions, the dream as well as logic, the means of communication are “distorted” (in the double sense of a productive Verfremdung and a practical disturbance of communication). Both threaten to undermine communication, since both the refusal of metacommunication as well as the reduction to metacommunication generate a communicative aporia. Paradoxically, however, the insistence on literality, which ultimately plays with a refusal of metacommunication, produces a veritable proliferation of metacommunication. This convergence creates the discursive energies of Carroll's nonsense.

These considerations return us to the affinities I emphasized at the outset between nonsense and the dream or schizophrenia. Both the dream and schizophrenia are characterized by a certain literality of words and language. Freud has described the schizophrenic's use of language as a confusion between Wortvorstellung (the representation of a word) and Dingvorstellung (the representation of a thing). For the schizophrenic, the word is a thing. But this is precisely why the schizophrenic is threatened with a dissolution of the boundaries between self and world. Language no longer mediates between interior and exterior spaces or self and other; it becomes other and turns into an object that invades the self and effaces its boundaries. Carroll's text not only plays with literality, but activates it in conjunction with the typical fears and dissolutions of schizophrenia: fantasies of the distortion and fragmentation of the body, confusions between parts and whole, autonomous functioning of organs, discontinuities between parts and whole, distortion or reification of language—in short, with all those forms of dedifferentiation, which also characterize the primary processes. The decisive factor, however, is how the text molds and integrates these forms of dissolution. For like the dream, schizophrenia in Carroll's text is only an agent in a language-game, the effects of which are derived from asserting the hegemony of logic within a cultural frame.

Literality is an important strategic element in these logical games, since the ideal of a formal logic is oriented toward the univocality of a completely unambiguous meaning. Because it effaces any ambiguity between signifier and signified, a literal meaning would fulfill this ideal. But the literality of a logician is very different from that of a schizophrenic; furthermore, the literality played out by the characters in wonderland draws upon both systems without fitting into any one of them. The crucial difference between the use of literality in nonsense and schizophrenia lies in the fact that for the schizophrenic the word becomes an “object” invested with materiality, depth, and a phantasmatic corporeality, while for the nonsense-characters the word is an empty literal surface, a mere container of meaning that resembles a “thing” only in the sense of its own reification. Both nonsense and schizophrenic discourse efface the rhetorical space between signifier and signified, then, but they do so in very different ways.

In Logique du Sens, Gilles Deleuze has outlined the basic differences between Carroll's nonsense and schizophrenia. The comparison between these categories has been inspired by what Deleuze calls “traps of resemblance.”9 For Deleuze, Carroll's language is a surface effect, while the language of schizophrenia—exemplified by Artaud's polemical rewriting of Carroll's Jabberwocky—inscribes itself into the depth of the body and absorbs its cathexis. Schizophrenia remains the “other” of nonsense, but an other that is never allowed to penetrate through the surface of nonsense. Deleuze reads Artaud's remark “there is no soul in Jabberwocky” (“il n'y a pas de l'âme dans Jabberwocky”)10 as an indication of the general emotional emptiness and flatness of Carroll's text. This quality distinguishes it dramatically from the empassioned discourse of the schizophrenic which, emptied of meaning, pursues less the recuperation of meaning than the destruction of the word.11 The effects of this schizophrenic discourse reach below the surface of language and, in fact, destroy the surface of language:

Non-sense no longer releases any surface-meaning: it absorbs and swallows all meaning both at the level of the signifier and at the level of the signified.12

The schizophrenic's destruction of the word also effaces its linguistic functions:

Not only is there no longer any meaning, but there is also no longer any grammar or syntax and ultimately even no more literally or phonetically articulated syllables.13

Deleuze shows how, by contrast, Carroll depends upon a strict grammar. As I argued earlier, Carroll also depends on maintaining the boundaries between self and other or a word and its meanings—including those boundaries which his characters challenge for their own strategic purposes. This is why Deleuze plays Artaud's depth against Carroll's superficiality, and why he follows Artaud in rejecting Carroll's safe distance from the schizophrenic other that haunts his text. Artaud attributed this distance to an “English snob” about whose text he remarks: “This is the work of a man who ate well and one feels this in his writing.”14

This juxtaposition of Carroll and Artaud may be given another turn. A decade and a half after the publication of Deleuze's critique, Jean-Jacques Lecercle uses Deleuze's reading of Artaud against Carroll in order to charge Deleuze with being a “Romantic philosopher.” In Philosophy through the Looking Glass, Lecercle writes:

One might say that, in Logique du Sens, Deleuze is turning into a Romantic philosopher, abandoning the classicism of the historian of philosophy and finding his own critical way by crossing the frontier with literature in style, content and general attitude. Of course, Deleuze's Romanticism is, at best, odd. In the broadest possible terms, one can describe Romantic theory and practice as based on a contrast between poetry, or the language of emotion and subjectivity, and science, or the language of rational argument and objectivity.15

If we draw out the implications of Lecercle's argument, we might conclude that what Deleuze criticizes in Carroll through Artaud is that Carroll the scientist, has won over Carroll the poet—even when the scientist Dodgson relinquishes his logical rigor to Carroll the poet. In this respect nonsense would be generated through a tension with poetry, a tension brought about by another collision between two signifying systems and rhetorical practices, namely the two cultures of science and poetry. But Lecercle reminds us also that Carroll's nonsense does not leave us indifferent, and that in order to account for its pleasures we must understand its grounding in what Lecercle calls délire.

While Deleuze foregrounds the contrast between schizophrenic discourse and nonsense, délire rather emphasizes the link between the two. Deleuze defines the relationship between signifier and signified according to a dialectic of lack and excess. Lecercle discovers this dialectic as a central characteristic of nonsense:

Too much signifies, and too little is signified; The abundance of words balances the lack of meaning. After all, délire is first characterized by logorrhea, an unceasing flow of words, indicating that communication is no longer possible.16

In this respect, delirious speech could be characterized by its severing of any mimetic ties to the referential space of the “signified.” And yet in Carroll these ties are never really given up. Instead of logorrhea or a free flow of words or sounds we have a sequence of constant disruptions of the signified, which, rather than a flow, creates a movement of violent shifts—shifts of the kind enforced by the nonsense characters when they require Alice to abandon the frame of familiar rhetorical conventions. Lecercle addresses this problem when he discusses the paradox of nonsense, namely the proposition “I mean not to mean.” Conceptually, such paradoxes can be solved using the theory of logical types, that is, by distinguishing levels of text, the framing and the framed. Lecercle, however, argues that literary paradoxes of this kind cannot be solved by the theory of logical types:

Yet, clearly, this does not work for the kinds of tests which are classified as literary, or for our delirious tradition. They resist the distinction, they deliberately blur the frontier, they organize a game of mirrors in which the question of who speaks, and at what level of signification, can never be satisfactorily answered.17

Lecercle sees the literary paradox of “I mean not to mean” rather solved by the effects of délire in language:

So the absence of intended meaning, the lack of a signified, is balanced by an excess of signifiers which in turn creates meaning. […] In the excess of signifiers, language speaks on its own. Deleuze's conception enables us to understand this genesis of sense, the presence of délire as a necessary part of language.18

I believe that we may go one step further than Lecercle. I would argue that Carroll often produces this excess of signifiers precisely by engaging the theory of logical types, that is, more concretely by having his characters distinguish between levels of text and between framing and the framed. Rather than residing in “the preverbal psychic expression of somatic drives”19 as it does in schizophrenic discourse, délire in Carroll resides in the effects of a pastiche of the theory of logical types, in the characters' deliberately inappropriate distinctions between levels of texts and in malicious confusions between framing and the framed. One could say that Carroll contains the effects of schizophrenic délire within the surface of a language that is not a mirror of nature but a mirror of rhetorical conventions gone mad.

Because of their communicative structure, the specific ways in which Carroll's texts exploit rhetorical affinities with schizophrenic dissolution are strikingly relevant. One could read this structure as an early literary response to a very specific form of cultural schizophrenia. The very same linguistic operations that form the core of Carroll's nonsense—namely metaphor, metonymy, and metacommunication—coincide with what Freud, Bateson, Lee, and others have identified as the specific failures of schizophrenic communication. These theories argue that, unable to identify metaphors, the schizophrenic takes them literally and treats them as reality. Moreover, the double-bind of schizogenic communication places a taboo on metacommunication.

This taboo placed on metaphor and metacommunication also characterizes the communicative patterns that the characters in wonderland impose upon Alice. And yet, they treat the rhetorical conventions of metaphor and metacommunication in a decidedly different fashion from the schizophrenic. While the latter is unable to identify these modes of speech, Carroll's characters use them obsessively in order to claim univocality or in order to introduce ever new metacommunicative frames. This is why instead of producing the discourse of a schizo they simply produce nonsense. On the other hand, as we have seen, this very nonsense draws some of its energies from playing with affinities to schizophrenic discourse. In this respect Carroll's nonsense appears as an abstract parody of schizophrenic discourse achieved by its logical inversion.

Alice is right, then, to complain about the characters' strategies to drive her insane. However, as the Cheshire cat pointedly remarks, everybody is insane in wonderland. The cat's attempt to logically prove its own insanity confirms this statement—albeit against the grain of the logical argument—since it uses a pseudologic that turns out to be the classical parody of logic.

“A dog's not mad. You grant that?”—“I suppose so,” said Alice. “Well, then,” the cat went on—“you see a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased. Now I growl when I'm pleased and wag my tail when I'm angry. Therefore I'm mad.”

The Cheshire cat's proof of its own madness consists in a distorted syllogism, which in turn typifies schizophrenic logic. Paradoxically, the proof therefore turns out to be both right and wrong at the same time, since the wrong logical conclusion is evidence for what had to be proved in the first place.

The flawed argumentation of the Cheshire cat exemplifies the characters' logical games and metacommunicative abstractions in general. It reveals that, while formally being an instrument of differentiation and abstraction and thus generating a counterbalance to the dedifferentiations of dream and schizophrenia, the metalogical games in fact turn out to be mere the inverse of the same rhetorical and cultural problem. Both the characters' logic and metacommunication are full of confusions of logical types, wrong logical conclusions as well as systematic confusions of levels of communication. This false logic paradoxically produces displacements and distortions that in some respects resemble those of the dream. In a similar way, the obsessive games of shifting the frame of communication ultimately generate a general dissolution of frames. Logic and metacommunication thus lose their absolute polarity with the dream or with schizophrenia. Their opposition is effaced by nonsense.

How then does this nonsense affect Carroll's readers, who are both outside the frame of wonderland and outside the frame of Alice's own symbolic order? What is the language game that the text plays with its readers? While at first glance this game may resemble the language games played by the characters, its effects accomplish yet another inversion. Like Alice, Carroll's readers must experience the inadequacy of their communicative competence and discover the rules of a “foreign” language game. They must expose themselves to the diverse processes of dissolution and dedifferentiation as well as to the effects of a flawed logic and a renunciation of metaphor.

But in contrast to Alice, the reader may experience these games as a source of pleasure, since they appear in the tamed form of a narrative that is framed as nonsense. According to Freud, the pleasures of nonsense result from the fascination with what is prohibited by reason.20 Nonsense reopens the pleasurable sources of language that tend to seep away once the dominance of the function of judgement is established within language.21 In order to rejoice in this pleasure we must, as Huizinga has argued, “slip into the soul of a child and prefer the wisdom of a child to that of an adult.” Originally written for children, Carroll's nonsensical language games share basic features with childhood games. They develop within a closed psychological frame in which primary and secondary processes may playfully interact or merge with each other.

Carroll's game is a game with language that uses linguistic rules and rhetorical conventions as its elements in order to generate an artificial speech located in a realm that partakes of the primary undifferentiation of the dream, the secondary differentiation of the symbolic order, and the tertiary differentiation of symbolic logic. Aesthetically, this game draws upon all three of these domains and plays with transgressing the boundaries between them. Carroll's pleasure is based on making mockery of restrictive systems of order—the symbolic order of Victorian culture, the codes of language, and the formalistic order of symbolic logic alike. In this respect, nonsense creates affinities not only to play but also to jokes. Like the joke, nonsense draws its effects less by engaging our reflective consciousness than from a spontaneous if not unconscious insight.

In many ways, its comic effects resemble those of the joke. In both cases, a sudden insight may open a channel to the unconscious. But this is also the point at which they differ. While the joke makes its point by playing with an unconscious understanding of social taboos or cultural repressions, nonsense plays with internalized rules of language, rhetorical conventions, or modes of thought. The latter are also unconscious—not in the sense of a dynamic repression, but in the sense of habitual modes of thought or unconscious rules of language, which, according to de Saussure, never reach consciousness, even though they are acquired culturally.

This difference between nonsense and the joke also accounts for the fact that nonsense does not share the cathartic effects of the joke. Nonsense may once in awhile generate laughter but, as Elisabeth Sewell has argued, laughter is not essential to it. Its pleasures derive from a less dramatic subversion of our categories and habits of thought. Both the joke and nonsense challenge the symbolic order: the former by mobilizing unconscious desires or fears, the latter by questioning our very systems of meaning. If during this process nonsense establishes, as in Carroll's case, a secondary closeness to the unconscious it is because the latter uses any rupture of the symbolic order and any deviation of the code for its own purposes. In Carroll's case the links to the unconscious are further enforced by the previously described affinities to the dream and schizophrenia. Logic and the pleasure principle meet in a space where the pedant's delight in the controlling functions of order, categorization, differentiation, and segmentation implodes, transforming into the complementary delight in chaos and subversion. Nonsense rediscovers those pleasures in language which the child knows before it must succumb to the function of judgment and the dictates of linguistic codes.22

In contrast to the joke, the pleasures of nonsense are not consumed by a spontaneous insight. Instead of an affective catharsis, nonsense rather generates an impulse further to reflect upon or reconstruct what offered itself to a spontaneous understanding. This in fact happens in a very specific sense. As we have seen, the characters' language games are governed by metacommunication. If these games generate an impulse in the reader to reflect upon their conditions and effects, that is, an impulse to “understand” nonsense, then we can say that Carroll invites the reader to enter into a metacommunication with the text itself.

Strictly speaking, this communication is a metacommunication about metacommunication. Apart from illuminating the functioning of language, the conditions of successful or unsuccessful language games, or the internalized rules of language, nonsense also reveals the functions of metacommunication as such. While for the characters metacommunication is a strategy to win the language game against Alice, it produces a double effect on the reader: During a spontaneous reception, the reader enjoys the cunning of language and symbolic order, but during a metacommunication with the text, he or she may turn nonsense into sense. The history of literary criticism on Carroll testifies to this second form of response. Carroll's texts have not only become classics of children's literature but also standard works, which to this very day are referred to by philosophers, mathematicians, linguists, and literary critics who have followed its invitation to metacommunication.23

The metacommunication with the reader gains a specific relevance in relation to the “other” of Carroll's text, namely dream and schizophrenia. With its framing label “I am nonsense,” the text creates a receptive disposition that the dream ignores and that is precluded from schizogenic communication. If the schizophrenic were able to identify metaphor and metonymy or use metacommunication, he or she could escape the traps of a communicative double bind. With its self-designation as nonsense, literary nonsense by contrast offers already an invitation to metacommunication. The reader thus is compelled to activate precisely those modes of consciousness which the dream and schizophrenia lack. One could even be tempted to speak of a schizoid experience with built-in therapy. Like Alice, the reader must perform acts of both differentiation and dedifferentiation. Nonsense generates pleasure by a curious admixture of both receptive activities.

It is true that literary nonsense breaks through conventional frames; but instead of succumbing to the anarchy of unboundedness, it replaces them with different ones, which often result from a privileging of rigid linguistic rules over more flexible rhetorical conventions. Precisely in this respect, nonsense may teach us an important lesson about the “ecology of signs,” since it illustrates that the overly rigid use of linguistic rules and the attempts to eliminate the ambiguities of language do not strengthen but, on the contrary, undermine its communicative functions. Nonsense, one could say, thus beats the system with its own means by imploding it from within. Rather than resulting from a rebellion against law and order, dissolution and anarchy are produced by an overly rigid insistence on rules.

Nonsense stretches the receptive dispositions of readers in two directions. The formal dedifferentiations, with their affinities to the dream and schizophrenia, appeal to the unconscious while the metacommunication increases self-reflexivity and the conscious awareness of tacit rules and conventions of speaking. In this respect Carroll's text anticipates certain features of the highly experimental texts of Modernism. Nonsense forms an alliance between dream and logic in order to challenge the boundaries of so-called ordinary language. But at the same time, nonsense is never truly subversive in a radical sense. The formal procedures of nonsense contain and neutralize its subversive potential. The threatening aspects of a schizophrenic dissolution, for example, are not only contained aesthetically but also psychologically. Nonsense even plays dream or schizophrenia and logic against each other: logic domesticates the dream, even as the dream undermines the rigid boundaries of logic. Neither one is allowed to dominate the other. Their collision transforms both into nonsense.

This chain of arguments leads us back to Elizabeth Sewell's thesis introduced at the beginning of this essay: that literary nonsense rather refers to mental relations than to a world of objects. We may now specify this perspective and say that rather than “referring” to mental relations in a quasi-mimetic way, nonsense establishes a metacommunication about mental relations. The difference lies in the fact that nonsense operates at a higher level of abstraction—even when it is most playful and paradoxical.

This metacommunicative aspect of literary nonsense will be reactivated in multiple ways by the later forms of experimental literature, which—as Michel Foucault and Hans Blumenberg have pointed out—are characterized by an aesthetic coexistence of an opening of language toward the unconscious (the dream) and a high degree of formalization (logic). Historically, we will see a change in literary experiments with the boundaries of language. The aesthetic potential of dream and logic will be freed for literary experiments with more serious cultural claims than Carroll's nonsense games. While Carroll developed his nonsense techniques at a time when realism was at its height in British literature, in later experimental literature both the opening of literary language toward the unconscious and its abstract formalization break with the conventions of mimesis and literary realism by creating new spaces of literary communication. They insist on “making sense” with literary forms of speech that resist specific cultural codifications. These literary experiments still rely on self-reflexivity and metacommunication, but less in order to obtain a secondary stabilization of their communicative systems than to reflect the blind spots of these systems.

Klaus Reichert has argued that Carroll's nonsense can be read as an anticipatory parody of modernism.24 The textual adventures in wonderland may seem like a parody of the fragmented, playful, yet also highly self-reflexive devices of literary modernism. Edith Sewell points out that nonsense is produced by a segmentation and fragmentation of elements that pertain to an indivisible whole. If we then read nonsense as an anticipatory metacommunication about literary devices developed later, nonsense may reveal an important insight into the aesthetic coexistence of an opening of literary language toward the unconscious and its self-reflexive formalization. In finding ways to communicate how these different aspects belong together and cohere in a larger cultural context, the new experimental forms of literature have made use of Carroll's devices. But they also have moved beyond the mere production of nonsense in order to enter into a literary language game which expands the boundaries of a codified symbolic order as well as a long tradition that valued literature mainly for its mimetic functions.

We might well argue that Carroll marks the beginning of those far-reaching challenges to our cultural notions of mimesis and representation which culminate in what we have come to call the simulacra of postmodernism. But then we seem to have come full circle: If our conventional rules and perceptions fail to distinguish the signifier from the signified or the simulated from the real, are we then not exposed to confusions between map and territory or words and objects similar to those experienced by Alice in wonderland? The “surface-intensities” that Frederic Jameson evokes as characteristic of postmodern experience, in fact, recall the délire of nonsense. But if the simulacrum is postmodernism's privileged form that displaces “re-presentations,” have we then not entered a phase of inverted mimesis?

I would prefer to turn the question around and ask: Is the privileging of the category of the simulacrum in current critical theories not perhaps rather indicative of the fact that we tacitly continue to harbor a notion of mimesis at the core of our critical apparatus? And the same could, in fact, be argued for the category of postmodern schizophrenia. Our inclination to posit and then tag the fragmented and hallucinatory surfaces of postmodern culture with labels such as “simulacrum” and “postmodern schizophrenia” betray a desperate urge to “re-territorialize” them within a space that is radically “other,” yet at the same time uncannily familiar. The designation of “simulacrum” allows us to harbor the illusion that we are always elsewhere and that the realities we inhabit are “only” simulated—albeit with the perfect mastery of a mimetic artist. The designation of “schizophrenia,” on the other hand, helps us to evaluate the overwhelming sensation of increasing intensities and fragmentations with a familiar “pathology,” which remains nonetheless irreducibly other.

Our critical approximation of either Victorian nonsense literature or postmodern culture with the pathologies of schizophrenia may then be seen as a “mimetic fallacy,” a move to recuperate these forms of literary practice within a tradition from which they have broken away. This mimetic fallacy enacts a critical evasion, sparing us the pains of actually encountering them on their own terms. In his introduction to The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner writes: “The last level of metaphor in the Alice books is this: that life, viewed rationally and without illusion, appears to be a nonsense tale told by an idiot mathematician.”25 In this formulation, both life and nonsense lose their cutting edge. By sheer coincidence, this “idiot mathematician” may then well have anticipated some of the most pertinent features of a “postmodern simulacrum of schizophrenia”—but the willful simulation also saves him and us the tortures of a schizophrenic experience.

Regarding this tacit sibling-rivalry between mimesis, simulacrum, and schizophrenia, it seems interesting that Deleuze historically played out the depth of Artaud's modernist “discourse of the schizo,” while the postmodern literary forms rather engage in the play of simulacra and surface effects. Could it be that what some critics call “postmodern schizophrenia” is a form of pastiche whose affinities to the phenomenology of schizophrenia are rather based on what Deleuze calls “traps of resemblance”? And, in consequence, does what Jameson calls the “waning of affect” in postmodern culture not rather resemble more the “safe play” of nonsense than the existential abyss of schizophrenia? Or do I with this construction fall into the same kind of romanticism that Lecercle criticized in Deleuze? But if, on the other hand, this were true, then we could expand Reichert's statement and say that Carroll's nonsense may also be read as an anticipatory parody of postmodernism and its enchantment with simulacra and effects produced at the surface of language.


  1. Cf. Martin Gardner, ed., The Annotated Alice, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965, “Introduction,” p. 8.

  2. Cf. Elizabeth Sewell, The Field of Nonsense, London: Chatto and Windus, 1952, Chapter 1, pp. 1-6.

  3. I evoke this term in order to recall D. W. Winnicott's assumption that literature opens up a “potential space” between the social and the inner worlds of the reader. Cf. D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, London, 1971.

  4. I use this term in the broad sense defined by Gregory Bateson in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, where Bateson argues that not only the concrete encounter between different cultures can be considered as a form of culture contact, but also the contact of different systems within a specific culture (as, for example, the contact between nuclear family and school system).

  5. Cf., for example, William Empson, “The Child as Swain,” in Donald J. Gray, (ed.), Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, Norton Critical Edition, New York: Norton, 1971.

  6. Cf. Elizabeth Sewell, The Field of Nonsense.

  7. Cf. also Martin Gardner's annotations, p. 121.

  8. Cf. Bateson's “metalogues” at the beginning of Steps to an Ecology of Mind.

  9. Cf. Gilles Deleuze, Logique du Sens, Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1969, p. 113.

  10. Ibid., p. 114.

  11. Ibid., p. 118.

  12. Ibid., p. 122 (my translation).

  13. Ibid., p. 122 (my translation).

  14. Quoted from Deleuze, Logique du Sens, p. 114; (my translation).

  15. Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Philosophy through the Looking Glass. Language, Nonsense, Desire, La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1985.

  16. Ibid., p. 107.

  17. Ibid., p. 110.

  18. Ibid., p. 111.

  19. Ibid., p. 111.

  20. Cf. Sigmund Freud, “Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten,” Studienausgabe, p. 119 “Reiz des von der Vernunft Verbotenen.”

  21. Ibid., p. 123.

  22. Cf. Freud, “Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten,” p. 119.

  23. Cf. Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965.

  24. Cf. Klaus Reichert, Lewis Carroll. Studien zum literarischen Unsinn, Munich: Hanser Verlag, 1974, pp. 7-39.

  25. Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice, p. 15.

Susan Sherer (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7373

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 curtain in the hidden window seat, escaping the vindictive wrath of John Reed. Repulsed by her angry brother, Maggie Tulliver flees to the house attic, fantasizing that her family will fear that she has died. Little Dorrit withdraws from the common space of the Marshalsea into her private room above the prison, and Little Nell hides behind trees and walls, silently observing clandestine meetings. Finally the seven-year-old Alice falls down a rabbit-hole into a Wonderland, the dreamspace of her own psyche.

Of these images, none can be more embedded in our cultural imagination than the child Alice dropping into the subterranean well of Wonderland. Indeed, of the many celebrated scenes in the Alice narratives, the most memorable, most potent, most quoted is Alice's initial descent to the bottom of the rabbit-hole. The lastingness of this scene seems even greater when we realize that, although neither Carroll in Alice's Adventures Underground nor Tenniel in the first edition of Wonderland illustrated the moment with a picture, it still became (along with the Mad Hatter's tea party) one of the signature images of the Alice stories. Why, we must ask, did the Victorians retain, with a powerful tenacity, this vision of a little girl moving through a tight space toward the hidden world of Wonderland?

The answer to this question is not—at least not wholly—that the scene simply represents a child's metaphorical progress through the birth canal1 and that this, in turn, symbolizes some kind of rite of passage, a movement towards some deeper knowledge. For then how do we explain Alice's conspicuous lack of internal development in both stories? Indeed, for a narrative that thematizes motion, Alice's psychical growth remains disturbingly static. Throughout both narratives, Alice displays little emotional variation, for when she is not frustrated or anxious, she is, for the most part, vapid or expressionless. In fact, one is immediately struck by her coolness and indifference as she drops through the rabbit-hole.2 Thus, because scene changes in Wonderland and Looking-Glass rarely betoken any emotional or intellectual modulations, Alice's falling into Wonderland signals no internal transition.

But the image does relocate her body and within this fictive world, location is everything. The scene gestures Alice's departure, her separation, her movement towards an autonomy of which every child dreams when, in play, retreating to a hidden space. A child's impulse to hide, to create a secret space, is one of the most compelling of all human wishes, the wish for autonomy and autarchy—“to be cut off from the word and yet owner of the world.”3 Throughout Victorian literature, the fantasy of autonomy sets children dreaming of far-away worlds and hidden gardens. The young Cathy and Heathcliff flee to the isolated moors, filling the open, empty space with dreams of unrestricted freedom. Little Dorrit envisages the locked garden behind the Marshalsea as an alternative world to the foul prison atmosphere. And what are the Brontës's Angria and Gondol but disconnected, self-governing realms imagined from the standpoint of childhood powerlessness? The image, then, of Alice's fall begins to fulfill this powerful wish for autonomy, which culminates, finally, in Alice's self-coronation at the end of Looking-Glass. Yet it is only within the child's willing imagination that a secret space can encroach so closely upon autonomy, for as we shall see, secrecy and autonomy are irreconcilable not only in the demanding world of realism, but even in the more elastic world of Carrollian fantasy.


Alice's descent into Wonderland and her entrance into the Looking-Glass kingdom would seem like ripe metaphors for Carroll to explore the thoughts and fantasies of Alice's psyche. What could be more oneiric than an underground world or a secret realm beyond a mirror? Further, the construction of the dream frame in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature usually signals an author's undertaking of psychological realism. Much has been written on the Freudian thematics of the Alice stories,4 but if, as many have argued, Alice falls down into the dreamland of her own unconscious, she meets there not identification and revelation, but rather frustration and deferral. Recall that in both works Alice awakens not as from a wish fulfilled, but as from a desire thwarted. If Wonderland really represents the underground of her own psyche, it is a psyche not entirely her own, more different than mysterious, more foreign than obscure. This becomes most apparent when we realize that the emotional and cognitive dissonance between Alice and her dream creatures reflects a larger disunion of energies that marks the narratives. Throughout both stories Carroll works hard to illustrate the incongruousness of sensibilities that estranges Alice from the other figures. The scene in Looking-Glass in which the Queen offers Alice a dry biscuit, unfittingly, to quell her thirst is a paradigm of the sharp discordance between characters. Inappropriate and irrelevant responses such as the Queen's fill both Alice stories and reveal an atmosphere depleted of psychical recognition and sympathetic reaction. To read a text as an exposition of a subject's inner world is to assume that it is through the lens of that subject's psyche that we identify symbols and organize meaning. However, the psychological dissociation between Alice and the Wonderland and Looking-Glass figures disallows this genre of interpretation.

The dream frame does open up the possibility for psychological realism, but Carroll closes it off just as quickly. One way of apprehending this is by comparing Wonderland with The Wizard of Oz—a narrative similar in structure and content. Both are stories of a young girl's dream of a passage through, and return from, a kind of fairy-tale land. But the dream frame in Baum's text shapes itself into a psychoanalytic examination of Dorothy's psyche. The parallels between the waking world and the dream world inform one another, and we begin to see how Dorothy's unconscious translates her lived experience into the metaphors of dreamwork. In Carroll's text, however, the connection between Alice's waking reality and her dreamscape is radically tenuous; the two worlds are almost autonomous. How can we say that Alice's dream is an exposition of her unconscious when Carroll paints her and her world in only the broadest strokes? Further, Alice's desire to reach the garden never equals the pitch and urgency of Dorothy's longing to return to Kansas. In the simplest terms, Alice lacks the passion and commitment to her own destiny that advances Dorothy's journey through Oz. As Alice encounters the creatures of Wonderland and the Looking-Glass world, Carroll creates not a quest for identity, or a solitary journey into the self, but rather a sequence of spectacles for childhood voyeurism.

The inhabitants of her dreamworld are hollow signifiers that repel interpretation, not layered symbols that lure penetration. The Mad Hatter's madness, after all, forms no pattern, generates no repetition. When Alice asks him what happens when he has returned, full circle, to the head of the table, he has no answer and can only redirect the subject of their conversation. The Mad Hatter's inability to answer reflects a larger tendency in the narratives to skim surfaces and deflect inquiry. Throughout both stories Alice continually asks “What will happen next?” but Carroll always accelerates his narrative and whisks us to a new scene before Alice's question can be answered.

In much Victorian fiction the movement into secret enclosures begins as a retreat from the urban world but develops, ultimately, into an act of self-exploration. But this is not true of Carroll's fiction. Indeed, the many instances in the Alice stories of characters positioned with their heads facing downwards betokens repellency, not introspection.

The spatial imagery and objects that fill Wonderland and the Looking-Glass world are similarly misleading. Hidden doors, dark tunnels, ungraspable keys and dense woods all create an architecture crowded with secret spaces and hence suggest an atmosphere of concealment and discovery. Upon closer inspection, however, we see that Alice's dreamworlds and secrecy are strangely incompatible. This is a crucial insight, for as we shall see, the Alice narratives lack precisely what other narratives must have in order to hatch a fictive world that contains secrets. In apprehending the reasons for this absence of secrecy in Carroll, we will establish a grammar of terms that can aid us in the project of exploring hidden spaces in other fiction.

Let us first examine the terms of Wonderland's complex spatial dynamics.5 One notices immediately the fantastic elasticity of space and size that Alice experiences as she travels to the garden. Space is created as she moves through it and closes up behind her as she exits. It is as if space does not exist unless she inhabits it; the hole deepens as she falls through it; doors, keys, and corridors materialize as she needs them.

Suddenly she came upon a little three-legged table, all made of solid glass; there was nothing on it except a tiny golden key. … However on the second time round, she came upon a low curtain she had not noticed before, and behind it was a little door. … There seemed to be no use in waiting by the little door, so she went back to the table … this time she found a little bottle on it. …

(pp. 29-30)6

This kind of ad-hoc spatiality differs radically from the spatial imperatives that we find in, say, Hardy, who continually reminds us that physical structures outlive their human makers. For instance, the amphitheater in The Mayor of Casterbridge has existed for centuries past and will remain long after Henchard dies. Similarly Tess's fate at Stonehenge is but one moment in the long history of the ancient structure. Thus Hardy establishes a setting and then animates it with characters and events. In Carroll, however, place and character cannot be detached, for one immediately generates the other.

That space dissolves as Alice departs from it explains why there is no backward motion in Wonderland, no possibility to return to an established place. Thus Alice must never climb back up the rabbit-hole in order to escape. If we say that there is no reverse motion or return in Wonderland then we have made a crucial discovery: There can be no secrecy or secret spaces in Wonderland for such secrecy demands stability, a constancy that permits return. To hide an object, a person, a story, a memory, implies that there is a constant, an unwavering signifier that can be hidden, which is to say, a floating signifier eludes concealment. Conversely, if there is only backward motion (as in most of Through the Looking-Glass), then there can be no secret places either, for secrecy also requires the forward motion of a sequacious, progressive logic: A must exist before B can hide it.

But location is not the only instability that disallows secrecy in Wonderland and Looking-Glass. If space and motion are irregular, so then is time. Carroll at once creates and undermines the continuous narrative trajectory of traditional fiction. True, both narratives advance in sequent linearity, one scene following logically from another, with Alice's progress to the garden (and the eighth square in Looking-Glass) as the shaping structure and her dream as the outermost frame. But there is a kind of fragmentation—an abrupt skittishness that terminates the scenes—that compromises this linearity and that becomes more prominent in Looking-Glass. Although, as we have noted, Alice continually asks, “What will happen next,” she is answered with only the most evasive responses or, more commonly, with sudden changes of scene and location, making the narrative more like a series of dashes than an unbroken linear path.7 The scenes in both texts are almost autonomous moments, a succession of vignettes, thus preventing the narratives from accumulating a history from which to form secrets and establish locations. Hence we can see that stability—some kind of continuity of time and permanence of location—is requisite for a narrative to produce secret spaces.

What we have been saying, essentially, is that secrecy demands contextualization, a surrounding set of variables towards which it can stand in relation and in which it can find a location. Secrecy and, more specifically, secret spaces are ensconced within a larger sphere—both spatial and temporal—that a narrative must create. This suggests, further, that autonomy deflects secrecy. Its essence, its status as independence, disconnectedness, disallows the incorporation that is requisite for secret spaces.

In Dickens's Little Dorrit, Amy narrates a short story that illustrates exquisitely this point that secrecy requires contextualization. The story goes as follows: A poor tiny woman who lives alone in a cottage is seen through her window by a beautiful princess who has the power of knowing secrets. One day the princess enters the cottage and, without provocation or prelude, asks the tiny woman, “Why do you keep it there?” Her question reveals to the woman that the princess knows of her secret “box of shadows” which she then removes from a “very secret place.” She tells the princess that she lives alone in order to protect her secret box which, she claims, will sink into her grave when she dies. The princess continues to pass the cottage almost every day, whereupon the two would exchange knowing glances. One day the princess learns that the tiny woman has died and, upon inspecting her cottage, realizes that the woman had been correct: her “treasured shadow” has accompanied her to the grave.

The story reveals Dorrit's wish for silence and noninvolvement, and also echoes Dickens's larger narrative in several places. But for our purposes we need only note the details as outlined. To begin, the tale is striking for its absence of conflict; not only is the secret never revealed, but it is, moreover, never threatened with exposure. For this reason, the princess may seem extraneous to the story, for she poses no threat and alters nothing of the fate of the tiny woman or her secret. The princess, at first, seems to be but a narrative object, lacking agency or interest, but she is essential to the story. She is the tale's most indispensable element. Without her, the tiny woman with her box of shadows is an autonomous life, not the site of secrecy. By riding past the cottage every day, the princess locates the secret within a spatial, temporal, and communal field. She is the context without which the box would not be a secret.

Thus secrets cannot, if you will, float around in emptiness. They emerge out of an already existent presence, for they are derivative, ineluctably secondary. Further, a secret, in order to remain a secret, cannot break off from its conceiver; it is always owned, never autonomous.

We can see also that what Carroll and his critics call the nonsense jargon of the Alice stories is a kind of autonomy of signifiers. For nonsense claims autonomy—detachment from any signifieds. How then can there be secrecy where there is no stable meaning and hence nothing to hide? But this interpretation that meaning is absent from the Alice texts relies upon the reader believing Carroll's insistence that the narratives are hollow of meaning, that they house no secrets, only surfaces. As critics, we have developed a vast collection of essays and articles arguing that the so-called nonsense jargon is itself a concealer of meaning and a shunting of our interpreting glances. Indeed, pure nonsense cannot produce a narrative, and, while the narratives are unusual, they are narratives nevertheless.

The Alice stories, then, articulate a double message: on the one hand, they create the illusion of secrecy, they entice us with answerless riddles and imagery of hidden doors, unseen passages and ungraspable objects; on the other hand, however, they avert our scrutiny with the characters' nonsense jargon and absurd logic. It is as if the stories draw us towards them and then teasingly turn away. There may be no secrecy, as we have seen, but there is no straightforwardness either.

Evasiveness governs the semiotic structure of both narratives. Throughout the Alice stories, there is an implicit decorum to speak indirectly, to refer, not address, to allude, not define. We continually hear the characters use the demonstrative that (always italicized), instead of directly describing their subjects:

“Why, because there's nobody with me!” cried Humpty Dumpty. “Did you think I didn't know the answer to that? Ask another.”

(p. 263)

“Do you call that a whisper?” cried the poor king, jumping up and shaking himself. “If you do such a thing again, I'll have you buttered.”

(p. 282)

It was all very well to say ‘Drink me,’ but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry.

(p. 31)

To state unequivocally threatens the fictive spell. In Wonderland, Alice awakens from her dream at the moment when she unambiguously addresses and defines the King and Queen:

“Who cares for you?” said Alice … “You're nothing but a pack of cards!”

At this the whole pack rose up in the air, and came flying down on her: she gave a little scream … and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister. …

(pp. 161-62)

Similarly, in Looking-Glass, the fawn darts from Alice's embrace at the moment that it can precisely define her:

“What do you call yourself?” the Fawn said at last. …

“I wish I knew!” thought poor Alice. She answered rather sadly, “Nothing, just now.”

… So they walked on together through the wood, Alice with her arms clasped lovingly round the soft neck of the Fawn, till they came out into another open field, and here the Fawn gave a sudden bound into the air, and shook itself free from Alice's arm. “I'm a Fawn!” it cried out in a voice of delight. “And, dear me! you're a human child!” A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes, and in another moment it had darted away at full speed.

(pp. 226-27)

Speech that defines subverts entracement, agitates the mesmeric spell. It is essential to see that this endorsing of indirectness is evasion, not secrecy, and dispersal, not definition. The fawn's fear of capture can be seen as a metaphor for the narrative's rejection of definition, of linguistic capture. That is to say that Carroll's text prohibits the articulation of meaning, which it here metaphorizes as a kind of seizure. Just as the fawn detaches from Alice's hold, so too the signified disconnects from the signifier. But secrecy, as we have seen, presumes stable meaning, a secure connection of signifier and signified. Thus by terminating the link between signifier and signified, Carroll terminates the possibility of secrecy. In other words, the autonomy of the signifier precludes secrecy. Autonomy and secrecy, I am suggesting, are rival imperatives.

What, then, is the difference between these two conditions? Clearly both intimate a kind of solitude that is their deepest connection. But secrecy, as I have earlier shown, implies a pocket of solitude within a subsuming sphere; moreover, it implies, as its etymology makes clear, separation which, in turn, implies severed contact. To be secret is to have once been connected; contact, connection is secrecy's most subtle distinction. Autonomy, however, suggests self-containment, not connection.

Secrecy and, now we can add, contact, are almost entirely absent from Carroll's vision. Wonderland and Looking-Glass are worlds of cruel autonomy, symbolized most powerfully by the Cheshire cat's head that can live detached from its body, and still grin. Scenes of failed contact imbue both narratives. Alice follows the White Rabbit down the hole, but she can never fully reach him. In Looking-Glass, objects are similarly unattainable: The goat's beard “seemed to melt away as she touched it” (p. 221), and the rushes also “melted away almost like snow” (p. 257). The absence of physical touch here plainly represents the scarcity of emotional connection, and even love, in Wonderland and Looking-Glass. And whatever else we may say about the humor and sophistication of Carroll's nonsense jargon, the conversations that lead nowhere illustrate, at bottom, the hollowness of relationships in Alice's dreamworlds.

This failure of contact may be a kind of fear of contact deriving from what psychoanalysis has named Alice's oral aggression and what Nina Auerbach has called Alice's “subtly cannibalistic hunger.”8 In both narratives, Alice's presence portends potential danger. Can Alice really be so unwitting of Dinah's threat to the Wonderland animals? And in Looking-Glass when Alice threatens to pick the daisies, one begins to wonder whether her “curiosity” is not childhood innocence, but rather fallen aggression. One cannot help but notice a schism between Alice's popular image as an artless child of nature and her actual representation as a demure yet fearless little wanderer.

But how, we must ask, did this myth of Alice emerge from Carroll's original portrayal of her as the dark-haired, bewitching-eyed child of Alice's Adventures Underground? The evolution of Carroll's dreamchild is a curious phenomenon indeed and beckons our critical attention. When one reads the text of Underground, one notices a dramatic difference between Carroll's and Tenniel's illustrations.

Alice's progression from the dark lady-child of Underground to the saccharine, blonde ingenue of Wonderland is visible to even the most cursory glance and is only one symptom of the larger transformation of the Alice myth.9 Carroll's representations of her, especially when she changes size, are more offbeat, somewhat surreal and certainly more disturbing. In a particularly vivid picture, Alice is portrayed as an oversized head, no neck or body, only feet and hands extending from beneath her chin. On the next page, she is depicted as a long neck with a head on top, no body or feet below, like a human lollipop. This kind of eccentricity is muted in Tenniel's drawings, which are, for the most part, flat and insipid. For instance, most of Tenniel's illustrations are single caricatures, departing far from Carroll's more populated and detailed sketches.

Tenniel's illustrations established a tendency, continuing even now, to imagine Alice as a paragon of childhood innocence. Films, cartoons, theater productions and modern illustrations all recreate, in some way, this idea of Alice as a symbol of unwitting purity and wide-eyed curiosity. Clearly Carroll's readers have revealed a desire to read the Alice stories according to Tenniel's illustrations.

Although Tenniel's interpretation diverges from Carroll's representation, there must be in Carroll's texts something, some moment, some scene or theme, to stimulate this popular construction of Alice. Surely our acceptance and affirmation of Tenniel's representation finds some provocation in Carroll's writing. Is there, beneath the texts' portrayal of Alice's predatory nature, a wish for childhood innocence—a longing for Alice to be what she plainly is not—an uncorruptible essence of humanity? Both narratives, as we shall see, emit a subtle message saying just this: that solitude and autonomy are afflictions of the soul; and human contact and love, our most precious remedy. The deepest tension of the works, then, is the lure between perfect autonomy and human contact—a conflict which crystallizes the problem of secrecy in Wonderland and Looking-Glass.


In his introduction to the Modern Critical Interpretations volume on Lewis Carroll, Harold Bloom intimates that Wordsworth is the precursor poet standing behind and shaping much of the Alice narratives. Locating Wordsworth's strongest presence in “The White-Knight's Ballad”—what he calls a “superb and loving parody of Wordsworth's great crisis-poem “Resolution and Independence”10—Bloom argues that the White Knight is Alice's/Carroll's Leech Gatherer—“a man from some far region sent, / To give me human strength.” The alternative to human contact for Wordsworth, Bloom further suggests, is misery and madness, but for Carroll it is Wonderland, that is, play and nonsense.

Bloom's observation summons our knowledge of Wordsworthian Romanticism and we quickly find ourselves filling out the corners of his evocative suggestion. To begin, the White Knight's constant positioning with his head downwards and his headlong fall into the ditch symbolize his Romantic self-absorption, as do his absurd inventions that make sense only to him. His repeated declaration “It's my own invention” reflects his narcissism and self-deception, his conviction that he has created all that surrounds him. That he is sated by the imagining of pudding, and not the actual tasting of it, further represents his retreat into his own subjectivity.

If the White Knight functions as a Wordsworthian solitary, awakening the dormant well of human sympathy, then Alice's soul must require arousal, inspiriting. And indeed it does, for Carroll twice reminds us that Alice does not cry in response to the White Knight's song. But her encounter with him does become her “memory recollected in tranquillity,” a significant moment, the remembering of which in theory brings her to a deeper sympathy with nature and the outer world. With a Wordsworthian sentimentality, Carroll describes Alice's experience:

Of all the strange things that Alice saw in her journey Through the Looking-Glass, this was the one that she always remembered most clearly. Years afterwards she could bring the whole scene back again, as if it had been only yesterday—the mild blue eyes and kindly smile of the Knight—the setting sun gleaming through his hair, and shining on his armour in a blaze of light that quite dazzled her—the horse quietly moving about, with the reigns hanging loose on his neck, cropping the grass at her feet—and the black shadows of the forest behind—all this she took in like a picture, as, with one hand shading her eyes, she leant against a tree, watching the strange pair, and listening, in a half-dream, to the melancholy music of the song.

(p. 307)

The absence of irony in this passage stands in sharp relief to the other scenes in the narrative, which are almost all governed by parody and satire. Carroll's sincerity here is striking, and the scene derives much of its power from this unique earnestness of tone. Indeed, the popular misrepresentation of Alice as an innocent dreamchild issues, in part, from our misremembering the tenor of the whole story to be similar in tone and content to this passage. Like Alice, we remember this scene as a representative moment, not as the anomaly that it is. Thus Carroll masterfully orchestrates layers of revisionary remembering, reconstructive imagining.

This impulse towards revisionary remembering too emanates from a Romantic sensibility. Throughout Wordsworth's poetry, human memory does not simply duplicate in thought the past, but it moreover emendates reality, reconstructs a vision that resembles, but does not perfectly reproduce, the original event. In “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” Wordsworth describes the difference between the primary experience and the retrospective contemplation of it.

The waves beside them danced, but they
outdid the sparkling waves in glee:—
A Poet could not but be gay
In such a laughing company: I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the shew to me had brought:
For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood.
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then the heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.

During the actual experience the poet can luxuriate in the vision before him, but he cannot perceive its full purport until the time of retrospection. To remember the daffodils is not to replicate in thought an exact picture, but rather to alter a past moment, to assign emotions, designate associations, reappraise significance, re-edit temporal boundaries. Thus no memory is free of imagination, and no imagining is free of memory. When we remember we reimagine and when we imagine we pluck from our well of memories, for we can create only out of that which we know. Hence memory and imagination each construct the other.

Fittingly, the chapter that contains the interaction between the White Knight and Alice, “It's my own invention,” displays beautifully this Romantic bonding of memory with imagination. Just as in this scene Alice acts as a repository of memory, positioning the moment in the foreground of her Wonderland recollections, the Knight, with all his nonsense inventions, represents the agency of imagination that accompanies the act of remembering. I have until now been arguing that Carroll disunites any psychical connection between Alice and her dream creatures, but this scene clearly poses an exception. Here the White Knight and Alice function as concomitant mental processes. Because the two work synchronistically, it follows that the White Knight requires Alice's guidance as he departs from her sight: “I sha'n't be long. You'll wait and wave your handkerchief when I get to that turn in the road! I think it'll encourage, you see” (p. 314). “Encourage” may seem peculiar at first, but its root meaning “to give heart” expresses accurately the unusual intimacy between them—their psychical integration of one another.

Alice's and the reader's revisionary remembering reflects a Wordsworthian consciousness in still another sense. Like Wordsworth's, Carroll's reconstructive imagination manifests itself primarily as an elision of conflict and tension. If Alice and the reader locate this scene as exemplative of her Wonderland and Looking-Glass experience, then memory has been acutely selective. As we have noted, Alice's primary emotion has been frustration and anxiety, not the love and entrancement she feels as the White Knight's song dreamily lulls her. The scene is an anomaly, not a representative moment. This tendency to delete pain Carroll confesses in the opening poem to Looking-Glass.

And though the shadow of a sigh
          May tremble through the story,
For “happy summer days” gone by,
          And vanish'd summer glory—
It shall not touch, with breath of bale,
          The pleasance of our fairy-tale.

(p. 174)

We see this inclination to omit conflict throughout Wordsworth's poetry. In his narrative poem “Michael,” for instance, Wordsworth describes Luke's moral descent—the tragic event of the story—in only five and one-half lines (the poem is 491 lines in total). Notice the vagueness with which Wordsworth relates this core episode:

                              Meantime Luke began
To slacken in his duty, and at length
He in dissolute city gave himself
To evil courses: ignominy and shame
Fell on him, so that he was driven at last
To seek a hiding-place beyond the seas.

(ll. 451-56)

A hurried glance and nothing more for the tragic turn in Michael's life, the very impetus for narration. In a more stunning example of elision, “A slumber did my spirit seal,” the poet expresses in two stanzas the shock of Lucy's premature death. In the first stanza, Lucy still lives and the poet remembers his deluded disbelief of her mortality—the happy ignorance that is past. In the second stanza, Lucy has died and the poet imagines the difficult concept of nonexistence and a world that is absent of her being.

A slumber did my spirit seal;
          I had no human fears: She seemed a thing that could not feel
          The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
          She neither hears nor sees,
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course
          With rocks and stones and trees.

Swift and terse to be sure, but no less elegant and eloquent for that. In less than fifty words the lyric speaks profusely and articulates succinctly the human reaction to what always seems the suddenness of death. But between the two stanzas—between his love for her when she lived and his grief in the aftermath of her death—sits a blank space, an elision of the very moment of death itself. This absent stanza seems even more striking when we realize that Wordsworth was writing within an elegiac tradition that almost always recounts a death scene. As in “Michael,” Wordsworth excludes the moment of discontinuity, the very event that stimulated the act of writing.

For both Carroll and Wordsworth, then, the imaginative effort of writing is a kind of memory freed from pain. But memory for Wordsworth also heals pain and binds the human community. It is memory in this sense that bears most upon the Alice books and that will deliver us, ultimately, back to the subject of secrecy.

The ending of Wonderland bears an uncanny resemblance to the final fifty lines of Wordsworth's “Tintern Abbey,” in which the poet addresses his sister, who has stood by his side during his meditation that comprises the body of the poem. At the close of both texts, the authors momentarily rechannel the narratives through the consciousness of the protagonist's sister, and thus unfold an alternative vision on the scene—one that perceives from the vista of a different standpoint in time. Just as Wordsworth envisages his sister's impression of the landscape, Carroll imagines Alice's dreamscape as seen through the eyes of her older sister. In Wordsworth's poem, Dorothy's presence binds the rift between the poet's original visit to Tintern Abbey and that of his present one. Robert Langbaum explains: “Now he sees in her what he once was, and sees in the difference between them what she shall be. He has a transforming vision of her as a child of nature blessed in all stages of her life; and by identifying her future memory of this visit with his own and his present memory of his last visit, he sees in the different stages of their development along the same line the rhythm and harmony of things.”11

For thou art with me, here, upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou, my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend, and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once …

This gesture of uniting fragments of time into a coherent formulation is, among other things, part of the process of narrativization, of transforming experience into story. Its position at the end affirms its formal significance. Further, Dorothy's function of uniting disparate moments of time diverges from the autonomous vignettes that construct the Alice books.

But time is not all that Wordsworth joins. By linking past, present, and future, he also bonds himself to Dorothy, whose presence in “Tintern Abbey” has been criticized as unnecessary, an autonomous fragment dangling from the core of the poem. Contrarily, as Wordsworth weaves her into the thread of his experience the message becomes clear: the memory of the abbey means little without its significance to another. In other words, memory is meaningful only insofar as it weds us to the experience of others and hence integrates us into the human landscape. The psychological desideratum of the poem is not a heightened perception of the abbey, but rather a deeper union with his sister. Memory, Wordsworth implies, releases sympathetic communion.

Similarly, at the conclusion of Wonderland, Alice recalls her dream to her older sister, who functions much like Dorothy in “Tintern Abbey,” mediating the central action of the poem—the fall down the rabbit-hole and the journey to the garden—through the lens of an alternate perspective, one that differs in age from the protagonist's. Like Wordsworth, Carroll stages layers of temporal perspectives:

But her sister sat still just as she left her, leaning her head on her hand, watching the setting sun, and thinking of little Alice and all her wonderful Adventures, till she too began dreaming after a fashion, and this was her dream:—First she dreamed of little Alice herself, and once again the tiny hands were clasped upon her knee, and the bright eager eyes were looking up into hers—she could hear the very tones of her voice … and as she listened, the whole place around her became alive with the strange creatures of her little sister's dream …

Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.

(pp. 162-64)

Alice's memory of her dream generates a psychical intimacy between her and her sister that is expressly absent in the book's opening, where her attention quickly recedes from her sister's voice. The recollection of her dream, then, yokes Alice's and her sister's hitherto disconnected psyches.

If we say that memory cultivates human contact, then we begin to see shades of our subject rising back into view, for contact, as we have seen, is secrecy's most subtle distinction. To remember a person, an experience, a place, a moment in the past is to reject autonomy, to reconnect to what once was. Memory thus merges autonomous subjects and also knits fragments of time into narrative. That is to say that memory repels dissociation, or in Carrollian terms, nonsense. As memory contextualizes, meaning emerges and nonsense dissolves into abstraction. Finally, secrecy takes shape out of the continuity and contextualization created by memory. Hence, where there is memory, there is secrecy. The closing scene in Wonderland, as well as the White Knight scene in Looking-Glass, then, by celebrating memory, advance the possibility of secrecy, which we have seen to be strangely absent in Alice's dreamworlds.

Because remembering broods a secrecy that Carroll disallows, we see in Wonderland and Looking-Glass, fittingly, the precarious status of memory.

Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I?. … I'll try if I know all the things I used to. Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is—oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at this rate! However, the Multiplication Table doesn't signify: let's try Geography. London is the capitol of Paris, and Paris is the capitol of Rome—no, that's all wrong. …

(pp. 37-38)

Indeed, Alice is by no means amnesic, but her faculty of recollection is clearly compromised. After this scene, Alice almost never considers, even in passing, her waking life, her reflections on Dinah posing the only exception.12 Memory's deficiency signifies, again, autonomy's supremacy and hence secrecy's absence.

Let us now return to the White Knight scene in Looking-Glass—the scene that most overtly figures memory as a mode of human connection. The scene moves on several planes: The knight's poem about his encounter with the “aged-aged man” alludes to Wordsworth's confrontation with the Leechgatherer which, in turn, parallels the White Knight's meeting with Alice, which finally represents Dodgeson's relationship with Alice Liddell. By staging these multiple gestures of interaction, Carroll rejects, and reveals a disgust for, the autonomy and solitude he has thematized all along. It is as if Carroll here renounces his philosophy of nonsense in favor of a Wordsworthian faith in the human spirit. Like Wordsworth, Carroll affirms the redemptive force of love and sympathy.

Carroll's optimism, however, is a fleeting, momentary indulgence—an intellectual slip. The scene, like all of Carroll's, is a self-contained imaginative flash. Thus Alice's interaction with the White Knight does not alter her or bring her any deeper knowledge. Although the scene does initiate her movement to the eighth square and hence her queening, Alice's internality hardly even flutters. Her crowning, like so many of Carroll's metaphors, seems hollow of meaning, a symbol without a referent, a facade that conceals nothing.

The pull between the desire for memory and the compulsion towards autonomy represents the deepest tension of the Alice narratives—a tension neither resolved nor cathartically worked through, but rather left taut and unchanged. The drive to suppress memory and contact, meaning and context, however, necessarily subverts secrecy. For secrecy presupposes an existence of meaning, a renunciation of nonsense and jabberwocky. To hide something is to affirm that some truth, some signified, exists. But there is, finally, only nonsense in Wonderland and Looking-Glass, nothing, and therefore nothing to hide. Secrecy can find no place within a created world such as Carroll's, for it is, in its naked essence, a confirmation of truth, an admission of faith.


  1. In “Symbolization of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,” Martin Grotjahn states that Alice's fall represents “a trip back into the mother's womb.” See American Imago 4 (1947): 37; reprinted in Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll's Dreamchild as seen through the Critics Looking-Glass, ed. Robert Phillips (New York: Vanguard Press, 1971), pp. 308-15. In “Alice in Wonderland Psychoanalyzed,” A. M. E. Goldschmidt argues that Alice's fall is “what is perhaps the best known symbol of coitus, “Aspects of Alice, pp. 69-72.

  2. In “The Alice Books and the Metaphors of Victorian Childhood,” Jan Gordon suggests that Alice's dull unresponsiveness is actually a “mask of boredom,” concealing an acute anxiety about her “metaquest” to the garden. See Aspects of Alice, pp. 93-114.

  3. Roland Barthes, The Eiffel Tower, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1979), p. 17. Barthes brilliantly argues that the Eiffel Tower's profound cultural significance emanates from its self-sufficient status: “The Tower can live on itself: One can dream there, eat there, observe there, understand there, marvel there, shop there.” The Tower's polyphony of functions, Barthes concludes, fulfills this most heroic of all human wishes to be autonomous and autarchical.

  4. In “Alice's Journey to the End of Night,” Donald Rackin argues that Alice's adventure is “a grimly comic trip through the lawless underground that lies just beneath the surface of our constructed universe.” Rackin goes on to discuss the delicate form of Carroll's narrative under the pressure of such lawlessness. See PMLA 81 (1966): 313-26; reprinted in Aspects of Alice, pp. 391-416.

  5. For a thorough discussion of the distortions of space and the loss of the third dimension in Wonderland, see Paul Schilder's “Psychoanalytic Remarks on Alice in Wonderland,The Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases 87 (1938): 159-68; reprinted in Aspects of Alice, pp. 283-92.

  6. All Carroll quotations, The Annotated Alice with an Introduction and Notes by Martin Gardner (New York: Meridian, 1960).

  7. This restlessness may be what Carroll, in the opening poem to Looking-Glass, calls the “moody madness” of his narrative. Also, Alice's compulsive questioning reveals her desire for a continuity that Wonderland does not provide.

  8. Nina Auerbach, “Alice and Wonderland: A Curious Child,” Victorian Studies 18 (1973): 36; reprinted in Lewis Carroll, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), pp. 31-44.

  9. Nina Auerbach also comments on the disparity between Carroll's drawings of Alice and those of Tenniel's: “But a bit of research can dissolve what has been in some ways a misleading identification of Tenniel's Alice with Carroll's, obscuring some of the darker shadings of the latter. Carroll himself initiated the shift from the subtly disturbing Alice Liddell to the blonde and stolid Mary Badcock as Underground became the jollier-sounding Wonderland, and the undiscovered country in his dream became a nursery classic.” See Lewis Carroll, p. 34. In “Love and Death in Carroll's Alices,” Donald Rackin notes Tenniel's general tempering of the Alice books; see Lewis Carroll, pp. 111-27.

  10. Lewis Carroll, p. 8

  11. Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 44.

  12. Alice's failing memory also represents Dodgeson's anxiety that Alice Liddell might forget the story of Wonderland and, even more importantly, the dedicated love of its author. Conversely, we can also interpret Alice's obscured memory as a kind of punishment or assault made on her by a love-sick and fixated Dodgeson. By stripping Alice of memory and stranding her in the Wonderland and the Looking-Glass realms, Carroll isolates her and hence guarantees her accessibility. Her lack of memory is also an absence of personal history which would suggest that she is, as warned, but an object in the King's dream and not the subject of her own.

Carolyn Sigler (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5285

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 together some of the most lively and original of the almost two hundred literary imitations, revisions, and parodies of Lewis Carroll's enduringly influential Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Produced between 1869 and 1930, the works represented here do not passively imitate Carroll, but trace the extraordinarily coherent, creative, and often critical responses to the Alice novels.

The Alice imitations of this period embody the golden age of Carroll's influence on popular literature. They are associated in the ways they all adapt the structures, motifs, and themes of the original Alice books and respond to the issues they raise. These works are distinct from later, post-1930 imitations, which tend simply to make references to the Alice mythos while commenting upon issues and concerns far from Alice's world.

The literary responses of this golden age range from Christina Rossetti's angry subversion of Alice's adventures, Speaking Likenesses (1874), to G. E. Farrow's witty fantasy adventure The Wallypug of Why (1895), to Edward Hope's hilarious parody of social and political foibles in Alice in the Delighted States (1928). Alternately enchanting, experimental, satiric, and subversive, these Alice-inspired works reveal how variously Lewis Carroll's celebrated Alice fantasies were read, reinscribed, and resisted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are the most universally recognized and acclaimed Victorian works for children, having lost neither their appeal nor their mystique in the more than one hundred and twenty-five years since their publication. A few months after Carroll's death, in an article entitled “What the Children Like,” The Pall Mall Gazette reported on a poll which asked children to list their favorite books. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was ranked a resounding first, with Through the Looking-Glass following in eleventh place.1 For children and adults alike, Lewis Carroll's Alice books remain today both popular favorites and literary classics, sold by purveyors of fine editions, university presses, and shopping-mall bookstores, and available in a wide variety of editions ranging from picture books to annotated paperbacks to luxuriously illustrated hardbacks.2 In high schools and universities the Alice books are regularly taught in English literature classes and appear on virtually every Victorian “great books” bibliography. They are the most widely quoted books after the Bible and Shakespeare's plays, and have been translated hundreds of times into languages which include Japanese, Croatian, Turkish, Danish, Maori, Bengali, Chinese, Gaelic, Russian, and Swahili.3

Though often cited as vanguards in the use of fantasy in children's literature, Carroll's Alice books actually reflect widespread shifts in nineteenth-century literary tastes. These changes were the subject of much discussion and debate in the years surrounding the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, as in an 1866 review-essay entitled “Children's Christmas Literature”: “Fifty years ago … the literature of the young had a violent, bitter, and puritanical tone, calculated rather to harden and contract than to expand and vivify the minds of its readers. … All this has been amended for several years; but we may add that the improvement is progressive.”4 Like this review, which characterizes Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as “a charming tale,” most Victorian reviewers praised the originality, humor, and lack of overt moralizing in the Alice novels. A critic for The Spectator (7 August 1869) declared Alice's Adventures in Wonderland “beyond question, supreme among modern books for children.”5The Publisher's Circular (8 December 1865) deemed Alice's Adventures “the most original and most charming [of] the two hundred books for children which have been sent to us this year.” The critical response was not, however, universally positive. One anonymous reviewer declared, “We fancy that any real child might be more puzzled than enchanted by this stiff, overwrought story,”6 and The Times reviewer (13 August 1868) noted that while “we enjoy the walk with Alice through Wonderland … now and then, perhaps, something disturbing almost wakes us from our dream.”

The popular and critical appeal of Carroll's Alice fantasies did, however, solidify a shift away from didacticism in children's literature and help to make fantasy a popular paradigm in children's and, a generation later, adult literature. Several children of the late nineteenth-century who were brought up reading the Alice books, including Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce, went on to transform literature through their modernist rendering of psychological experience. As Juliet Dusinberre has shown, “Carroll's books ran in the bloodstream of that generation. … Radical experiments in the arts in the early modern period began in the books which Lewis Carroll and his successors wrote for children.”7 Anthony Burgess, who himself wrote an Alice-like fantasy called A Long Trip to Teatime (1976), has pointed out that James Joyce's linguistic experimentation in Finnegans Wake was influenced by Carroll's books, which Joyce had loved as a child: “What, with Carroll, began as a joke, ends, in Joyce, as the most serious attempt ever made to show how the dreaming mind operates.”8 After the 1920s, reviewers who had been fascinated by the Alice books as children—and who were of the same iconoclastic generation as Woolf and Joyce—began to study and critique them as more complex works, elevating their cultural status to that of innovative adult literature.

Despite the appropriation of the Alice books by academic literary culture, however, the Alice myth still informs popular culture in general. Both the Wonderland and Looking-Glass stories have been adapted for stage, ballet, opera, film, and television, and have served as the bases for many advertising campaigns, including the now-famous Guinness advertisements of the 1920s and '30s.9 Numerous clubs and societies are devoted to Alice study and fandom, both in America and abroad. What Morton Cohen has labeled “the Alice industry” also continues to generate countless Alice-inspired commercial enterprises: collectibles from tee shirts to teapots, chess sets, postcards, thimbles, dolls, diaries, jewelry, clocks, figurines, music and music videos, comic books, puppet shows, cartoons, stage productions, and film adaptations ranging from musical comedies to soft-core pornography. This lucrative and popular “industry” responds to readers' desires, motivated originally by the marketing efforts of the author, to possess not only the books, but the mythos surrounding the books' heroine.10

Culturally diverse readers and collectors continue to be attracted to this rather conventional, albeit adventurous, staunchly middle-class Victorian seven-year-old. As Donald Rackin points out, “In spite of her class- and time-bound prejudices, her frightened fretting and childish, abject tears, her priggishness and self-assured ignorance, her sometimes blatant hypocrisy, her general powerlessness and confusion, and her rather cowardly readiness to abandon her struggles at the end of the two adventures—in spite of all these shortcomings, many readers look up to Alice as the mythic embodiment of self-control, perseverance, bravery, and mature good sense.”11 Yet the key to the enduring power of these two Victorian children's fantasy novels and their pinafored young heroine has both eluded and absorbed critics ever since the books' publications. “What is the key to their enchantment, why are they so entertaining and yet so enigmatic?” asks Morton Cohen in his recent biography of Carroll. “What charm enables them to transcend language as well as national and temporal differences and win their way into the hearts of young and old everywhere and always?”12

A possible answer may be found in the very number and variety of responses enabled by the form and content of the novels. Their loose, episodic dream structure and playful use of symbolic nonsense enable varied and even contradictory readings. The Alice books' enduring power and appeal may very well lie in the fact that, like dreams, they can mean whatever readers need them to mean. Indeed, Alice is herself a multifaceted and contradictory character whose identity even the Wonderland and Looking-Glass creatures attempt, and fail, to grasp. The White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland believes her to be his housemaid, Mary Ann.13 The Pigeon, in turn, declares that Alice is “a serpent … and there's no use denying it” (Wonderland 43). “‘Mind the volcano!’” cries the tiny White Queen to the King, after Alice picks her up and sets her on a table in the Looking-Glass parlor (Looking-Glass 114). The flowers in the Looking-Glass garden believe Alice to be another blossom, albeit with rather untidy petals (Looking-Glass 123). The Unicorn perceives her as a “fabulous monster” (solemnly assuring her, “if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you”) (Looking-Glass 175). Even Alice questions her own identity, wondering after her plunge down the rabbit hole if she's become someone else: “It'll be no use their putting their heads down and saying ‘Come up again, dear!’ I shall only look up and say ‘Who am I, then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I'll come up: if not, I'll stay down here till I'm somebody else’” (Wonderland 16). Certainly, when the Caterpillar asks Alice in Wonderland's central question, “Who are you?” Alice has difficulty answering: “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then” (35). Like the Caterpillar, she is mutable, in a constant process of becoming.

Along with many other interpretations, the Alice books have consistently been read as portrayals of the experience of growing up and the construction of agency and identity. A number of critics have pointed out how strongly readers identify with Alice, our surrogate and guide through this unpredictable, sometimes funny, often frightening and violent, process. Virginia Woolf observes that “the two Alices are not books for children; they are the only books in which we become children. … To become a child is very literal; to find everything so strange that nothing is surprising; to be heartless, to be ruthless, yet to be so passionate that a snub or a shadow drapes the world in gloom. It is so to be Alice in Wonderland.”14 Morton Cohen suggests that much of the books' power can be found in Alice's—and by extension the reader's—triumph over childlike confusion and fear. Together, he argues, they experience “a catharsis, an affirmation of life after Wonderland, and on this side of the Looking-Glass”: “Once readers have associated with Alice and wandered with her through Wonderland, they are together on a survival course. They are thrown back upon their inner resources, determining whether their resources are strong enough to get them through.”15

Yet, while the novels examine the triumphs and failures of growing up, they also address the deeply conflicted, complicated and, unfortunately, often violent feelings about children and childhood which Victorian and contemporary cultures share. James Kincaid has pointed out that Alice can be seen both as representative of “the joys and dangers of human innocence” as well as “the callous egotism and ruthless insensitivity that often pass for innocence,” concluding that, through his heroine, Carroll “questions the value of human innocence altogether and sees the sophisticated and sad corruption of adults as preferable to the cruel selfishness of children.”16 Indeed, this coexistent ambivalence toward both childhood and maturity may provide contemporary adult readers of the Alice books with even more reasons to identify with the novels' heroine and her journeys. In a recent book about changes in the structure of life stages, Gail Sheehy argues that traditional expectations about age standards have been revolutionized by modern technological and medical advances, as well as recent social and economic changes:

People today are leaving childhood sooner, but they are taking longer to grow up and much longer to grow old. Adolescence is now prolonged for the middle class until the end of the 20s, and for bluecollar men and women until the mid-20s, as more young adults live at home longer. True adulthood doesn't begin until 30. Most baby boomers … do not feel fully grown up until they are into their 40s, and even then they resist. … Middle age has already been pushed far into the 50s—if it is acknowledged at all today.17

Living in a world of changing technology, expectations, and beliefs about the future, modern readers have much in common with the original readers of the Alice books. Victorians of the 1860s and '70s also lived in an age of increasing mechanization and industrialization, of economic, social, and philosophic upheavals, of cultural redefinitions of “child” and “adult” identities, and of escalating apprehension and doubt about the future. The Alice books have continued to speak to the anxieties of succeeding generations and their ongoing desire to impose order and stability on a turbulent world. Readers have, as well, continued to identify with Alice herself, perhaps if only because—as Humpty Dumpty observes—she is “‘so exactly like other people’” (Looking-Glass 168).

The range of interpretive possibilities presented by the Alice books has thus made them accessible to a wide variety of social, psychological, critical, theoretical, and aesthetic interests. The desire to “grasp” Alice (in both senses of understanding and possessing) has also been expressed through literary interpretations of her adventures. In the decades immediately following the publication of Carroll's work, hundreds of literary parodies, sequels, spin-offs and imitations began to appear. Significantly, these Alice-inspired works reveal the kinds of cultural work the Alice books performed at specific times among different kinds of readers, as authors either paid tribute to, reacted against, or attempted to revise their perceptions of the Alice books and their effects on child readers.18

The majority of these Alice-inspired works were produced in the fifty or so years following the books' publications and sharply decline after the 1920s when literary tastes and culture changed dramatically. The 1920s is also the period when Carroll's work was discovered and appropriated by high literary artists, critics, and theorists such as William Empson, Virginia Woolf, and Edmund Wilson. The decline of Alice-inspired literary efforts thus testifies to the very influence of Carroll and his successors on literary modernism. It was Wilson who in 1932 declared, “C. L. Dodgson was a most interesting man and deserves better of his admirers, who revel in his delightfulness and cuteness but do not give him any serious attention. … In literature, Lewis Carroll went deeper than his contemporaries realized and than he usually gets credit for even today.”19

Since the early 1930s, critics have interpreted Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass as Freudian allegories of a desire to retreat back to the womb, as reflections of the nineteenth-century ideology of imperialism, as archetypal journey myths, as metaphors for hallucinogenic drug experiences, as nostalgic visions of the comforting “secret garden” of childhood, as existential explorations of life as meaningless chaos, or conversely as meta-texts about the very “meaning of meaning”: “‘Is meaning necessarily contingent and relative?’ ‘How do we mean what we mean?’ ‘What does it mean to exist? to be human?’ or ‘What does it all mean?’”20 Such interpretations may seem to suggest that the Alice books are, indeed, too complex for children.

Certainly, the Alice books' appropriation as high literary culture in the early 1930s marked a significant decline in their appropriation and interpretation by popular authors, particularly children's authors. Unlike the large and coherent body of works that comment upon the characters, themes, and structures of the originals, the few Alice-inspired works of the last sixty years usually refer minimally or obliquely to the Alice books and tend to be directed at a sophisticated adult audience. Recent works such as Maeve Kelly's Alice in Thunderland (1993), Rikki Ducornet's The Jade Cabinet (1993), Susan Sontag's Alice in Bed (1993), and Alison Habens's Dreamhouse (1995) show the influence of feminist and poststructuralist theory, but not of specific, popular criticism of Alice, as do the earlier Alice-inspired works. These recent works use the Alice books as starting points from which to comment on questions unrelated to the books themselves and the issues they raise. This shift from imitating the Alice books to merely referring to details of the Alice mythos, of course, not only reflects changes in literary culture but larger social and cultural changes as well, such as the growth of the women's movement.

The works collected here date from the late 1860s to the 1920s, comment specifically upon the original novels and upon popular critical responses to them, and form a coherent body of Alice “imitations.”21 They thus share specific characteristics with Carroll's Alice books and with one another: an Alice-like protagonist or protagonists, male and/or female, who is typically polite, articulate, and assertive; a clear transition from the “real” waking world to a fantasy dream world through which the protagonist journeys; rapid shifts in identity, appearance, and location; an episodic structure often centering on encounters with nonhuman fantasy characters and/or characters based on nursery rhymes or other popular children's texts, including Alice herself; nonsense language and interpolated nonsense verse, verse-parodies, or songs; an awakening or return to the “real” world, which is generally portrayed as domestic (a literal return home); and, usually, a clear acknowledgment of indebtedness to Carroll through a dedication, apology, mock-denial of influence, or other textual or extratextual reference.

Attempts to imitate or revise his work alternately angered and flattered Carroll, whose diary entry for 11 September 1891 notes the acquisition of several Alice-inspired works for “the collection I intend making of the books of the Alice type.”22 Carroll's frustration may have stemmed from his own vain attempts to imitate his success, first with the more mechanical Alice's Adventures in Wonderland sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and later with marketing schemes for authorized Alice merchandise such as a Nursery Alice, scaled down for very young readers, a Wonderland Postage-Stamp Case, and a biscuit tin decorated with characters from Through the Looking-Glass. He also produced several increasingly stiff and moralistic fantasies such as The Hunting of the Snark (1876) and Sylvie and Bruno (1889). In his somber preface to Sylvie and Bruno, and in the wake of Edward Salmon's unfounded suggestion that Carroll may have plagiarized Tom Hood's Alice-inspired From Nowhere to the North Pole (1874),23 Carroll acknowledges that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass were indeed part of larger historical developments in literary fairy tales:

Perhaps the hardest thing in all literature—at least I have found it so: by no voluntary effort can I accomplish it: I have to take it as it comes—is to write anything original. And perhaps the easiest is, when once an original line has been struck out, to follow it up, and to write any amount more to the same tune. I do not know if “Alice in Wonderland” was an original story—I was, at least, no conscious imitator in writing it—but I do know that, since it came out, something like a dozen story-books have appeared, on identically the same pattern.24

The range and variety of these books “on the same pattern” do offer fascinating insights into the cultural and literary situations in which the Alice books have been understood and appropriated by different audiences—female and male, Victorian and modern, British and American. They also illuminate how diversely the Alice narratives, as both literary and ideological commodities, were interpreted, expropriated, and converted in both critical and affirming ways to question those same situations and, in some cases, to question the representation of Alice herself. Victorian women writers, for example—such as Maggie Browne, Anna Matlack Richards, and particularly the evangelical Alice Corkran—clearly reconstructed an image of Alice more appropriate to their beliefs about women's cultural power and authority. Indeed, Nina Auerbach has argued that Victorian women writers use character studies, fictional biographies, and reinterpretations of classic texts to liberate female characters from “the single set of circumstances in which author and audience imagine [them].”25 Though debate has been heated over whether Alice is or is not a feminist heroine, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century women writers were able to appropriate and reinvent Alice to free her from the restrictions of Carroll's highly conservative narratives and, in so doing, to “reveal the conditions in which a particular ideology of femininity functions.”26 The invocation of the popular and widely disseminated images of both Alice and Lewis Carroll also provided one means for unknown female writers to authorize themselves in the growing literary marketplace of the late nineteenth century. In particular, these Alice revisions illustrate the transition—especially important in the emergence of women writers—from private to public discourse: the transformation of private occasional writing for a particular child to a public text for popular consumption.

Because these Alice-inspired works are as much a response to the myriad critical readings of the Alice novels as they are to the novels themselves, this collection has been organized according to the kinds of literary responses most common to interpretations and reviews of the Alice books and, indeed, to larger debates about the cultural role of children's literature. The subversive Alice-revisions in part one respond critically to the original texts' conservative images of Victorian girlhood and domestic ideology and present Alice-like heroines who demonstrate power and authority over their fantasy adventures. Anna Matlack Richard's heroine Alice Lee tackles her adventures “not at all concerned as the other Alice had been … that she was too big.”27 Maggie Browne's dauntless heroine, Merle, defeats Endom's evil Grunter Grim by learning to “Defy, Deride, Desist, Deny, / Heed not a growl, or scowl, or sigh”—words of advice she often repeats and finds “very comforting.”28

While authors such as Richards and Browne see Wonderland as too restrictive, the school of responses represented in part two questions whether it is restrictive enough. Their didactic revisions attempt to counter praise that focused on the novels' lack of moralizing: “Notwithstanding any remarks of the Duchess, Alice has no moral,” declares a reviewer for The Spectator, agreeing with many earlier critics. The same reviewer also speculates about whether the books might be used didactically: “Will lessons become amusing by association with Alice, or will even Alice become hateful by being regarded as a lesson-book? The experiment is a hazardous one, and will demand no small skill and tact on the part of the operator.”29The Illustrated London News (16 December 1865), however, praised Alice in Wonderland as suited for “the amusement and even instruction of children.” Indeed, much of Carroll's post-Alice writings for children are quite didactic. As later critics have pointed out, “lessons and rules abound in Wonderland,” and serve to educate Alice in the rituals and beliefs of middle-class ideology.30 Alice Corkran transforms Wonderland into “Naughty Children Land,” which echoes with the dismal howls of the “Sulkies.” More ominous still, Corkran's heroine, Kitty, “fancied she heard the sound of smacking” above the sounds of screaming and shouting.31 Corkran reasserts the very didacticism that Carroll satirizes in the Duchess's song:

“Speak roughly to your little boy,
                    And beat him when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
                    Because he knows it teases.”

[Wonderland 48]

For evangelical women writers like Corkran, however, didacticism was an important means of asserting women's important social role as educators and, indeed, of extending the boundaries of the Victorian domestic sphere to include the literary marketplace.

In a 1927 essay entitled “Extensions of Reality,” Anne Eaton suggests that the appeal of sentimental “escape” fantasies, like the Alice adaptations included in part three, lies in their exploration of what she calls “a third region, not to be definitely located in the real world or in fairyland.” These fantasies “join on to real life and yet offer magical and mysterious spaces lying close at hand but hidden from view. There is more of a thrill in dwelling on the possibility of something unreal underneath the real, than in reading the conventional fairy tale.”32 Eaton cites the Alice books as such “betwixt and between” fantasies, also citing as “[a]mong her descendants who inherit something of the same joyous ability to play with words and ideas” Charles Carryl's Davy and the Goblin, E. F. Benson's David Blaize and the Blue Door, and Frances Hodgson Burnett's “Behind the White Brick.”33 Sentimental fantasies such as these read and reenvisioned the Alice novels as “pure sugar throughout,”34 as reflections of “a child's simple and unreasoning imagination illustrated in a dream.”35 G. E. Farrow's Wallypug books respond to and expand both the playful and fantastic aspects of the Alice books, concocting elaborate and absurd fantasy creatures, puns, verse parodies, and adventures for the novels' heroes. In The Wallypug of Why, the Crocodile takes a weak cup of tea out for strengthening walks, “propped up with pillows, and carefully wrapped in a little woollen shawl,” and Girlie attends a Fancy Dinner Party where guests are served empty plates and told to “fancy” they've been served real food.36 These sentimental Alice-inspired fantasies are concerned more with escape and laughter than with lessons or criticism, and tend to be dedicated to real child acquaintances or readers, as in Charles Carryl's tender dedication to his son, Guy, and G. E. Farrow's long, affectionate prefaces to his child readers and correspondents.

As children's books, the Alice novels were accessible to all, including the parodist. Modernist critics, however, took Carroll's work out of the realm of childhood—by reinterpreting them as sophisticated literary classics which would even eclipse “the productions of the Carlyles and the Ruskins, the Spencers and the George Eliots”—thus, removing the Alice novels from the sphere of popular interpretation.37 The pre-modernist political parodies in part four of this collection represent the first appropriations of the Alice books for adult audiences and concerns, and, though still closely paralleling the conventions outlined above, anticipate the gradual decline of the Alice-imitation phenomenon in the late 1920s, as the Alice-books were taken out of the literary public domain by virtue of their reclassification as serious objects of scholarship. These early-twentieth-century political parodies respond to yet another popular reading of the Alice novels: as containing veiled political references and satire, largely due to illustrator John Tenniel's popularity as a political cartoonist for Punch magazine. Martin Gardiner notes the wide belief among nineteenth-century readers “that Tenniel's lion and unicorn [in Through the Looking-Glass] … were intended as caricatures of Gladstone and Disraeli respectively,” adding that if Carroll—who was conservative politically and did not like Gladstone—intended the parody, then Alice's repetition of the line “The Lion beat the Unicorn all around the town” (172) becomes politically charged.38 Michael Hancher has also pointed out Tweedledum and Tweedledee's strong resemblance to Tenniel's drawings of John Bull (a satirical embodiment of the British common man) in Punch.39

The literary enterprises represented here attempt not merely to follow, but to engage, to question, even to subvert the ideological assumptions behind Carroll's Alice books. They illustrate for us today some of the ways that Carroll's nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century readers responded to and resisted the Alice narratives' influential ideologies of gender, class, and childhood. These works are also full of new wonders to discover, dramatizing why children and adults alike continue to demand (echoing the title of A. L. Gibson's 1924 fantasy) Another Alice book, Please!


  1. Pall Mall Gazette (1 July 1898): 1-2.

  2. In a 1990 article for The New York Times Book Review entitled “The Girl Is Everywhere,” Vicki Weissman notes ninety-three Alice-related entries in the then-current Books in Print (11 Nov. 1990): 55.

  3. Warren Weaver, Alice in Many Tongues: The Translations of Alice in Wonderland (Madison: U Wisconsin P, 1964).

  4. The Daily News (19 Dec. 1866). A large collection of early reviews of the Alice books are reprinted in Jabberwocky: The Journal of the Lewis Carroll Society 9 (winter 1979-80-autumn 1980).

  5. This quote was used by Macmillan in early advertisements for Alice in Wonderland.

  6. “Children's Books,” The Athenaeum 1900 (16 Dec. 1865): 844.

  7. Dusinberre, Alice to the Lighthouse: Children's Books and Radical Experiments in Art (New York: St. Martin's, 1987) 2, 5.

  8. Burgess, “All About Alice,” Unesco Courier (May-June 1986): 44.

  9. Guinness produced a number of delightfully illustrated Christmas booklets as part of an extended Alice-themed advertising campaign. The booklets featured parodies of familiar verses and scenes from the Alice books, all, of course, emphasizing the characters' partiality for Guinness beer:

    The Walrus and the Carpenter
    Were walking down the Strand
    And all the little Oysters came
    And followed hand in hand,
    “If we but had some Guinness now,”
    They said, “it would be grand!”
    “If seven men with seven tongues
    Talked on till all was blue,
    Could they give all the reasons why
    Guinness is good for you?”—
    “I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
    “But that it's good is true.”

    From The Guinness Alice (Dublin: St. James's Gate, 1933). Other Guinness titles include Jabberwocky Re-Versed and Other Guinness Versions (1935), and Alice Aforethought, Guinness Carrolls for 1938 (1938).

  10. The author's own desire for the child Alice may have played a part in engendering this appeal, though Carroll also worked on various commercial enterprises to market his literary creation.

  11. Rackin, “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass”: Nonsense, Sense, and Meaning. Twayne's Masterwork Studies 81 (New York: Twayne, 1991) 14.

  12. Cohen, Lewis Carroll, A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1995) 135.

  13. Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, ed. Donald J. Gray, 2d ed. (New York: Norton, 1992) 27. Future references will be cited parenthetically in the text as Wonderland or Looking-Glass.

  14. Woolf, “Lewis Carroll,” 1929, The Moment and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1948) 82.

  15. Cohen, A Biography 139.

  16. “Alice's Invasion of Wonderland,” PMLA 33 (Jan. 1973): 92, 93.

  17. Sheehy, New Passages: Mapping Your Life across Time (New York: Random House, 1995) 4.

  18. In Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, Jane Tompkins defines “cultural work” as “the way that literature has power in the world … [the ways that] it connects with the beliefs and attitudes of large masses of readers so as to impress or move them deeply” (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985) xiv.

  19. Wilson, “C. L. Dodgson: The Poet Logician,” Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll's Dreamchild as Seen through the Critics' Looking-Glasses, ed. Robert Phillips (New York: Random House, 1971) 198, 200.

  20. Rackin, Nonsense, Sense, and Meaning 16.

  21. Definitions of what constitutes an “Alice imitation” vary. Sanjay Sircar describes a detailed list of elements that constitute what he calls the “Alice imitation mode” in “Other Alices and Alternative Wonderlands: An Exercise in Literary History,” Jabberwocky 13.2 (spring 1984): 26-27. Sircar's article is also followed by a list of Alice-inspired works in the next (summer 1984) issue: 59-67. For additional lists of Alice imitations and parodies see R. B. Shaberman and Denis Crutch, “With Alice Aforethought: First Draft of an Annotated Handlist of Continuations and Imitations of Alice,Under the Quizzing Glass: A Lewis Carroll Miscellany (London: Magpie P, 1972), and Charles C. Lovett and Stephanie B. Lovett, “Parodies, Spin-Offs, Imitations,” Lewis Carroll's Alice: An Annotated Checklist of the Lovett Collection (Westport: Meckler, 1990). A selected bibliography is also included at the end of this collection.

  22. The Diaries of Lewis Carroll, ed. Roger Lancelyn Green, 2 vols. (London: Cassell, 1953) 2:486.

  23. Salmon, “Literature for Little Ones,” The Nineteenth Century 22 (Oct. 1887): 563-80.

  24. Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno (1889; Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1988) xxxvi.

  25. Auerbach, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982) 212.

  26. Kathleen McLuskie, “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare,” Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, eds. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985) 106.

  27. Richards, A New Alice in the Old Wonderland (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1895) 31.

  28. Browne, Wanted—A King, or How Merle Set the Nursery Rhymes to Right (London: Duckworth, 1890) 261, 262.

  29. The Spectator (7 Aug. 1869).

  30. Jan Susina, “Educating Alice: The Lessons of Wonderland,” Jabberwocky 18 (winter-spring 1989): 3.

  31. Corkran, Down the Snow Stairs; or, From Good-Night to Good-Morning (London: Blackie and Son, 1887) 48.

  32. Eaton, The Horn Book 3.2 (May 1927): 17-18.

  33. Eaton 18.

  34. The Sunderland Herald (25 May 1866).

  35. The Times (13 Aug. 1868).

  36. Farrow, The Wallypug of Why (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1895) 43, 87.

  37. Wilson, “C. L. Dodgson: The Poet Logician” 202.

  38. The Annotated Alice, ed. Martin Gardiner (New York: Meridian, 1960) 288 n. 10, 283 n. 7.

  39. Punch and Alice: Through Tenniel's Looking-Glass,” Lewis Carroll: A Celebration, ed. Edward Guiliano (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1982) 27.

Elizabeth Sewell (essay date fall-winter 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7432

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, which dealt with that high priest of Pure Poetry, Stéphane Mallarmé, and of my second such book, The Field of Nonsense, dealing with Lewis Carroll. In the latter I cite Walter de la Mare as putting Nonsense and Pure Poetry side by side in his Lewis Carroll.

Perhaps our present date on the calendar is propitious for taking this further. We have reached and passed the centennial mark from the year, 1898, when both these men died, Dodgson-Carroll at the age of sixty-six, Mallarmé at fifty-six. Already creeps in a kind of symmetry between them, of which there is more to come. Since their deaths, each has been subject to a surge of attention and publicity. Indeed, each has become something of a cult figure, threatened, as happens so often nowadays, by huge amounts of secondary material written about life and work. I am aware, regretfully, that I am adding to the heap. The trouble is that I feel a strong sense of unfinished business: Carroll-Dodgson, despite the mass of commentaries, biographies, lectures, and articles which we have all inflicted upon him, remains an enigma.

My starting-point will be to employ Mallarmé as a stalking-horse for this Englishman, so different but exhibiting curious resemblances with his French opposite number. The two of them turn up together in the literature all the time. For example: W. H. Auden in The Enchafèd Flood no sooner turns to The Hunting of the Snark than he begins to quote Mallarmé, at some length; Jean-Paul Sartre writing about Mallarmé mentions Carroll; so does Jacques Derrida in Dissemination, more than once; Gilles Deleuze in The Logic of Sense, which pursues Carroll in labyrinthine complexity, turns to Mallarmé frequently in the process. We have here a roll-call of distinguished names already, in favor of connecting the pair, and indeed the parallels between them are many. Just to touch on a few: each man produces a long poem about a voyage or quest, Carroll's Snark and Mallarmé's Un coup de Dés; each is haunted by mirrors; each turns to games for the partial structuring of one, two, three masterpieces—the two Alice books and Un coup de Dés—the former embodying cards and chess, the latter displaying its game by its very title, “A Throw of the Dice.” Each writer is a methodologist as well as a practitioner of his own art, nonsense and poetry, for which the received term now fashionable is that such writing is “self-reflexive,” a far from self-explanatory technical term, it seems to me. Even with all this, to call on Mallarmé for help in elucidating anything, including himself, must seem slightly crazy. In prose or verse this elegant, elusive poet is fearfully difficult, as we all know who have wrestled with his work. But my point is this: Carroll, too, is extremely obscure, per speculum in enigmate, through a looking-glass darkly (and do I mean obscure or obscurantist?) in ways quite as subtle and perplexing as his French counterpart.

We need help, and behind Mallarmé come other French voices which may supply that need. There is plenty to go on, for across the Channel they have built Carroll's Nonsense, particularly the Alice books and very particularly Humpty Dumpty, into a major preoccupation over the last seventy or eighty years. Here we shall refer to a few of the contributors to the collection of essays and comments in the Cahier de l'Herne volume Lewis Carroll edited by Henri Parisot; to Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense; and to Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Philosophy through the Looking-Glass. I will translate the French where it occurs unless it is clearly transparent to the English-speaking mind. On the Anglophone side we shall hear from Morton N. Cohen, Lewis Carroll: A Biography.

The initial focus of our inquiry will be Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark, with a look at one or two of his “comic” or “serious” poems, amongst these his purported Tennysonian parody, “The Three Voices,” which appeared first in his collection of verse, Phantasmagoria, and was reprinted later in Rhyme? and Reason?, this time with illustrations to which we will pay particular attention. With Mallarmé we shall need to make acquaintance with Igitur, about which there will be a good deal to say when we come to it. The beginning here, however, will be to accompany our two principals, Mallarmé and Carroll, as each undergoes an oddly similar experience. (The connection between the two incidents is noted by Luc Étienne in his essay, “Les jeux de langage chez Lewis Carroll” [CH 33n7]).

Mallarmé and Carroll, respectively, are taking a solitary walk, the former on a city street in 1864, the latter on a Surrey hillside in 1874. (Again, a small chime of dates.) Suddenly into each head, out of nowhere, there flashes a series of words, adjudged immediately by the recipient to be nonsense.

What Mallarmé hears is:

          La Pénultième
Est morte

set out in that form as if a fragment of verse.

What Carroll hears is:

For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

Each man has left a record of his startled reaction. Mallarmé comments, “lambeaux maudits d'une phrase absurde” (“confounded snippets of an absurd phrase” [416]), but he is caught. He tries murmuring the words over and over to himself uneasily, reaches some resolution by means of images while gazing into an old shop-window, and puts all of this, with much else besides, into a prose-poem, “Le Démon de l'Analogie,” ending with the outcry that he is somehow doomed to wear mourning garb for “l'inéxplicable Pénultième” (418). In the course of his poetic meditation he picks out, twice, for comment the syllable “nul” from the Penultimate's name, or to be more precise, not the syllable but the sound, le son. Mallarmé is the poet who desires to expunge meaning from words, and he is already on that trajectory. Yet the meaning comes through to us nevertheless—null and void, the Void itself. Nothingness—this is our first major theme here. We shall seek and find it in Carroll's equally mysterious oracle.

Like his fellow-poet, Carroll recognizes the message to him, “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see,” as a line of verse. He describes his reception of it in his 1887 essay “Alice on the Stage”: “I know not what it meant, then: I know not what it means now: but I wrote it down: and some time afterwards the rest of the stanza occurred to me, that being its last line” (qtd. in Gardner 12). The four-line stanza which he constructed backwards from the given words was complete four days after his downland walk. It runs as follows:

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
          In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
          For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.


The whole poem of The Hunting of the Snark, so its author says, developed backwards from this line and this stanza. He stubbornly denied up till the last years of his life that he knew what it meant or indeed that it meant anything but Nonsense. That stanza, the germ of it all, gives us interruption of speech, a cutting-off of euphoria (we shall meet the abrupt end of “glee” again, in “The Three Voices”), and a sudden final disappearance. Nothingness, here also.

The Hunting of the Snark is much less well-known than the Alice books, and perhaps I should say a word or two about it first. It tells of a voyage or quest undertaken by a group of ten men, nameless, identified only by the name of their callings, a Butcher, a Banker, a Barrister, and so on. All the titles begin with the letter B, a feature which Carroll refused to explain. This and the aim of their expedition are the only things that hold them together. Their leader, the Bellman, provides them with a map which they much appreciate for its simplicity, “a perfect and absolute blank,” but warns that some Snarks are Boojums, whereupon the Baker faints, having been instructed by his uncle on this point:

“But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
          If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
          And never be met with again!”


The Baker in the course of the actual hunt which they all undertake does come upon a Snark, it does prove to be a Boojum, and in the final climactic stanza the Baker vanishes.

Nothingness, “worst to all, the dreadful Boojum of Nothingness,” says Auden (38), and Martin Gardner, in his Introduction to The Annotated Snark, adds, “The Boojum is more than death. … It is final absolute extinction … the void, the great blank emptiness” (23). If Carroll is indeed pointing in this direction in the Snark poem—“It is easy to unearth the cult of the void and of nothingness in the poem,” says Jean-Jacques Lecercle (“Une case en avant” 41)—that is curious and interesting, for it sets him alongside of French and indeed European concerns rather than those of English-speaking circles. In his excellent study of literature dealing with the void, with nothingness in the nineteenth century, his book titled so admirably and uncompromisingly Nil, Robert Martin Adams claims that this is a French rather than an English preoccupation: “If the English are backward with regard to Nothing … the French are surpassingly audacious” (243). Gardner believes that Carroll thought a great deal about death and the possibility of his own non-existence, and points out that even in the Alices there are disappearances and jokes about death. We might want to remind ourselves of the electric conversation between Alice and Tweedledum, where the latter tells her that the sleeping Red King is dreaming about her and if he were to wake, “you'd go out—bang!—just like a candle.” (Through the Looking-Glass 120). (Mallarmé's Igitur is trying to edge its way in here, but must wait a little while.)

It is a curious fact that we have in English no proper word for Nothingness. The French call it le néant, and it shows up all over the place. I hope memories are saying, “Yes, yes, L'Être et le Néant, Jean-Paul Sartre,” and whatever else á propos may come to mind; and Carroll and le néant meet delightfully in the French translation of A. L. Taylor's contribution, “Alice et le Professeur,” in the Cahier de l'Herne collection, where the author says, “I seem to see him [Carroll] perched on his velociman, raising his top hat and going away, zigzagging, towards le néant” (238). (The velociman was one of Carroll-Dodgson's more peculiar inventions, a kind of tricycle that one steered by a curved bar behind one's back and that pitched one into the road if the rider made the slightest attempt to lean forward.)

I know of only two places where Carroll mentions Nothingness as such. One is in “The Three Voices,” and it can wait until we get to that poem. The other is in “Photography Extraordinary,” 1855, a parody in verse of three styles of novel-writing; the third is “The Spasmodic or German School,” the Gothic as we might say. The last line of the six which mock this brand of literary effusion is, “Nothingness is my destiny!” (18). Since “The Three Voices” is also a parody (some critics consider The Hunting of the Snark a parody as well—a parody of classic epic narrative of voyage and adventure), one is led to wonder whether that literary device is employed by Carroll to serve as a “surface”—Gilles Deleuze calls Carroll the master and surveyor of surfaces (LS 93)—to be used here as a cover from others and possibly from himself of what is holed up in his own mind. Morton Cohen believes that Dodgson's staunch Christian faith would render impossible the belief in an ending of life in the void (Lewis Carroll: A Biography 410). This seems to me arguable in view of John Donne, as solid an Anglican as one could find, who confesses, “I have a sinne of feare, that when I have spunne / My last thred, I shall perish on the shore.” If Dodgson felt this fear, he might not tackle it directly, one surmises, but by indirection and at second-hand. Deleuze, Lecercle, Antonin Artaud especially, berate Carroll for his timidity, but the self-protection seems very characteristic of the man. If we want an example of direct confrontation with personal annihilation, Nothingness, le néant, we certainly have it in Mallarmé and to him we now return.

In the middle 1860s Mallarmé had begun life as a school teacher, in Tournon and later in Besançon and Avignon. He hated his work to which he was plainly unsuited, but he had a wife and child to support. Desperately unhappy, he seriously contemplated suicide. Knowing his own vocation to be poetry, he learned English in order to approach more deeply the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and he began thinking about the nature of poetry and language, as he would do all his life. In this situation he writes a letter to his friend, Henri Cazalis, in which he speaks to him (and to us) about Nothingness. The date is April 1866. Mallarmé is twenty-four. This is what he writes:

Unhappily, in digging this deep into poetry I have encountered two yawning gulfs, which throw me into despair. One of these is Nothingness … and I am still too devastated to be able to have faith in my own poetry and to get back to the work which this shattering notion has made me abandon.


In a later letter to Cazalis, he adds an unforgettable image of his state of mind at this time:

I further confess, but to you alone, that I have to keep looking at myself in the mirror here in order to think, and that if it were not opposite the table where I am writing you this letter, I should once again revert to Nothingness.


Le Néant, and he gives it a capital letter. “Softly and suddenly vanish away” if the looking-glass were not there. Lewis Carroll's encounters with nothingness, if that is indeed what they were, are oblique and tangential compared to this. He sends his little alter ego through the looking-glass where she confronts going out like a candle but slides past it. Otherwise Carroll faces nothingness only in the form of parody. Mallarmé has more to say to us, this time in the form of fiction.

Igitur ou la Folie d'Elbehnon, to give it its full title, was found, labeled Déchet, or “Rejected,” among the poet's papers and was not published till after his death. Its composition is dated between 1867 and 1869. The mysterious title is unexplained. “Elbehnon” is thought to echo Elsinore, and there are faint traces of Hamlet in the text. “Igitur” has been variously interpreted; my own money would go on Lucretius: “Nil igitur mors est ad nos neque pertinet hilum,” which the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations translates as “Death therefore is nothing to us nor does it concern us a scrap”—the position of the chosen name between Nil and Mors, Nothing and Death, seeming very appropriate.

The story, if that is what it is—its author calls it a conte—concerns a solitary figure (a young man? the poet himself?) who occupies an extremely dark room which is fitted up with a clock whose hands stand at midnight, a candle, an open book or grimoire (a book of spells), a mirror, and heavy curtains and upholstery. Such properties reappear frequently in Mallarmé's later poems, but these are early days yet and the description seems more reminiscent of a setting in Poe. Now, what happens? The solitary starts to move, and begins a descent from the room by means of a series of staircases (there is a hint of bats in the air along the way, and are these spiral stairs?). The one touch of relief in all this gloom, as welcome as it is unexpected, is the young man's thinking he might slide down the stairs astride the banisters, although forbidden to do so by his mother! Once he reaches the bottom, by whatever method of locomotion, we learn that he is in the tomb of his ancestors, where there awaits him a small glass phial containing a drop of Néant. This he swallows and then lies down to die on the ancestral ashes, having blown out the candle and cast a throw of dice.

I defy readers' memories not to be activated by another narrative. “Down, down, down,” and then again, a paragraph later, “Down, down, down,” and next, “There are no mice in the air … but you might catch a bat,” and what of the little glass bottle—does it not have a label round its neck inviting one to drink, though perhaps at one's peril? (Alice's Adventures 6). And the candle that is blown out? In Igitur that is an image of self-imposed death, in Alice's case only a wondering thought: “‘It might end, you know,’ said Alice to herself, ‘in my going out altogether, like a candle’” (Alice's Adventures 9). The image recurs in Through the Looking-Glass and at a key moment, when Tweedledum and Tweedledee point out to Alice the sleeping Red King and tell her she is just a figure in his dream, and “If that there king was to wake … you'd go out—bang!—just like a candle!” (Through the Looking-Glass 120). Death and nothingness, but in Igitur the narrative goes further, for the death is self-inflicted. Here difficulties arise. Can we go forward on this path with Lewis Carroll? If we can, that will provide the second principal theme of our inquiry here.

Taking it step by step, we can admit that Carroll does seem to have thought about death a good deal; that he thought about nothingness, if under figures and wraps, maybe; but suicide? To suggest that may appear positively outlandish, but there is evidence on the subject, and the French may be helpful here. They certainly seem, to an English reader at any rate, to be much given to thoughts of suicide. I hope that making a connection between the French and suicide may stir memories: “Yes, yes, Albert Camus and The Myth of Sisyphus, etc.” Other voices speak here: Jacques Lacan remarking from the psychoanalytic standpoint that existentialism presents a vision of personality that realizes itself only in suicide (6); Sartre citing Igitur as “pioneering suicidal absurdism” and adding that long before Camus, Mallarmé felt that suicide was the fundamental issue facing man (145); George Steiner discussing Rimbaud's message of aesthetic self-destruction and “the death-dance of Artaud, the somber licence of the suicidal” (145). Are we, the English, “backward,” in Adams's great phrase, about suicide as about nothingness? Memory serves up a very standard English method of dealing with the unpleasant and unwelcome, namely laughter. Witness Chesterton's wonderful “Ballade of Suicide” with its refrain, “I think I will not hang myself today,” or the Tit Willow song in The Mikado. Carroll contributes to this vein in a strange chapter, No. XXIV, of Sylvie and Bruno: the little elfin boy Bruno dresses up as Hamlet in a stage performance, begins the second great speech on suicide, “To be or not to be,” and unable to proceed further, turns head-over-heels a number of times. He metes out this treatment to a line from Macbeth and one from King Lear. So much for suicide, and tragedy, a word we shall encounter later when we look at French views of “The Three Voices.”

Dodgson-Carroll being who he is, we need not expect to come upon direct discussion of suicide in his work. The only mention of it that I am familiar with occurs in the long, curious preface to Sylvie and Bruno where he speaks of a number of literary projects he would like to see carried out. One of these is a collection of sacred and secular passages from various sources, suitable for memorization. He then quotes from “that most interesting book, Robertson's Lectures on the Epistles to the Corinthians, Lecture XLIX” as follows:

If a man finds himself haunted by evil desires and unholy images … let him commit to memory passages of Scripture, or passages from the best writers in verse or prose. Let him store his mind with these, as safeguards to repeat when he lies awake in some restless night, or when despairing imaginations, or gloomy suicidal thoughts, beset him.

(Sylvie and Bruno 497)

One cannot help feeling that mention of such thoughts in what seems so inappropriate a setting must refer to the author himself rather than to any hypothetical adult reader Carroll may be envisaging. Morton Cohen documents fully from the surviving Carroll diaries the man's repeated, wrenching admissions of self-reproach, and directs attention to what Carroll called his “serious poems,” which he published and republished throughout his life, poems such as “Stolen Waters” and “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” (Lewis Carroll: A Biography 202-05, 224-226). To quote the first:

Yea, when one's heart is laid asleep,
          What better than to die?
So that the grave be dark and deep.


And the second:

The brightness of thy day hath gone:
What need to lag and linger on
          Till life be cold and gray?


Cohen characterizes the second poem as “another rueful monologue with suicidal and sexual intimations” (226). I think there is another hint of these same preoccupations in the poem which gives its name to Carroll's last collection, The Three Sunsets and Other Poems:

As when the wretch, in lonely room,
          To lonely death is madly hurled,
The glamour of that fatal fume
          Shuts out the wholesome living world—


If this does not mean a suicide victim gassing him- or herself, what else can it mean?

We are moving among shadows, but there is one poem, a long narrative published in Phantasmagoria and again in Rhyme? and Reason?, that lends a good deal more substance to what we are after. With it comes also a marked divergence of views between French and English-speaking critics. This is “The Three Voices.” When Carroll was writing it, he was twenty-four. It is generally accepted as a parody of Tennyson's early poem, “The Two Voices,” which appeared in his Poems in 1833, when he was twenty-four. May I remind us that Igitur was composed by Mallarmé when he was twenty-five. Something holds these three together. We will start with the earliest, the Tennysonian effort.

“The Two Voices,” hardly among Tennyson's best-known works, needs a little introduction. It is 154 stanzas long, each stanza taking the form of 3 lines rhyming aaa bbb and so on. For nearly all its length it consists of a dialogue between the poet and an inner voice arguing strongly in favor of suicide. At the 135th stanza another voice breaks in, presumably the second voice of the rather misleading title, which counsels patience and hope. The poet listens at his window—it is Sunday morning—hears church bells and sees a young family walking to church in quiet confidence, and himself goes outdoors into the spring landscape and more cheerful thoughts, accompanied by the second voice. It is, I have to say, a dismally unsuccessful production. Christopher Ricks quotes Tennyson himself as saying, “When I wrote ‘The Two Voices’ I was so utterly miserable, a burden to myself and to my family, that I said, ‘Is life worth anything?’” Ricks goes on to point out that suicide is a constantly recurring theme in Tennyson's poetry, and he lists 26 poems, some of them among the poet's best-known, such as “Enoch Arden,” “Locksley Hall,” “Maud,” and “The Princess,” where the theme of suicide is treated (96-99).

The question we must now ask is: what persuaded Carroll, who knew Tennyson's work well and admired it, to choose this particular poem, with its drum-beat of suicide through nine-tenths of its length, for a mirroring work-over? Can it be considered a parody? But then—what is a parody? That question seems fairly straightforward, but the term wobbles under one's hand. Lecercle says that parody is the method by which Nonsense relates to “high literature” (Philosophy through the Looking Glass 139), but must the intention be to make the original ridiculous, as the OED proposes? Beverly Lyon Clark, discussing Carroll's practice, claims that his parodies may act merely as a reminder of another work with no intention of satire, or may just supply a “scaffolding” for a different version (66, 69). Last and possibly the closest to the point here, William Empson suggests that Dodgson's choice of originals for parody must mean: “In my present mood of emotional sterility the poem will not work, or I am afraid to let it work, on me” (263). A scaffolding perhaps, in the borrowing of the verse form in “The Three Voices,” the triple rhymes, the slightly varied title, a merciful shortening of length, 108 stanzas as against Tennyson's 154. A protection against the direct theme of suicide? That we shall have to look into. For the present, let us look at what happens in Carroll's' “Three Voices.”

A thoroughly cheerful man is sitting on the beach at the sea's edge. There comes a puff of wind which blows off his top hat and deposits it in front of a woman, described only (and mystifyingly, though with a hint of “Stolen Waters” where the man's seduction occurs amongst trees and the woman turns into a terrifying hag) as:

          one who stood
Like maid enchanted in a wood
Frowning as darkly as she could.


She skewers his hat right through the crown with her “huge umbrella, lank and brown” (10) and returns the ruined appendage to him. (The Freudian implications are too obvious to need comment.) He is upset since he is invited to a dinner party later that day, at mention of which she decries dinners and eating in general, as also the rather feeble puns and jokes with which he parries her attacks. (Is she possibly a Snark? One of the “five unmistakable marks” of the species is disapproval of jests and puns.) Their exchanges continue, aggressive on her part, and so ends the first section, labeled confusingly “The First Voice”—for is the voice his or hers or neither's?

The mid-section is entitled “The Second Voice,” and the question of whose voice still holds. The talk now becomes more philosophical and abstract; she is going on and on, he increasingly reduced to incomprehension and puzzled passivity by how “ceaseless flowed her dreary talk” (128) yet seemingly too stunned to depart. When at last he rouses himself to respond, this is what comes out:

Mind—I believe—is Essence—Ent—
Abstract—that is—an Accident—
Which we—that is to say—I meant—


Three lines of total incoherence while she never stops haranguing him. He next imagines the guests at the dinner party he should have joined at long last deciding to eat, having waited for him for three hours. Finally he leaves his female tormentor, wondering why he had not done so earlier.

The title, “The Third Voice,” ushers in the final section. In place of “that woman dread” he now has to listen to an inner whisper in his own mind, no less accusatory and ambiguous than the woman had been, and his case goes from bad to worse. He weeps copiously as this inner voice addresses him, and ends up prostrate and in despair, consumed by an unknown guilt—“Alack … what have I done?”—as morning passes into noon and evening and night. At the very end the Third Voice murmurs within him, “Her fate with thine was intertwined,” and the narrative concludes with these words (and in this typography):

Yea, each to each was worse than foe:
Thou, a scared dullard, gibbering low,


I can see no way of regarding this poem as a parody of Tennyson's lugubrious but eventually edifying “Two Voices.” The only thing I can make of it, illustrations and all, is that it is the story of a man demolished, indeed destroyed, by a chance encounter with a woman.

The poem's fate in the hands of English and American critics is curious. They accord it brief comments, categorizing it as parody, and brush it off. Examples: Edmund Wilson, in his essay, “C. L. Dodgson: The Poet Logician,” says that Carroll “produced in ‘The Three Voices’ a masterpiece of intentional parody” (202). Morton Cohen calls the poem “a witty parody of Tennyson's ‘The Two Voices’” and characterizes it as “a humorous parody … embodying a bravura display of Platonic metaphysics” (50, 72). I am aware of only one longer commentary on the poem, Peter Blundell Jones's essay “An Examination of ‘The Three Voices.’” He calls this work of Carroll's a remarkably complex poem, and says that “it stands out as the most serious and philosophical of Carroll's poems before ‘Alice,’ but has suffered amazing neglect” (5).

The first thing to say about how certain French critics approach “The Three Voices” is short but crucial—they pay real attention to it. They do not slide past it as a parody and no more; neither do they dub it witty or humorous. Quite the contrary.

We will start with Pierre Sabourin in his essay “Louisa Caroline,” which draws on his earlier Lewis Carroll et ses Phantasmes: Psychopathologie. At the beginning of “Louisa Caroline,” Sabourin quotes the first stanza of “The Three Voices” in English, in his French text:

He trilled a Carol fresh and free
He laughed aloud for very glee
There came a breeze from off the sea.

Then, having given a capital letter to “Carol” he draws attention to the odd “collusion” of this noun with the nom de plume which Dodgson had assumed in agreement with one of his editors and which was attached to the published “Three Voices.” I mentioned earlier in connection with “The Hunting of the Snark” that we should meet laughter and glee again, abruptly broken off. Here they are—in Carol/Carroll's own story perhaps—for Sabourin asks where the narrative voice comes from and adds, is it not as if Carroll were being spoken, or sung in this poem by his double (160)? We recall that the Snark reference, “In the midst of his laughter and glee,” is thoroughly sinister, occurring as it does in the last verse, first germ of the whole, and recounting the fated Baker's sudden final disappearance. Having started his essay with “The Three Voices,” Sabourin returns to it at the end, and at greater length. He quotes in French translation the poem's last six stanzas, from where the original begins:

What? Ever thus, in dismal round,
Shall Pain and Mystery profound
Pursue me like a sleepless hound

down to the grim last line of all, quoted here a little while ago, which the French renders as “une avalanche de catastrophes.” This is the Third Voice's disturbing explanation of the victim's misery, and Sabourin comments that it expresses the antagonisms at the heart of psychic reality and bears witness to the irreducibility of human suffering (169). With that note in mind we move on now to the next French voice, cited by Sabourin and by so many others in Carrollian pursuit, Gilles Deleuze.

Hardly a household name in English-speaking circles. Michel Foucault, whom we do claim to have some knowledge of, has said that perhaps one day, this century will be known as Deleuzian. Be that as it may, it does seem to me that Deleuze's The Logic of Sense is, despite its intimidating complexity, required reading for any serious student of Lewis Carroll. Lecercle's words about this work may be helpful here:

The text grows and multiplies in an extremely disquieting manner. … There is an element of provocation in Deleuze's use (and abuse) of Carroll: the naïve Carrollian (including the present author) will hardly recognize his beloved text, and will think—with reason—that the philosophical onus which Carroll's texts are made to bear is crushing them. But, hopefully, he will in the end be grateful for some new insights.

(96, 155n5)

For our purpose here, Deleuze's most important statement on “The Three Voices,” as dark in tone as those of Sabourin, runs as follows:

Finally, in relation to the whole of Carroll's work, the tragic poem, “The Three Voices” is of particular importance. The first “voice” is that of a severe and boisterous woman who creates a terror-filled scene of nourishment; the second voice is terrifying as well, but has all of the characteristics of the good Voice from above which causes the hero to stammer and stutter; the third is the Oedipal voice of guilt, which sings the terror of the result in spite of the purity of the intentions (“And when at eve, the unpitying sun / Smiled grimly on the solemn fun, / ‘Alack,’ he sighed, ‘what have I done?’”).


So now we have tragedy in this whole work, with terror couching in each part of it. Deleuze returns to the poem in the very last paragraph of the main text of The Logic of Sense, picturing there a figure “one-third Carroll” writing in the sand (so we are apparently still on the sea-shore like the unhappy man in the poem). Deleuze then goes on to quote, but set out as if it were disjointed prose rather than verse, the extraordinary stanza which begins, “Mind—I believe—is Essence—Ent—” uttered by the man, “neglecting Sound and Sense” in the Second Voice section (Deleuze 248).

These three lines are unlike anything else that I can recall in Carroll's Nonsense. The Third Voice speaks of “gibbering” in the penultimate line of the whole poem, and applies that to the sufferer of all this. Now another commentator may speak and right to the point, Lecercle saying categorically, “Nonsense texts never dissolve into gibberish” (Philosophy through the Looking Glass 140). If this is not Nonsense, is it perhaps real life? Dodgson as is well-known suffered from a speech impediment. Cohen in his biography deals with this fairly extensively, and remarks at the end of the book, “perhaps his failure to correct his speech impediment was the overarching symbol of his entire life” (Lewis Carroll: A Biography 533). For Deleuze, however, to stammer and stutter—his phrase for the incoherence of the man in “The Three Voices”—can be seen as a way to freedom, to break up old conventions, to make language itself stutter (he cites Kafka and Beckett as examples of this), and to open the possibility of becomings and transformations.

Our next concern will be to see what happened to this tragic and somber “parody” of a suicidal original, its darkness well recognized by its French observers, when it acquired its illustrations by the American artist, Arthur Frost, in Carroll's collection Rhyme? and Reason? in 1883.

There have been times during my study of “The Three Voices” when I have asked myself whether any of the English and American critics who deal with it have paid any attention at all to Frost's drawings. It would be quite possible not to have, for the first collection in which the poems appear, Phantasmagoria and Other Poems, is not illustrated. Carroll regretted this, and accordingly approached Frost, who accepted the commission “to draw me a few pictures for one or two short poems (comic)” (Cohen, Lewis Carroll: Interviews and Recollections 95). That last epithet is of interest. Carroll sanctioned fourteen drawings for “The Three Voices.” Later he realized this was probably too many in proportion to the rest of the book, but said of the fourteen, “they are so brilliantly good, I cannot possibly omit one of them.” He had actually objected to one of Frost's drafts for the closing illustration of the poem, and sent his own “scrawl of an idea I have for a half-page picture … for the last verse of the ‘3 Voices’” (Cohen, Lewis Carroll: Interviews and Recollections 398, 309). We shall look at this later.

Frost paid no attention to this prompting, following in the footsteps of Carroll's earlier illustrators who similarly shrugged off the author's suggestions. Carroll's aim was, as always, to keep total control of proceedings, as is essential in Nonsense operations, but here something ironic happens. It is the artists whom he wished to subjugate (we shall look at Frost and Tenniel) who seem by virtue of their art to penetrate the subject better than the author could understand it himself—or could understand himself? So Frost lays before him, or sneaks past him, illustrations of the supposed “comic” work which turn “The Three Voices” into tragedy, agree with French interpretations, and perhaps illuminate Carroll/Dodgson in ways he may not have apprehended. Or did he? With this most accomplished concealer it is hard to know.


Quite apart from the vagaries or inspirations of his illustrator, Carroll's “Three Voices” makes its theme clear: the woman comes near to destroying the man by appropriating what should be his phallic symbol and assaulting his property with it; then, worse, she assaults his manly powers of discourse with her verbal attacks. The outcome stands in the text, not just in Frost's sinister drawings:

And, sickened with excess of dread,
Prone to the dust he bent his head,
And lay like one three-quarters dead.


With Tennyson's near-suicidal accompaniment in the background, we can return now to Mallarmé and lay alongside the moribund “Three Voices” persona the figure in Igitur who, too, lies down to die, his arms crossed, on the ashes of his ancestors at the end of his disjointed story. He has performed his own ritual, thrown the dice, closed the magic-book, blown out the candle, drunk from the little phial the drop of Néant. Nothingness, that very word inhabits “The Three Voices” also, Carroll's second use of the term we mentioned earlier. “Towering nothingness,” says the woman in the Second Voice section (170). That un-English concept—we seem to have come full circle in our own inquiry here.

We have been moving here among shadows but something emerges from them—that Carroll's shadows have recognizable kinship with the darkness towards which Europe has been moving over the last hundred years. The fixation upon nothingness, néant, Heidegger's Nichtigkeit, is part of it, as is the attack upon meaning in language (think of Humpty Dumpty). So too, I fear, may be the familiarity with cruelty which is so apparent in Nonsense, including Carroll's Nonsense (think of the Walrus and the Carpenter). Graham Robb in his outstanding study, Unlocking Mallarmé, says of modern poetry as foreshadowed in that great Frenchman's lifework that it is “an increasingly self-referential, suicidal art” (217), while Michael Holquist says of Carroll that he is “one of the most important figures in the movement Ortega y Gasset has called ‘the dehumanization of art’” (152). Carroll's shadows and Europe's resonate. Yet how odd this is when one looks at this quintessential Englishman who went abroad only once in his whole life and whose library, such as we know of it in sale catalogues after his death, shows no interest whatever in European culture, literature, or thought.

He remains a secret, or rather, he retains his secret. Do the French understand this more clearly than ourselves? We have sampled only three or four of our Carrollian neighbors, but many more are present: the Surrealists, amongst them André Breton, who claimed Carroll as an ancestor of their movement, and Louis Aragon, who translated the Snark and tried to recruit Carroll for the Revolution; Henri Parisot, the doyen of Carroll studies and translations; Antonin Artaud, who pays Carroll the tribute of hatred; Jean Gattegno, scholar and translator in his turn; Jacques Lacan, who takes time out from psychoanalytics to give a radio talk on Christmas Day, 1967, with the title “Lewis Carroll, Master of Playing Truant from School” (Sabourin 168n16). Ecole buissonnière is the French phrase for that—escape into the bushes, into the wood where things have lost their names and the soldiers keep falling over one another. Was Lacan quoting Breton who called Carroll the first teacher of how to play truant?

Master of hiding and evasion, of appearing and disappearing (think of the Cheshire Cat)—a whole method for this, for escape. “What fascinated us was the possibility of escaping the constraints that weigh on supervised thought,” says Breton (42). It still does, as so many of us can attest. Carroll's next appearance, more than once, seems to hover in the region of the new chaos science. What he, and we, will make of that remains to be seen.

Works Cited

Adams, Robert Martin. Nil: Episodes in the Literary Conquest of Void During the Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1966.

Auden, W. H. The Enchafèd Flood; or, the Romantic Iconography of the Sea. New York: Random House, 1950.

Breton, André. Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism. New York: Viking, 1980.

Carroll, Lewis. “Alice on the Stage.” The Theatre. April 1887.

———. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carroll. 1-80.

———. The Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carroll. Ed. Edward Guiliano. New York: Avenel, 1982.

———. “The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits.” The Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carroll. 177-207.

———. The Letters of Lewis Carroll. Ed. Morton N. Cohen and Lancelyn Green. London: Macmillan, 1979.

———. “Photography Extraordinary.” Collected Verse of Lewis Carroll. New York: Macmillan, 1933. 38

———. Sylvie and Bruno. The Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carroll. 491-654

———. “Stolen Waters.” The Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carroll. 842

———. “The Three Sunsets.” The Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carroll. 829.

———. Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. The Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carroll. 81-176.

———. “The Valley of the Shadow of Death.” The Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carroll. 835.

Clark, Beverly Lyon. “Carroll's Well-versed Narrative.” Soaring with the Dodo: Essays on Carroll's Life and Art. Ed. Edward Guiliano and James R. Kincaid. Lewis Carroll Society of North America: UP of Virginia, 1982.

Cohen, Morton N. Lewis Carroll: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

———, ed. Lewis Carroll: Interviews and Recollections. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1989.

Cohn, Robert Greer. Mallarmé: Igitur. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1981.

Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. Trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale. Ed. Constantin V. Boundas. New York: Columbia UP, 1990.

Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1981.

Empson, William. Some Versions of the Pastoral. London: Chatto & Windus, 1935.

Etienne, Luc. “Les jeux de langage chez Lewis Carroll.” Parisot 30-34.

Gardner, Martin. Introduction. The Annotated Snark: The Full Text of Lewis Carroll's Great Nonsense Epic. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962. 11-25.

Holquist, Michael. “What is a Boojum? Nonsense and Modernism.” Yale French Studies 43 (1969): 152.

Jones, Peter Blundell. “An Examination of ‘The Three Voices.’” Jabberwocky 1.2 (Dec. 1969): 5-8.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. Philosophy through the Looking-Glass: Language, Nonsense, Desire. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1985.

———. “Une case en avant, deux cases en arrière.” Parisot 41-50.

Mallarmé, Stèphane. Œvres Complètes. N.p.: Gallimard, 1998.

Parisot, Henri, ed. Lewis Carroll. Cahier de l'Herne, 17. Paris: Éditions de l'Herne, 1971.

Ricks, Christopher. Tennyson. 2nd ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1989.

Robb, Graham. Unlocking Mallarmé. New Haven & London: Yale UP, 1996.

Sabourin, Pierre. Lewis Carroll et ses Phantasmes: Psychopathologie. Paris: Thèrese de Médecine, 1968.

———. “Louisa Caroline.” Parisot 159-69.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Mallarmé or the Poet of Nothingness. Trans. and introd. Ernest Sturm. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1988.

Sewell, Elizabeth. The Field of Nonsense. London: Chatto and Windus, 1952.

———. The Structure of Poetry. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1951.

Steiner, George. Real Presences. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Taylor, A. L. “Alice et le Professeur.” Parisot 232-38.

Tenniel, John, Sir. Tenniel's Alice: Drawings by Sir John Tenniel for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Cambridge, MA: Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, Harvard College Library in association with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978.

Thody, Philip. “Lewis Carroll and the Surrealists.” The Twentieth Century 163 (1958): 430-31.

Wilson, Edmund. “C. L. Dodgson, the Poet Logician.” Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll's Dreamchild as Seen through the Critics' Looking-Glasses, 1865-1971. Ed. Robert Phillips. New York: Vanguard, 1971.

Michael Irwin (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5697

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. Humpty-Dumpty is doomed to tumble from his wall and defy re-assemblage. In both stories there are strange translations and dissolutions. The Cheshire Cat vanishes and reappears. A baby becomes a pig. The White Queen turns into a sheep, the Red Queen into a kitten. Everyday assumptions about the workings of time, direction, language and personal identity are called into question.

The work itself—the two Alice books considered as a single entity—partakes of this precariousness and advertises the fact that it does so. It casts doubt on its own origins and status through a variety of self-descriptive paradoxes, ambiguities, dualities and circularities. Much of Carroll's subject matter has been assembled rather than invented and retains a residual autonomy. Alice Liddell and other real-life models lurk behind certain of the characters. In Through the Looking-Glass the essential rules of chess are observed. Nursery-rhyme protagonists bring their poetical destinies with them: Tweedledum and Tweedledee are fated to fight, as Humpty-Dumpty is to fall. The ghosts of the poems the author has parodied haunt his transcriptions. Carroll shows a constant awareness that his story is a construct, and that his control over his discrepant source-materials cannot be taken for granted. Altogether Alice can be seen as—indeed proclaims itself to be—an interesting test-case in relation to questions of originality, coherence and autonomy. Is this an integrated, self-standing work of art, child of its author, or does it fragment, on scrutiny, into a concatenation of sources and influences? And if it does so fragment, can it be ‘put together again’?

‘He's dreaming now,’ said Tweedledee: ‘and what do you think he's dreaming about?’

Alice said ‘Nobody can guess that.’

‘Why, about you!’ Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. ‘And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be?’

‘Where I am now, of course,’ said Alice.

‘Not you!’ Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. ‘You'd be nowhere. Why, you're only a sort of thing in his dream!’

‘If that there King was to wake,’ added Tweedledum, ‘you'd go out—bang!—just like a candle!’

‘I shouldn't!’ Alice exclaimed indignantly. ‘Besides, if I'm only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?’

‘Ditto,’ said Tweedledum.

‘Ditto, ditto!’ cried Tweedledee.

He shouted this so loud that Alice couldn't help saying

‘Hush! You'll be waking him, I'm afraid, if you make so much noise.’

‘Well, it's no use your talking about waking him,’ said Tweedledum, ‘when you're only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you're not real.’

‘I am real!’ said Alice, and began to cry.

‘You won't make yourself a bit realler by crying,’ Tweedledee remarked: ‘there's nothing to cry about.’

‘If I wasn't real,’ Alice said—half-laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous—‘I shouldn't be able to cry.’

‘I hope you don't suppose those are real tears?’ Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.

(pp. 238-9)

Lewis Carroll clearly set some store by this passage. He recalls the problem it poses in Chapter 8, and again in his final chapter: ‘Which Dreamed It?’ Alice puts the problem to her kitten:

‘You see, Kitty, it must have been either me or the Red King. He was part of my dream, of course—but then I was part of his dream, too! Was it the Red King, Kitty?’

(p. 344)

The book closes by leaving the reader with the question: ‘Which do you think it was?’

The crux is a famous one, much discussed, and earns a long and interesting commentary in The Annotated Alice. Who is the ultimate dreamer, Alice or the Red King? Could one decide? How would one even set about deciding? Martin Gardner's note on this problem of ‘infinite regress’ invokes ‘that preposterous cartoon of Saul Steinberg's in which a fat lady paints a picture of a thin lady who is painting a picture of the fat lady who is painting a picture of the thin lady, and so on deeper into the two canvases’ (The Annotated Alice, p. 239). Perhaps equally relevant is a picture independently rendered by both Steinberg and Escher which depicts a disembodied hand holding a pencil which is drawing a disembodied hand holding a pencil which is drawing the original hand—a circle rather than an infinite regression.

The simplest application of the dilemma is probably the theological one. ‘Life, what is it but a dream?’ (Annotated Alice, p. 345). It could be argued that the ‘real’ dreamer is God. We are His figments. The obvious counter-claim would be that, on the contrary, we ‘dream’—that is, invent—the God we would like to think invented us. We are obliged to create this alleged Creator in our own image. Is not the very metaphor of dreaming, for example, derived, necessarily, from our own categories of experience? We can conceive only that which we have it in us, as human beings, to conceive. Hence the aphorism: ‘If the triangles invented a God it would have three sides.’

But the paradox has also a literary dimension. In this context the presiding ‘dreamer’ would at first glance seem to be Carroll himself. Neither Alice nor the Red King has an existence outside his fictional creation. Again, however, the simple explanation proves inadequate. Carroll himself can hardly be said to exist. He is an alias, a version, of the real-life deacon and mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Behind his fictional Alice is Alice Pleasance Liddell—who might be said to have brought Lewis Carroll to life by coaxing Dodgson into becoming a story-teller.

A version of this dilemma becomes a familiar theme in twentieth-century fiction. The theological analogy has been frequently and variously explored: as God is to Man so is the novelist to his or her characters. Nabokov, Isak Dinesen, Muriel Spark and Martin Amis are among those who have exploited the issue by hypothesizing attempts to break out of, or into, the narrative ‘dream’. Characters rebel against the author in the name of free will, striving to elude the constrictions of the unfolding plot as a human being might attempt to escape a divinely imposed destiny. Conversely, the writer may make an appearance as a character within the world of his or her own novel, perhaps as a gesture towards the surrender of authorial power or as an acknowledgement of its limitations.2 The epigram about the triangles suggests this further dimension of the topic. There is a sense in which characters can truly be said to portray their creator. They are, inescapably, aspects or refractions of the author's personality: for all their theoretical autonomy they derive directly from that source. The characters created by a given novelist, taken together, might be thought to offer the possibility of a dot-to-dot picture of the creative psychology which brought them into such being as they have.

A third application of the episode, however, is perhaps of more topical academic interest than either of the other two. The question might be posed: is the ‘dreamer’—the originating force, the controlling power—the author as conscious creator and manipulator, or that author's subconscious impulses and drives (an invisible and uncontrolled internal motor), or the social and historical context which shaped the author's tastes and opinions, and constitutes the current on which he or she, more or less helplessly, drifts? There would seem to be a relevant metaphor in the episode in which Alice steers the White King's pencil, writing for him against his will. The baffled King remarks, with unconscious Freudian humour: ‘I really must get a thinner pencil. I can't manage this one a bit: it writes all manner of things that I don't intend’ (Annotated Alice, p. 190).

Carroll himself invites this line of inquiry by making it clear that the Alice books indeed have to do with the subconscious—are in effect a fantastical rendering of the subconscious life of a seven-year-old. The worlds of the two stories are made up of elements derived from the experience of an upper-middle-class Victorian child: governesses, aunts, servants, pets, games, gardens, nursery-rhymes, improving texts. ‘“It's something very like learning geography,” thought Alice, as she stood on tiptoe in hopes of being able to see a little further’ (p. 215). The final chapter of Alice in Wonderland offers a coda in which Alice's sister, half dreaming, deconstructs the story she has been told:

So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality—[…] the rattling tea-cups would change to tinkling sheep-bells, and the Queen's shrill cries to the voice of the shepherd boy—and the sneeze of the baby, the shriek of the Gryphon, and all the other queer noises, would change (she knew) to the confused clamour of the busy farm-yard—while the lowing of the cattle in the distance would take the place of the Mock Turtle's heavy sobs.

(p. 164)

Jonathan Miller's Alice, made for BBC television in 1966, offered a reading of roughly this transcriptive kind. There are similar explanatory hints in the last chapter of Through the Looking-Glass.

But the interpretative reading that Carroll has solicited can hardly fail to register some odd absences from this subconscious world. There is no more than a hint of a reference to friends, and, still more surprisingly, none at all to parents. Could a child's dreams or imaginings plausibly encompass such vacancies? It is hardly surprising that many a critic has taken Carroll's hint but responded to it in a more radical spirit. Yes, the stories told are transliterations, but the notional originating impulses derived not from Alice's mind but from Carroll's, and were partly, or largely, outside his conscious control.

Such an approach might be thought to go some way towards explaining the peculiar intensity of the Alice books. These are emotional stories. There is much melancholy and wistfulness, much sighing and weeping, much anger and aggression:

The Queen turned crimson with fury

(Annotated Alice, p. 109)

wringing her hands in despair

(p. 250)

trembling with excitement

(p. 202)

in a sudden transport of delight

(p. 256)

in a helpless frightened sort of way

(p. 245)

in a voice choking with passion

(p. 240)

screaming herself into a fit

(p. 187)

Alice is regularly cross-questioned, ordered about, patronized, rebuked, insulted. Violence abounds, actual or threatened. The Duchess's cook throws ‘saucepans, plates and dishes’, one such missile nearly carrying off a baby's nose. The baby itself is hurled at Alice, who fortunately catches it. Tweedledum and Tweedledee prepare to have a battle; the Lion and the Unicorn actually have one—as do the two knights. The Queen of Hearts repeatedly orders decapitations. Alice herself kicks a lizard out of a chimney. We are reminded ‘that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; and that, if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds’ (p. 31). Both books deal in black humour, including jokes about death. The Jabberwock is duly slain; the oysters are eaten; the Bread-and-butter-fly is doomed to perish.

The shifts of mood, the anarchy, the aggression, the grief are certainly aspects of the power of the Alice books. It must be conceded that children in general have an uncomplicated appetite for comic violence and extremity. The majority of the incidents alluded to above are no more damaging than a snowball. But in a significant number of cases the snowball contains at least a small stone. I can still remember how, when I read Alice as a child, I felt I was traversing a lot of emotional ground, out of all proportion to the brevity of the action and the reassurance at its conclusion. Serious feelings were being obscurely invoked. It seems reasonable to suspect that these disconcerting energies derived from an aspect of Carroll's personality or imagination at the very verge of his conscious control.

A simple explanation, or part explanation, would relate them to something in the Dodgson family tradition. Here is Charles Dodgson senior, a notably serious and enterprising clergyman, writing to his eight-year-old son. The context is that young Charles has asked his father, who is travelling to Leeds, to buy him a file, a screwdriver and a ring:

As soon as I get to Leeds I shall scream out in the middle of the street, Ironmongers—Iron-mongers […]. I will have a file & a screwdriver, & a ring, & if they are not brought directly, in forty seconds I will leave nothing but one small cat alive in the whole town of Leeds, & I shall only leave that, because I am afraid I shall not have time to kill it. Then what a bawling & a tearing of hair there will be! Pigs & babies, camels & butterflies, rolling in the gutter together—old women rushing up the chimneys & cows after them—ducks hiding themselves in coffee-cups, & fat geese trying to squeeze themselves into pencil cases—at last the Mayor of Leeds will be found in a soup plate covered up with custard & stuck full of almonds to make him look like a sponge cake that he may escape the dreadful destruction of the Town.3

The passage is reminiscent of the ‘Alice’ books in a variety of ways: the surrealism, the energy, the extravagant verbs (screaming, bawling and tearing of hair), the cheerful murderousness. Even some particular details anticipate Carroll's work—notably ‘pigs & babies’ and the Mayor found in a soup plate. It would seem that there was a common strain of anarchic boisterousness in the imagination of both these apparently staid men of the cloth, something, perhaps, in the Dodgson genes. Certainly the younger man was representing himself as a divided being well before he wrote the Alice books: on the one hand the Deacon and mathematician, Charles Dodgson, on the other the occasional writer, Lewis Carroll or Edgar Cuthwellis (an anagram of ‘Charles Lutwidge’). A case could conceivably be made that Alice represents the transmission of a family tradition of humour, and is hence a good deal less original than it seems at first glance.

But the recent tendency has been to tackle the topic much lower than this—to look for darker forces behind the complexities and intensities of Alice. Much is made of Carroll's notorious, amply documented—indeed self-documented—devotion to young girls (pre-pubertal girls, as commentators tend to say nowadays). On this theme there is the powerful testimony not merely of Carroll's diaries, but of his extraordinary photographs, with their haunting mixture of idealization and eroticism. The passions, the wistfulness, could be transcriptions of the author's own feelings.

On one reading of the books, Carroll's conscious theme is the impossibility of fulfilment. Allegories abound. Alice, like Lolita (1955), dramatizes the elusiveness of beauty. The ‘large bright thing’ in the shop is always just out of eye-shot (Annotated Alice, p. 253). The scented rushes fade when picked (p. 257). The fawn can walk ‘lovingly’ with Alice only so long as their identities are forgotten; at the edge of the wood ‘A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes, and in another moment it had darted away at full speed’ (p. 227). Above all there is the paradox of ‘the loveliest garden you ever saw’, which first becomes visible beyond a door at the end of a ‘small passage’ (p. 30). When Alice herself is small enough to get through that door she is too short to reach the key which would open it. When she is tall enough to reach the key she is too big to get out into the garden. Might not this be Carroll's way of insinuating the idea that the girl to whom he has given his heart cannot enter the garden of adult love?

Arguably—the point has often been made—Carroll includes himself in Through the Looking-Glass in the character of the White Knight, the amiable, kindly but absurd figure whose ‘very, very beautiful song’ Alice hears unmoved, before waving goodbye to him and going on her way.4 Her response is perfectly reasonable. Taken at face value the White Knight's lay is a nonsense-work, an irreverent burlesque of Wordsworth's ‘Resolution and Independence’ (1802, publ. 1807). Since Carroll had published a version of his parody years previously, it can hardly be thought to relate closely to the context. On the other hand the scene is described with a seriousness most unusual in the Alice books:

Of all the strange things that Alice saw in her journey Through The Looking-Glass, this was the one that she always remembered most clearly. Years afterwards she could bring the whole scene back again, as if it had been only yesterday—the mild blue eyes and kindly smile of the Knight—the setting sun gleaming through his hair, and shining on his armour in a blaze of light that quite dazzled her—the horse quietly moving about, with the reins hanging loose on his neck, cropping the grass at her feet—and the black shadows of the forest behind—all this she took in like a picture, as, with one hand shading her eyes, she leant against a tree, watching the strange pair, and listening, in a half-dream, to the melancholy music of the song.

(p. 307)

Much could be made of the gentleness of tone, the sympathetic presentation of the Knight, the imagery of the blazing armour, the setting sun, the dark forest and the docile beast. Alice identifies the tune of the song as that of ‘I give thee all, I can no more’. Martin Gardner quotes the poem in full, remarking: ‘It is quite possible that Carroll regarded Moore's love lyric as the song that he, the White Knight, would have liked to sing to Alice but dared not’ (Annotated Alice, p. 311). In this spirit one might see Alice itself as a similarly hopeless love-song to ‘the child of my dreams’—the love-song of Edgar Cuthwellis. Beyond the deliberately absurd characterization, after all, stands another foolish knight who vainly served an impossible mistress: Don Quixote. It might well be that Carroll is writing about himself in the protection afforded by double inverted commas.

But an aggressive late-twentieth-century reading would deny Carroll this degree of control over his private story. There has been a relentless poring over diaries and letters, a terrier-like pursuit of unconscious symbolism. The claim is that Carroll is saying far more than he is consciously aware of saying about his ‘condition’. 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. That game is all too easy. It is disappointing to see how commentary a good deal more controlled can drift in the same direction. Morton Cohen asserts ‘It is mean-spirited to attribute the Alice books […] entirely to a suppression of natural drives, to a flight from [Carroll's] real troubled self’. Yet fifty pages earlier he himself has ventured: ‘If Charles Dodgson's suppressed and diverted sexual energies caused him unspeakable torments, and they did, they were in all probability the source of those exceptional flashes of genius that gave the world his remarkable creative works.’5 The former comment is the more persuasive. ‘Mean-spirited’ seems an apt term for an attempt to explain a work of art in terms of the mud from which it might conceivably be said to grow.

This kind of approach, whatever view one takes of it, locates the creative ‘source’ firmly within Carroll's psychology. Another kind of twentieth-century reading would locate it without—would see the Alice books as deriving from a variety of external influences and pressures. Two such influences might be the fairy-tale tradition, often cruel, often metaphorically suggestive, or nursery-rhymes, both surrealistic and violent:

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe
Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon
When the wind blows the cradle will rock;
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall
Down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose
She cut off their tails with a carving knife
I took him by the left leg
And threw him down the stairs.

Generations of children have spent hours in this strange world and taken the extravagance and ferocity for granted. Is not Lewis Carroll—was not his father?—drawing on common stock, manifesting certain widespread fancies and urges? Are they not belated practitioners in an old folk mode?

One might produce a rather different ‘explanation’ by pulling the string tighter. In a much narrower chronological sense, Carroll's idiosyncrasies were far from singular. He was representative of an age which idealized children with a passion psychologically maiming. The trend may perhaps be seen to find its culmination shortly after the turn of the century with the appearance of Barrie's Peter Pan (1904). Derek Hudson points out that Kilvert, the diarist, a clergyman contemporary with Carroll, responded very similarly to young girls.6 The psychological and even legal restraints on such relationships were much weaker than they are today. Morton Cohen usefully reminds us that in the middle years of the nineteenth century girls could marry at twelve. He points out that Carroll's own brother, Wilfred, at the age of twenty-seven, fell in love with a fourteen-year-old, and indeed married her some years later.7

Clearly Carroll eventually had misgivings of some sort about his nude photographs of children; why else should he have had almost all of them destroyed? On the other hand he seems to have been originally frank and unembarrassed about such activity, clearing it with his own conscience. He was scrupulous in obtaining parental permission for the pictures to be taken—which he could hardly have done without winning the total confidence of those concerned. It must have been a relevant factor that, despite the pruderies of the age, unclothed children were somehow deemed acceptable in painting and illustration, particularly in fairy-tale or vaguely pastoral contexts. This category of nudity was sanitized or even sanctified.

More particularly Carroll was very much an admirer of Dickens, who had regularly idealized and eroticized small girls. Florence Dombey and Little Em'ly are specifically presented, in their infancy, as potential sweethearts respectively for Walter Gay and David Copperfield. Above all Nell Trent may have provided Carroll with a precedent: a young girl who is seen in the shadow of the sexual threat represented by Quilp. The Alice books echo The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1)—particularly the Mrs Jarley episode—in a number of particular ways. More generally Dickens structures his novel on an allegorical plan which Carroll proceeds to borrow. His heroine, like Nell, is Innocence moving among monsters.

It would seem, then, that there is a case—a case merely sketched in the preceding paragraphs—for claiming that Alice was very much a product of its time. Carroll was arguably not an anomalous but in some sense a representative figure, formed by the tastes and the pressures of his age. Was it not ‘Victorianism’ that steered his pencil?

Interestingly such a question would not have seemed strange to Carroll himself, a proto-modernist with post-modernist premonitions. In Sylvie and Bruno (1889) he envisages a future era of linguistic exhaustion or repletion: ‘“Instead of saying ‘what book shall I write?’ an author will ask himself ‘which book shall I write?’”’8 In the Preface to the first part of that same work, he claims that some of the ideas for it seemed to spring from nothing: ‘specimens of that hopelessly illogical phenomenon, “an effect without a cause’”. But others he could ‘trace to their source’—for example ‘as being suggested by the book one was reading’ (Sylvie and Bruno, p. 255). Later he adds that ‘Perhaps the hardest thing in all literature […] is to write anything original’. He does not know whether he can claim originality for Alice in Wonderland: ‘I was, at least, no conscious imitator in writing it’ (Sylvie and Bruno, p. 257). It would seem, however, that in some areas at least he was content to work generically: he acknowledges, for example, that the Red Queen is ‘the concentrated essence of all governesses’.9 More interestingly he says of the White Queen: ‘There is a character strangely like her in Wilkie Collins' novel No Name: by two different converging paths we have somehow reached the same ideal, and Mrs Wragg and the White Queen might have been twin-sisters.’10 The inference is that Carroll and Collins, with no thought of portraying an accepted ‘type’, have distilled social observations sufficiently akin to sponsor similar results. Within the confines of a given social or historical environment such coincidence need not seem far-fetched. Conceivably a writer might be reduced to wondering ‘which character shall I create?’ The notion of ‘originality’ would resolve itself back into a complex of possible social ‘origins’, generic antecedents: we are returned to the dilemma of the Red King's dream.

Many other images in the Alice books imply a similar reflexivity: ‘once she remembered trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself in a game of croquet she was playing against herself’. Tweedledee tries to fold up an umbrella with himself inside it (Annotated Alice, p. 241). The Unicorn tells Alice: ‘if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you’ (p. 287). An especially intriguing example is the sheep in Through the Looking-Glass knitting with fourteen pairs of needles at once—a vision of rampant auto-cannibalism not remote from the self-consuming toils of the Artist (Annotated Alice, pp. 253-4).

It seems likely, then, that Carroll's preliminary answer to the question ‘Did you write these books or were you written through?’ would be ‘Both’—but that if pressed he would concede to the inescapability of derivativeness. Even the odd ‘effect without a cause’ would be seen as ultimately explicable.

Indeed this is a conclusion which can hardly be confuted. As Artists or anything else we can only dispense what by one means or another has been fed into us. That much is axiomatic. But since this truism, too crudely insisted upon, can be demeaning in its implications, especially with regard to the autonomy of the artist, it should not be accorded undue respect. I would like to conclude by tying some tin cans to its tail.

It must first be asked whether the proposed deconstruction of a literary work into its component elements has any status beyond the merely conceptual. A cake could be considered as a cultural construct or as an assemblage of separable ingredients. But it is not so considered. We eat it. That is what it is for.

The claim that originality is in absolute terms unfeasible may in any case come to seem uninteresting in the light of the complex relative position. The Gryphon, for example, could not be described as an original creation: he has antecedents, albeit of a mythical kind. The Cheshire Cat is less obviously derivative: Carroll has lent substantiality to what was previously a mere form of words. The Mock Turtle, which has no ancestry, comes yet closer to being a conception plucked out of the air. It is brought into some sort of theoretical existence, from nothing, by the shift of a notional hyphen—‘mock turtle-soup’ becomes ‘mock-turtle soup’. As an invention it very much recalls Carroll's reference to a thought ‘struck out from the “flint” of one's own mind by the “steel” of a friend's chance remark’ (Sylvie and Bruno, p. 255). Here the thought is solid enough for Tenniel to draw a picture of it. Carroll's transactional image defines the case rather neatly. Even if it is accepted that the ‘chance remark’ and ‘one's own mind’ are socially (or otherwise) determined, the unpredictability of the encounter allows for a randomness so extreme as to be effectively indistinguishable from ‘originality’.

Attempted dismemberment of Alice may be inviting in terms of the self-proclaimed fissility of the work, but it is likely to prove in practice a curiously self-defeating enterprise, itself trapped in reflexivity. Here is a children's book which children (or so it is repeatedly claimed) no longer read. Has it not therefore largely lost its intrinsic life? Why not leave it alone and forget it? What is sought from it? Why the manifest eagerness to ‘explain’ it? Might it be explained away? If this happened, would we miss it? What is ‘it’?

It should not be surprising that Carroll's artful circularities have the capacity to entangle those who seek to unravel them. But there is a specialized sense in which this particular work is calculated to deconstruct the deconstructers. The contemporary obsession with some of the issues concerned has its dubious aspect. An unhealthy flush tends to suffuse the face of late twentieth-century criticism when it gets a whiff of the possible sexual tensions of a bygone age. It must be doubted whether we can see such issues straight. How coolly can we assess the psycho-sexual stresses of the Victorian period from the vantage-point of an age of obesity, anorexia, body-building, body-piercing, silicone implants, AIDS and The Sunday Sport? Can we lodge our analytical scales and microscopes on firm ground? Might not Carroll be at least as likely to expose our prurience, our assumptions about the relationship between desire and art, as we to expose his?

The medium of the Alice books is peculiarly difficult to penetrate. In The White Knight, Alexander L. Taylor makes the brilliant comment that they recall the assumed madness of Hamlet or Edgar.11 Of the two, Edgar offers the apter comparison, incidentally as recalling Edgar Cuthwellis, chiefly because his brand of ‘madness’ seems less explicable, more in excess of its apparent function, than does Hamlet's. His extravagant verbal arias in the third act of King Lear could be interpreted as verbal camouflage, an aspect of his disguise. But they might be uncontrolled, a kind of delirium, obliquely self-revelatory. The text offers no explanation. Who can confidently say what Edgar ‘means’ or where he is coming from? Much of his speech is, or might be, aleatory. So with Carroll's surrealistic creation.

Two essential kinds of material in Alice are particularly resistant to reductive analysis, since they involve plural and even self-contradictory effects. One is parody, an odd species of inter-textuality in that around what is written there hovers, by intention, the ghost of what has been altered. ‘The Aged, Aged Man’, for example, is coloured, however absurdly, by ‘Resolution and Independence’. Only the reader who misses the point can escape the associations. The effect is rather like that of whistling two tunes simultaneously.

Then there is the use of sound. Repeatedly, verses which are ostensibly absurd are given a curious charge of dignity or pathos by their musical quality. In some cases—as with ‘The Aged, Aged Man’—a known melody may be invoked; more often what is in question is a sustained pattern of euphony. Thus ‘Jabberwocky’ conveys hints of genuine portentousness, and ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ has an undertow of true melancholy. Should the prospective deconstructor seek, in such cases, separate sources for the discrepant effects, or rather an explanation for the capacity to combine them?

It must finally be observed that the main constituents of Alice—including idealized children, nonsense, pathos, pedantry, paradox, puzzles, comic verse, emotional intensity, violence, sentimentality—are all present in the large-scale work Sylvie and Bruno, which Carroll produced in the 1890s. It might have been assumed that a work sufficiently similar in general intention, and subject to the same ‘influences’, internal and external, would be roughly comparable in overall effect. In fact Sylvie and Bruno, by common consent, is a laborious work, often embarrassing and even painful to read. The various ingredients separate out. From the same defining circumstances Carroll has produced a very different result. The book doesn't ‘work’. An attempt to analyse why it fails to cohere, and why the Alice books do cohere, would by definition have to proceed from a tacit reinstatement of the autonomy of all three works. It would call for an analytical study in the traditional modes of the discipline of English Literature.


  1. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, in The Annotated Alice, introduction and notes by Martin Gardner (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), p. 190. Further references are given in the text by page number in this edition. For those who wish to pursue issues developed in this essay, Annotated Alice probably offers the best starting point. For more recent perspectives see Donald Rackin, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass: Nonsense, Sense, and Meaning (New York: Twayne, 1991). It includes a full and helpful selected critical bibliography.

  2. For example: Amis appears as (more or less) himself in his novel Money: A Suicide Note (1984), while Nabokov's Cincinnatus in Invitation to a Beheading (1960 in English) at one point physically takes himself to pieces, from the head downwards. In Muriel Spark's The Comforters (1957), the heroine, Caroline Rose, a writer and critic, comes to realize that she is herself a character in a novel—from which she struggles to break free. For further comment on Nabokov and related observations on Isak Dinesen see the final section of my ‘Facts and Fictions’ in Exploring Reality, ed. Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Michael Irwin (London: Allen & Unwin, 1987).

  3. Quoted in Derek Hudson, Lewis Carroll: An Illustrated Biography (London: Constable, 1976; repr. 1982), p. 35.

  4. See Annotated Alice, pp. 296-7, n. 4.

  5. Morton N. Cohen, Lewis Carroll: A Biography (London: Macmillan, 1995), pp. 280, 231.

  6. Hudson, Lewis Carroll: An Illustrated Biography, p. 212.

  7. Cohen, Lewis Carroll: A Biography, pp. 101-2.

  8. Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno, in The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll (London: Nonesuch Library, 1939), pp. 251-674 (p. 537). Further references are given in the text by page number in this edition.

  9. See Annotated Alice, p. 206.

  10. See Annotated Alice, p. 245.

  11. Alexander L. Taylor, The White Knight: A Study of C. L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) (London: Oliver & Boyd, 1952), p. 144.

M. S. Ashbourne (essay date spring 2001)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10542

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, although some believe that “the time is past when a child under fifteen, even in England, can read Alice with the same delight as gained from, say, The Wind in the Willows or The Wizard of Oz. It is only because adults—scientists and mathematicians in particular—continue to relish the Alice books that they are assured of immortality” (Gardner 1998:7, 8). Whether one agrees with this view or not, one might hasten to add that the Alice books also could be appreciated by other non-mathematical and non-scientific audiences consisting of semioticians of virtually every persuasion, for the Alice stories are about unique signs signifying, and for this reason, children—born semioticians—of all ages and stripes can continue to enjoy them.

Dodgson added The Cheshire-Cat and several other characters to his original Alice's Adventures Under Ground, and published the modified story as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Wonderland, along with its sequel Looking Glass, has enjoyed enduring success not only as a story for children, but as an object of delight and continuing study for many adults. This study examines the Carrollian Cheshire-Cat as a sign.


Several biographies of Charles Dodgson have been written during the past century, and although biographers necessarily must select and interpret their data and present their findings according to their own lights, this study will include only those elements which seem most salient for its own purposes. The excellent biography by Morton N. Cohen (1996) is the source and the touchstone for most of the biographical information contained herein.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born January 27, 1832 in the Anglican parsonage of Daresbury, Cheshire, the first son and third child of the Reverend (later, Archdeacon) Charles Dodgson and his wife Frances Lutwidge. Young Charles was afflicted with a stammer and chronically hearing-impaired by one ear from childhood, but it is unclear as to whether or not the jerky or unsteady gait he exhibited as an adult was present from his youth, or even whether it was symptomatic of a disturbance of balance or co-ordination precipitated by middle-ear anomalies that may have contributed to his partial deafness. In other respects, however, it seems that the young Dodgson enjoyed a healthy and happy childhood.

The Rev. Dodgson undertook responsibility for his son's early education, teaching him (in addition to matters pertaining to Christian doctrine) mathematics, classics, Latin and English literature. When the family moved to the village of Croft, the eleven year-old Charles began to attend the nearby Richmond School where the headmaster noted his extraordinary giftedness, writing that he

possessed ‘a very uncommon share of genius’, that ‘he is capable of acquirements and knowledge far beyond his years, while his reason is so clear and so jealous of error, that he will not rest satisfied without the most exact solution of whatever appears to him obscure. He has passed an excellent examination just now in mathematics, exhibiting at times an illustration of that love of precise argument, which seems to him natural’.

(Cohen 1996:15)

At the age of fourteen, Charles began almost four years of studies at Rugby, and then spent a year preparing at home for his stint as an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford. In January 1855, a month after receiving his Bachelor of Arts, he began his professional career at Christ Church, residing there for the rest of his life while maintaining contact with his beloved family through cards, letters and visits.

From early childhood through adolescence, Charles had entertained himself and his siblings (eventually, seven sisters and three brothers) by inventing toys, games, puzzles, theatrical and puppet plays, and by writing poetry and essays and making drawings for the domestic “scrapbooks” or magazines that he initiated and edited. In March, 1856, he began to publish his writings under his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll. Dodgson “evolved [the name] by the simple process of latinizing, reversing, and reanglicizing his given names: Carolus Ludovicus, Ludovicus Carolus, Lewis Carroll” (Lennon 1972:145). His early writings indicate not only a deep sensitivity towards his fellow creatures and a profound ability for critical self-reflection, but a brilliant penchant for puns, parody, anagrams and word games. The astonishingly nimble wit, the sense of humor and the creative genius which burst forth in the Alice books and many of his other writings is clearly discernible in many of his earliest extant works. Although Dodgson never married, his generosity and kindness, along with his special devotion to children persisted, stirring up his many interests and providing outlets for his unique talents throughout his life.

Dodgson was ordained to the Anglican Diaconate in 1861. Although certain elements of his personal theology are evident in a few of his writings, most notably in his Sylvie and Bruno (initiated in 1867, concluded in 1893), thus far they neither have enjoyed systematization nor engaged scholarly theological analysis. Notwithstanding, Dodgson had a keen interest in psychic and supernatural phenomena and was a charter member of the Society for Psychical Research. He also joined the Ghost Society and became acquainted with the spiritualist movement of his day, acquiring books on various occult subjects including fairies (Cohen 1996:368-9). Although he is said to have professed belief in fairies, referring to Wonderland as a “fairy tale” (Cohen 1996:369), it is impossible to determine precisely what, for Dodgson, a “fairy tale” was, and from the contexts of his writings and conversations about fairies, his “belief” could have been set forth as a playful tease rather than a personal credo. Moreover, the paucity of evidence that could argue for Dodgson's holding a particular cosmology allows only speculation to conclude what Dodgson actually believed a fairy to be, if indeed he did believe in their existence. In his Preface to Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, first published in 1893, he wrote:

It may interest some of my Readers to know the theory on which this story is constructed. It is an attempt to show what might possibly happen, supposing that Fairies really existed; and that they were sometimes visible to us, and we to them; and that they were sometimes able to assume human form: and supposing, also, that human beings might sometimes become conscious of what goes on in the Fairy-world—by actual transference of their immaterial essence, such as we meet with in ‘Esoteric Buddhism’.

I have supposed a Human being to be capable of various psychical states, with varying degrees of consciousness, as follows:

  • (a) the ordinary state, with no consciousness of the presence of Fairies;
  • (b) the ‘eerie’ state, in which, while conscious of actual surroundings, he is also conscious of the presence of Fairies;
  • (c) a form of trance, in which, while unconscious of actual surroundings, and apparently asleep, he (i.e. his immaterial essence) migrates to other scenes, in the actual world, or in Fairyland, and is conscious of the presence of Fairies.

I have also supposed a Fairy to be capable of migrating from Fairyland into the actual world, and of assuming, at pleasure, a Human form; and also to be capable of various psychical states, viz.

  • (a) the ordinary state, with no consciousness of the presence of Human beings;
  • (b) a sort of ‘eerie’ state, in which he is conscious, if in the actual world, of the presence of actual Human beings; if in Fairyland, of the presence of the immaterial essences of Human beings.

I will here tabulate the passages, in both Volumes [of the Sylvie and Bruno stories] where abnormal states occur. …

(Carroll 1994:463-464)

It is important to note that nowhere in the foregoing quotation does Dodgson, amidst his “supposings”, state his belief in the existential being of fairies. In his Preface to the first volume of Sylvie and Bruno (Carroll 1994:255), however, he discusses the evolution of the stories of Sylvie and Bruno, as well as his creation of the last line of his famous The Hunting of the Snark (see Cohen 1996:366-370) in terms which Peircean scholars instantly would recognize as experiences of “musement” or “Firstness”. But Dodgson wrote that he attributed these and other “unusual experiences” to the

existence of a natural force, allied to electricity and nerve-force, by which brain can act on brain. I think we are close on the day when this shall be classed among the known natural forces, and its laws tabulated, and when the scientific sceptics, who always shut their eyes, till the last moment, to any evidence that seems to point beyond materialism, will have to accept it as a proved fact in nature.

(in Cohen 1996:369)

According to biographer Morton Cohen (1996), Dodgson assumed his office as Mathematical Lecturer at Christ Church in 1855, and he and the new Christ Church Dean, Henry George Liddell, enjoyed a professional relationship by the start of 1856. Dodgson also was sublibrarian for Christ Church, and in that capacity, he had a small office which afforded a view of the deanery lawn and the children playing there. Dodgson's first encounter with Alice Liddell occurred in April, 1856, when Alice was four years old. A few months earlier, Dodgson had taken up photography as a hobby; since photography was then a new and novel art, Dodgson found that with his camera and photographs he could gain social access to people who either were intrigued by the technology and its applications, or who wished to be or to provide subjects for his pictures. Dean Liddell and his wife consented to Dodgson's photographing their children, and shortly thereafter Dodgson became a frequent and regular visitor to the deanery. His friendship with the Liddell children grew, with Alice being his most dearly loved favorite. Dodgson and the children played together in his own rooms at Christ Church, at the Deanery, on picnics and on various outings on a very frequent basis until the middle of 1863. In June of that year an apparently irreparable break in the relations between Dodgson and the Liddells occurred, and while the cause or nature of this crisis is uncertain, it is clear that Dodgson was cut off from the children (Cohen 1996:100-104). Thereafter, his encounters and interactions with members of the Liddell family, including Dodgson's darling Alice (aged 11 at that time), were infrequent and formal, if not strained.

The events leading to Dodgson's creation of Wonderland are well-documented by Dodgson's biographers: on the afternoon of July 4, 1862, Dodgson, then Oxford mathematician and logician, and his friend Robinson Duckworth took the three very pretty young daughters (Lorina, Alice and Edith) of Christ Church's Dean Liddell out on an afternoon's boating trip on the Isis, a branch of the Thames near Oxford. In response to the girls' demands that he tell them a story, Dodgson made up a tale about a child named Alice who fell down a rabbit hole and had various adventures underground until she suddenly awakened and realized that she had been dreaming. At the conclusion of that idyllic summer day, Alice Liddell begged Dodgson to write out the story, and in November 1864 Dodgson presented Alice with a hand-written booklet as a Christmas gift, illustrated by himself, entitled Alice's Adventures Under Ground.

The manuscript was enjoyed by various visitors to the Christ Church deanery who prevailed upon Dodgson to publish it; Dodgson complied after adding more chapters, characters and incidents to the original story, and working closely with the well-known artist John Tenniel, whom Dodgson employed as his illustrator. Dodgson also changed the title to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and in June, 1865, the Clarendon Press printed the first edition. The following month, Tenniel having expressed some dissatisfaction with the way his pictures were printed, Dodgson recalled the two thousand copies produced by Clarendon, engaged a different printer, and on November 9 that year, the first new copy was produced. Tenniel expressed his satisfaction with the printing, and the finally published Wonderland was an immediate triumph with the reading public which clamored for more Alice. The success of both Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass (first published in 1871), has continued to this day through more than seventy-five editions, and through translations into at least seventy other spoken languages as well as Braille.

The price of such success, however, has included intense and continuing interest in and speculation about the relationship between Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell. Where the provenance or “real life” models and/or “real” identity of the characters and adventures of the Alice stories has been sought, as Morton Cohen observes:

[t]he critiques, commentaries, exegeses, and analyses that have appeared during the past hundred years and more—some profound and interesting, some absurd—offer many bewildering theories.

… The actors in both Alice books are transplants from real life, as are the episodes, and those who sat in the gliding boat recognized them as Charles related them, just as they would later experience flashes of memory upon reading Looking-Glass. The landmarks, the language, the puns, the puffery—it was all rooted in the circumscribed enclave of their Victorian lives. Oxford provided the landscape, its architecture, its history, its select society, its conventions. In Under Ground and in the additions that Charles later made to the tale and in the sequel, his listeners (and readers) would have instantly picked up on the references, to the Sheep Shop on St. Aldate's, the treacle well at Binsey, the lilies of the Botanic Gardens, the deer in Magdalen Grove, the lion and the unicorn from the royal crests, the leopards from Cardinal Wolsey's coat of arms that graces the fabric of Christ Church and are known as the ‘Ch Ch cats’. Charles parodied familiar verses and songs, some of which they sang together as they rowed up or down the river. … They would readily penetrate the thin disguises of John Ruskin as the conger eel, Bartholomew Price as the Bat, Humpty Dumpty as some egghead don pontificating, the Caterpillar as another conducting a viva. The Mad Tea-Party as a parody of Alice's birthday party would have elicited howls of laughter. A good many of the references are lost to us, so localized as they were.


In semiotic terms, then, the Alice books' denizens and incidents originally were signs constructed by Dodgson, deliberately designed to prompt his beloved Alice Liddell to recall and reflect upon real-life incidents and acquaintances known to them both. Indeed, in the final verse of the prefatory poem of Wonderland, Dodgson addresses Alice herself, having recalled in the poem the events that gave rise to Wonderland's composition:

                              Alice! A childish story take,
                                        And with a gentle hand
Lay it where Childhood's dreams are twined
                                        In Memory's mystic band,
Like pilgrim's withered wreath of flowers
                              Pluck'd in a far-off land.

If it is assumed that the citizens and adventures of Wonderland signify “transplants from real life”, and as such, that they would indeed have been recognized by Alice Liddell as signs of her own experiences “twined” in the memories of childhood, the world shared by Dodgson and Alice Liddell should reveal clues as to the character and situational “identities” of Wonderland.

By the time Dodgson had completed and given Alice Liddell the manuscript of Under Ground in November 1864, his social bonds with Alice had been severed for more than a year. Nevertheless, given his earlier relationship to Alice, it must be assumed that the sensitive and observant Dodgson would have had access to the inner springs of her Umwelt, i.e., her world and her interpretations of and responses to it, and he also would have had innumerable opportunities to have made important, if not definitive contributions thereto. As philosopher and semiotician John Deely observes:

A perceived pattern is what constitutes an object of experience, not an existing thing. Our experience consists in the building up of a structure or network of cognitive and cathectic relations which constitute an objective world. This world partially includes aspects of the physical environment, to be sure, but it includes such elements according to its own plan and without being reducible to them. If we consider the environment to be the world of things, then the objective world is constructed according to a quite different plan, and divisions in the one world vary relatively independently of divisions in the other world. Moreover, each world extends beyond the other's boundaries: not all things are known to us, and not all objects known to us are things.

… Thus, the objective world is the sphere of an individual's experiences built up out of relationships, and the internal constitution of this sphere is precisely that of a web the various intersections of whose strands present to us the objects according to the meaning of which we lead our lives.

(Deely 1994:218, 219) [emphasis added]

As noted above, Dodgson gave Wonderland a prefatory poem, urging Alice with unrivable poignancy to remember their times together “with a gentle hand”. Given the inclusion of this poem, it stands to reason, or perhaps only to the pure firstness of “hunch”, that the other new additions and modifications Dodgson made to Under Ground before its publication as Wonderland must have had some special purpose, i.e., the signification of some pattern that would spark Alice's memory, and that these additions were meant to signify more than Under Ground which, according to Dodgson himself, had been concocted purely for childish entertainment (Cohen 1996:135). Thus, Under Ground never could be assumed to have been Dodgson's last word to Alice Liddell, for from the imagined or supposed perspective of Charles Dodgson, Wonderland (and Looking Glass) might be viewed as a kind of scrapbook, containing bits and pieces of information that would trigger Alice Liddell's recollection of the special moments—confidences, conversations, stories, songs, places and activities—that she and Dodgson had shared beyond and besides the boat ride and the stories he had extemporized in a boat on that idyllic summer day.

We cannot know what memories Under Ground or Wonderland prompted for Alice Liddell, for her Umwelt, i.e., her objective world, belonged to her alone. Keeping in mind, however, that experience consists of patterns, of objects (things known) and relations, and that Wonderland was written for children in general and for Alice Liddell in particular, it is to the patterns woven into and making up the fabric of the stories, as well as to the characters and “events” recounted in those stories, that semiotics must look in order to discern possibilities for analysis in Wonderland.


The unforgettably comic and casual Cheshire-Cat was one of the characters added by Dodgson to the original Under Ground stories. Although the Cheshire-Cat is virtually synonymous with Wonderland, there are few extant studies of it as a sign of anyone or anything else. At the end of the story, where various sounds of Wonderland are identified with “real” sounds of a “real” environment, the Cat is not mentioned. Yet, it is one of the most prominent characters, with attitudes (or “cattitudes”) universally observed in “real” cats serving as a foundation for the decidedly “uncat-like” and hilarious behavior of the Cheshire-Cat. The Cat evidently does not walk, run, jump, or engage in other cat-like modes of locomotion; but its cat-like independence is manifested as it enters the life of Alice in Wonderland, for it either chooses to be present, slowly “fading in” or suddenly “popping in” to sit or hover, or it leaves the scene, “fading out” or disappearing suddenly, offering no sign of where it has been or what it has been doing between appearances. Nevertheless, its independence takes on uncat-like or even anti-catlike characteristics when it neither seems interested in nor to frighten the other fantastical creatures in the story, including the mice and birds, and its eating and bathing habits seem to be part of the Cat's business for “elsewhere”. Its sole object of interest seems to be Alice, although it is “owned” by the Duchess; but as cat observers know, real cats do the adopting, and may or may not recognize their “actual owners” with anything remotely resembling respect or deference, much less interest. Thus, while the Cat exhibits some of the tendencies or characteristics of many pet cats, its grin, its speech, its mode of locomotion and its unique “logic” make it also decidedly uncat-like. As a character, the Cheshire-Cat exhibits or participates in certain patterns within the overall patterns of Wonderland, and in order to discover what the Cheshire-Cat could have signified to Alice Liddell, semiotic analysis requires that those patterns be considered and related, where possible, to actual events in the life of the young Alice Liddell.

Those familiar with Wonderland will recall that the Cheshire-Cat enters the story four times; the first time it sits, grinning, on the floor beside the hearth of the ugly Duchess and is identified to Alice as a “Cheshire-Cat” when she asks why it grins. The second time, it sits on a bough of a tree and displays its talents for speech, syllogistic (albeit erroneous) logic, and for appearing and disappearing. It asserts its own madness and that of Alice, noting that “we're all mad here”. It appears for the third time sitting on a branch of a tree a short distance from the first tree, asking for clarification of something Alice had said moments earlier. In response to Alice's complaint that its sudden (unexpected) appearances and vanishings make her giddy, it (unexpectedly) disappears slowly, teasingly and decidedly unsuddenly for the exasperated Alice, ultimately leaving only its grin to follow the rest of it into invisibility. At its fourth epiphany, only its head appears, grin first, hovering in mid-air over the Queen of Hearts' croquet game, to ask Alice solicitously how she's getting on, and how she likes the Queen. Just as Alice is about to confide her complaints to the Cat, having waited for its ears to become visible, the Queen and her company stroll past. When Alice introduces the Cat to the King, the Cat, in response to being given permission by the King to kiss the King's hand, replies with majestic cheekiness, “I'd rather not”. It quickly becomes the center of attention when, in response to the murderous Queen's command that it be beheaded, the executioner and other characters present ponder the possibility of beheading a bodiless head.

In her biography of Charles Dodgson, Florence Becker Lennon offers an opinion about the provenance of the Cheshire-Cat, taking into account certain models which could have provided inspiration for Dodgson's character:

Cranleigh Parish Church, near Guildford, where the Misses Dodgson lived and their brother visited them, puts out an engaging postcard of the stone head of a cat from the north transept. It would be pleasant to imagine this as the original Cheshire Cat, except that the Dodgson ladies did not move to Guildford till 1869, and besides that Guildford is in Surrey, not Cheshire.

Mr. George Arthur Carter, the dedicated librarian of the public library in Warrington (near Dodgson's birthplace in Daresbury), is building up a solid Carroll collection; he took me to see a “real” Cheshire Cat on the roof of the old church at Grappenhall, where the Dodgsons did go in Charles's childhood. The cat, while available and authentic, unfortunately looks nothing like Tenniel's.

(Lennon 1972:2)

Lennon believes that the Cheshire-Cat signifies Dinah, the beloved tabby of the Liddell children; she notes that Dinah was chased out of Christ Church library (Dodgson's domain) many times, and that although Dinah technically belonged to Lorina, Alice demonstrated the greatest affection for the cat (Lennon 1972:144). In Lennon's view:

[t]he appearing and disappearing Cheshire Cat is a sort of guardian imp and liaison officer between the two worlds [Wonderland and the ‘real’ world]; an undercurrent of Wonderland is Alice's longing for Dinah, so perhaps the cat with the disappearing head (the Cheshire Cat, from Charles's birthplace), is Dinah's dream-self, who, by the laws of dreamland, instead of frightening the creatures away, only keeps them pleasantly on edge. It is significant that the Cheshire Cat remarks, ‘we're all mad here’. Dinah is the one link to the daily world, the one person (?) Alice misses; she says, ‘They will put their heads down and say “Come up again, dear!’”—is the Cheshire Cat Dinah's head recalling her to the world across the border?

(Lennon 1972:146)

As interesting as this speculation is, it is problematic for several reasons. Notwithstanding that Lennon is unclear about the nature of “Dinah's dream self” (is Dinah dreaming, or is Alice dreaming of Dinah, or are the two actually sharing one dream?), and that the “laws” of dreamland in general, or Wonderland in particular are not specified, (indeed, one might argue that the whole of Wonderland is a discovery of Wonderland's unique laws or, in Peircean terms, its “Thirdness”), the longing for, musing and blabbing about Dinah that Alice carries on during her fall down the rabbit hole and in the company of the Mouse and the other creatures in The Pool of Tears, are not sustained as “an undercurrent” throughout the book. In a dream-within-a-dream as Alice is falling, she does walk hand in hand with Dinah, but this dream-promenade ends abruptly without Dinah having uttered a word when Alice hits the bottom of the rabbit hole and “awakens”. Dinah is not mentioned again in the story.

Although Lennon finds it “significant” that the Cheshire-Cat opines “we're all mad here”, she does not develop the significance of this remark (except when she suggests that Dodgson could have questioned his own sanity, and even so, she does not relate the Cheshire-Cat's other characteristics to Dodgson) (1972:146). However, if Dinah herself dreamt or was dreamt of by Alice as the Cheshire participant in the madness of Wonderland, it seems unlikely that she could serve as a “liaison officer” between Wonderland or any “dreamland” and the world of wakefulness: unlike the mute Dinah, the Cat not only proclaims its own madness, but espouses a quasi-mad logic founded upon ideas which Alice believes to be erroneous or of doubtful veracity. Moreover, Alice does not wake up or “come up” from Wonderland until several chapters after the Cat's final appearance, and the Cheshire-Cat nowhere invites Alice to return to “reality”: instead, it cheerfully points the way for Alice to encounter further incarnations or situations of madness. As well, although Alice talks to others in Wonderland about Dinah before she meets the Cat, she says nothing of Dinah to the Cheshire-Cat whom she views as a stranger, and initially approaches with trepidation, having taken account of the Cat's many teeth and extraordinarily long claws. This contrasts with Alice's effusive descriptions of Dinah and of her relationship with Dinah in her conversation with the Mouse in the Pool of Tears. Finally, those familiar with Looking Glass will recall that Dinah was female and indeed the mother of kittens; Alice refers to Dinah as “she” in Wonderland, even as “ma chatte”, thus emphasizing Dinah's gender; the Cheshire-Cat, however, is consistently referred to with the neutral pronoun throughout Wonderland.

Thus, it seems unlikely that the Cheshire-Cat signifies Dinah, but as Lennon notes, it seems equally unlikely that Dodgson was inspired by anything fancied to be a likeness of “a real Cheshire-Cat”. Nevertheless, Lennon's conception of the Cat as a “guardian imp” suggests (however inadvertently on Lennon's part) that the Cat could be a fairy. This possibility will be discussed below.

Other writers have suggested a few other explanations for the Cat's origins and peculiar characteristics. In annotations related to the Cheshire-Cat, Hugh Haughton attests:

‘To grin like a Cheshire-Cat’ is a proverbial expression, the origin of which was extensively discussed in Notes and Queries, no. 55, 16 November 1850, and no. 130, 24 April 1852. It was suggested that the expression referred either to the fact that 1) Cheshire was a county Palatine and 2) some Cheshire cheese was produced in cat-shaped moulds or 3) some painted inn-signs in Cheshire notoriously looked more like grinning cats than growling lions. Carroll, who was born in Cheshire, was a regular subscriber to Notes and Queries and may well have grinned at these linguistic speculations.

(Haughton, in Gardner 1998:309 n.4)

These notes are echoed by Gardner (1998:83 n.2), who adds that “‘Grin like a Cheshire-Cat’ was a common phrase in Carroll's day”. Insofar as the Cheshire-Cat may be thought a sign, then, these points merit consideration. As Dodgson's birthplace, the name “Cheshire” could be a sign of Dodgson himself, but whether or not it is meant to signify him in Wonderland remains to be seen as further semiotic relations and patterns accrue. Neither cheese nor cheese moulds are part of Wonderland. Insofar as the Cat's title implies its citizenship of a Palatine, the Cheshire-Cat's bold words and attitude towards the King of Hearts could be explained, except for the fact that Cheshire had lost its Palatine status by the 19th century.

Nonetheless, the Cat's general attitude of cheekiness, discernible in its patterns of behavior and certainly evident to someone familiar with the cultural and societal “rules of etiquette” of mid-19th century England, provides certain clues—especially as the Cat responds to and interacts with the King and Queen of Hearts. The exchanges that occur in this context could point to an actual event shared by Dodgson and Alice Liddell.

Cohen (1995:97-98) quotes Dodgson's diary account of Dodgson's participation in the momentous visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales to Christ Church in June, 1863 (just days before the rupture in relations between Dodgson and the Liddells). A bazaar was held as part of the festivities, and the Liddell children had a booth there. Dodgson recorded the event:

After I had helped in their [the Liddell children's] stall a short time the Royal party arrived. There were very few admitted with them and the place was comparatively clear. I crept under the counter and joined the children outside, and the Prince (I don't know if he knew me) bowed and made a remark about a picture [possibly one of Dodgson's photographs]. The children are selling some white kittens … and as Alice did not dare offer hers to the Princess, I volunteered to plead for her, and asked the Prince if the Princess would not like a kitten—on which she turned around and said to me, ‘Oh, but I've bought one of those kittens already’ (which I record as the only remark she is likely ever to make to me). Ina's had been the favored one.

It seems that Dodgson's emphasis of the word “she”, referring to the Princess, signifies a sense in Dodgson of his or of his beloved Alice's having been rebuffed by the royals (insofar as Alice might have identified herself with her “unfavored” kitten and its rejection). In Wonderland, Alice does the pleading on the Cat's behalf—“a cat may look at a King”. But it is the Cat, and ultimately also Alice, who rebuff the Royals; hence, in this Wonderland event the Cheshire-Cat could signify Dodgson, with the unruly croquet game as a venue symbolizing the royal couple's visit to Christ Church's bazaar and the outcome of the visit. One might easily imagine that as Dodgson joined the Liddell children at the bazaar, he must have asked Alice, “how are you getting on?”, much as the Cat does in Wonderland's bizarre croquet game, and Alice Liddell confiding her disappointment or distress much as the fictitious Alice attempts to do with the Cat in Wonderland. In the eyes of Alice Liddell, Dodgson might have seemed to have been extraordinarily brave to have confronted and pleaded with the Prince (and Princess) on her behalf, and the incident, along with some of the other details of the Royal Visit almost certainly would have been added to her stock of childhood memories. Further, Dodgson probably would have assumed that his actions and activities would have been central to Alice's perception of the bazaar's events, as if the “hub” of the patterns of those events, and her memories of these might be brought to the fore by the account of the Cheshire-Cat's cheekiness at Wonderland's croquet game.

There also is the possibility that if the children playing on the deanery lawn had looked up at the library office windows while Dodgson was at work there or looking down at them, only his head would have been visible to them. Biographers note that the children played croquet there, and so it is likely that Dodgson observed them from his window, perhaps occasionally settling disputes amongst the child-players from “aloft”, or watching as games deteriorated with the children spontaneously inventing new rules or testing their skills with croquet mallets upon any available object in lieu of an actual croquet ball. Such “madness” could have provided the foundation for the tale of the Queen of Hearts' chaotic croquet party, with the “disembodied” head of Dodgson taking intermittent interest in the proceedings (focusing, of course, upon his favorite child) being signified quasi-iconically by the Cheshire-Cat's head hovering over the Queen's party.

When, in Wonderland, Alice takes first notice of the Cheshire-Cat, the Cat sits on the floor by the hearth in the kitchen of the Ugly Duchess. Alice is rudely informed by the Duchess that the Cat grins because it is a Cheshire-Cat. Tenniel's illustration portrays the closed-mouthed but smiling Cheshire-Cat with the markings of a “tabby”; although biographers note that Dodgson frequently specified how the characters of the story were be to illustrated, there is no documentation about Dodgson's specifications regarding the Cat. However, it is noteworthy that The Oxford English Dictionary defines a tabbycat as a “brindled or mottled or streaked cat, esp. of grey or brownish colour with dark stripes; cat, esp. female”. Returning to Lennon's opinion that the Cat is an icon of Dinah and recalling that although Dinah is described as a “tabby”, descriptions of Dinah's actual markings and color(s) have not been found. Hence, Tenniel's illustrations of a tabby could be meant either to iconize Dinah, or the tabby appearance of the Cheshire-Cat could be mere coincidence and not intended to represent any particular cat. When the Cheshire-Cat shows up in Wonderland for the second time, it languidly occupies the bough of a tree. Alice approaches it timidly because it has “very long claws and a great many teeth”. The Tenniel illustrations do not show the Cat's claws, but biographers note that Dodgson was in the habit of wearing gray (the “tabby color”) cotton gloves year-round (Cohen 1995:471). The reason for this habit is undisclosed. However, if asked about them, Dodgson playfully might have told children that the gloves were to cover his “long fingernails” or “claws”; regardless, those long covered fingers, considered as if “cat paws” or even “cat fingers”, might lead one to believe that the “cat” had long claws indeed. The “great many teeth” in Tenniel's illustrations of the Cat's smile show only evenly spaced and sized upper teeth with short incisors, and thus they seem to depict human teeth. Alice, during her childhood relationship with Dodgson, doubtlessly would have lost her “baby teeth”, and in all likelihood, this would have been a topic of conversation with Dodgson, together with his assurances and personal demonstrations of the fact that adults have more and bigger teeth than children do. Such conversations could have been of special importance to Alice as her “adult teeth” developed; the possibility of losing her “permanent” teeth could have prompted discussions with Dodgson about how the greater number of adult teeth could compensate for the loss or extraction of a few.

As noted above, Cohen referred to the fact that Alice would know “the leopards from Cardinal Wolsey's coat of arms that graces the fabric of Christ Church and are known as the ‘Ch Ch cats’”.

The coat of arms of Cardinal Wolsey, founder of Christ Church, are now borne by that College; the arms are described as “Sable, on a cross engrailed argent, a lion passant gules between four leopards' faces azure …” (Foster 1893:395). The four leopards, the “Ch Ch cats”, portrayed in a photograph of their terracotta representation on Anne Boleyn's gatehouse at Hampton Court (Gwyn 1990: plate), do appear to be smiling, if only because of tricks played by light and shadow. Hardly fierce-looking, they seem friendly enough to have earned their nickname. Further, as we are aware of Dodgson's penchant for various word and linguistic games, it is easy enough to imagine he might take the “Ch Ch”, doubtlessly standing for “Christ Church” and reverse their pronunciation from “k-ch” to “ch-k”, as in “Cheshire-Cat”, and even “Charles Carroll” (although there is no evidence that Dodgson himself ever “mixed” his true name with his pseudonym). A similar play upon pronunciations and mixing of letters might have occurred elsewhere in Wonderland, however. Interestingly, explanations of the Caucus Race in Wonderland, including standard definitions of “caucus” and suggestions as to how “Caucus Race” might be construed in the sense of this particular race, generally fail to explain satisfactorily what Dodgson had meant by the term, nor do they suggest why he might have named Wonderland's event as he did. Notwithstanding, if the first letters of the words “Caucus Race” are reversed, i.e., “Raucus Case”; and if the “c” is pronounced not with the hard “k” sound (as in King) but rather with the “ch” sound (as in Child), some sense can be made of the term which becomes “Raucus Chase”.

The positions of the leopard heads on the Wolsey arms iconize the positions taken by the Cat in its four Wonderland epiphanies. The blue leopard heads are placed at the top, bottom and sides of the cross, surrounding the red lion in the center of the cross; as noted above, the cat appears on the floor, in the boughs of two trees, and then hovering over the “red” King and Queen at the croquet game. Some contemporary two-dimensional depictions of the Wolsey coat of arms on the Christ Church badge show the leopards with rectangular mouths, tongues sticking out and downwards. It is unclear as to whether or not the arms were depicted in this way in Dodgson's time, but regardless, to stick one's tongue out at someone or something is generally acknowledged to signify contempt or disdain (like the attitude of the Cheshire-Cat to its royal interlocutors). Whether the Wolsey leopards seem to smile or not is quite beside the point, for it is the positions of the “Ch Ch” cats upon the arms that are most relevant here.

Before taking the semiotic leap from “Christ Church” (as the place where Alice and Dodgson met, played and lived) to “Charles Dodgson” and on to “Cheshire-Cat”, there is one further point to consider: Lennon provides certain details about the deanery, including the fact that Dean Liddell had remodeled the house, building not only a great staircase in it, but decorating the main floor's gallery with three carved lions from the Liddell family crest. Lennon goes on to note that in an interview given as an adult, Alice had told how she, Lorina and Edith had rushed downstairs from their bedrooms at night to check on the lions, “in case the lions should leave their pedestals and chase them”. Alice also spoke of her own and her sisters' timidity about the swans on their boat trips, adding, “We were too happy to be really frightened” (Lennon 1972: 171).

It is a virtual certainty that Dodgson would have known about the girls' fear of the swans and the lions since he took the little sisters out on boat trips amongst swans and enjoyed their confidences; just what he might have said to them to calm their fears is unknown, but it is reasonable to suppose that he either showed them playfully how unfounded their fears were, assuring them that he could and would protect them from swans. As for the lions, he could have pointed to other decorative cats, perhaps the “Ch Ch cats”, to show that they did not move from their places, and neither did their lion. From that perspective, the “Ch Ch cats” on the arms might be understood to be guarding the lion, King of Beasts (and long-standing symbol of Royalty) not so much to protect it, as to keep it safely in its place. The Cheshire-Cat invites the wrath of royalty, putting the King of Hearts “in his place” so to speak, by fearlessly and effortlessly foiling the would-be executioner with word-play: how does one “off with the head” of a head already disembodied? Thus, the Cat could stand to Alice Liddell as a reminder of Dodgson's abilities to assuage her fears by protecting and amusing her according to Dodgson's unique, real-life talents and propensities.

When Alice tries to solicit directions from the Cat at the time of its second appearance, apparently taking for granted the fact that the Cheshire-Cat would be able to converse intelligently, its grin widens, and this is interpreted by Alice as a sign of the Cat's friendliness. At length, the Cat tells her that no matter which direction she takes, she will meet either the Mad Hatter or the March Hare. “Visit either you like: they're both mad” it tells her. When Alice says that she doesn't want to go about mad people, the Cat assures her, “Oh, you can't help that. We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.” Alice must be mad, it tells her, or she wouldn't have come here. Alice does not think the Cat has proven her to be mad, but she nevertheless asks it how it knows that it's mad. The Cat then launches into a “proof” in the form of a syllogistic fallacy, having had Alice admit that a dog is not mad. A not-mad dog growls when displeased and wags its tail when it's pleased, but the Cat growls when it's pleased and wags its tail when angry; therefore the Cat is mad. Missing the fact that the Cat's conclusion is erroneous, Alice says, “I call it purring, not growling”, to which the Cat replies, like a devout nominalist, “Call it what you like.” Syllogistic “proofs” were the stock-in-trade of Charles Dodgson the logician. His Symbolic Logic and the Game of Logic of 1896 shows that he instructed children in Logic by inventing a game, complete with rules and game pieces, to provide an easy way for them to solve syllogisms and sorites, and therein he avowed his attachment to linguistic nominalism (Carroll 1958: 165-6). Thus, the “form of reasoning” employed by the Cat in “proving” its own madness likely would make Alice think of Dodgson, his games, his logic and his proofs, and his playfulness, as would the Cat's “great many” teeth and its “long claws”.

Dodgson signified words to be emphasized by italicizing them. The Cat's “We're all mad here” is free of italics; thus, it is up to the reader to provide his or her own emphasis. “We're all mad here” could allude to the difficulties that occur in the “space” or “place” of dreams and illusions. Dodgson had pondered the topic of dream-madness himself, noting in his personal diary, “when we are dreaming and, as often happens, have a dim consciousness of the fact and try to wake, do we not say and do things which in waking life would be insane? May we not then sometimes define insanity as an inability to distinguish which is the waking and which the sleeping life?” (in Gardner 1998: 90 n.8). Anyone, even a child who has awakened with terror from a nightmare would understand the importance of the question. If, in the Cat's “We're all mad here”, the word “here” is emphasized, it could signify either a collective dream, i.e., everyone in Wonderland is asleep and participating in one great dream of an unknown dreamer; or it could suggest only the “madness” of the actual dreamer known to the reader, i.e., Alice, who is unaware that she is dreaming and who, moreover, resists the notion that she herself is mad. The “here”, the locus, place or space signified by the word is consistent with the preceding passages, where the Cat indicates the places where Alice will find either the Mad Hatter or the March Hare, and it tells Alice that she must be mad or else she would not have come “here”. There also is the implication that “here, we're mad; elsewhere, perhaps we're not mad”. Again, this is consistent with an alteration of the intellect of one asleep, leading to a dreamer's inability to distinguish intentional or purely mental being from real being. But if the statement is read as “We're all mad here” the implication is that Alice is not mad, for she is the outsider. This seems, in fact, to be the interpretation favored by Alice herself; the evidence of her alleged madness solicited from the Cat fails to convince her, even though she already has questioned her own cognitive abilities, including her memory, which she herself says have taken a “curious” turn. As she moves through Wonderland, Alice will find herself judging some creatures or items as nonsensical if not “impossible” objects or creatures, and judging herself as confused, puzzled, offended, angry and so forth, until finally she concludes that she is very different from the other creatures there. But all of this points to one of the most profound puzzles in Wonderland: would someone who is mad know his or her (or its) madness to be real, and if so, would his, her (or its) knowing so be doubtful by virtue of that very madness? Or would the doubt be mad? The Cat's nominalism prompts one to ask what madness is, and who could judge and authoritatively pronounce upon actual madness or, for that matter, actual sanity if everyone experiences the madness of dreams or dreams of madness? Would syllogistic logic be applied by someone with authority to diagnose, and if so, would the foundations of the syllogism be erroneous or mad? Could the authority of logic itself prevail, and would Dodgson have attempted to teach or to reassure Alice about the safety and stability of her Oxford world with logic? It seems a virtual certainty that if the children had confided to Dodgson that they had dreamt of being chased by swans or lions, Dodgson would have tried to help them distinguish the creatures of their imaginations from those encountered in reality.

As noted above, the reasons for the Liddells' severing their ties, and especially those of Alice with Charles Dodgson, are unknown. It seems not unreasonable, however, to think that the Dean and his wife might have suggested to their daughters that it would be “madness” to encourage or allow further contact with him. The Cheshire-Cat, even if “mad”, is essentially benign and benevolent, but it invites its fictitious, its real and its virtual audience to ponder the notion of madness and the application of the word to creatures of fiction, “reality” and virtuality. But it does not contradict; it simply invites the consideration of alternatives. If the Cat can call purring “growling”, there is reason to wonder if by “madness” everyone means the same thing.

The Cat's brief third appearance occurs because the Cat claims that it is unsure whether it heard Alice say “pig or fig”. As it becomes visible for its fourth appearance, Alice waits for its ears (“or at least one of them”) to appear before answering its question. Evidently, the Cat is slightly deaf and Alice must be sure to see its ears before she can expect it to hear her. Again, the difficulty with hearing could point to Dodgson, but there is more: biographers cannot agree, interestingly, on which of Dodgson's ears was afflicted, with Cohen (1995:8) claiming it was the right ear, Lennon (1972:51) offering two sources who favor respectively the right or the left, while Gattégno (1974) does not mention Dodgson's hearing impairment at all. It is possible that both ears were affected, one worse than the other, and various environmental and physiological conditions could have exacerbated his deafness from time to time, even unilaterally, as well. However, the fact that Alice feels that she must see the Cat's ears in order to be heard could be reminiscent of her times with Dodgson, and of Dodgson inclining one or both ears towards her in order to hear her.

The Cat's most notorious habit of appearing grin-first and vanishing grin-last needs to be taken into account. Gardner (1998:91 n.9) observes:

The phrase ‘grin without a cat’ is not a bad description of pure mathematics. Although mathematical theorems often can be usefully applied to the structure of the external world, the theorems themselves are abstractions that belong in another realm ‘remote from human passions’, as Bertrand Russell once put it in a memorable passage, ‘remote even from the pitiful cosmos, where pure thought can dwell as in its natural home, and where one, at least, of our nobler impulses can escape from the dreary exile of the actual world’.

It is unlikely that Alice herself would think of Gardner's or Russell's views, for true and fitting though they may be (and despite the fact that they point to Dodgson the mathematician), they represent the adult views of mathematician and philosopher. There is, though, a simpler explanation for the Cat's trick, as any child who had visited Dodgson's darkroom would know (and apparently some children, including Alice, succeeded in being invited into that “sanctum sanctorum” (Cohen 1996:164)). Lighter colors develop, or seem to develop, more quickly than darker lines and colors. The Cat “fades” in, toothy white grin first, and out, toothy white grin last, like a photograph being developed or even over-developed. This, doubtlessly, would make Alice think of photography and so of Dodgson, for he certainly photographed her during her childhood, and in fact, it was through photography that Alice and Dodgson first met.


As noted above, Dodgson referred to Wonderland as a fairy tale, but gave no actual definition of what he meant either by “fairy” or “fairy tale”. At Christmas 1867, he wrote a new, second prefatory poem entitled Christmas Greetings (From a Fairy to a Child) for Wonderland (Carroll 1994:13; the poem has been located in few extant editions of Wonderland). In essence, the poem (addressing its reader as “Lady dear”) tells that at Christmas time, fairies for a moment may be permitted to leave aside their tricks and play and wish the “Lady dear” a Merry Christmas and Glad New Year. The fairy-author recalls being told by “gentle children, whome we love” that Christmas angels had wished “Peace on earth, good-will to men”, and that this heavenly message echoes down the ages and is recalled at Christmas time by adults. But for those with child-like hearts, the whole year is Christmas time, for in the hearts of children the “heavenly guests abide”. Thus the poem stands not only to signify Christmas and the ancient joy of the angels which reverberates in the joyful hearts of “children”; it also could signify the Christmas gifts of Under Ground and later Wonderland (as well as other Christmas gifts) from Dodgson to Alice Liddell. Most importantly, perhaps, the poem is “from a fairy”—and so Dodgson has referred to himself as a fairy, albeit one who has momentarily discarded its/his customary levity in order to wish perpetually to its/his reader(s) the joys of Christmas time/childhood.

Above, it was noted that Lennon's assertion that the Cheshire-Cat was a “guardian imp” serving as a “sort of liaison officer” between Wonderland and the real world could suggest that the Cat is a fairy. It also was noted above that Dodgson had “supposed” in his Preface to Bruno and Sylvie that a fairy could assume a “Human form”, and that the “immaterial essences” of humans and fairies could “migrate” to each other's worlds. Although Dodgson's suppositions were penned twenty-eight years after the publication of Wonderland, the “fairy nature” (or otherwise) of the Cheshire Cat merits serious consideration.

In 1890, Dodgson prepared and had published a condensed version of Wonderland (The Nursery “Alice”) for very young children which included twenty illustrations colored by Tenniel (Cohen 1996:440). Tenniel's picture of the Cheshire-Cat sitting on the bough of a tree grinning at Alice was included in The Nursery “Alice,” and Gardner (1998:89) notes:

In The Nursery “Alice” Carroll calls attention to the Fox Glove showing in the background of Tenniel's drawing for this scene. … Foxes do not wear gloves, Carroll explains to his young readers. ‘The right word is “Folk's-Gloves”. Did you ever hear that Fairies used to be called ‘the good Folk?’

Thus, iconically, the potential presence of fairies is signified by the Fox Glove in this illustration; moreover, it is at least possible that the inclusion of Fox Glove in the illustration was specified by Dodgson for that very reason (he also probably would have explained the “right word” for the plant to little Alice Liddell at some point). And it also seems very likely that Dodgson knew that Fox Glove, insofar as it is the source of the cardiotonic Digitalis, signifies “the heart”, and so also could signify love. Fox Glove is portrayed only in the two aforementioned illustrations; however, mushrooms also were considered to be foci of fairy activities and gatherings as well, and we recall that Alice meets the Hookah-smoking, pontificating Caterpillar as it lounges upon the top of a mushroom (also splendidly illustrated by Tenniel).

In Wonderland, the Fox Glove and Cheshire-Cat illustration follows the picture of Alice holding the Duchess's pig-baby; in this drawing, Alice is standing next to another Fox Glove, which again intimates the presence of fairies. The transformation of the baby character from one “thing” into another is the only event of its kind in Wonderland. (The Caterpillar, being a caterpillar, holds within itself the potential for transformation, but its metamorphosis or final disposition are left to Wonderland's readers' imaginations.) Dodgson's “suppositions” about fairies, especially their ability to take “Human forms”, were not simply products of his own imagination, for at that time, there was great interest in fairies, with fairy lore and tales from medieval England enjoying a renaissance in certain Victorian circles (Thomas 1971:724-734). Thus, through Dodgson's acquaintance with fairy stories and books about fairies (Cohen 1996:369), he would have known that his own ancestors probably had believed that even a moment of parental neglect of an infant could invite malevolent fairies to steal a baby and substitute a “changeling” which could take several forms, the forms depending upon the fairy lore and beliefs of the locale. Elves and pixies, trolls and gnomes, giants and dwarves, brownies and banshees—all are “kinds” of fairies, benevolent, mischievous, or otherwise, each with its own distinguishing characteristics.

unsociable tricksters whose malice was best thwarted by humans wearing their coats inside-out while passing places presumed inhabited by pixies. Recall that in Alice's initial encounter with the Cheshire-Cat, the Cat sits on the hearth while the Ugly Duchess nurses a baby who howls and sneezes incessantly as the cook stirs a cauldron of “pepper soup”. The Duchess violently shakes and tosses the baby up and down, singing a hilarious “sort of lullaby” to it. Eventually, announcing that she has to get ready to play croquet with the Queen, the Duchess tosses the baby to Alice, who catches it with “some difficulty”. The baby begins its transformation in Alice's arms, who finds it difficult to hold the baby until she figures out “the proper way of nursing it (which was to twist it up into a sort of knot, and then keep tight hold of its right ear and left foot, so as to prevent its undoing itself)”. In effect, the coatless Alice turns the baby inside-out, and with its transformation into a pig complete, she sets it down and watches it trot quietly into the woods. Has the baby become a “pigsey”—a fairy? Or, having ingested “magical” bits of cakes, mushrooms and potions that have affected her size, has Alice by now turned into a fairy who takes the Duchess's baby and (literally) turns it into a changeling? The answer to this last question may be found by reviewing part of Dodgson's description of the abilities of fairies (see above, p. 82):

I have also supposed a Fairy to be capable of … various psychic states, viz., … a sort of ‘eerie’ state, in which he is conscious … if in Fairyland, of the presence of the immaterial essences of Human beings.

Alternatively, the “immaterial essence” of Alice Liddell, who, enjoying the “psychical state”

in which, while unconscious of actual surroundings, and apparently asleep, [s]he (i.e.[her] immaterial essence) migrates to other scenes, in the actual world, or in Fairyland, and is conscious of the presence of Fairies. …

becomes Wonderland's Alice. Alice's “immaterial essence”, while in Wonderland, well might have assumed the powers of Dodgson's fairies; but if another “real” fairy, after all, is the Cheshire-Cat who “is conscious of the presence of the immaterial essence” of his beloved Alice Liddell, then as Dodgson's own “immaterial essence”, it also could, in the manner of a delightfully deranged “shape-shifter” or Pooka,

migrate to other scenes … in Fairyland, and [be] conscious of the presence of Fairies. …

Thus, as fairies or as sharers of some altered state of consciousness, Dodgson (as the Cheshire-Cat) and Alice (as herself or fairy-self) could meet in Wonderland/Fairyland, be conscious of each other's presence, but not necessarily recognize each other in each other's “fairy” state. Or, one or both of them could have recognized the “human essence” presented by the other as a “human essence” regardless of the other's appearance. Hence, just a few years after Wonderland's success, Dodgson could preface Wonderland's sequel, Looking Glass, with yet another poem:

                              Child of pure unclouded brow
                              And dreaming eyes of wonder!
                    Though time be fleet, and I and thou
                                        Are half a life asunder,
                    Thy loving smile will surely hail
                              The love-gift of a fairy-tale. …
                    And, though the shadow of a sigh
                              May tremble through the story,
                    For ‘happy summer days’ gone by,
                              And vanish'd summer glory—
                    It shall not touch with breath of bale
The pleasance of our fairy-tale.

[emphasis added]


The foregoing analysis can be summarized as follows:

  1. “Cheshire” r Birthplace of Dodgson
  2. “Grinning” r Dodgson at play or in the company of the children
  3. Cheshire-Cat's attitude towards the King r Dodgson at the Bazaar, June 1863
  4. Disembodied head r Dodgson in his library room viewed through the window from deanery lawn below; the “Ch Ch cats”, see n7.
  5. Cheshire-Cat's long claws r Dodgson's gray gloves r Fox Glove illustration(s)
  6. Cheshire-Cat's many teeth displayed in grin r human teeth displayed in grin or smile r Dodgson smiling with the children; possible conversation about the loss of “baby teeth” and adult dentition
  7. Position of Cheshire-Cat in its appearances r Wolsey leopards a.k.a “Ch ch” cats r Christ Church r scene of Dodgson's encounters with Alice
  8. “Ch ch” cats r “k ch” cats r “ch k” cats r Cheshire-Cat r Charles—Carroll
  9. Relation of Wolsey leopards to lion on arms r Dodgson protecting the children from the imagined harm of swans and the Liddell lions; possible conversations about dreams, see n11
  10. Cheshire-Cat's use of syllogistic logic, word-play, teasing r Dodgson as logician, playmate
  11. The “logic” of madness r Dodgson as logician r possible conversations with Alice about dreaming, madness and the logical possibilities involved in diagnosing (vs. opining) madness.
  12. Cheshire-Cat signifying hearing impairment r Dodgson's partial deafness
  13. Cheshire-Cat fading in and out r photographic development r Dodgson
  14. Cheshire-Cat's judgmental, caring and interested attitude towards Alice r Dodgson's love and care for Alice

If it is accepted that the Cheshire-Cat signifies Charles Dodgson, it well might be asked why Dodgson would choose a cat to signify himself. If we return to Alice's thoughts and words in the rabbit hole and in The Pool of Tears, we see that it is her cat, Dinah, that Alice loves and admires so deeply and unconditionally that she wishes everyone could know Dinah. She talks about Dinah's ability to catch birds and mice, of how “she's such a quiet and dear thing” that purrs as she washes herself by the fire, about how Dinah will miss her, about Dinah's softness. The Cheshire-Cat does not catch birds or mice, does not purr, does not wash itself by a fire, and it neither touches nor is touched by Alice. It pops into visibility and invisibility quite casually, like a memory prompting memories, a sign producing signs, of animals, people, events and situations long since extinguished by time. But the Cheshire-Cat cares for Alice with a tenderness and concern, and with a respect for her that is not exhibited by any other Wonderland creature when it asks how she's getting along; and it listens attentively to and considers the opinions, thoughts and feelings she talks about. It does not give advice, but presents her with options, telling her about the risks involved in each. It teases her mercilessly with bad logic and with its comings and goings, smiling with friendliness all the while. It does not judge her or admonish her for displays of bad temper or frustration, for making errors or for being who and what she is. It simply cares in its own and unique way, unconditionally, for her and her well-being. Upon reflection, it is, in its way, a “quiet and dear thing”.

Thus, the Cheshire-Cat stands as a sign of Charles Dodgson, signified by Lewis Carroll. By pointing gently but with relentless semiotic decisiveness to Dodgson, by providing directions not to the madness of a dream world, but to the real patterns of Dodgson's relationship with Alice, and by embodying the characteristics Dodgson doubtlessly would have wanted Alice to remember as his own, the Cheshire-Cat signifies most significantly.


Carroll, Lewis (Charles Dodgson). 1958. Symbolic logic and the game of logic. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

———. 1993. Alice's adventures in Wonderland. Sir John Tenniel, Illustrator. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

———. 1994. The complete works of Lewis Carroll. New York: Barnes and Noble.

Cohen, Morton N. 1996. Lewis Carroll: A biography. New York: Vintage Books.

Deely, John. 1994. New beginnings: Early modern philosophy and postmodern thought. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Foster, Joseph. 1893. Oxford men and their colleges. Oxford: J. Parker & Co.

Gardner, Martin. 1996. The universe in a handkerchief: Lewis Carroll's mathematical recreations, games, puzzles and word plays. New York: Copernicus.

———. 1998. Introduction and notes in the annotated Alice, by Lewis Carroll. Sir John Tenniel, Illustrator. New York: Random House.

Gattégno, Jean. 1974. Lewis Carroll: Fragments of a Looking Glass. Tr. Rosemary Sheed. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.

Gwyn, Peter. 1990. The king's cardinal. London: Barrie and Jenkins.

Haughton, Hugh. 1998. Introduction and notes in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll. Sir John Tenniel, Illustrator. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.

Lennon, Florence Becker. 1972. The life of Lewis Carroll. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Thomas, Keith. 1971. Religion and the decline of magic: Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Wakeling, Edward. 1992. Lewis Carroll's games and puzzles. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., in association with the Lewis Carroll Birthplace Trust.

Ben Silverstone (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7653

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. Palmer, which is full of erudition and contains a large number of most useful and exact references.’1 It was Skeat's work, not Palmer's, that proved to be the more valuable resource for the editors of the nascent OED, but this minor dictionary is significant in its own way. As Palmer himself points out, it is the first extended study in English of ‘folk-etymology’, after Andressen's Deutsche Volketymologie. ‘By folk-etymology’, Palmer explains,

is meant the influence exercised upon words … by the popular use and misuse of them. In a special sense, it is intended to denote the corruption which words undergo, owing either to false ideas about their derivation, or a mistaken analogy with other words to which they are supposed to be related.2

Lewis Carroll owned both Palmer's and Skeat's dictionaries3 and, while Folk-etymology was not published until 1882—eleven years after Through the Looking-Glass; seventeen after Alice's Adventures in Wonderland—curious morphological relations exist between the ‘curious’ books by the Reverends Dodgson and Palmer.

Palmer quotes at some length in his introduction from an article by M. Gaidoz in the Revue politique et littéraire in which the process of folk etymology is seen as the result of a language-speaker's attempts to assimilate unfamiliar words:

Les mots de la langue ordinaire frappent son oreille dès son enfance, et sa curiosité ne s'y arrête pas parce que ces mots sont pour lui des choses. Il n'en est pas de même des mots étrangers ou inusités qu'il entend pour la première fois. Sa curiosité est mise enjeu, et comme il a une tendance à croire que tout mot a une signification, il cherche et se laisse guider par une ressemblance de son avec des mots déjà connus. Il en arrive de la sorte à déformer les mots par fausse analogie.4

Strange lexical forms make speakers especially alert to the sounds of words they use, since it is sound resemblance, rather than semantic or grammatical relations, which provides the means by which such words are made sense of within known linguistic structures. The morphosemantic opacity of new words is deformed into an intelligible shape by this process of sonic ‘fausse analogie’. In giving examples of such verbal distortions, Palmer identifies certain nineteenth-century lexicographical practices as partly responsible for the kind of morphological confusion which results in the products of folk etymologies. Charles Richardson, whose New Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1836-7, was based on the principles of metaphysical etymology developed by Horne Tooke in The Diversions of Purley, is singled out for correction in his morphologies of the supposed word groups ‘cutler’,‘cutlet’, and ‘clipper’; ‘press’ and ‘press-gang’; ‘tact’ and ‘tactics’.5 Gaidoz's diction, on the other hand, evokes the world of another sub-section of the ‘folk’: the world, not of the lexicographer, but of the child. His references to language-users' ‘enfance’ and their ‘curiosité’ which is ‘mise en jeu’ by linguistic interaction taps into a commonly expressed comparison of child's play and etymological wordplay.6

Palmer also describes the urge to construct spurious etymologies, to warp the strange into the familiar, in the language of infantile diversion:

of all the tricks that the mischievous genius of popular speech loves to play on words, none is more curious than the transformation it makes them undergo in order that they may resemble other words in which some family relation … is imagined.7

Forty-five years later, Jean Piaget makes an explicit connection between children's limited comprehension of others' speech and their well-known capacity for speculative morphologies:

Many people … have studied the spontaneous etymology which children practise, or their astonishing propensity for verbalism, i.e., the imaginative interpretation of imperfectly understood words; and both these phenomena show the child's facility in satisfying his mind by means of arbitrary justifications.8

The child's faculty for ‘verbalism’ is, according to Piaget, co-opted into a more systematised ‘syncretistic method’ of understanding, whereby familiar words in a phrase are connected up into a ‘general schema’ that provides the context for an understanding of the unfamiliar. This ‘process of approximation and selection’ (p. 152) frequently results in the immediate misinterpretation of speech; eventually, however, the child is guided towards linguistic comprehension by this circuitous route. Both the false analogies which, for Palmer, drive the process of folk etymology and the verbal play of resemblance described by Gaidoz are resituated by Piaget in the mind of the child, where they form patterns of syncretistic schematisations that channel the process of language acquisition.

Understanding and misunderstanding are products principally of the kinds of question a child asks itself. Piaget divides childish interrogatives (and therefore the means by which words are schematised) into three sketchily defined categories: those which concern physical objects, and to which Piaget ascribes the need for causal or finalistic explanation; those which are about psychological actions, and which demand a psychological motive; and those referring to the classification and connection of ideas, which ask for a logical justification. Although this categorisation is self-admittedly limited (pp. 168-70), it proves a useful tool in considering the child's attitude to language. A child's questions can approach language as a psychological phenomenon, and therefore touch on the ‘whys’ of motivation—‘Why do people say “strayed”? [instead of saying lost]’—or as an activity governed by impersonal rules, which can thus be justified according to the logical connections between these rules—‘Why black coffee, all coffee is black?’ (p. 170). It is in the transition from the consideration of language in a psychological, causal or finalistic context to the desire for logical justification in word use that Piaget sees key evidence for the maturing of the child's linguistic understanding: ‘The child finds that names which originally were bound up in his mind with the object can be subjected to an increasingly logical justification (childish etymologies)’ (p. 236). To illustrate this kind of morphological logic, which prioritises the structural relations between signifiers over a putative connection between signifier and signified, Piaget cites lines of argument undertaken by Del, a 7-year-old: ‘Why [do you say ‘tom cat’]? A she-cat is a mummy cat. A cat is a baby cat … I want to write “a daddy-cat” …—That isn't a bone, it's a bump—Why? If I was killed, would it burst?’ (p. 195). These “‘whys” of logical justification’ are characteristic of ‘an intermediate stage’ (p. 196) of thought development, a phase in which judgements are logically justified by the child, but without sufficient detachment to permit the emergence of purely deductive movements from premises to conclusions. Imaginative, but internally coherent, etymologies are a symptom of the inception of the child's cognitive journey from causal, finalistic and psychological explanations to deductive, logical reasoning. Piaget does not expect logical justification to occur before the age of 7 and finds the first occurrence of pure deduction at 11-12 (pp. 195-6).

In Looking-Glass, Alice tells Humpty Dumpty that she is ‘Seven years and six months’,9 although Alice Liddell, on 4 July 1862, the ‘golden afternoon’ on which the composition of Wonderland began, was 10. Either way, she is living through that ‘intermediate stage’ of logical justification identified by Piaget. But Alice is unlike Del in an important respect: in Carroll's two Alice novels, it is not the child protagonist who produces the ‘childish etymologies’ but the monstrous creatures whom she meets. If he ever read the Alice books, Gaidoz may have regarded the fact that the Gryphon, the Mock Turtle and Humpty Dumpty all distort words to fit their conceptual schemas as suggestive, for he makes a similar link in his Revue article, characterising idiosyncratic word formations as ‘véritables monstres’ which, ‘comme les monstres de l'histoire naturelle acquièrent des membres nouveaux. Ces mots, déformés par l'étymologie populaire, échappent aux lois ordinaires du langage comme les monstres aux lois de la nature.’10 For Gaidoz, then, such deformed words are a challenge to the laws of language, just as Humpty Dumpty's liminal status between man and egg disrupts the way Alice schematises his body. Unable to decide whether he is wearing a cravat round his neck or a belt round his waist, she ends up unintentionally offending him (pp. 266-7). Humpty transgresses and calls into question conventional systems of categorisation, a characteristic of the monster which David Williams has commented on in Deformed Discourse. In his investigation of the teratological in medieval thought, Williams traces the links between natural or somatic monstrosities and the negative theology of Pseudo-Dionysus. The core of the Pseudo-Dionysus's theory—‘that God transcends human knowledge utterly and can be known only by what He is not’11—entails a methodology whereby affirmation is eschewed in favour of processes of paradox and negation which challenge misleading tendencies in human discourse and cognition. Just as the Cerberus, the monster who unites three heads (representing the three modes of time) in one body, confuses the rational separation of time into past, present, and future, so monstrous uses of language can lead to a heuristic questioning of inherited categories and patterns of thought: ‘Such a critique is created through a dismantling of rational and logical concepts in which conventional signs of these concepts are deformed in ways intolerable to logic so as to ‘show forth’ [monstrare, as distinguished from (re)praesentare].’12 Neither the Gryphon nor Humpty Dumpty shows much interest in the medieval via negativa, but the category problems raised by both their bodies and their attitudes to language ‘show forth’ the difficulties in the ‘logical’ approach to word derivation with which Piaget characterises the intermediate stage of child thought development. In Williams's analysis of negative theology, as in Gaidoz's view of folk etymology, it is the absurdity of a monstrous verbal form which calls our attention to the signifier and its relation to the signified, but, for Williams, this has wider implications: ‘The intellectual disturbance effected by the monstrous is due not only to the inappropriateness of the particular sign for what is signified, but also to its inherent negation of the mind's confidence in similitude and mimesis as criteria of language and cognition.’13 The monsters' somatic and etymological deformations in the Alice books resemble Williams's deformed discourses in that ‘Inadequacy, paradox and reversal are the hallmark of the poetics’,14 but whereas Williams's deformed discourses aim at theological correction, the etymological constructs of Carroll's monsters poke fun at ‘grown-up’ didacticism. Wonderland and Looking-Glass are written primarily for children, not lexicographers or theologians, and their narrative framing gives the monsters a context more applicable to the perspective of the child reader or listener. A key boundary which the monsters in the Alice books contest is that between adult and child, and in their straddling of these age-groups they dramatise the uncertainty as to what a mature approach to word derivation really is. Carroll's presentation of the monsters will be seen to acknowledge the childish linguistic perspective even while the monsters themselves frequently speak with an adult voice.

At the Gryphon's first appearance in Wonderland, Carroll draws the reader's attention to Tenniel's accompanying illustration: ‘(If you don't know what a Gryphon is, look at the picture.)’ (p. 124). The picture of the dormant Gryphon complete with sharp, protuberant talons may instill in the child reader a wariness similar to that felt by Alice, who ‘did not like the look of the creature’ (p. 125). And his fearsomeness extends—in one respect—to the way he talks, since, although not frighteningly violent like the Jabberwock, he displays a self-assurance in his use of unfamiliar terms which resembles that intimidating knowingness whereby a teacher or parent may use difficult words to daunt a pupil or child. The speech-tags appended to the words of the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle frequently express irritation, and are supplemented by phatic utterances—‘of course’, ‘I suppose’—whose illocutionary force is to assert the monsters' intellectual superiority to Alice. When, for instance, Alice is prompted to ask what sub-marine shoes are made of, she gets the following response: ‘“Soles and eels, of course,” the Gryphon replied, rather impatiently’ (p. 137), a remark whose dismissiveness is anticipated in the Mock Turtle's answer to Alice's question about the components of his school curriculum: ‘“Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,” the Mock Turtle replied’ (p. 129). Both monsters speak to Alice as if what they are saying is common knowledge, and are bemused when she reveals her ignorance. The Mock Turtle asserts:

‘No wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.’