Through the Looking-Glass Characters

Lewis Carroll

Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

One important theme of Through the Looking-Glass is the power of language to impose order on chaotic reality. The power of words can be seen in the nursery- rhyme characters whose actions are determined by their rhymes. Tweedledum and Tweedledee fight over the rattle not because they choose to but because the rhyme says they must. Humpty Dumpty is sure the king will send his men to help him because the rhyme says so.

How effectively characters use language also determines who they are. Humpty Dumpty tells Alice that when he uses a word, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less. . . . The question is which is to be master—that's all." Elevated on his wall Humpty is a snob. Because of his proper diction, he feels he is upper class and can "lord" it over others. His words, he feels, give him the power to bully. But, like Humpty's eggshell exterior, this power is fragile. Fragile, too, are human efforts through language to impose order on nature. Alice may choose to tell Kitty that her adventures were a "nice dream," but she has just finished crying out at the dreadful confusion of the banquet that "I can't stand this any longer!" Through language, humanity tries to impose meaning and order on an amoral, chaotic world, but this order of human law and social convention is shaky at best.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!/ The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!"
Carroll also points out, through several episodes in Through the Looking- Glass, that language in our world is often arbitrary and sometimes reveals sloppy thinking. In the garden a tree in danger barks, "Bough-wough." Carroll here shows how strangely our language connects tree bark and dog's barks, tree boughs, and a dog's bow-wows. In another incident a frog cannot understand why anyone should answer the door unless it has been asking something. He mistrusts words that are ill-defined and irregularly connected to reality. In still another episode Alice tells the King she sees nobody on the road, and he congratulates her on her good eyesight in seeing Nobody.

While language can create a fragile order for the world, it can also reduce it from a world of poetry and imagination to one of reason and control. When the Gnat, for example, asks Alice what insects she "rejoices" in, Alice replies, "I don't rejoice in insects at all . . . . But I can tell you the names of some of them." The Gnat asks Alice whether the insects answer to their names, that is, whether the names benefit the insects at all. Alice replies that the use of names comes only to the person who does the naming, who exercises control over other creatures. When Alice starts listing to some of the insects, the Gnat offers fanciful definitions for the arbitrary names: "a snapdragon- fly. Its body is made of plum pudding, its...

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