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The use of nonsense in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

Posted in Studii by Hopernicus on 20/10/2012


The literary nonsense defined by Wim Tigges as “a genre of narrative literature which balances a multiplicity of meaning with a simultaneous absence of meaning…”, the balance being ”effected by playing with the rules of language, logic, prosody and representation, or a combination of these”[1] is at the basis of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Although received mostly negative reviews when first published in 1865 and critics attributed various interpretations to it(Freudian influence, hints at drug use), actually it should be regarded as a wonderful journey in an alternative reality where common sense references are challenged and figurative meanings are often taken literally, producing  humorous situations  between Alice and the creatures she encounters.

First of all, we should start by mentioning again Tigges who enumerates the four essential elements of a literary nonsense. The unresolved tension between the presence and the absence of meaning would be the first one. What makes sense toAlicedoes not make sense to the other characters and the other way around. Therefore it’s getting quite difficult to mark the territory between sense and nonsense. While falling down the rabbit holeAlicewonders if she will fall through the earth and come out on the other side where people „walk with their heads downwards.” (8). She even questions herself about Longitude and Latitude. As we move on, in Chapter VII the characters start a conversation by playing with words (”You may just as well say that I see what I eat is the same thing as I eat what I see” p.54) transmitting the idea that saying what one means and meaning what he says are not the same thing.  It is here that Alice and the March Hare argue about whether to take more or less tea as she has had….nothing till then.      Tigges continues with the lack of emotional involvement. In this sense, the sea of tears is like a punishment forAlice’s giving in to her own emotions.

To prove Lewis Carroll’s use of nonsense, the play-like presentation must be mentioned as the third element.Aliceis playing a game of growing and shrinking with the help of some “tools”. All she has to do is to follow their simple instructions: “eat me” or “drink me”. But this exacerbates her confusion over her identity and alludes to the painful transition from childhood to adulthood. Riddles can also be included but they seem to have no answer and exist only to perpetuate confusion and disorder (“Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”). Therefore chaos is the ruling principle, preserving but a strange sense of order.

In The Queen’s Croquet Ground the queen invites Aliceto play croquet. Do you expect to be a common game? Well, we are talking about Wonderland therefore the croquet-ground “was all ridges and furrows; the balls were live hedgehogs, the mallets live flamingoes, the soldiers had … to stand upon their hands and feet”[2]. Furthermore, poetry and songs are also used by the author as means of entertaining (the song for the Lobster Quadrille, Turtle Soup song).

The songs used are mostly parodies, as „Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat„—a parody of Jane Taylor‘s „Twinkle Little Star„, „The Lobster Quadrille„—a parody of Mary Botham Howitt‘s „The Spider and the Fly„.

The last characteristic of literary nonsense is the emphasis, stronger than in any other type of literature, upon its verbal nature.  Language is a subject to debate for the nonsense characters. They argue about the meaning of words like in the already mentioned discussion from the tea-party, they confuse even sentences:” What for? saidAlice” “Did you say, What a pity>>?”, “I had not”, “A knot! saidAlice” (65). We also have an example of chaotic syntax in Chapter 9: “Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves” (72), based on the saying “take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves” .There is a great deal of confusion about words and their meanings, showing the ways in which Wonderland distorts language. Much of the nonsense effect is achieved by directing conversation to definitions rather than to indications. The Frog-Footman tellsAlicenot to knock on the door outside the Duchess’ house because he can only open the door when he is inside. The Cheshire Cat when asked by the girl which way to go, replies to her that she should, first, know where she’s going.

Secondly, continuing the presentation of the verbal aspect, we must analyze the nonsensical devices. Among them are the so called, puns, or words with two meanings.

We have plenty of them in Chapter 9: “There’s a large mustard-mine near here… . The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours” (72), “We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” or “That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” the Gryphon remarked: “because they lessen from day to day.” (77)

They are accompanied by the ‘’portmanteau word’’, that is a phrase coined by Carroll as the quintessence of nonsense and that refers to two words which are collapsed into one meaning. The examples are offered by the Mock Turtle when enumerating the studied subjects: Reeling, Writhing, Uglification, and Drawling.

As Lecercle noticed” it is striking that syntactic incoherence is extremely rare in nonsense texts and that, when it is present, it is clearly indicated, through irony or explicit disapproval”[3].

We can also identify one solecism in Chapter 2: “Curious and curiouser! criedAlice”, suggesting that both her surroundings and the language she uses to describe them expand beyond expectation and convention. On the one hand, anything is possible in Wonderland, and Carroll’s manipulation of language reflects this sense of unlimited possibility, on the other hand the problem of miscommunication is central to the work and the author questions the existence of a valid linguistic communication.

A third reason for labelingAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a nonsensical story is the use of certain themes and motifs. Among them are those of circular voyage, of dance, time, dream, subversion, confusion and of course nonsense. The dream motif explains the abundance of nonsensical and disparate events in the story. The narrative follows the dreamer as she encounters various episodes in which she attempts to interpret her experiences in relationship to herself and her world. She endures the experiences that are curious or confusing, hoping to gain a clearer picture of how experience functions in the world.

Besides this it has a great predilection for numbers, usually avoiding those with a symbolical value. Therefor,e in Chapter 2, Alice exercises her knowledge on Mathematics by solving some multiplications: “four time five is twelve, and four time six is thirteen, and four time seven is- oh dear!”. But as we are in a world of nonsense, the result cannot be correct. The Lobster Quadrille also supposes two lines of dancers that will advance twice, each with its partner. The Queen’s gardeners are named Five, Seven and Two.

Moving further, we can mention Elisabeth Sewell who states that”… Carroll’s nonsense takes the form of consecutive narrative, with much more prose than verse, essentially conversational (…), and at times highly abstract and complex in its language”[4].

The problem of language being already clarified, let us focus on the action and identify the nonsensical aspects of it and of the characters as it can be seen from most of the story. After all, Carroll admitted to have wanted to create nothing else but nonsense. Wonderland breaks downAlice’s beliefs about her identity and replaces her understanding of world with Wonderland’s nonsensical rules.

This starts with the appearance of the White Rabbit- a personified animal- and continues with the falling through the hole, the encounter with the space of Wonderland- the first major confrontation with absolute chaos- and with the characters that are not ordinary ones. The blue Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts- to name only a few of them- are all characterized by human features. They cal talk, rationalize, interact, they have habits as smoking, drinking tea. Even Time is a person and not an abstract concept, which leads to the idea that not only the social conventions are inverted, but the principles of the universe are also turned upside down. Because Time and the Mad Hatter do not get along, Time has „frozen” the tea-party at six o’clock. Except for the Gryphon, none of the animals are of a hostile nature that might leadAliceto any harm, they all have been educated (excluding the pig), and they all share the same feature: madness.

We see an inverted hierarchy in which animals have a measure of authority and treat her as an inferior (“How the creatures order one about, and make one repeat lessons.” p.84).Alicehas become accustomed to following the orders of the White Rabbit who takes her for his servant. What is more absurd is the fact that animals are the subjects of an animated object, a Queen who is a ruthless playing card and orders for no serious reason their beheading.

But we can also identify some logic domination in the behavior of two characters: the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle who speak directly and have peaceable manners and by describing the sea school they remindAliceof her own education. Inevitably their logic becomes a nonsensical one. It is here that we can talk about a satirical nonsense.

Another interesting character is that of the Duchess, whose preoccupation with morals[5]resembles Alice’s preoccupation with rules. We have some examples in which the characters themselves admit the nonsense of their world[6]. The Cheshire Cat tellsAlice that there everybody is mad:” I’m mad. You’re mad… .You must be, said the Cat, or you wouldn’t have come here” (p. 49). She motivates her madness by comparing herself with a dog who is not mad but she must be as she reacts in the opposite way as a dog would (she growls when she’s pleased and she wags the tail when is angry.) The Cheshire Cat’s use of the word “mad” puns on the word “made” and the grin is the emblem of the Cheshire Cat’s madness, as the tea party is  rather a mad one than a nonsensical one.

Alice has failed to find meaning in Wonderland and hopes that she will find logic and order in the trial, but the jury is made up of birds and animals who write their names for not to forget them, and mix up declarations. The King demands the verdict before the arrival of the first witness and he’s as merciless as his queen (“Give your evidence, the King repeated angrily, or I’ll have you executed…. You must remember, or I’ll have you executed”.  p. 92).  He even tries to find a sense in the Knave’s nonsensical poem. Wonderland does not lack laws but they appear as a parody of real justice. Alice`s growth during the trial mirrors her growing awareness of the fact that Wonderland is an illusion and everything is incomprehensible[7]. The girl ends up by realizing that Wonderland is a dream that she can control by waking.

As a final aspect, we will relate to the fact that many authors talk about the relation between nonsense and humor. These are not identical. As Wim Tigges remarks “nonsense is meta-humor”. Humorous acts or as one could name it literary jokes are quite present inAlice’s adventures in Wonderland. To give only an example, the Mad Hatter oils his watch with butter so that it runs two days slow. Humorous is the scene whenAlicebelieves that the mouse is a French one and came with Willian the Conqueror.Aliceaddresses him in French, but makes a mistake and she utters “Ou est ma chatte?” which will soun “Where is my cat?”

Nonsense is a form of fantasy. Personified animals, the nature of time are only but a few themes that are common to these. The Mad Hatter and the March Hare have managed to stop time. The difference consists in the fact that the nonsense world is a verbal one.

The excess of meaning is often at the basis of nonsense rather than the lack of it and it leads to a humorous aspect[8].

Alice`s concerns while falling through the rabbit-hole, are humorous and ridiculous because those measurements are meaningless words to a little girl. In Chapter III, the mouse offers to dry Alice and the other creatures. How? By telling them a very dry history of England.(Here we are also talking about parody and satire). A Cheshire Cat keeps disappearing and reappearing, until only his grin remains. Can you imagine this kind of grin? Roses are also painted in red because the gardeners planted by mistake white roses. To conclude, we can say that most of the humor is due to the fact that the reader knows thatAlice is dreaming. Wonderland is a sort of reverse utopia, a decadent, corrupted one.

All in all, the mixture of creativity, fantasy, word play, satire, and nonsense gained Lewis Carroll an iconic status in children`s literature.He invented words and expressions  but most of all he gave meaning to what we call literary nonsense, or to put it in J.J. Lecercle, he gave the best definition of nonsense: “la philosophie en riant”.






[1] Wim Tigges, An Anatomy of Literary Nonsense,Editions   Rodopi BV,Amsterdam, 1988, p. 47.


[2] Lewis Carrol, Alice`s Adventures in Wonderland (ediţie engleză), Ed. All, Bucureşti, 2001, p. 65.

[3] Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Philosophy of nonsense: the intuitions of Victorian nonsense literature, Routledge, London, 1994, p. 51. On page 58, Lecercle names this strict conformation to syntax as hypersyntaxism; for exemplification see Alice`s Adventures in Wonderland, op. cit., p. 22.

[4]An Anatomy of Literary Nonsense, op. cit., p. 82.

[5] “It`s a vegetable. It doesn`t look like one, but it is”. “I quite agree with you, said the Duchess; and the moral of that is- Be what you would seem to be”, in Alice`s Adventures in Wonderland, op. cit., p. 72.

[6] Ibidem, “Speak English!  Said the Eaglet. I don`t know half those long words, and, what`s  more, I don`t believe you do either: (p. 22), “Well, I have heard it before, said the Mock Turtle; but it sounds uncommon nonsense” (p.  84).

[7] Ibidem, “No, no! said the Queen. Sentence first- verdict afterwards”. “Stuff and nonsense! saidAlice loudly”,  (p. 101).

[8] Ibidem, “I have tasted eggs, certainly, said Alice, who was a very truthful child”; “but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know”. “I don’t believe it”, said the Pigeon; “but if they do, why, then they’re a kind of serpent” (p. 41).


autor Teodora Noje

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