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Language And Nonsense In Lewis Carrolls Alice Books English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3047 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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“I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense. Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means. So, whatever good meanings are in the book, I’m glad to accept as the meaning of the book.” [1] 

Many people think ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ is an example of the limit-breaking book from the old tradition illuminating the new one. They also consider it being a tale. From the looks of it, the story about Alice falling through a rabbit-hole and finding herself in a silly and nonsense world is fairly guileless as a tale.

The underlying story, the one about a girl maturing away from home in what seems to be a world ruled by chaos and nonsense, is quite a frightening one. Alice finds herself confronted in different situations involving various different and curious animals being all alone. She hasn’t got any help at all from home or the world outside of Wonderland. The theme with Alice growing and shrinking into different sizes could reflect the ups and downs of adolescence with young people sometimes feeling adult and sometimes quite the opposite. One other example of maturing is Alice getting used to the new sizes she grows. She talks to her feet and learns some of the new ways her body works in. Her feelings are much shaken from her adventures and she cries quite often when it’s impossible to obey the rules of the Wonderland – or is it adulthood? “Everything is so out-of-the-way down here”, as Alice often repeats to herself.

Carroll is an expert at puns and irony. The part with the mad tea-party is one of the best examples of this. MAD TEA PARTY

There’s a lot of humour in the first Alice book, but in the second the mood gets a bit darker and more melancholic.

The quote “Everyone in Wonderland is mad, otherwise they wouldn’t be down here” told by the Cheshire Cat can be given an existential meaning. Is it that everyone alive is mad being alive, or everyone dreaming him- or herself away is mad due to the escape from reality? Time is a very central theme in the story. The Hatter’s watch shows days because “it’s always six o’ clock and tea-time”. Time matters in growing up, I guess, but further interpretations are left unsaid.

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The first manuscript was called ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’, and that some – at least the Swedish – translation of the title is a bit ambiguous, it becomes more apparent, that the world Alice enters isn’t just any children’s’ playground, but a somewhat frightening and dangerous place for maturing. It becomes more interesting when Alice finally gets into the garden and finds a pack of cards ruling it, with a very evil queen at its head. It appears to be a way of saying that the garden isn’t really what it appears to be.


Humpty Dumpty informs Alice that ‘there are three hundred and sixty four days when you might get un-birthday presents. His statement is another augmentation to one of the oldest and rudimentary philosophical controversies: whether Non-Being, like Being, exists. In the Sophist dialogue, Plato argues that what ‘is not’ in some sense also ‘is’, refuting Parmenides’ concept of the impossibility of the Non-Being to exist. Non-Being is just a being characterised only by its difference from ‘another’ being. Carroll was no stranger to Greek philosophy.

Carroll is over and over again seen to be fascinated by the idea that Nothingness is more than what meets the eye:

‘Take some more tea,’ the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly. 

‘I’ve had nothing yet, ‘Alice replied in an offended tone, ‘so I can’t take more.’

‘You mean you can’t take LESS, ‘said the Hatter: ‘it’s very easy to take MORE than nothing.’ [2] 

The Hatter told Alice that he ‘knew Time’ and that one cannot ‘talk about wasting it’ because Time is ‘him’. Time, says the Hatter, is someone that if you only ‘knew how to keep on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock, you could keep it to half-past one as long as you liked.’ [3] 

To Humpty Dumpty, as well as to the Hatter, Time is a real entity. Once we become aware of this reality, Plato’s concept presents no hindrance to the existence of either birthdays or un-birthdays. As with Time, Numbers too are portrayed by Carroll as real entities. Upon entering the garden Alice comes up to three card gardeners presented by Carroll as Two, Five and Seven. To Carroll, the Christ Church mathematician, Numbers, like Time, are more than just abstract figures – they are real Beings. Carroll venerates here Pythagoras’ concept about Numbers. Aristotle records that the Pythagoreans held that Numbers were: the first things in the whole of nature’ and that ‘the elements of numbers are the elements of all things’ 


Language plays many roles in ‘Alice’s Adventures in the Wonderland’. Carroll illustrates Alice’s powers of reason, gives her identity and explores rules of conversation.

From the beginning of the book, Carroll portrays Alice as a remarkably intelligent little girl, demonstrating this through her verbal reasoning. After drinking the bottle and shrinking down to the proper size for entering the garden, she finds she has left the key to the garden on the table, now far above her head. Finding a cake that will likely produce another change in her size, she decides to eat it. ‘If it makes me grow larger, I can reach the key; and if it makes me grow smaller, I can creep under the door: so both way I’ll get into the garden, and I don’t care which happens’. [4] Alice wisely recognizes that any change in size, whether it be smaller or larger, can suit her purpose. 

Alice’s power of reasoning seem to be inadequate to a little girl’s character. One could certainly argue that Alice’s fearless reasoning as to the advantages of eating the cake is uncharacteristic of a child. 

However, even while Carroll uses Alice’s reasoning to draw attention to her, he skillfully weaves Alice’s childish nature into her words, as when she announces: ‘and I don’t care which happens!’ [5] . Despite her intuitive reasoning, her speech is still childish. Indeed, Alice’s reasoning is always stated plainly, as a child might conceivably speak. At the mad tea party, when the Dormouse is telling his story, Alice keeps interrupting. Noting discrepancies in the story that the others seem to overlook, she says: ‘But I don’t understand. Where did they draw the treacle from?’ [6] Alice has observed that it is difficult to draw something out of a well if you are already in the well, yet the rest of the characters treat Alice’s questions with impatience. Despite the sense of her questions, they are phrased as a child asking, ‘why?’ repeatedly, which keeps her in character for a little girl even as she displays her intelligence. In this manner her reasoning stands out from the complexities of the nonsensical Wonderland. 

Another function of language in Alice in Wonderland is to explore Alice’s identity. According to Martin Heidegger [7] , human identity is dependents on language. Alice shows evidence of this identity through language. Having found her size so abruptly altered with eating the cake, she questions if she is still herself: 

‘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? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!’ [8] 

And she began thinking over all the children she knew that were of the same age as her, to see if she could have been changed for any of them.

Carroll also explores the rules or social conventions of language. Early in the story, Alice strikes up a conversation with a mouse. She only succeeds in offending it, however, by talking about cats: 

‘Oh, I beg your pardon!’ cried Alice hastily, afraid that she had hurt the poor animal’s feelings. ‘I quite forgot you didn’t like cats.’

‘Not like cats!’ cried the Mouse in a shrill, passionate voice. ‘Would you like cats, if you were me?’ [9]  

Throughout her time in Wonderland, Alice learns to adjust her conversation topics to her size, and not offend creatures with reminders of where they rank on the food chain. She demonstrates her new understanding of Wonderland’s rules of etiquette during her visit with the Mock Turtle: 

‘Oh, as to the whiting, ‘ said the Mock Turtle, ‘they – you’ve seen them, or course?’ 

‘Yes, ‘ said Alice, ‘I’ve often seen them at dinn – ‘ she checked herself hastily. [10]  

Alice has learned from her previous encounters with Wonderland creatures what is considered offensive by the rules of language, and stops herself just in time from mentioning that in her world, whiting are food, not friends. 

‘If any one of them can explain it,’ said Alice, (she had grown so large in the last few minutes that she wasn’t a bit afraid of interrupting him,) ‘I’ll give him sixpence. I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it.’

‘If there’s no meaning in it,’ said the King, ‘that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any. And yet I don’t know,’ he went on, spreading out the verses on his knee, and looking at them with one eye; ‘I seem to see some meaning in them, after all.’ [11] 

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The King then proceeds to dissect the poem in order to find its meaning. He is, in fact, analyzing the poem with the interpretation already decided upon – a fallacy that is all too easy for an overzealous scholar to commit. Alice, on the other hand, is willing to take the poem at face value – as a poem and nothing more – thereby displaying the innocence that Sontag so wistfully describes. Using the conflict between the King and Alice, Carroll makes a statement about the danger of trying to read too much into a work of art. 

Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is a great exploration of language. Carroll uses language to set Alice apart as intelligent, even while he uses simplicity of diction to show that she is still a little girl. Using a mixture of introspection and conversation, Carroll explores the issue of identity, successfully demonstrating that Alice’s identity through her reasoning abilities, even though she herself doubts who she is. Carroll also plays with the rules of language and how they are learned, by putting Alice in unheard of situations and demonstrating how she learns the new laws of conversation etiquette. Finally, by showing the absurdity of using a poem as criminal evidence, Carroll berates his readers for trying to read too much into his own story. The many roles of language in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ show Carroll’s skill at manipulating words to make his points.


Carroll makes a contrast between the absurdity of the plot and the rationality behind the character’s comprehension of Alice’s language and their literal manipulation of words, phrases, and names. Carroll toys with linguistic conventions in the Through the Looking Glass, making use of puns and playing on multiple meanings of words throughout the text. The author creates words and expressions and even invents new meanings for words.

But even after a sense of the pattern is established, the perceptive use continues to surprise. This method pushes readers to examine the use of language and articulation. Anything is possible in Wonderland, and Carroll’s manipulation of language reflects this sense of unlimited possibility.

Written in nonsense verse, “Jabberwocky” is almost a satirical heroic ballad that embodies Lewis Carroll’s imaginative language play. The poem creates an altered sense of meaning through invented words. These invented words have English attributes and are simple to read and say, they just do not have meaning outside the context of the poem. he lyrical arrangement, sound of the syllables, and placement in the syntax give many clues as to each words meaning, but no precise definition can be determined. “Jabberwocky” shows how words void of any meaning in and of themselves can have power, tone, and feeling. After reading it Alice is only sure of one thing, “somebody killed something” (Carroll 97).Later in the story, Carroll revisits the topic of names and the poem “Jabberwocky” when Alice meets Humpty Dumpty. Humpty Dumpty, who seems to be substituting words at will, tells Alice he can control of his words as well as their meanings.

Shortly before meeting Humpty Dumpty, in chapter four, Alice meets a pair of twins who seem to be mysteriously under the control of language. Tweedledee and Tweedledum are twins who converse in a manner suggesting a difference of opinion as Tweedledee often remarks “Contrariwise!” However that which follows this expletive doesn’t ever seem to be contrary as exhibited when Tweedledum tells Alice “I know what you’re thinking about…but it isn’t so, nohow,” the other follows adding “Contrariwise…if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic” (Carroll 114). The recitation of a nursery rhyme about the two has predictive powers in Looking-glass world.

Words seem to initiate their battle preparations, as if Tweedledum and Tweedledee are predestined by the rhymes she recites, similar to the White Queen telling Alice she remembers “things that happen week after next” (Carroll 126). The foretold actions and emotions of Tweedledee and Tweedledum illustrate that language can have real power and influence, a message reiterated by the battle of the Lion and the Unicorn.

Lewis Carroll’s seemingly absurd destabilization of language has the ability to comment on language in society in a unique and simplistic manner. This is exhibited with great ease and admirable form while seeing Carroll’s hilarious characters and situations run a constant discourse on the nature and possibilities of language. He creates a duality in his treatment of language in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. By splitting words from meanings and names from individuals, Carroll implies an emptiness of words and phrases. However, he also infuses language with the power to create real outcomes and words with power to have several meanings. Language, like life, can aggravate and confuse, but it also contains possibilities that goes unrecognized everyday.


In conclusion Carroll’s wonderland charters (all adults) “are complete mockeries of the adults that Victorian children had to obey.”(Hayes, 2) They show the ignorance and absurdity of their time. Yet Carroll does show a note of hope. At the end of the first book Alice stands up and expresses her feelings that the whole trial is nonsense and that the “soldiers” were just a pack of cards. In the second book Alice, sick of the chaos and confusion, summons the courage to challenge the Red Queen. With these two achievements Alice breaks “the spell of the domineering, repressive authority figures”(Makinen, 2) and gives hope that in reality this could also be possible.


Meaning, according to Humpty Dumpty: ‘We’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’ [12] 


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