LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Nonsense of Language

on February 14, 2013 10:19am

In “The Language of Nonsense in Alice, by Jacqueline Flescher, nonsense is said to bear the brand of paradox – “the two terms of the paradox [being] order and disorder” (Flescher 128). She determines that nonsense must be upheld by a foundation of a intentionally structured form, that nonsense cannot be considered such standing alone, but only when distinguished by its departure from the original foundation of order it had been built upon. Though there are ways nonsense can be systematized, two in particular that Flescher notes, the above notion seems to predominantly ring true. I find this extremely interesting, as the method of defining the meaning of nonsense seems synonymous to defining meaning in language.

Language only has meaning in the context of a pre-existing structure of rules and agreements. Literary language can be considered utterance, because it is not occurring within a “real” life context to give it a foundation. Thus, it is given meaning through its relationship to other words within the system of the text, not from some inherent force.

To look at a really basic example, pronouns used in daily conversation are given meaning due to the context and environment of said conversation. Pronouns in written literary language, such as a poem, are only given meaning due to their relationship with other words in the text, and sometimes not at all. Let us look at an example:


In this poem, the author, Shel Silverstein, addresses, “you.” Is “you” the individual reader? A specific other person? The larger audience? There is no way to know whom exactly “you” is addressing, because the meaning of this word is not inherent. We can only assume what “you” can be in that it clearly is not “he,” “she,” “it,” “I,” etc.

Homophones provide another example. In conversation, the words “cell” and “sell” sound the same, and one perceives the word’s meaning through the context of the conversation without ever thinking of which spelling is implied. Without a context though, these two words would both just be utterances, with no inherent meaning attached to either spelling – the words only mean something because we have prescribed a meaning to them through context and intertextuality.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice seems to be walking through a world of nonsense. However, her perception of the characters and events that surround her throughout the story are mediated by the “norm” that her entire existence to date had been built upon. She recognizes Wonderland as “nonsense,” because she knows that it is not sense, or what she has learned that sense is. Norms are not inherent, just as meaning in language is not inherent. These are perceived through context, environment, intertextuality, a pre-determined set of codes and conventions and conditioning. Language in itself is essentially nonsense, maybe even more nonsensical than the Wonderland that Dodgson creates.


2 responses to “The Nonsense of Language

  1. bkfining says:

    Flescher, Jacqueline. “The Language of Nonsense in Alice.” Yale French Studies 43

    (1969): 128-44. JSTOR. Web. 13 Feb. 2013. .

  2. thethenabean says:

    Great post, Brittany!

    I think the genre of “nonsense” – and the question of finding its purpose – is a truly fascinating one. We fixate on why certain authors (such as Carrol) use this style of writing, and yet we fail to examine the ways in which we ALL write nonsense! It’s something akin to that sensation when you say a word over and over again, and at some point, it sounds strange and foreign – at some point, a word becomes just a word, with no meaning attached to it; such is the way of nonsense.

    Personally, I find that nonsense often serves a somewhat contradictory purpose on stories, and that is to focus on what does make sense! In Alice, for example, we are not taken in so much by what seems absurd as by those things that we recognize even through absurdity. In a way, the nonsense seems to highlight the things that we recognize from our own world. Differences, the text tells us, are far outweighed by threads of similarity.

    I also think that nonsense allows us to lose control in, well, a very controlled way. Through the absurdity of literature, we are able to exercise creativity and craziness – all within the confines of the page. In a similar manner to Mardi Gras, the urges of irrationality are channeled into one, controlled, finite medium (in this case, the novel). For children especially, it can be appealing for parents to encourage imagination in this way rather than, for example, with a pack of matches. Ironically, then, a novel that celebrates a deviation from the norm and embraces lunacy becomes a manner of maintained sanity and consistency for its readers. Nonsense, often, is a tool used to preserve exactly the opposite – sense, order and logic in the real world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: