LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Nostalgia of “The Walrus and the Carpenter”

on February 21, 2013 2:36pm

In the past couple of weeks, there has been – naturally – a discussion of nonsense that has stemmed from our study of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice novels. With Carroll’s extensive employment of nonsensical concepts, scenarios, and even words, it is, of course, essential that we do this – however, I think that much of the value in his work lies not in the nonsensical but rather the familiar found therein. Specifically, the two poems in Through the Looking Glass, “Jabberwocky” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, are appealing to many for their seemingly inherent evocation of nostalgia and youth.

jabberwocky

One of the things that I first asserted in our discussion of nonsense was something similar to what I am asserting here: that the value of many children’s works – and of nonsensical works in particular – is their cultural cache and familiarity. For example, the opening lines of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” (The time has come / the walrus said / to talk to many things) are almost universally recognizable among English speakers. Even those who have not read either Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass will recognize these poems, often unaware of their source or context. Is the value or appeal, then, in Carroll’s words to be found in the symbolism or subtext of the poems? Perhaps instead, it is merely the lyrical and rhythmic appeal of his verse; this, too, is where I believe the appeal of nonsense in general lies.

alice-in-wonderland-5-tn

There is room here, too, for the discussion of “the canon of sentiment”; how many of us were excited to read Alice merely to flesh out the context for a story we are so familiar with? While sentimentality and cultural iconography are not entirely conflated, they are certainly borne from similar impulses – and certainly non-academic, in the way that we would traditionally select a work for canon.

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2 responses to “The Nostalgia of “The Walrus and the Carpenter”

  1. viceligar says:

    You bring up a really interesting point because just this week I had an assignment for my Queer Theory class to read an article called “Thinking Sex” by Gayle Rubin. The excerpt starts, “The time has come to think about sex.” When I read this alarms and confetti went off in my head because I saw it as an obvious allusion to “The Walrus and the Carpenter” and could not believe the coincidence of reading that in the same week as reading “Through the Looking Glass.” Similarly, while walking through Trader Joe’s with my roommate I said, “The time has come…to talk about getting more paper towels,” and she started reciting “The Walrus and the Carpenter” by memory! I had no idea she would even catch the allusion let alone have it all memorized. Incidents like these make me realize how significant Carroll’s works really are and how they belong both in the academic and sentimental canon. I really cannot think of another children’s story that has permeated popular culture as much as Alice has. What sets it apart, in my opinion, is the richness of the language. Other works tell sweet or adventurous stories but Carroll’s text is infused with language that rivals that of his contemporaries. I know I will be trying to catch Alice’s references for probably the rest of my life.

  2. bkfining says:

    Great Post!

    I think that Dodgson, like many children’s authors, successfully plays on the uncanny – the strange yet uncomfortably familiar. I think that he does this especially through his use of “nonsense” language. As adults reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, it is easy for us to see Dodgson’s confusing speech and made-up words as silly gibberish. However, it is easy to see how a young child reading these books or having this books read to them would perceive Dodgson’s use of language differently. This is not necessarily because they know the meaning of Dodgson’s made up words or can more easily following the circumlocutory style that many of his characters speak in, though. Rather, the familiarity that many children feel may better be attributed to the familiarity of experience with language that they do not know. As we discussed in class, we don’t know the meaning of any word until we are told its meaning or know enough language to define the word using context clues. Alice’s experience with “nonsense” language are comparable to every child’s early experiences with language or even any adult’s experience with a language other than their native language. This comparison adds an interesting dimension to the stories , as the audience is not only following Alice’s development as a young girl, but also the more universal experience of Alice as she navigates a “new” language.

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