LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Shifting World of Through the Looking Glass

What is life but a dream?

Much like its predecessor, Through the Looking Glass showcases Lewis Carroll’s love for seemingly nonsensical characters, dialogue exchanges, and world. However, it can be argued that the world showcased in the sequel surpasses the original world of Wonderland in its  non-linearity and bizarre occurrences. One of the biggest differences between Wonderland and the world within the looking glass is the completely random shifts in settings that pop up in the sequel. Carroll purposely sets up a setting and a set of characters only to change them completely without notice. The motif can be in interpreted several ways, but I believe Carroll included this odd device to reinforce the idea that real life can be as nonsensical and random as the looking glass world.

A peek into the bizarre carriage scene.

The first major example of this motif occurs in chapter 3 when Alice inexplicably goes from running down a hill to being thrust inside a carriage and being badgered for not having a ticket. She undergoes bullying from the carriage guard  and its passengers, has her thoughts read by everyone on the carriage, and is scrutinized under microscopes. I think Carroll potentially included this encounter to showcase the way situations sometimes deprives people completely of their preparedness. The complete tonal shift reinforces this idea, with the tone first being curious and whimsical to anxious and troubled. The prevalent sense of helplessness Alice experiences in the carriage, particularly the insults aimed at her from the characters, also adds to this stark tonal shift. Although seemingly random, I think Carroll possessed a method to his madness through complete scene changes.

Alice and her kitten, the ear to her muse.

Although many of the scene changes in the novel represent a shift from tranquility (at least what can be considered tranquil in the world) to chaos, the final setting change at the end represents a stark departure from this trend. When Alice becomes queen, a nonsensical and disastrous dinner is held in her honor. At the climax of this dinner, Alice awakens and learns the entire ordeal was a dream. I think this shift at the end directly links to the poem that ends the story, which’s final line states “Life, what is it but a dream?”  (line 21). This particular shift gives the reader an interesting insight into Carroll’s opinion on life in a very melancholy yet philosophical line. When Alice awakens, she attributes figures in her life (such as her cats) to to characters in her dream and recounts the dream to one of her kittens. Her desire to make sense of the dream and remember all the details could indicate a desire to return to the looking glass world. This relates to the sadly nostalgic tone of Carroll’s poem, which sounds like he experienced life as a dream and perhaps mournfully misses it. This could sum up a huge theme of the book, which emphasizes attaining happiness no matter the circumstances, even if it’s achieved through a dream.

Carroll’s employment of drastic scene changes represents both the positives and negatives of the randomness of life. Although I may not agree with his feelings regarding happiness and its pursuit, I find his weaving of nonsense with philosophical themes quite admirable as a writer.

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Politics and Nonsense

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, there are among the nonsense some very lucid thoughts and not-so-subtle political commentary. Chapter VII “The Unicorn and the Lion” is an excellent example of these allusions. The footnotes explain the correlation of the nursery rhyme and its link to the ongoing conflict between the English and Scottish kingdoms within Great Britain, and as the scene plays out in the story, it further reinforces this link.

Historically, there has been a division between the English and Scottish kingdoms, even after they united in the early 1700s. The rhyme presented in Looking-Glass uses the symbols of the Lion – from the English coat of arms – and the Unicorn – found on the Scottish coat of arms – in constant conflict:

“The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown:
The lion beat the unicorn all around the town.
Some gave them white bread, and some gave them brown:
Some gave them plum-cake and drummed them out of town.” (Carroll, 198)

The rhyme speaks to the political relationship between the two kingdoms and their infighting. In Looking-Glass, Carroll’s Lion and Unicorn – who the artist Tenniel caricaturizes as Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli respectively – have been fighting for quite a while. The king, upon hearing from his messengers, goes to watch.

“The King was evidently very uncomfortable at having to sit down between the two great creatures; but there was no other place for him… the poor King   was nearly shaking [the crown] off his head, he trembled so much… he was very nervous, and his voice quite quivered.” (Carroll, 202)

Interestingly, the notes state that the caricatures were principally Tenniel – who was a political cartoonist – and Carroll may not have even intended this association. However, as the situation develops, and as the two fighters take their rest, the King becomes increasingly afraid of the two bestial titans:

Considering whether Carroll was involved, the scene can be interpreted as a commentary on how the British monarch was becoming increasingly caught between the struggles of Parliament; the well-known political feud of Disraeli and Gladstone becomes then the reason the King is frightened by the battle. This would effectively “implicate” Carroll in the politics of the scene.

The whole point of this post then, is to suggest that the nonsense in Through the Looking-Glass may not be as much nonsense as the reader is led to believe.

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The Nonsense of Language

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.


Wonderland: Not Why, but How?

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland tells the tale of a young girl seemingly on the routine path to being taught via the conventional society of the time to transform into an elegant and proper young women.  Although this seems to be a bit like many of the other fairy tales and children’s literature of the time, the protagonist quickly finds herself in Wonderland, where all convention and societal norms are displaced by pure nonsense.  To some, an appropriate question concerning the events that happen thereafter would be, “How?”  How did Wonderland come to be?  How did Alice end up there?  How did the creatures of Wonderland become this seemingly senseless society as governed by our traditional views of what society should be?  However, I believe a better question that we could be asking ourselves as readers to the author is, “Why?”

Why was Wonderland created? I believe that Wonderland in this story represents childhood.  It allows for the prolonging of that sense of purity exhibited by young children before they grow up.  Several scholars such as Rousseau believed that children had an innate sense of goodness that remained untouched until the corrupt society around them shaped them into the “civilized” citizens that they wanted them to become.  In a traditional society, questions have answers.  Animals do not talk.  Court hearings are conducted in a dignified manner.  Croquet is not played with flamingos and hedgehogs.  However, Wonderland represents the beauty of all that is not a traditional society.  It represents a colorful and unlimited imagination, which all children have the ability to possess.

A prime example comes when the Hatter presents Alice with his infamous riddle, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”  Although Lewis Carroll was eventually convinced to provide an answer to his displeased audience, the protagonist originally does not know the answer to the riddle, and when she implores as to what it is, we as readers find that the Hatter is unable to provide one.  This provides an opportunity to delve into one’s own imagination to conjure up the various possibilities concerning the similarities between writing desks and ravens.  A societal staple such as a school system is not there to provide an explanation.  Whereas conventional societies teach children their multiplication tables and scientific facts based on research and the common answers, “Because that’s the way it is” or “Because I told you so,” Wonderland serves the purpose of allowing a child to figure out what they would like the answer to be.  Perhaps two multiplied by two does not have to equal four in Wonderland because there are no educational staples to teach its inhabitants that it is so.


Artist’s depiction of Alice at the tea party with the Hatter and the March Hare

Wonderland is an escape.  It takes us back to a childhood where we were all on journeys of discovery through the daily occurrences of our lives.  Our imaginations allowed the possibilities of talking caterpillars and mice.  Why would playing cards paint white roses red for the simple pleasure of a Queen?  Well, a child may ask, “Why not?”  This story can take an adult reader back to a time when all things were possible in our minds.  Opening this book and exploring the nonsense that is its contents could equate to an adult reader metaphorically falling down a rabbit hole into their own Wonderland—a place where both nonsense and nostalgia meet.


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