The Walrus and the Carpenter

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The Walrus and the Carpenter




"The Walrus and the Carpenter" first appeared in 1871, in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to his Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The verse is recited to Alice by Tweedledee, one of "two fat little men," Tweedledee and Tweedledum, whom Alice encounters as she is seeking the way out of the forest of confusion through which she has been wandering. Inside Through the Looking Glass, "The Walrus and the Carpenter" reflects the world that Alice has entered when she went through the looking glass to the other side of it, where everything is perversely inverted, accounting for what seems to be the nonsense of the verse. Additionally, the poem functions, like the other famous set of verses in Through the Looking Glass, "The Jabberwocky," the way a cadenza does in a concerto, to show off the composer's technical virtuosity and mastery of form for the delight of the listeners or, in this case, the readers.

Extricated from its context and considered as a freestanding work, "The Walrus and the Carpenter" is a bizarre animal fable seemingly devised by topsy-turvy Aesop, offering a moral warning against following seductive strangers. Beyond that, however, it is suggestive of something that is being expressed symbolically. Each element of the poem can stand for something else that remains undefined in the poem but that may be introduced by each reader. Walrus and carpenter, for example, may represent predators;

oysters may represent prey; the sea may stand for the safety of home, while the beach may suggest the danger of the outside world where there is no sure foundation, only sand.

"The Walrus and the Carpenter" appears in chapter four of Through the Looking Glass and is available in the 1998 Oxford World Classics edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass, New American Library, New York, 1960.


Lewis Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in Daresbury, Cheshire, in the northwest of England, on January 27, 1832. He was the third of eleven children, mostly girls. He was the eldest boy. The Reverend Charles Dodgson, Carroll's father, was the vicar in Daresbury. When Carroll was eleven, his father was transferred to Yorkshire, and the family moved into the large rectory and remained there for some twenty-five years. He was schooled at home at first, but when he was twelve he was sent to a private school in Richmond and at fourteen he was sent to Rugby School in Warwickshire, which his father had also attended. Rugby School was a highly prestigious and rigorous school run by Thomas Arnold, a renowned schoolmaster and the father of the great Victorian critic and poet, Matthew Arnold. There Lewis Carroll showed particular aptitude for mathematics. He left Rugby in 1849 and two years later entered Christ Church College at Oxford. Shortly afterward, when he was nineteen, his mother, who was forty-seven, died of what might have been a stroke or meningitis. Carroll won honors at Oxford, but failed a scholarship examination for which he just could not get himself to study. Because of his proficiency in mathematics, however, Carroll was awarded the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship, which he held for twenty-six years. He remained at Christ Church until his death even though he declined to take ecclesiastical orders, which were usually a pre-requisite for remaining there.

Carroll spoke with a stutter. He was reportedly good-looking and around six feet tall. Probably because of a knee injury he sustained in his youth, his deportment was rather stiff. He was deaf in one ear as the result of a childhood illness and constitutionally weak because of a case of whooping cough when he was seventeen.

Carroll was noted for his singing, storytelling, and facility for mimicry. Although he was a mathematician by profession, he was, from his youth, devoted to literature. He wrote short stories as a child for Mischmasch, the magazine he put together for his family. His early efforts, usually comic or satiric pieces, were published in several local publications. In 1856, his poem "Solitude" was published in The Train. It was the first work he signed with the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. That year, too, Carroll met four-year-old Alice Liddell when Henry Liddell, her father, became dean of Christ Church. Alice Liddell is often thought to be a significant inspiration for the creation of Carroll's Alice. If she is not the model for Alice, certainly she is one of the first for whom Alice's story was intended. Indeed, Carroll presented Alice Liddell with a handwritten, self-illustrated manuscript of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll became a close friend of the entire family. He was in the habit of taking Alice and her sisters rowing, and the stories he told them during those outings became the basis for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Published in 1865, the book became a great success, and although it brought Carroll a substantial income, he retained his position teaching mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford. The sequel, Through the Looking Glass, in which "The Walrus and the Carpenter" first appeared, was published in 1871. Carroll's third great work, The Hunting of the Snark, was published in 1876.

Lewis Carroll was also an accomplished devotee of the new art of photography. His subjects ranged from girls (with Alice Liddell featured prominently among them) and boys to portraits of many famous Victorian painters, poets, scientists, and theater people, many of them friends of his. About one thousand of his estimated three thousand photographs are extant and highly regarded for their technical skill and the simple artistry of their composition. Carroll also enjoyed making up games, both mathematical and lexical. His last literary work, a two-volume novel titled Sylvie and Bruno, was published in two parts in 1889 and in 1893, but has not enjoyed the success of the two Alice books and The Hunting of the Snark. Carroll traveled to Russia in 1867, and his account of that trip, the Russian Journal, was first published in 1935. Carroll died on January 14, 1898, shortly before his sixty-sixth birthday, of pneumonia. He was buried at the Mount Cemetery in Guildford, Surrey.


"The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright—
And this was odd, because it was                      5
The middle of the night.
"The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done—                              10
‘It's very rude of him,’ she said,
‘To come and spoil the fun!’
"The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud because                    15
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead—
There were no birds to fly.
"The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand:                          20
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
‘If this were only cleared away,’
They said, ‘it would be grand!’
"‘If seven maids with seven mops                     25
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said,
‘That they could get it clear?’
‘I doubt it,’ said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.                              30
"‘O Oysters, come and walk with us!’
The Walrus did beseech.
‘A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,                    35
To give a hand to each.’
"The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head—                            40
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.
"But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,        45
Their shoes were clean and neat—
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.
"Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;                                50
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more—
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.
"The Walrus and the Carpenter                        55
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.                                 60
"‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—                      65
And whether pigs have wings.’
"‘But wait a bit,’ the Oysters cried,
‘Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!’                              70
‘No hurry!’ said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.
"‘A loaf of bread,’ the Walrus said,
‘Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides                           75
Are very good indeed—
Now, if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.’
"‘But not on us!’ the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.                               80
‘After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!’
‘The night is fine,’ the Walrus said.
'Do you admire the view?
"‘It was so kind of you to come!                     85
And you are very nice!’
The Carpenter said nothing but
‘Cut us another slice.
I wish you were not quite so deaf—
I've had to ask you twice!’                          90
"‘It seems a shame,’ the Walrus said,
‘To play them such a trick.
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!’
The Carpenter said nothing but                       95
‘The butter's spread too thick!’
"‘I weep for you,’ the Walrus said:
‘I deeply sympathize.’
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,                           100
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.
"‘O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,
‘You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’                    105
But answer came there none—
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one."


Stanza 1

The poem begins with a paradox, presented by the peculiar image of the sun shining upon the sea in the middle of the night. The mention of the sea establishes the landscape of the action of the poem. The jaunty rhythm of the poem carries the reader and suggests the easiness of light verse, belying the grim subjects of the poem—seduction, betrayal, and death.

Stanza 2

A wry sort of conflict is introduced since the moon is sulking because of the sun's presence in a realm in which he does not belong. He is robbing the moon of the pleasure of presiding over her domain. The theme of conflicting interests is thus introduced.

Stanza 3

The third stanza is devoted entirely to description. Sea and sand are described by their predominant characteristics of wetness and dryness. The sky is presented as cloudless. Birds are not flying in it for the simple reason that they are not there, or perhaps because, although they exist as a word and a concept, they actually do not exist in the world of the poem. The reality of the poem is a construction of words, not a reflection of the actual world in which the readers live.

Stanza 4

The two principals of the poem, the walrus and the carpenter, are introduced walking along the shore. They are crying at the amount of sand they see and think the setting would be significantly improved if the sand were removed.

Stanza 5

The walrus reflects on the impossibility of clearing the sand from the beach even if a great effort were dedicated to the task. The carpenter agrees with his assessment and cries, apparently because it is so. The apparent absurdity of their conversation, and even the fact that they can be having it, prepares the reader for the interaction between these two and the oysters.


  • In 1951, Walt Disney Productions produced an animated feature film called Alice in Wonderland based on the two Alice books. Within the film, "The Walrus and the Carpenter" is presented as a musical number with the verses altered and rearranged.
  • In 1993, Christopher Plummer recorded Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass as a HarperChildrens audio cassette.
  • In 1997, the British Broadcasting Corporation issued an audio cassette of the Alice books read by Alan Bennett and published by the Listening Library.

Stanza 6

With no transition, as in the movement of dreams, the walrus turns from talk of clearing the sand from the beach and addresses some oysters in the water, inviting them to take a walk on the beach. He notes, however, that he and the carpenter can only accommodate four oysters because they have only two hands each. By noting the scarcity of opportunity, he attempts to make his offer seem more desirable.

Stanza 7

The patriarch of the oysters looks at the carpenter from his oyster bed without speaking. He does wink his eye and shake his head, indicating that he has no intention of moving. It is unclear whether he is wise or only weary.

Stanza 8

Four younger oysters, however, are seduced by the walrus's invitation and leave the water to join the walrus and the carpenter on the beach. The oysters are anthropomorphized, or given human characteristics, at first and described as having clean faces and coats and shoes that are polished. But this humanization is challenged in the last two lines of the stanza by the introduction of the fact that oysters do not have feet. By mixing the fantastic and the actual, the poem not only adds to its foolishness but also signals that it is a fable, cautioning the reader not to fall for word tricks.

Stanza 9

After the first oysters make their way to the beach, they are followed by four more and then by recurring groups of oysters all quitting the water for the beach. The psychology of mass movements is keen here. Once a process is set in motion, people often follow others blindly.

Stanza 10

The walrus and the carpenter walk along the beach for a few miles and then stop to rest, perching themselves on a low rock as the oysters stand lined up in front of them. They have mesmerized the oysters with expectation.

Stanza 11

The walrus addresses the waiting oysters, telling them that the moment has arrived to discuss a variety of matters, a rather random list, followed by the kind of nonsensical propositions characteristic of the poem, including questions regarding the reason that the sea is hot to the point of boiling and whether pigs are winged. Rather than offering any real information, the walrus offers a kind of con man's patter, further confusing the oysters.

Stanza 12

The oysters interrupt his discourse, asking him to wait because they say they are fat and need to catch their breath. The carpenter is happy to comply and the oysters thank him. They have no sense of the trickery involved.

Stanza 13

Without transition, the walrus says they need some bread and several condiments, particularly vinegar and pepper. He then addresses the oysters, saying they can begin to eat, using the inclusive first-person plural, thus not revealing that the walrus and carpenter intend to eat them.

Stanza 14

The oysters, however, finally realize with helpless shock that they are the intended meal and protest against such behavior after the apparent kindness the two have shown them. The walrus responds only by speaking of the clarity of the night and asks them if they do not enjoy seeing it.

Stanza 15

With the gracious politeness of a host, and smooth mockery, the walrus continues, thanking the oysters for coming and complimenting them. The carpenter assumes no share in his politeness. Rather he reproaches the walrus for having to ask a second time for a slice of bread.

Stanza 16

The walrus expresses some regret at having misled the oysters and put them to the trouble of having exerted themselves. The carpenter only complains about the butter being too thick on the bread.

Stanza 17

The walrus, however, continues addressing the oysters sympathetically, crying, with a handkerchief to his eyes, as he chooses the juiciest oysters.

Stanza 18

In the final stanza, the walrus turns from being a pseudo-sentimentalist, one who falsely expresses sympathy for his victims, into an ironist, one who mocks their fate, speaking as if they were still alive although he knows they are not, having eaten them himself. He once again addresses the oysters, commenting on the fine exercise they have had from their walk and asks if they would not like to go home now. But the narrator intervenes with the last word, pointing out that the oysters make no reply for they have all been eaten.



Violation of territory is a continuing motif in "The Walrus and the Carpenter." In the first stanza, the sun encroaches on the moon's domain. Later, the walrus and the carpenter draw the oysters out of the sea onto the sand. In each case, a dominant force invades the territory of a weaker entity and the weaker ones, whether the moon or the oysters, are powerless and can only sulk or beg, but to no avail, being displaced and overwhelmed. In the first instance, the moon was not complicit in her defeat. Suddenly the natural order of the universe was violated. In the second, the oysters were complicit, having been foolish enough to stir out of the safety of their natural environment.


When the walrus summons them to walk, the oysters follow without hesitation, eagerly. They leave their beds in the sea without a thought. The eldest oyster, although he seems to be on to the walrus's deception, does not warn the younger ones. He only gives a wink and a shake of his head, regarding only himself, telling the walrus that he will not walk with them but offering the youngsters no further warning or guidance, despite his firm objection. The young oysters are even groomed to look their best: they have washed their faces, brushed their coats, and shined their shoes. Even if they in fact have neither faces, coats, nor shoes, such language suggests eagerness. There is a follow-the-leader effect; after the first four leave the water for the beach, squads of fours continue to emerge and dumbly follow the walrus and the carpenter. When those two finally stop, the oysters line up and dutifully wait for whatever is next, only asking to rest before what they seem to think will be a sort of lecture. Only when they see the walrus and the carpenter preparing bread and condiments and when the walrus talks about beginning to eat, do the oysters realize that they are to be eaten. Even then, they underestimate their predators by arguing that it would be impolite to abuse them so. But it is, of course, too late.


  • "The Walrus and the Carpenter" is about enticement and betrayal, about someone misleading someone else. Write a short story that uses symbols (such as animals, objects, or nature) to dramatize betrayal.
  • Research vegetarianism and compile a list of the various arguments advanced in support of it, including ecological reasons, health concerns, the just distribution of resources, and animal rights. Annotate your list with a brief explanation of each pro-vegetarian position, as well as with the opposing argument for each position. Write a brief essay that outlines your own evaluation of the value of vegetarianism. Conclude your essay with a discussion of whether or not there is a world food problem and what role vegetarianism should play, if any, in resolving it.
  • Survey friends, relatives, or acquaintances about dreams they have had that seemed to make no sense. Are there any common elements in the dreams? Do the dreamers have any theories on the significance of their dreams? Write a poem, based on one or more of the dreams, that mimics "The Walrus and the Carpenter." In your poem, try to assign significance to the various elements and characters.
  • Write a chapter of a memoir in which you discuss an incident in which you were tempted by someone you admired to do something that proved harmful to you.

Order and Disorder

"The Walrus and the Carpenter" begins on a note of cosmic disorder. The sun is usurping the moon's function and doubly disturbing the order of nature by over-illuminating the night-time landscape. The walrus and the carpenter, when they are introduced, are shown as being displeased with the natural order of things, as emblematized by their desire to see the beach

cleared of sand. Their campaign against the oysters, while it disturbs the order of the oyster world, is, nevertheless, in accord with the order of the natural world. Predation is a fact of the natural order, although in the poem it is made to seem like a betrayal of order because it is a betrayal of the humanized oysters. These disturbances of the natural order within the poem are, of course, reinforced by the fact that the poem itself is a violation of the natural order in that it presents a talking walrus and walking, talking oysters.

Seduction and Betrayal

In "The Walrus and the Carpenter" the oysters are seduced, that is, led astray by someone. The themes of seduction and betrayal are usually linked because seduction implies a fundamental discrepancy in power (the seducer overpowers the seduced) and an unrevealed interest on the part of the seducer. In seduction a process of deception is at work. In "The Walrus and the Carpenter" the walrus entices the oysters, encouraging them to leave their home in the seabed, with honeyed words directly addressed to them, inviting them to walk and talk along the beach. He uses a typical ploy of salesmanship, claiming that his offer is open only to four of them, but he does not limit the number as many groups of four emerge from the water. He continues to charm them with his razzle-dazzle, listing like a pitchman all the things there are to talk about, and he is eloquent even as he begins to devour them. But he does, despite his crocodile tears, devour them, betraying them as he has intended all along.



Characteristically "The Walrus and the Carpenter" rushes forward with a propulsive energy as it is read. In large part this is because of alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds, especially in the initial letters of neighboring words. The poem is especially rich in sibilants—s's and sh's. These slippery consonants not only help the poem slide along but evoke the sea and the very feeling of swallowing oysters.


At several points in the poem, Carroll narrates the action by the sort of repetition that comes from drawing up a catalog. In the first stanzas, sun, moon, billows, sea, sand, clouds, and birds are mentioned, and their roles in establishing the action and the landscape of the poem are presented. In the sixth stanza, walking and talking are catalogued activities, as are the grooming activities of the oysters in stanza 8. Stanza 11 presents the walrus's famous catalog of the things he says it is time to discuss.

Personification and Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism is a literary device that involves endowing nonhuman things with human attributes; in other words, nonhumans become humanized characters. Personification is a figure of speech in which human form or attributes are given to things that are not human. Both devices are used in "The Walrus and the Carpenter." The carpenter is the only actual human being in "The Walrus and the Carpenter" but the verses are peopled with a number of personified or anthropomorphized characters. The sun and the moon are both endowed with human characteristics. The sun is personified as a "he" whose act of shining is described as a willful act of strength. The walrus is anthropomorphized, or entirely humanized. He walks, talks, cries, and schemes. The oysters, too, are turned into human creatures with hands and feet and faces. They walk and speak, wear clothing, and have thoughts and feelings.

Rhythm and Rhyme

The rhythmic pattern of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" is rather simple and jingly, like a march inexorably proceeding on its simple way. Technically, it is produced through an alternation of iambic quadrameter and iambic trimeter lines. Iambic quadrameter lines consist of four iambic feet (pairs of syllables), that is, eight beats with the emphasis on each second beat. An iambic trimeter line has three iambic feet, that is, six beats with each second beat accented. This effortless advance, however, is largely attributable to a complex rhyme scheme that incorporates both regularity and variation. In each of the eighteen stanzas of the poem, the even lines, the second, fourth, and sixth lines, are rhymed, whereas the odd lines, the first, third, and fifth lines, are not. The rhymed lines hold the stanzas together and also hold them back, giving them what in music is called ritardando, stopping the narrative short momentarily at the end of the line, whereas the unrhymed lines propel the verses forward. Within this pattern, every now and then, Carroll inserts smaller, interior patterns. The first lines of the first three stanzas, unrhymed in their own stanzas, however, rhyme with each other. Each line ends with a long e sound. The effect is to unify the introductory stanzas. Although the fourth stanza breaks the pattern and eschews the rhyme, the long e sound, returns in its third, internally unrhymed, line, recapitulating the sound that began the poem and that is laced through the first three stanzas. Because not only the sound of the long e but the actual word, in homonymic form—sea becomes see—is repeated, the narrative turn that is occurring right then in the fourth stanza of the poem, the introduction of the walrus and the carpenter, is signaled as if it were a new narrative beginning.


Child Labor and Exploitation

The oysters are, in effect, children, seduced from their beds and marched through the treacherous sands of the world by two wicked grown-ups who finally devour them. The exploitation of children in England during the nineteenth century was one of the most formidable issues of that century. Whereas London had always had an underclass and posed many challenges to young people, as is highlighted in many eighteenth-century novels, the advent of the industrial revolution and the growth of a factory system of manufacture required a massive number of bodies to serve as levers and connective elements for the running of machinery. Children worked long hours in factories, and often were mangled, maimed, or even killed on the job by the machinery they ran.

Political Conflict in Europe

"The Walrus and the Carpenter," like the book in which it appears, Through the Looking Glass, gives an account of a violent disturbance in one's normal experience of the world. It chronicles disorder. Disorder was very much a matter of current concern in England in 1871 because of events just across the English Channel. After centuries of enmity, the English had begun to achieve serious rapprochement, or reestablishment of peaceful relations, with France, which would be solidified in 1904 when the governments of both countries signed the Entente Cordiale. Their alliance was in large measure a response to the threat posed by Germany as it strengthened its military might and imperial designs. In 1871, the French were at war with Prussia (the most powerful German state) and suffered defeat. With the capture of its leader, Louis Napoleon, by the Prussians in July 1870, the Second French Republic fell. A new government, the Third French Republic, was created, but it quickly was opposed by the French working class when it attempted to forge a cease-fire with Prussia by allowing the Prussian army a triumphal procession in Paris. French workers were prepared to fight to prevent the parade. In fright, the new government abandoned Paris and holed up in Versailles. There was no confrontation between workers and Prussian soldiers when the march occurred, and the Prussians left Paris afterward as they had agreed to. With the French government in hiding, the workers took control of Paris and established a commune. The Paris Commune lasted for two months until the end of May 1871, when French army troops reestablished governmental order.


  • 1870s: Photography is a new technology and practitioners like Carroll use it as a tool for the production of visual art, especially portraiture.

    Today: With the advent of digital cameras and camera phones photography is a ubiquitous phenomena; people are now able to instantaneously capture and share images of themselves and their activities.

  • 1870s: Writers like Carroll create alternate renditions of reality through the imaginative use of nonsense verse and the linguistic techniques of personification and anthropomorphism.

    Today: Anthropomorphism is a feature of many popular films. Through computer technology filmmakers like George Lucas or the graphic artists at Pixar are able to create lifelike animated films that give human characteristics to inanimate objects, machinery, and animals.

  • 1870s: In a number of industrialized countries, children of the poor are exploited in factories or educated in school systems inferior to those that children from wealthy families attend.

    Today: In many industrialized countries, a good education is available to and compulsory for all children, though inequalities still result from disparities in wealth. Children in third-world countries, where many of the goods consumed in the major industrialized countries are produced, are still exploited as laborers. Some are even slaves or forced soldiers.

Technological Wonders

The varieties of wonder represented in the Alice books and in "The Walrus and the Carpenter" are often disconcerting. They may be seen as nonsense because the violations of the natural order that the works chronicle, and the blurring of boundaries between kinds of phenomena they celebrate, in reality do not occur. Things do not flow into each other and metamorphose as they do in the books and the poem. Yet the books can be seen as representing one response to some of the actual phenomena of the time. Technological marvels resulted from the Industrial Revolution, which is the name given to the advance made in the latter half of the nineteenth century in the manufacture of goods by machinery and in the use of machine-fabricated materials like steel and construction-grade glass for the construction of buildings. These developments gave the latter part of the century an aspect of wonder. In England, the accomplishments of industrialization were celebrated by the construction of the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. The Crystal Palace was a huge glass, steel, and wood edifice dedicated to displaying the wonders of industrial manufacturing in a pastoral setting, It was a showcase for goods from around the world, bringing together the familiar and the exotic. In 1854, the Crystal Palace was relocated and enlarged. It stood in London until it burned down in 1936. A similar structure, also called a Crystal Palace, was built in 1853 in New York City. It burned down in 1858. Similar marvels were constructed in Berlin and in Paris, where the Grand Palais still stands as an example of Crystal Palace architecture.


"The Walrus and the Carpenter" and other verse by Carroll, generally called nonsense verse, has become, as Richard Kelly asserts in Lewis Carroll (1977), "an integral part of our literary and popular culture." John F. Lehmann, in Lewis Carroll and the Spirit of Nonsense, argues that "The Walrus and the Carpenter," along with the nonsense verse of Edward Lear and the devotional poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and moreso than the epic work of Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, and Robert Browning, "represent[s] the most fertile, even one can say the purest elements in the creative achievement, in the magic of the word of that great [late Victorian] age." Elizabeth Sewell, in T. S. Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays, explains nonsense verse as a poetic strategy designed "to convert language into symbolic logic or music." Writing of the poem in 1932 in Lewis Carroll, poet Walter de la Mare highly praises "The Walrus and the Carpenter," asking rhetorically, "What of the visionary light, the colour, the scenery; that wonderful seascape … in "The Walrus and the Carpenter," as wide as Milton's in Il Penseroso—the quality of its sea, its sands, its space and distances?" Jennifer Geer, in an essay published in Children's Literature, argues for a rather sinister understanding of "The Walrus and the Carpenter." In Geer's view, Alice is right to be suspicious of the poem that Tweedledee recites to her in Through the Looking Glass: "The poem's nonsense exaggerates conflict between generations. Adult figures' benevolence is nothing more than a hypocritical cloak, and the desire to arrest children's growth is literalized as a desire to kill them." Undeterred by such grim interpretations, the Guinness Brewing Company, the makers of stout, used "The Walrus and the Carpenter" in a 1933 advertising campaign, parodying the verse and having the two seducers longing for some beer with their oysters.


Neil Heims

Heims is a freelance writer and the author or editor of over two dozen books on literary subjects. In the following essay, he discusses the use of the idea of oddity in "The Walrus and the Carpenter."

"The Walrus and the Carpenter" begins and ends with reflections on oddity. The first stanza presents an example of something characterized as odd; the last, of something characterized as not at all odd. Thus the poem comes full circle from beginning to end. It is not a closed circle, however, but an open spiral. The difference between a circle and a spiral is the difference between repetition and evolution, but in the instance of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" evolution does not indicate progress but only variation. Progress suggests a linear development, movement, most likely an improvement or, at least, intensification. In "The Walrus and the Carpenter," something happens that makes a difference in the poem—the story of the oysters' fate at the hands of the title characters unfolds—yet no progress is made. Rather there is transformation or variation on a theme. The context is changed. The type of phenomenon that the poem shows as odd in the first stanza, and that denotes chaotic disorder in the celestial realm of the cosmos, loses its oddity in the terrestrial realm inhabited by mankind and, although what happens, the consumption of the oysters, is unpleasant, it is part of the natural order. There is movement in the verse, but there is no real development. Only the context that determines whether something is or is not odd has been changed. The circumstances that cause oddity in the first stanza and negate it in the final one are quite similar. In the first instance the reader is introduced to a paradoxical situation. In the latter instance, the paradox has been dissolved, replaced by irony. But in both instances, the circumstance is one of conflict, of competition between strength and weakness, of defeat, and of domination by one party over another.

The first two stanzas of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" recount what amounts to a contest between the sun and the moon. The sun, in the first stanza, is shown as a usurper who is victorious in his usurpation, encroaching upon the moon's territory. The sun shines at night and thereby violates the natural, cosmological order of things. The moon's response in the second stanza is to sulk at the encroachment, nothing more. Her weaker status, the moon being of lesser luminosity than the sun and her light being only the reflection of the sun's essential fire, renders the moon a non-competitor, able only to complain.

The cause of this break in the order is not presented in the poem, nor is the sun's usurpation and the moon's distress the matter of any further concern. The presentation of the oddity seems only to be an overture to the remainder of the poem, a context for the events to follow, events that in their expression of seduction and betrayal, of domination for the one side and defeat for the other, offer in other terms a recapitulation of the prelude. One force overwhelms and consumes another. The absurdity of the violence done to the cosmic order in the first stanza immunizes the reader against the cartoon absurdity of the central action of the poem, the sly violence of the natural order. The action of the central section, with its cartoon elements of a talking walrus and walking, talking oysters, is an accurate reflection of how things are in nature and among mankind. Humans live by overshadowing, displacing, devouring each other. The world is a place of predators and prey.


  • The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis, published by Penguin in 2006, is a collection of verses, presumed to have been typed by Archy the cockroach, who claims to have been a free-verse poet in a past life, about himself and the cat Mehitabel, who says she was Cleopatra in a former life. Marquis printed these verses in his newspaper column in the New York Sun between 1916 and 1927.
  • Diet for a Small Planet (1971) by Francis Moore Lappé deals with the consumption of food in an environmentally responsible way and in a way that minimizes predation and interspecies competition for food.
  • Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, first published in 1939 and reprinted many times, consists of a set of seemingly nonsense verses about a series of humanized cats and their adventures.
  • The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, first published in 1857, is the foundational text of evolutionary biology. It presents an account of the progression of the natural world based on the development of species as a result of evolving transformation, a concept Carroll developed to fantastical lengths in his Alice books.
  • Silas Marner by George Eliot, first published in 1861, is a novel about the mutually beneficial relationship between a man who has withdrawn from society and the abandoned infant girl he raises as his daughter.

The third stanza, while it retains the structure of the first two, relating attributes of sea and sand, sets up a different relation between the two from that presented in the first two stanzas. Neither sea nor sand usurps the other, nor encroaches upon the other. Each maintains its own proper attribute. The sea is defined by its wetness; the sand is defined by its dryness. In both cases the situation, while needlessly redundant in narration is not odd as before when night is defined by the attribute of day. The third stanza continues in its fastidious redundancy. The sky is cloudless because there are no clouds and there are no birds because there are no birds. The suggestion of something out of the ordinary is only slightly broached by the sixth and final line of the third stanza. Is the assertion of the absence of birds a circumstantial or an absolute one? Does it mean that birds do not happen to be flying then, or does it inform the reader that, in the world of these verses, birds as a species do not exist? As before, with the intrusion of the sun into the moon's territory, the problem is not explored further, and once again the presentation of the situation is best understood as setting a mood, conveying the sense that anything out of the ordinary can happen. After all, everything that does happen in "The Walrus and the Carpenter" is happening in the world that exists on the other side of the mirror, in a reverse world where left is right and right is left. Readers are overhearing a poem of that world that Alice is hearing. Being of the mirror world, then, odd though the phenomena of that world at first glance may appear, they are, after the reader becomes accustomed to the inversions, accurate reflections of the world before the mirror. Oysters, although they have neither feet nor, presumably, feelings, do get eaten.

What happens in the fourth stanza is circumstantially independent of the events and non-events of the preceding three. The eponymous characters are introduced walking together, and for whatever reason—once again none is given—they are crying at the sight of the great quantity of sand, lamenting its infinite plenitude. What else do they expect to find on the beach? The following stanza suggests it is food they are looking for. And by extension and displacement, they are mourning the insatiability of their appetites. The exterior surplus of sand mirrors an interior paucity of comestible matter. In this stanza, however, they begin to consider, wishfully, the possibility of all the sand being cleared away, but the realization of the impossibility of effectuating that wish leads them to further weeping. The immensity of their appetite is insurmountable.

With no overt transition, in the sixth stanza, the walrus is no longer crying. He is addressing the oysters, who have appeared as mysteriously as his tears have disappeared. But their appearance, no matter how unprepared, is not odd, for oysters, after all, live in the sea. Nor is their anthropomorphism odd, for such a conventional literary move has already been made in the poem with the lachrymose walrus. Thus the first section of the poem, stanzas 1 through 5, have prepared the reader for what seems to be an animal fable of the Aesopian kind that begins in the second section of the poem, starting at stanza 6. The excitement of the vocative, of the walrus's direct address to the oysters, replaces the lamentations of the previous stanza. The sand on the shore may be irremovable, but the pangs of appetite can be appeased. Thus the second section of the poem, stanzas 6 through 9, recounts the rhetoric of persuasion and its success. Despite the objection of the skeptical elder oyster, the young are drawn out of their beds. The poem's characteristic verbal and metrical whimsy recurs in the description of the oysters as well shod despite the fact that they do not have feet. Carroll uses wit to divert the reader's attention from the brutality of desire. Wit as a narrative device continues through to the end of the poem, not in order to reduce the brutality recounted but to establish the intellectual room for the reader to reflect upon it, as Alice does after Tweedledee finishes his recitation. Her response may serve as a guide to the reader's.

Alice at first takes sides. She prefers the walrus "because he was a little sorry for the poor oysters." She switches her allegiance when Tweedledee points out that he ate more than the carpenter, and tried to hide the number. But the carpenter suffers in her opinion, too, when Tweedledum points out that he ate as many as he could. Instructed by her frustration, Alice abandons any attempt to take sides. "They were both very unpleasant characters," she decides, seeing the situation as a whole, yet implicitly identifying with the oysters, who, like her, left their proper environment seduced by the wonders of an unknown realm that turned against them.

Lured out of their beds and marched along the sand, the oysters are mustered on the beach. The walrus begins his razzle-dazzle rhetoric and courteously desists when the dizzy oysters ask to catch their breath. Instead, he begins to make preparations for a meal, reciting a list of necessary condiments used in the consumption of oysters. Realizing that they are to constitute the meal, the oysters beg him to reconsider, but they have no more power against him than the moon had to vanquish the sun. All they achieve is a rhetoric of sympathy from him and a flood of tears as he devours them. The carpenter, on the other hand, is less a gallant and is more single-mindedly absorbed in securing his bread and getting his share of oysters, making sure he is not cheated by the walrus, given more butter and fewer oysters. The dynamic of rivalry defining the action of the poem is played out even among these apparent partners.

The last stanza begins with a satiric echo of the walrus's invocation of the oysters in the sixth stanza when he first invited them on their death walk. Now he invites them to return home in mockery of their gullibility and expressing his implicit satisfaction and delight in his success at overwhelming them. Similarly, the narrative commentary of the poem's coda, the final two lines, echoes the last two lines of the first stanza. But the parody here is grim. The idea of oddity reappears, now to be repudiated. Encroachment in the first stanza suggested a violation of the way things are. Predation, in the final stanza, is presented as merely the way things are. Buried beneath the final lines is the implicit warning, the moral of the story: therefore, be careful.

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on "The Walrus and the Carpenter," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

Jennifer Geer

In the following excerpt, Geer explores how, through such elements as the poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter," Alice is idealized as a child in Through the Looking-Glass.

The opening and closing sections of Lewis Carroll's two classic children's novels, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, have posed perennial difficulties for critics. The prefatory poem and final paragraphs of Wonderland, as well as the poems and drawing-room scenes that frame the central narrative in Looking-Glass, are nostalgic, gently teasing, and ostensibly serene—and they stand in sharp contrast to Alice's unsentimental, chaotic, and often violent adventures. Although this dichotomy has been interpreted in several ways, most critics agree that the framing sections give a much more conventionally idealized picture of Alice and her dream-journeys than the adventures do. Such idealization is hardly surprising in light of Carroll's legendary devotion to little girls, but in the context of Alice's adventures, the frames do surprise. Their portrayals of her journeys through Wonderland and Looking-glass country bear so little resemblance to the journeys themselves that it is difficult to take the frames quite seriously. The closing paragraph of Wonderland is lovely but absurd as it blithely affirms that the tale of Alice's adventures, in which mothers sing sadistic lullabies, babies turn into pigs, and little girls shout at queens, will lead Alice's older sister into reveries about delightful children and domestic bliss. From a logical perspective, this final scene is as nonsensical as anything in Wonderland. I would like to suggest that the contrast between frames and adventures in the Alice books implies that the frames' idealized visions of Alice are themselves constructed narratives, as fantastic in their own way as the dreamtales they so radically reinterpret.

The Alice frames encourage readers to interpret Alice's adventures as fairy tales, a category that in nineteenth-century usage includes literary and traditional tales, nonsense, and what we would now call fantasy fiction. In mid-Victorian discourse, fairy tales often exert a recognizably domestic influence on their readers or listeners. Contemporary periodical articles and reviews commonly portray the tales' virtues as analogous to an ideal home's: readers young and old will find their sympathies awakened and the corrosive effects of an amoral, competitive, and violent world lessened. Wonderland and Looking-Glass, like many Victorian texts, thus characterize the values inscribed in idealized childhood and its tales as domestic and feminine. The Wonderland frames suggest that the tale of Alice's dream fosters the happy, loving childhood that will enable her development into a good woman and mother, while the Looking-Glass frames anticipate that the tale will create a domestic space powerful enough to keep the stormy world at bay.

In both novels, the contrast between frames and adventures works to undermine such hopes and suggestions by foregrounding potential conflicts between adult and child figures. Adult and child characters in the Alice books, as well as the implied readers, often want rather different things from one another; tale-telling both fulfills and frustrates their desires. In Wonderland and Looking-Glass, Carroll ultimately suggests that both adults and children want power as well as comfort, and that the domestic world of little girls and fairy tales is the unlikely site of power struggles over the comforts of home and childhood. Still, Carroll does not reject the ideals of fairy tales and femininity he so deftly ironizes. He may delight in exposing their illogic, but he remains deeply committed to their emotional power. As Carroll's fellow Oxford don T. B. Strong noted, Wonderland and Looking-Glass draw heavily on mid-Victorian mores, often taking common words or phrases literally and pressing conventional assumptions to their logical conclusions. The books reveal "all sorts of pitfalls and surprises round the ordinary course of conversation" (Strong 306). Paradoxically, "pitfalls and surprises" can make conventional forms all the more alluring; by implying that the idyllic world of little girls and their fairy tales is really a narrative told by adults for self-interested purposes, the Alice books only intensify adult readers' desire for those idealized visions….

Although Wonderland offers the possibility that its antidomestic tale will foster Alice's development into a model of ideal womanhood, Through the Looking-Glass is far more skeptical about the tale's impact on her future. Much of this skepticism occurs because the later novel draws on rather different views of the relationships between adults, children's literature, and little girls. The Wonderland frames certainly idealize Alice, but their emphasis on the benefits she will reap from remembering the tale and retaining "the simple and loving heart of her childhood" assumes continuity between the child's experience and the woman's (164). The Looking-Glass frames, however, tend to follow another influential contemporary model of development, which portrays childhood as an innocent, feminized state vastly different from the corrupt, sorrowful adult world. Childhood becomes a sort of secular Eden, a paradise "inviolably, savingly separate from the adult world of anxiety" (Gilead 283). Because this model perceives childhood as separate from and superior to adulthood, it holds that adults do not retain their childlike hearts. Adults can only recapture momentary glimpses of childhood's bliss by interacting with children or by reading, telling, or writing idealized forms of children's literature such as fairy tales. At the same time, childhood becomes the site of a deep sentimental regret that children must lose their innocence as they grow up.

Looking-Glass is thus more determined to idealize the child Alice and more pessimistic about her growth than Wonderland is. Whereas Wonderland's prefatory poem gently teases the children who listen to the tale, its Looking-Glass counterpart does not. The Looking-Glass Alice is an ethereal "Child of the pure unclouded brow" rather than a pair of "little hands" steering the boat with "little skill." The Looking-Glass poem also assumes that Alice will lose her joyous innocence as she grows up. The simple, loving girl will develop all too quickly into a "melancholy maiden" subject to adulthood's "bitter tidings" and "unwelcome bed" of anxiety, sexuality and death. Although the poem's speaker wishes Alice to remember him and her happy girlhood, his sad prediction that "No thought of me shall find a place / In thy young life's hereafter" and his reference to "vanish'd summer glory" suggest that she will forget. These circumstances lessen the tale's value as a potentially formative influence on Alice. Instead, Carroll's speaker maintains that his "fairy-tale" will preserve an idealized, domestic childhood world that exists in comforting opposition to "the blinding snow" outside. The tale also will help delay Alice's departure into adulthood by weaving "magic words" to "hold [her] fast" in "childhood's nest of gladness," if only for a moment….

Although the prefatory poem's speaker may wish to fix Alice in an idealized childhood world, her adventures portray her as conspicuously uninterested in any such thing. As Knoepflmacher has pointed out, Alice's desire to play Looking-glass chess signifies her desire to grow up and gain an adult woman's powers ("Balancing" 511). In Looking-glass country, these desires are inseparable from ambition and competition; Alice is, willing to enter the game as a Pawn, but she would "‘like to be a Queen, best.’" The speed and relative ease with which she wins the game and becomes a Queen has led Knbepflmacher to argue that Looking-Glass endorses Alice's desire to grow, at least until Carroll abruptly rescinds that endorsement in the final chapters (Ventures 197-200; 216-26). Looking-Glass certainly does depict Alice's progress and implicitly her growth as inevitable: she is a Pawn whose moves are mapped out for her even before she begins to play. But her smoothly overdetermined journey to the Eighth Square does not necessarily indicate acceptance of her growth. The contrast between her success and the coronation feast which literally overturns her triumph only intensifies the sense that maturity is no prize at all, but a profound disappointment. Alice herself, who calmly pretends to mother the black kitten once she returns to her own drawing-room in the final chapter, never quite grasps this implication, but it certainly is available to the adult reader.

Alice initially believes the Red Queen's assurance that "‘in the Eighth Square we shall be Queens together, and it's all feasting and fun!’" Once Alice arrives at the Eighth Square, however, she discovers that her new role is hardly fun. The Red and White Queens are determined not to let her take her place with them as an equal. Instead, they assert their own superior status by treating her like a child, dismissing as ignorance and ill-temper all her attempts to establish her position as Queen. They even go so far as to invite themselves to her coronation dinner, justifying the breach of good manners by accusing Alice of not having "‘had many lessons in manners yet.’" The Queens' rudeness and Alice's bewildered resentment cast ironic doubt on adults' desire to place children in a world of youthful bliss. Alice's relationships with adult figures are no more blissful in Looking-glass country than they were in Wonderland. Her position during and immediately before her coronation feast may be child-like, but it is hardly the "nest of gladness" that the prefatory poem extols.

Alice's uncomfortable position as child-Queen suggests that the combination of a child's heart and a woman's offices might destroy domestic competence rather than create it. She fares no better at her coronation dinner than David Copperfield's "child-wife," Dora, does at housekeeping in Dickens's novel. Her title not-withstanding, Alice lacks the social experience to be an effective hostess, let alone a ruler. At first, she is even a little relieved when she discovers the feast has started without her; she remarks that she "‘should never have known who were the right people to invite!’" All too soon, however, the order that should have characterized a combination of state dinner and Victorian dinner-party plunges into chaos in the face of her inexperience. As an untutored girl, Alice has neither a ruler's public authority nor a hostess's social and managerial skills. The polite compliance that an upper-middle-class girl such as Alice would have been taught in nursery and schoolroom only compounds the social reversals, as she bows to subjects who understand Looking-glass etiquette. And if chess pieces can exercise power over a human Queen at her own coronation dinner, the food and tableware might logically aspire to rule, also. The result is a sort of domestic coup: Alice looks up to find the leg of mutton in the White Queen's chair, the Queen herself in the soup-tureen, and the soup-ladle advancing purposefully toward her own chair, "beckoning to her impatiently to get out of its way."

Admittedly, the combination of a child's character and an adult's position serves Alice well in one respect. She manages to restore order by combining the traits of the mischievous child and the furious, domineering woman. Childishly, Alice demands attention by disrupting the already chaotic feast: "‘I can't stand this any longer!’ she cried, as she jumped up and seized the tablecloth with both hands: one good pull, and plates, dishes, guests, and candles came crashing down together in a heap on the floor." She then abandons the child's role for the furious woman's, asserting her own dominance by "turning fiercely upon the Red Queen, whom she considered as the cause of all the mischief." Since the scene is already a reversal of conventional order, these additional reversals succeed in righting it. The Red Queen begins to turn into the harmless black kitten on the spot, and Alice soon wakes to find herself back in the snug comfort of a drawing-room armchair. With Alice and the Red Queen restored to their respective roles as child and kitten, the adult narrator can reestablish control over the scene and return to a peaceful vision of Alice in her drawing-room.

As it turns out, however, this return to order is even more tenuous than in Wonderland. On the surface, the end of Alice's dream satisfies child and adult readers' impulse to halt the feast's frightening chaos, as well as adult readers' desire that Alice return to a safe, enclosed childhood world. But although Looking-Glass applauds Alice's actions, it also ironizes them. The violence Alice herself does in restoring domestic order suggests that neither the ideal woman nor the ideal girl is fully recoverable: the furious woman underlies the former, while the mischievous child underlies the latter. Thus, even the scenes of Alice in her drawing-room question the figure of the loving, authoritative yet child-like woman more than the closing frame of Wonderland does. Because Alice is pretending to be a mother, these scenes imply that the ideal woman who can combine an adult's competence with a child's simplicity exists only in the imagination. Furthermore, Alice's games retain subtle forms of Looking-glass country's conflicts between child and adult figures. Alice mothers her kittens by imitating adult authority figures' treatment of herself, never quite forgetting that she remains under their control. Thus, when she is playfully telling the black kitten that she will punish it for its faults, she begins to wonder if the same technique could be applied to her: "‘You know I'm saving up all your punishments for Wednesday week—Suppose they had saved up all my punishments? … What would they do at the end of a year?’" The effect is to emphasize the scene's fictionality (readers know they are watching a child pretending to be a mother) and the possibility of conflict even in Alice's supposedly happy family.

Given Looking-Glass's persistent sense of the ways in which adult figures bully child figures, the mischievous or rebellious child is never far from Alice's games, either. Alice may pretend to be a benevolent mother, but she does not pretend to be a compliant child. The narrator mentions that "once she had really frightened her old nurse by shouting suddenly in her ear, ‘Nurse! Do let's pretend that I'm a hungry hyaena, and you're a bone!’" Even her dream-journey into Looking-glass House begins with Alice perched on the chimney-piece, which she almost certainly is not allowed to climb—especially when there is a fire burning. When Alice takes on a motherly role, she playfully recreates her own rebellious impulses in the figure of the black kitten, who is "‘a little mischievous darling.’" To a large extent, these fantasies are charming to adult readers: they can recognize their own aggression in Alice's but rest assured that she herself is only "a little mischievous darling." On another level, however, Alice's games are slightly worrisome to adult devotees of idealized little girls. Because this dream-child happily pretends to be an adult and to resist adults, her games remind adults of childhood's transience and of potential conflicts between children's desires and their own.

These tensions between child and adult figures severely limit the possibility of creating a narrative that satisfies adults' longing for an idealized childhood paradise while also amusing child readers. The prefatory poem, for instance, suggests that the tale is as difficult to grasp as Alice's dream-rushes, which begin "to lose all their scent and beauty, from the very moment that she picked them." Like the White Queen's jam, the idealized "fairy-tale" of the Looking- Glass poem exists yesterday and tomorrow, but not today. The speaker promises that he will continue "[a] tale begun in other days," but that tale remains an elusive future pleasure. The tale of Looking-glass country as presented in Alice's adventures does not exactly live up to this promise; although it certainly resembles her adventures in Wonderland, it is hardly a vision of "childhood's nest of gladness." Moreover, even the delightfully nostalgic and sentimental tale the poem promises remains a product of adult fiat that may clash with the child's desires. The Looking-Glass poem's overtures may be flattering, but its consistent use of imperative verbs and negative constructions implies that it is as much a command as an invitation, and one Alice might choose not to heed.

Alice's adventures in Looking-glass country also question conventional notions of the benevolent tale-teller, the children who wish to be delighted, and the charming tale. Alice is usually reluctant to listen to Looking-glass poetry and remains skeptical of the creatures' claims that their poems will comfort or amuse her. The creatures' poetry and conversations often have the effect of delaying Alice's progress in the chess game; like the prefatory poem's ideal tale, they work to arrest her symbolic journey toward adulthood. This tendency may satisfy adult readers, but it exasperates Alice, who only wants to advance to the next square and become a Queen. Thus, when Tweedledee asks her if she likes poetry, her response is hardly enthusiastic: "‘Ye-es, pretty well—some poetry…. Would you tell me which road leads out of the wood?’" The Tweedle brothers' determination to recite the longest poem they know dismays her still more. The poem they tell Alice, "The Walrus and the Carpenter," reveals that she has good reason to be wary. The Walrus and Carpenter lure the "young Oysters" out for what they claim will be "A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk / Along the briny beach," but the walk ends with their eating the young guests. The poem's nonsense exaggerates conflict between generations. Adult figures' benevolence is nothing more than a hypocritical cloak, and the desire to arrest children's growth is literalized as a desire to kill them. The same themes recur during Alice's encounter with Humpty Dumpty. His response to her remark that "‘one can't help growing older’" reveals ominous undertones behind adults' desire that children not grow, as he takes the premise to its logical conclusion by asserting that "‘One can't, perhaps … but two can. With proper assistance, you might have left off’" growing. Alice, understandably alarmed, hastens to change the subject.

Looking-Glass never comes to a definitive conclusion about the best ways to balance adult and child readers' desires. It simply gives—and undercuts—two possibilities for creating a tale that can amuse children while satisfying adults' wish for a nostalgic escape into a blissful childhood world. Alice's encounter with the White Knight implies that one way to create such a tale is to ask all parties to pretend. During this scene, Alice graciously submits to a deluded but well-meaning adult's determination to tell a tale, feigning interest in order to please him while giving her future adult self an opportunity to redefine the event in nostalgic, escapist terms. The White Knight casts himself as the ideal tale-teller, and according to the narrator, Alice eventually remembers him in such an idealized light. Admittedly, this memory of the Knight's "mild blue eyes and kindly smile … and … the melancholy music of the song" is a doubtful one. In typical Looking-glass fashion, it is a memory which has not yet happened to the Alice of the adventures, and as Knoepflmacher points out, it is by no means an accurate depiction of her experience in the narrative present (Ventures 221-23; "Balancing" 514-15). Although Alice may someday remember herself enjoying the beautiful picture the Knight makes with "the setting sun gleaming through his hair, and shining on his armour in a blaze of light," Carroll gives no indication that she has this reaction while listening to the Knight's song. In the narrative present she is somewhat bored and even critical; she remarks that "‘the tune isn't his own invention’" and works hard at "trying to feel interested" in yet another piece of poetry. Yet even if Alice's fondness for the Knight and his tale is only an illusion created in retrospect, Looking-Glass ultimately presents it as both lovely and fulfilling. Alice's meeting with the Knight suggests that the conflicting desires behind Victorian ideals of girlhood and fairy tales can be well served by a deluded storyteller and a child's polite deception. Because he believes himself wise and benevolent, the Knight is one of the few characters in Wonderland or Looking-glass country who is courteous or helpful to Alice, and for all her impatience, Alice hides it well. Her actions form Looking-Glass's closest approximation to the ideal little girl or to the ideal woman who retains her childlike heart. By exercising an adult's diplomatic tact, Alice manages to fulfill the ideal girl's role of delighting her elders, even if she is only feigning interest.

The closing poem also presents the child and her tales as a lovely yet satisfying illusion. It represents an ingenious, if tenuous, solution to the problem of creating an idealized childhood world. As Wonderland does, this poem validates storytelling—or in this case, poetry—as the best way to satisfy the desires behind mid-Victorian idealizations of childhood. The poem is an acrostic on Alice Pleasance Liddell's name; although the children who listened to the original tale of Wonderland have faded into memory and those who will hear the tale have yet to do so, the ideal child remains inscribed into the poem's present. And although Alice does not become an ideal woman who can delight her own children with her tales, this poem recreates the tale of Wonderland and Looking-glass country in a form that offers continuity across generations. Recurring tales of "a Wonderland," told to successive groups of children, will ensure that the girl and her tales remain present, even though each telling's "[e]choes fade and memories die." The poem thus attempts to fix Carroll, the real Alice Liddell, the fictional Alice, and child-listeners in a perpetually available childhood world….

Source: Jennifer Geer, "‘All Sorts of Pitfalls and Surprises’: Competing Views of Idealized Girlhood in Lewis Carroll's Alice Books," in Children's Literature, Vol. 31, 2003, pp. 1-24.

Beverly Lyon Clark

In the following excerpt, Clark examines how Carroll uses verse, including "The Walrus and the Carpenter," to contribute humor, nonsense, and the absurd to Through the Looking-Glass.

You say that I'm "to write a verse"—
O Maggie, put it quite
The other way, and kindly say
That I'm "averse to write"!

In writing to his child-friends Lewis Carroll was not averse to verse, however he might tease. Nor was he averse in his fiction—for it comprises one of the most memorable features of his Alice books. It contributes to the humor and nonsense and absurdity of the books, through its play with "real"-world forms and its parody, and through its concreteness and its interaction with the surrounding prose.

Carroll played with "real"-world forms sometimes by making things more orderly and sometimes by making them less. But of course order and disorder are all a matter of perspective. When Humpty Dumpty defines glory as "a nice knock-down argument" he disorders our real-world semantic order, from one perspective, but the simple act of defining the word, of associating it with a meaning and not leaving it in the limbo of meaningless noises, is itself an act of order. Humpty Dumpty's new order may be unfamiliar, but it is not entirely chaotic. Or take "Jabber-wocky." Does it disorder our orderly universe? Yes, in part, for "brillig" and "slithy" have no familiar meaning. Yet, as students of language are fond of pointing out, the grammatical structure of the poem is orderly, making it possible for us to decipher, for instance, the parts of speech to which the non-sense words belong. And the words themselves combine consonants and vowels the way English words do (unlike, say, the Wonderland Gryphon's "Hjckrrh!"). Further, Humpty Dumpty's explication provides an ordering of the meaning as well. When he expounds, "‘Brillig’ means four o'clock in the afternoon—the time when you begin broiling things for dinner," he describes a world with a modicum of order, one that can be envisioned as in, say, Tenniel's drawing.

Another way of describing Carroll's play with "real"-world forms is in terms of open and closed fields. Susan Stewart, in her recent study Nonsense, catalogues nonsense transformations and finds some within the closed fields described by Elizabeth Sewell in her early Field of Nonsense, closing what is traditionally open, while others do the inverse, opening what is closed. Yet whatever we call the two transformations—whether we use this broad definition or else associate nonsense only with the first kind of transformation and associate the second with the absurd—Carroll uses both kinds. He sometimes opens what is traditionally closed (making a mirror into a door) and sometimes closes what is traditionally open and on-going (making time stand still at six o'clock). And often what Carroll does is a complex amalgam of both opening and closing. In his parodies, for instance, some of the wordplay focuses attention on the words, fencing them off from reality, making them a closed world: rhyme and alliteration draw attention to the words and distract us from whatever it is the words are meant to refer to. The parodies also close themselves off as separate worlds to the extent that they do not refer to recognizable reality: how does one balance anything as slippery and floppy as an eel on the end of one's nose? On the other hand, the references to artifacts outside the poems—to other poems—opens the form, and the parodies would also seem to shatter the closed universes of the pietistic poems they mock. The parodies operate in both closed and open fields—they both order and disorder—and part of their effect derives from the confrontation between the two. We can call them nonsense, or something else, but the parodies draw upon both kinds of transformation.

It has become convenient to refer offhand to most of the verse in the Alice books as parodies. But again we run into a problem of definition. This time I want to define the term more narrowly, for the very general way in which we use "parody" sometimes blinds us to important distinctions. Sometimes we call something a parody if it reminds us of a previous work, whether or not any satire is intended. But I'd like to reserve parody for something that satirizes. Dwight Macdonald, for instance, situates Carroll's works closer to what he calls burlesque than to parody: "he simply injected an absurd content into the original form with no intention of literary criticism." Macdonald is right for some of Carroll's verse, but I would disagree with his contention that Carroll never intended literary criticism, for sometimes Carroll does intend literary, if not moral, criticism [MacDonald, 1960].

Sometimes, if not always. For only in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is the verse truly parodic. "How doth the little crocodile," for instance, undermines the pious preaching of Isaac Watts's "How doth the little busy bee," which admonishes children to keep busy and avoid mischief: the crocodile presented for our emulation, far from skillfully building a cell or neatly spreading wax, "cheerfully" and "neatly" and "gently"—snares fishes. Much of the other pious verse that Carroll parodies in Wonderland is similarly subverted. While Carroll does not entirely disagree with the sentiments of the poems he parodies—especially in later life, when he wanted to out-bowdlerize Bowdler—and thus does not mock that which is preached, he does mock the preaching. Carroll may not be criticizing the content (he surely is not inciting children to be slothful), but he does criticize the literary purpose of didactic verse, the way in which it tried to control children. In part Carroll may simply be entering into the child's perspective, adopting the child's responses to pietistic verse, for he shows considerable sympathy for the child's point of view. And perhaps Carroll's satire of the didacticism of previous children's literature clears a niche for the new kind of children's literature he wanted to write. Much as Alice tries to define herself by attempting to recite familiar verse, Carroll seems, intentionally or not, to be defining his fiction through Alice's failure to define herself, through her mangling of her recitations.

In Through the Looking-Glass however, it is as if Carroll's success with his first children's book freed him from the need to comment on what previous writers had done for, or to, children. The verse is less parodic. Although some of it plays with pre-existing poems, it is harder to label such playing parody, harder to convict it of literary criticism. Carroll's "parodies" in the two books might be placed on a continuum, from the true parodies like that of Watts to reflections of the original that are not necessarily satires (what Macdonald describes), to mere echoes that may not actually be related to a so-called original. The drinking song begot of Scott, sung at the Looking-glass banquet, mimics some lines of the original but probably without any intent to satirize. And still farther from parody is "The Walrus and the Carpenter," which shares its meter and rhyme scheme with Thomas Hood's "The Dream of Eugene Aram" and also the discovery of an unexpected murderer, but which is not otherwise tied to the so-called original. Carroll himself wrote in a letter to his uncle, "I had no particular poem in mind. The metre is a common one, and I don't think ‘Eugene Aram’ suggested it more than the many other poems I have read in the same metre" (Letters).

Looking-Glass verse tends toward this latter end of the continuum. Carroll here does not demolish children's verse. For the most part, he either uses fantastical nursery rhymes, which do not need to be demolished, or else he plays with adult poetry, which can perhaps be poked and prodded at but need not be so utterly crushed as the sugar-coated moralizing intended for children.

I will demonstrate how Carroll uses pre-existing verse in Looking-Glass by examining the changes in rings on Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence." The White Knight's poem includes echoes of other poems—Wordsworth's "The Thorn" and Thomas Moore's "My Heart and Lute"—but I'll concentrate on "Resolution and Independence." Carroll had written an early version of his poem by 1856, and this version describes a situation fairly close to that in Wordsworth's poem: in both the narrator encounters an extremely old man upon the moor, asks his occupation, and is comforted by the exchange—although Wordsworth's narrator is comforted by the man's cheer and steadfastness, while Carroll's is comforted by the man's "kind intent / To drink my health in beer." The closest verbal echoes are in the closing lines. Wordsworth ends with "I'll think of the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor!" ["The Prelude" edited by Carlos Baker (1954)], and Carroll ends with "I think of that strange wanderer / Upon the lonely moor."

This echoing of concluding lines is emblematic of the relationship between the two poems. While the Watts parody starts off proclaiming the poem it twists, repeating the opening "How doth the little," as well as "Improve" and "shining" in the second line, the Wordsworth derivative waits till the conclusion for a close verbal echo. Furthermore, Carroll entirely omits all reference to the meditative early verses of Wordsworth's poem, and even changes the meter and rhyme scheme. "Upon the Lonely Moor" is simply not very close to "Resolution and Independence." And it is not that Wordsworth's lines utterly forbid parody. Surely, if he had wanted to, Carroll could have embellished "Such seemed this Man, not all alive nor dead, / Nor all asleep" by adding something like (but better than) "Nor scrubbing scones nor eating flies / Nor starting in to weep." He apparently wanted to use Wordsworth's dramatic situation as a scaffolding more than he wanted to use Wordsworth's poem as a source for parody.

The later version of Carroll's poem, the one that appears in Looking-Glass, is even farther from Wordsworth. The echo in the last two lines has entirely disappeared, and so has all reference to moors. Instead of situating his aged man on a romantic and evocative moor Carroll sits him on a gate. Compared to the earlier version, the nonsense is better, the parody less.

Nevertheless, Carroll himself did call the poem a parody, in a letter to his uncle—but he went on to modify his use of the term: "‘Sitting on a Gate’ is a parody, though not as to style or metre—but its plot is borrowed from Wordsworth's ‘Resolution and Independence’ …" (Letters). Carroll uses the term "parody" for lack of a better word, to describe his borrowing of the plot, or dramatic situation, his use of the poem as a scaffolding. He goes on to indicate what in Wordsworth's poem he might well like to satirize, for it is "a poem that has always amused me a good deal (though it is by no means a comic poem) by the absurd way in which the poet goes on questioning the poor old leech-gatherer, making him tell his history over and over again, and never attending to what he says. Wordsworth ends with a moral—an example I have not followed." Carroll uses Wordsworth's dramatic situation here, but doing so, though it may poke fun at the narrator's greater interest in his own thoughts than in human interaction, does not undermine Wordsworth's sentiments, his praise of resolution, nor his communing with nature, nor his introspection. And the final version of the poem has strayed far enough from the original that Carroll needs to stress to his uncle that it is a parody.

We may be too eager to find satiric comment on Wordsworth in Carroll's poem, since the convenient label for the poem is parody and that is what parody is supposed to do. But while Carroll might not mind tweaking Wordsworth's nose when he starts platitudinizing, Carroll less clearly satirizes Wordsworth than he does Watts in the crocodile poem. And in other derived poems in Looking-Glass, such as that sired by Scott, the original neither pedantic nor moralistic, it is even harder to find what Carroll could be satirizing. The complexity of the relationship between Carroll's and Wordsworth's poems, or Carroll's and Scott's, a relationship not easily defined by our usual interpretation of "parody," complements the complexity of Carroll's non-sense and absurdity, which both reveres and defies, both orders and disorders, both closes and opens.

Another way in which Carroll's verse is humorous and nonsensical, in addition to parodying and playing with forms from the "real" world, is through what Elizabeth Sewell calls "a careful addiction to the concrete," [The Field of Nonsense (London, 1952)]. Instead of evoking a twinkling star and comparing it to a diamond, Carroll makes a bat twinkle like a tea-tray. Or he unites shoes, ships and sealing wax, or cabbages and kings. Yet not all of Carroll's verse is humorous in precisely this way. Some of it is less concrete and complete in itself, and part of its humor lies in how it integrates with the surrounding narrative. And since little or no attention has been paid to this other source of humor, I am going to concentrate on it at the expense of "careful concreteness." Again, as with the parodic playing with form, the humor derives from a varying tension, or confrontation, between opening and closing the verse: the concreteness and completeness tend to close it, while the integration with the narrative opens it. In Wonderland the King of Hearts attempts to integrate verse into the story when he uses the lines beginning "They told me you had been to her" as evidence of the Knave's guilt. Yet the ambiguous pronoun references in the lines invite all interpretations—and substantiate none. And the King's attempt to use this verse as evidence ironically substantiates its inadmissibility and hence underscores the disjunction between verse and story. Much of the humor of the verse derives from the use the King makes of it.

Looking-Glass verse tends to be even more integrated with the narrative. Both form and content are integrated, the latter in four ways. I will first discuss the integration of the content, and then turn to the form.

Overall, the content integrates with the prose thematically. Alice finally says, with only slight exaggeration, that the poetry was "all about fishes." (And in the context of playing with kittens, and frequently thinking about eating, it is not amiss to dream about fishes.) In addition, some of the verse relates directly to the action: the Red Queen sings a lullaby when the White Queen wants to nap; and the creatures sing toasts at the closing banquet. Some of the verse is interpreted by the characters, who thereby attempt, as it were, to accommodate the verse to the narrative: Humpty Dumpty interprets "Jabberwocky"; and even the Tweedles offer some interpretations of "The Walrus and the Carpenter." Finally, some of the verse is enacted in the story: notably, the nursery rhymes come to life.

In providing sources for Looking-glass characters, the nursery rhymes strengthen the integration of verse and story. Much as Wonderland creatures sprout from metaphoric proverbs (except for the Queen of Hearts and company, derived in part from a nursery rhyme but also from playing cards), such Looking-glass creatures as Humpty Dumpty and the Tweedles derive from nursery rhymes. As Roger Henkle notes, the careers of the nursery-rhyme creatures "are predetermined by the nursery rhymes about them" ["The Mad Hatter's World," in Virginia Quarterly Review, 49, 1973]—they derive, in other words, from entire verse-stories, not from mere phrases. Or, even if the creatures are ignorant of their predetermining verses, Alice and the reader are not, and we see how the verse does indeed determine actions, how highly integrated verse and narrative are. In Wonderland, on the other hand, while the King acts as if the previous behavior of the Knave of Hearts has been described by a nursery rhyme, Alice and the reader are not convinced. The nursery rhyme does not have determining force there—it is merely posited—while nursery rhymes do affect Looking-glass world, the verse does affect the narrative: Humpty Dumpty does come crashing down …

Much of the humor of Humpty Dumpty's verse derives from its integration with the narrative, its interruptions, its incompleteness. Some critics find this the least satisfactory of Carroll's verse, and while it is certainly not the best it does become better if we look at it not in isolation but in context. At times the proper unit of analysis is not the poem by itself but the entire dialogue, of which the poem is just part.

Like Humpty Dumpty's poem, if not always to the same degree, the Looking-Glass, poems are surprisingly integrated into the story, thematically and even physically. Of course, they remain typographically distinct from the prose as well—and again there is a tension between opening and closing. Another site for this tension is the overall structure of Looking-Glass. In fact, the greater merging of poetry and prose, compared to Wonderland,may in part compensate for a more rigid, closed structure in Looking-Glass. Where Wonderland describes a relatively aimless wandering, Looking-Glass describes a prescribed progression toward a goal, as Alice moves across the chessboard. The individual chapters reinforce the structure by corresponding to individual squares. Carroll counteracts the rigidity of this structure in several ways. One is his placement of lines of asterisks: in Wonderland these asterisks, signalling Alice's changes in size, can appears at the end of a chapter, coinciding with and reinforcing a narrative boundary; in Looking-Glass, though, Carroll seems careful not to place asterisks, here signalling movement to the next square, at the end of a chapter. Thus Carroll dissipates, a little, the clear demarcations of his narrative. Similarly, in Looking-Glass, Carroll sometimes does not complete a sentence begun in one chapter until the following chapter: again, Carroll is ameliorating the strict division into chapters. It is as if he wanted to attenuate the rigid boundaries imposed by the chessboard structure. The greater integration of the verse may be similarly compensatory. It attenuates the rigidities of the external scaffolding of the book, much as narrative plays against and dissipates the external scaffolding of the Ulysses story in Ulysses.

In fact, Carroll's integration of verse and narrative in Looking-Glass is one of the many ways in which he anticipates twentieth-century literature. In some waysWonderland seems rather modern—as in its associative, non-sequential plotting—and in some ways Looking-Glass anticipates current fiction. One such way is the way Carroll incorporates verse. His Looking-Glass parodies are not true parodies but rather they play against the scaffolding of pre-existing poems, like some of Yeats's poetry, which uses materials in his A Vision, yet the images in, say, the Byzantium poems do not need to be followed back to their source before we can appreciate them. Carroll's parodies too can stand alone, divorced from their sources. Though not from the narrative. For the relationship between verse and narrative also seems modern. Recent writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Coover have incorporated verse in their novels yet subverted strict boundaries. In Nabokov's Pale Fire, for instance, the novel's plot grows out of footnotes presumably annotating a poem: the poem is far from a mere set piece that a character happens to recite. These novelists carry further certain hints in Carroll's work, going farther than he in merging verse and narrative, fiction and reality.

The interaction of poem and narrative in Looking-Glass may thus be approaching twentieth-century forms of interpenetration. And Carroll's humor derives in part from this integration and in part from the opposing tendency toward concrete completeness. Likewise it derives in part from parody and in part from simply playing with "real"-world forms. The humor and non-sense and absurdity depend on a confrontation between opposites, a confrontation that we cannot quite resolve in "real"-world terms. Defining "glory" as "a nice knock-down argument" disagrees with our usual use of the term. It is hard even to make it agree metaphorically, as we can when glory is described as clouds that we trail as we come from God. Instead, the odd juxtaposition, the unresolved confrontation, makes us laugh, strikes us as absurd. And we resolve the disparity, a little, by calling it nonsense, something that need not overturn our comfortable real world. Yet despite its resolution it still hints at revolution, still hints at a more serious questioning of reality.

Source: Beverly Lyon Clark, "Carroll's Well-Versed Narrative: Through the Looking-Glass," in English Language Notes, Vol. 20, No. 2, December 1982, pp. 65-76.


Carroll, Lewis, "The Walrus and the Carpenter," in Alices's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass, New American Library, 1960, pp. 160-64.

"The Crystal Palace," in the New York Times, July 13, 1853, p. 1.

"The Crystal Palace Ruins," in the New York Times, October 8, 1858, p. 1.

Edwards, Stewart, The Paris Commune, 1871, Quadrangle Books, 1971.

"Entente Cordiale," in Bodleian Library, (accessed September 7, 2008).

Geer, Jennifer, "‘All Sorts of Pitfalls and Surprises’: Competing Views of Idealized Girlhood in Lewis Carroll's Alice Books," in Children's Literature, Vol. 31, 2003, pp. 1-24.

Irwin, Michael, "Reflections and Relativities," in Rereading Victorian Fiction, edited by Alice Jenkins and Juliet John, Palgrave, 2000, pp. 115-28.

Kelly, Richard, Lewis Carroll, Twayne, 1977, pp. 44-77.

Lehmann, John F., Lewis Carroll and the Spirit of Nonsense, University of Nottingham, 1972, pp. 3-20.

Mare, Walter de la, Lewis Carroll, Faber and Faber, 1932, pp. 62-63.

Sewell, Elizabeth, T. S. Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp. 65-72.


Cunningham, Hugh, The Invention of Childhood, BBC Books, 2006.

Within the context of social, industrial, economic, and military events, Cunningham studies the idea of childhood as it has been variously conceived and defined over the last thousand years in Britain.

Hough, Graham, The Last Romantics, Harrison Press, 2007.

Originally published in 1947, Hough's study is a critical survey of the writing, painting, and thought of some of the great late nineteenth-century artists, including John Ruskin and D. G. Rossetti, who were Carroll's contemporaries and in some cases his friends.

Lear, Edward, The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, Faber Children's Classics, 2001.

Lear, who died at the age of seventy-six in 1888, is remembered for his limericks and nonsense verse.

Lennon, John, In His Own Write, Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Originally published in 1964, this is a book of nearly but not quite unfathomable nonsense stories and verse by one of the great rock-and-roll singer-songwriters of the twentieth century.