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Nonsense ImageNonsense Literature

“To write about nonsense is like going to sea in a sieve…”Wim Tiggs



Although the Alice books have long been called fine examples of “nonsense,” until recently the use of the term merely planted them more firmly in the genre of Children’s Literature, the “appropriate” place for nonsense.  It was not until the last third of the twentieth century that critics began to take the label seriously, recognizing literary nonsense as a genre of its own. Since then, many critics have begun to look more closely at Carroll’s brand of nonsense, exploring the craft and (a bit paradoxically) the “meaning” of the nonsense. 


What is Literary Nonsense?

Before exploring the Nonsensical in Alice, I’ll attempt to give a working definition of what “literary nonsense” is.  It is not merely gibberish, nor parody or satire, but a true and distinct art form, which, in the words of Jean-Jacque Lecercle, “both supports the myth of an informative and communicative language and deeply subverts it” by first whetting then frustrating the reader’s “deep-seated need for meaning” (3).  It was pioneered by British Victorians such as Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll himself and is usually employed for a humorous effect, rather like an elaborate literary practical joke.  And indeed, the juxtaposition of “Alice’s obstinate good sense and the brilliant nonsense of the creatures she meets” creates most of hilarity of the Alice books (Dunn 61). 


Alice as Nonsense

Although most people can agree that Carroll’s works are forms of literary nonsense, not many can agree on the nonsense’s intended (or even unintended) effect. Some argue that Carroll’s nonsense follows a “Socratic tradition that uses nonsense to help shape a moral personal identity” (Taliaferro 194) and others find Carroll’s nonsense of the kind “that results from the very natural confusions and errors that children might fall into” (Pitcher 401).  Humphrey Carpenter’s take on Carroll’s nonsense is of a slightly darker variety, calling it an art form in which “a simple idea [is] pursued with a ruthless comic literalness to its very end” which, of course, “if pursued logically to its conclusion, must end in Nothing“ (46). Who would have thought that Nonsense could mean so much?  Probably not Lewis Carroll. I believe he would argue that the point of nonsense is that it has no point at all.

But that really is the beauty of the genre; it dangles a carrot of meaning in front of us, then laughs as we jump to catch it. And Carroll’s genius for nonsense lies in the fact that we keep jumping for twelve chapters.  There is just enough “tolerable” and “intolerable” nonsense that it keeps us engaged, enthralled, and entertained (Dunn 67). 


The Mad Tea PartyJohn Vernon Lord's Raven and Writing Desk

There are two major elements of the Alice books which have become favorites for the Nonsense approach: “Jabberwocky,” the famous nonsense poem from Looking Glass and “The Mad Tea Party” chapter from Wonderland.  Since this website focuses mainly on chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Wonderland, I’ll take a minute to hone in on the Mad Tea Party, in particular, the Mad Hatter’s Riddle.

The Riddle:

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”


"Have you guessed the riddle yet?" the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

"No, I give it up," Alice replied. "What's the answer?"

"I haven't the slightest idea," said the Hatter.

"Nor I," said the March Hare.

Alice sighed wearily. "I think you might do something better with the time," she said, "than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers."  (Chapter 7)


In response to hundreds of Alice fans writing to Carroll to learn the “real” answer to the riddle, Carroll wrote:

“ ‘Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an afterthought: the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.” (Huxley 21)

The “nevar” of course is part of the joke (it’s “raven” spelled backwards), but often is miscopied and “corrected” to “never,” ruining the joke.

Francis Huxley, in his book The Raven and the Writing Desk, explores this riddle at some length, focusing particularly on the idea that the riddle is NOT meant to have an answer.  To have an answer ready would require forethought before the riddle was expressed, which nonsense does not allow. For, in nonsense, “one never knows what one is going to say until one has said it” (12).  This “riddle,” then, is a perfect example of the delicate balance of nonsense, which offers with one hand what it denies with the other, frustrating Alice, but delighting us (most of the time).


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