Magazine topic: 

Alice in Wonderland: Stuff and nonsense

by : 
Thomas Hale

Alice in Wonderland (along with Through the Looking Glass) is one of the most famous children’s books of all time. It has been made into an iconic Disney film, as well as a recent Tim Burton release and countless other adaptations. The story of a young girl falling down a rabbit-hole and entering a strange, surreal world where nothing quite makes sense captures that childhood state when rules are not yet known and the imagination is as powerful as reality.

Written by Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland is a classic in a children’s literary genre known as ‘nonsense’. Nonsense literature presents language and situations which are not normal. In English, this is a genre that rose to prominence in Victorian England, where literature and books were beginning to take on an ever-greater importance in the childhood experience of growing up.

Many examples from the books show Lewis Carroll’s ability to create a sense of the uncanny. The characters regularly show no respect for the basic rules of language. ‘When I use a word’, announces Humpty Dumpty, ‘it means just what I choose it to’. Humpty Dumpty has other views on words, telling Alice that ‘they’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs’. The novel features a famous poem, The Jabberwocky, which features dozens of made-up words, as in the immortal line ‘and the mome raths outgrabe’. The strange sounds of these new words take the reader back to a time when every sound was something new and bizarre.

It is not just language that is played around with. The very laws of physics are upside down. A memorable scene in Through the Looking-Glass depicts Alice and the Red Queen running as fast as they can. When Alice asks where they are running to, the Red Queen scolds Alice, and explains that they are running merely to stay in the same place. When Alice enquires how they might go about actually getting somewhere else, the Red Queen explains that they’d have to run twice as fast.  Of course, as they are already at full pace, this makes no sense whatsoever. Time is also a source of nonsense. At the Tea Party, the Mad Hatter explains that his watch is ‘exactly two days slow’. This means, of course, that his watch is telling exactly the right time as it would be if it were on time.

It is easy to see these examples of nonsense as nothing more than childish fantasy. Yet there is more to nonsense than non-sense.  Lewis Carroll was a famous mathematician and many of his seemingly childish ideas draw on complex ideas of the nature of language, truth and logic. There are political aspects to his nonsense. Alice is told the story of The Walrus and the Carpenter, in which oysters are tricked by the two main characters and then eaten. The Walrus speaks a great deal of nonsense in order to ignore the protests of the oysters. In the Walrus and the Carpenter, nonsense becomes a tool used by the powerful to bewilder and exploit the weak and helpless.

Alice in Wonderland is originally a children’s story, but its meaning, especially its use of nonsense, goes far beyond this. Adults have enjoyed the novel for over a century. It is nonsense that is the key to its continued success, allowing the reader to shake off the rules and shapes of normal life, and return to the unlimited and eternally baffling visions of a half-forgotten childhood.

Language level: 

Do you know any other books that include surreal or extremely unusual situations? What's your favourite?


Silvermist's picture
Silvermist 3 January, 2016 - 10:05

well, Annasi boys is one such and then falls back to Alice in wonderland!

0 users have voted.
Alyona's picture
Alyona 15 May, 2013 - 12:05

I like read books.
They are my best friends.
My favourite is"Honyhmarnyk" J. Corneille

0 users have voted.
Stela.M's picture
Stela.M 3 May, 2013 - 14:46

books are my best favourite one is harry potter.....J.K.Rowling has a colorful imagination

0 users have voted.
cutepopforest's picture
cutepopforest 17 May, 2013 - 05:48

I like the story about Harry Potter too. A great story full of magical powers. I like the way J.K.Rowling imagine.

0 users have voted.
Natalija's picture
Natalija 7 April, 2013 - 13:14

Lewis Carroll is one of my favourite writers, he reminds me of my childhood. I liked Alice in Wonderland so much, and I even played her in school performance at school. It was so interesting;).
I like books like this, because it develops our imagination and brain, and I could read it again, because it's really a terrific book. And there's also Lewis's book Through the Looking-Glass, and it's the second part of Alice in Wonderland. I read it and it's great, but the first part was the best.
If anyone knows for any book like this, please, write, I'd like to read some interesting books;).

0 users have voted.
Beauty2705's picture
Beauty2705 1 March, 2013 - 04:52

Nice blog...I used to read this fairy tale when I was young....and its true that it really is a bit of a nonsence...

0 users have voted.
Starlette Lady's picture
Starlette Lady 30 July, 2012 - 16:46

Nice blog. But do you know how are those nonsense words, expressions, poems called in the scientific language? They're OCCASIONALISMS - random constructions created by the author to express/describe something, when he can't find a proper word for it or wants to underline some features. There's even a special branch of science researching them.
Carroll's occasionalisms all have certain reasons. Like the 'caucus-race' - it's most definitely criticising the political system of England (a game with no rules...). Or 'Reeling and Writhing, Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision'. These 'weird' subjects are a satire to Victorian education.
Also, occasionalisms were formed on the basis of ready-made language models which have a new meaning only in the specific context. For instance, due to the English phraseologism "as sure as death" the expression "as sure as ferrets are ferrets" was formed.
Talking about the poems, they're mostly parodies - e.g. 'Twinkle, twinkle, little bat...'. This anti-stellar spoof is a parody of a famous nursery song ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star…’ by J. Taylor. Carroll makes fun of the children's poems of that time and shows the absurd of poems recited in Wonderland.

Sorry for such a long scientific post, I just couldn't help it (I did my own scientific research on the topic "Occasionalisms in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland"). Your article was really interesting for me, and I hope you'll discover something new for yourself from what I wrote.
Thanks for interesting blog and good luck!

0 users have voted.
Natalija's picture
Natalija 7 April, 2013 - 13:20

Hi, Starlette Lady;)
I like your comment, and I'm glad to read something more about Carrol's books, thank you for your post;).
I've also researched a lot about Lewis Carroll and his books fascinate me. I think he was the greatest English writer, next to Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen and The Bronte sisters.
But I didn't know all that you wrote; now I'm more informed, thanks;).
What're your favourite books? Do you like English literature? I like it, and American, too. My favourite author is Scott Fitzgerald and I like his book The beautiful and damned, and I like the French writer Collete.
Greetings from Serbia;)

0 users have voted.