Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are, above all, concerned with the problem of meaning. A seven year old girl tumbles underground through a rabbit hole where she meets querulous creatures who deploy nit-picking logic and idle philosophical banter; she runs a race, fails to drink tea, is danced in a qaudrille, plays croquet, gives evidence in court and negotiates a fiendish chess game (where the living pieces are ignorant of the game’s plan). As befits a book for children there are many death jokes and beheadings. The two novels are reputed, with the Bible and Shakespeare, to be the most quoted texts in the English language. What is the meaning of this nonsense?
Alice: “I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it”
King: “I seem to see some meaning in them after all”
The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson published these classics of absurdist literature in 1865 and 1871. They are made up of nonsense poems, puns, slips of the tongue, jokes, free-association, riddles without solutions, arbitrariness, paradoxes. Idioms are pounced upon and torn apart, words are attributed multiple meanings or are manipulated into becoming interchangeable. With these linguistic aberrations and mad logic and rules that create disorder, the texts are a literary sphinx that resist all coherent interpretation. Alice cannot find any meaning in the situations in which she finds herself (strive though she does), and neither can we. Humpty Dumpty, displaying a quest for mastery of this world, confidently explains the meaning of the poem Jabberwocky. He tells Alice that ‘brillig’ means four o’clock in the afternoon and a ‘borogrove’ is a thin shabby-looking bird with feathers sticking out all round, like a live mop. As Humpty unhelpfully explains: “when I choose a word it means just what I choose it to mean”. Jabberwocky has perfect syntax and grammar into which Dodgson wove his made-up words. He thus reverses the Queen’s dictum: take care of the sounds and the sense will take care of itself. Some of the neologisms created for the poem, such as ‘galumphing’ and ‘chortled,’ are now standard words in the language.
“Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t know exactly what they are” said Alice
The point about nonsense is that it has no sense. This is a point that is almost always forgotten. A text which deliberately sets out to generate no meaning is a work which turns on a tantalising central absence. Human beings, above all, excel as generators of meaning, especially when affronted by its lack in a text. Wherever a sign is spotted by a human it must be interpreted immediately. Victorian England was a time of meaning in plenty and the Rev’d Dodgson might have been expected to fill his vacant text with the Almighty, but he did not. In a futile and energetic attempt to provide meaning, scholars rush in where angels fear to tread. Absurdity evokes the possibility of coherent sense-making. Things can only be nonsensical if there is some logic by which we can measure this failure, in which case we cannot rule out the possibility of a secret plot to it all.
“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast” said the Queen
Here are some of my favourite interpretations of the text:
-The heartlessness of the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts indicates an unresolved Oedipus complex (Dr Greenacre)
-Humpty Dumpty is the empiricist Heraclitus
-Alice’s constant eating (and the fear shown by creatures of being eaten) is a Freudian oral fixation (William Empson)
-The red and white knights are having an replay of the wars of the roses.
-In a Marxist interpretation the dormouse is a member of the proletariate oppressed by both the Mad Hatter and the March Hare.
-It is all one Victorian religious controversy. The orange marmalade is a symbol of protestantism. The intellectual clash between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce resonates everywhere.
-The Cheshire cat embodies the Platonic theory that a non-material being exists only as a perfect idea (in his case – a grin)
-Alice is a foetus at the bottom of a hole and needs to cry tears to create her own amniotic fluid thus enabling herself to be re-born (Empson again).
-Wonderland is populated by insane mathematicians from Christ Church; Humpty Dumpty was a doctor of divinity enjoying a mental holiday (GK Chesterton).
-Melanie Bayley explained in the New Scientist in 2009 that the whole text was a warning about the dangers of symbolic algebra and projective geometry.
These scholars make preposterous and pedantic heavy weather as best they can in their hubristic Dumptian quest to master Wonderland. They dive head first down a rabbit hole chasing certainty and linguistic order and are, of course, like Alice, defeated.
“I should like to have it explained” said the Mock Turtle
In a final bad-tempered stamp of the feet by literary critics, having failed to explain sense in nonsense, they abruptly turn a full 180 degrees and use, instead, the novel to explain the meaning of the Rev’d Dodgson. Much finger wagging has been done in his direction. It is true that he should not have been allowed on a train to Guildford or a public beach in Eastbourne without a sexual offences prevention order being tacked to his mortar board. But even this moralising is incapable of plugging the absence at the heart of his great absurdist texts.
“Mine is the definitive interpretation”, said Edward Bindloss, and the mome raths outgrabe.