This essayist (who took my class in the Fall of 2000) decided to answer question one on the paper assignment. Notice the clear thesis statement (third-to-last sentence of the introductory paragraph), and observe that each paragraph has a topic sentence at or near its beginning, backs up its claims with examples, and takes care to tie claim (topic sentence) to the evidence it presents. Click to jump to the topic sentences in the first "body" paragraph (sentence #3), second "body" paragraph (sentence #1), or third "body" paragraph (sentence #2).

Amanda Murdie
Professor P. Nel
English 355
16 September 2000
The Paradox of Language:
A Look at Nonsense in "Jabberwocky"

         Roland Barthes’ "Toys" expresses the idea that French toys revolve around convention, preparing children to be adults by allowing them to repeat normal adult activities without much imagination. However, one only has to look in any modern toy store to see that today’s American toys focus more on imagination, not imitation. In contrast, however, children are usually taught language based on convention; certain words have set meanings and certain sounds do not mean anything when put together. Is this truly the case? Is language limited by convention and sense? Wendy Steiner writes that language can be determined by both society and convention (The Colors of Rhetoric 93). Lewis Carroll’s poem "Jabberwocky" in Though the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There shows this paradox of language, requiring readers to use their imagination and acquire a deeper understanding of the multiple uses of language. The poem illustrates Robert Frost’s "sound of sense" in understanding the general idea of a conversation without ever making out a clear word (Interview with Robert Frost 261). Readers can make out the "sense" of Carroll’s poem without understanding every nonsense word.

         At Alice’s first encounter with the poem "Jabberwocky," she exclaims that it is in a language she doesn’t know (Carroll 116). After further examination, she realizes that she has to look at the poem in a mirror. Likewise, Carroll’s many syntactic and linguistic devices force readers to use their imagination and look at the poem in an altered state. As Humpty Dumpty later explains to Alice, many of the words are portmanteaus, words comprised of two meanings (164). Humpty explains that the word "brillig," German for "bright," really refers to "four o’clock in the afternoon &emdash; the time when you begin boiling things for dinner" (164). Many portmanteaus follow "brillig," requiring a reader to use both context clues and imagination. The nonsense words sound like many conventional words. For example, "manxome" is easily associated with manly or maximum; the word feels strong and firm. The word "slithy," on the other hand, sounds like slithery and slimy. Onomatopoeia in the poem allow readers to get a "sound" of the action. For example, the sword’s blade goes "snicker-snack." This word helps the readers sense the sound of the blade as it cuts through the monster’s flesh. Though the poem may seem foreign at first, a reader quickly makes "sense" of the situation and acquires an understanding of the poem’s storyline.

         The storyline and themes from "Jabberwocky" bring readers to a deeper understanding about the use of sound and language. Corresponding with the scary, unfamiliar place introduced in the first stanza of the poem, readers enter a foreign place of nonsense as they struggle with reading the first few words of the poem. As the swordsman’s teacher or father instructs him to beware of the beast in the second stanza, readers are leery at this point to continue such a jumble of convention and nonsense found in words like "manxome" and "vorpal" (118). As the swordsman divides the Jabberwock in two with his sword in the fifth stanza, readers begin to divide the portmanteaus, such as "chortled," into two root words. Readers identify with the joy the swordsman feels after conquering the beast because they too have conquered the poem. Carroll repeats the first stanza at the end of the poem. At reading the stanza this time, readers are confident of the language and meaning and no longer fearful of the nonsense. Therefore, Carroll allows readers to make sense of the nonsense through the storyline of the poem.

         John Tenniel, the illustrator for Through the Looking Glass, gives a fabulous context clue for the poem in the picture that accompanies the text. The picture’s fierce and jumbled style coincides with Carroll’s nonsense language and encourages the imagination. The forest behind the monster, presumed to be the Jabberwock, is dark, tall, and frightening. Branches in the background at a diagonal seem to promote disorder and insecurity. This part of the illustration reinforces the poem’s scary nonsense words, such as "tulgey" in the third stanza. After reading the lines around tulgey and looking at the illustration, readers are able to define tulgey as a scary, frightening, or dark. The darkened forest seems to be a place where a monster could easily sneak up on an unexpecting trespasser (117). The rocky terrain of the forest floor in the illustration would have to be carefully and slowly walked over to prevent tripping. Likewise, Carroll’s poem has to be read slowly and carefully to prevent misunderstanding or, simply, no understanding whatsoever.

         The illustration of the Jabberwock itself seems to refer to the portmanteaus of the text and the imagination and creative thinking those combinations bring. The Jabberwock seems to be a culmination of many creatures: it has a gargoyle’s feet, a bat’s wings, and, perhaps, a dragon’s neck and tail. Likewise, many of the words in the poems are combinations of other words and phrases. For example, "galumphing," in the fourth stanza, combines the words galloping and triumphant. The Jabberwock, interestingly enough, appears to be wearing a vest with buttons. Could this be a parallel to the conventional words and syntax used in Carroll’s poems? Like the conventional, traditional vest on the unconventional beast, the conventional words and syntax appear out of place alongside the portmanteaus and nonsense phrases used in the poem. Another interesting detail about the monster is that its teeth do not seem to be that of a fierce dragon, but that of a rabbit, perhaps even that of the White Rabbit whom Alice met in an earlier book.

         One very obvious separation from the text of the poem is the fact that it appears that Alice herself is swinging the sword to destroy the Jabberwock. The swordsman is small, with long light hair, and appears to have a feminine figure. If the swordsman is Alice, she is dressed not in the Victorian costume as in other pictures throughout the book, but in a very functional outfit of tights, padding, and pockets. Alice’s implied involvement in the illustration resembles the readers’ own identification and replacement with the swordsman in the poem and their individual struggle with understanding and conquering "Jabberwocky." Alice’s sword seems way to big for her little frame. Similarly, the readers’ own tools to decipher the poem appear to be too heavy and too great a job at first. Alice is leaning back in the illustration, perhaps to resist the monster. Likewise, most readers are taken back by the poem’s language as they read the first few words.

         When combining the portmanteaus and language used in the poem, the content, and the illustration, readers move into a world of linguistics that knows no boundaries. This is a world not governed by tradition and imitation, but one where the imagination is used to define even the most basic of sound combinations. Carroll’s "Jabberwocky" goes totally against the French toys that Barthes talked about. It enters a world where imagination is not only encouraged, but required. It makes usual the unusual. Whether Carroll’s reader is a young child or an adult, the imaginative and unconventional ideology of nonsense and sound can be understood. The poem reminds readers to not limit the use of language and imagine the seemingly impossible.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. "Toys." Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972 ed.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland. Ed. Donald J. Gray. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992 ed. 116-164.

Frost, Robert. "…getting the sound of sense." Poetry and Prose. Ed. Luthem and Thompson. Henry Holt, 1972. 261.

Steiner, Wendy. The Colors of Rhetoric: Problems in the Relation Between Modern Literature and Painting. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1982. 93.

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