Sensical Nonsense

“Tut, tut, child!” said the Duchess. “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” page 68

The 11:00 class didn’t get to talk about the possible morals and lessons in Alice! I thought I’d take it to the blog.

Today in class we talked about how Carroll’s book was odd for his time period because it didn’t seem to teach children anything valuable; it was nonsense. I think, however, that there are plenty of things to learn from Alice if you look hard enough, even if they aren’t things that an 1800’s kid would typically learn from a governess.

Take, for example, this exchange between the Mad Hatter and Alice on page 58:

“Really, now you ask me,” said Alice, very much confused, “I don’t think-”

“Then you shouldn’t talk,” said the Hatter

Golden. Every politician should read this.

Also, on page 49:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where -” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“ — so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.” pg 49

This is one of my favorite passages from the book. I understood this to be a reiteration in the common literary moral to “never give up.” (“Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”)

Alice could also teach us to stop trying to make sense out of the nonsensical. In other words, Alice in Wonderland has a moral because it doesn’t have a true moral. The ideas and themes are not very connected between chapters, fantastical things happen that would never occur in reality, and the characters certainly have a unique set of social rules that we can’t always make sense of. The Duchess is a prime example of this moral-less moral: she thinks everything can be made into a moral only to unintentionally prove herself wrong. Carroll may have done this to rebel against the goals of children’s literature of his time, to criticize people that over-think texts, or I may just be doing what Carroll advised against and reading too far into it.

So, what do you guys think? Am I making sense or am I trying to make sense of the nonsensical?

3 thoughts on “Sensical Nonsense

  1. I also really love the exchange between the Cheshire Cat and Alice where they get at the idea of having a “destination.” In my opinion, it’s a very sensible passage, and contrary to what Dodgson suggested in some of the letters that we read for class today (10/3), it contains an overt lesson: the journey is just as important as the destination.

    In regards to the Duchess, I think that her “morals” are Dodgson’s carefully calculated satire on children’s literature as a whole, especially during that time period. By creating a strange character who coddles Alice and tries to recite nonsense morals, he effectively caricatures teachers, authors, and administrator’s of children’s education who try to paint the world in black and white for children. There’s certainly a lot of nonsense in this book, but I also believe that most of the nonsense has a meaning behind it, whether Carroll intended on it or not.

  2. The morality being that it doesn’t have a moral is indeed nonsensical. I think Carroll did kept his story without a moral as a snub to what was expected out of children’s books in Victorian times (that is how to behave or God morality or some other sort). I think the Duchess plays onto this sense that everything must have a moral to the point of nonsense or missing the point.

  3. I’m kind of torn over this issue. On the one hand, I can’t imagine that Dodgson, a philosophically-trained clergyman with obsessive-compulsive tendencies (see Rackin’s essay “Blessed Rage”) didn’t intend us to take some kind of lesson from Alice, albeit a subtle one. On the other, the fact that it takes place in a dream world makes me think we should look for subconscious intentions rather than what the author set out to do. I like to think the moral is to consider how other people’s actions and attitudes, which may seem “mad” to us, actually make sense given the environment they live in, as Alice learns when she talks to the Mouse. That would make a nice counter to things like that poem Professor Scanlon read to us in class about the British kid talking about how children all over the world wish they could be “normal” like them.

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