Monday, April 2, 2012

The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll crafted a bricolage of symbolism and metaphors in his novel Through the Looking Glass. The organization of his symbolism has led his novel to be analyzed as literary nonsense. However, on closer examination it becomes apparent that Through the Looking Glass is not only meaningful, but also an incredibly subversive text. The confusing twists of allusions and poetry, such as Humpty-Dumpty and “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” and The Lion and the Unicorn, are direct attacks on authority, particularly England, imperialism, and organized religion.

Sound like anyone or anything we know today?

"The Walrus and the Carpenter" is a narrative poem by Lewis Carroll that appeared in his book Through the Looking-Glass, published in December 1871. The walrus and the carpenter are the eponymous characters in the poem, which is recited by Tweedledum and Tweedledee to Alice. Walking upon a beach one night when both sun and moon are visible, the walrus and carpenter come upon an offshore bed of oysters, four of whom they invite to join them; to the disapproval of the eldest oyster, many more follow them. After walking along the beach (a point is made of the fact that the oysters are all neatly shod despite having no feet), the two main characters are revealed to be predatory and eat all of the oysters. After hearing the poem, the good-natured Alice attempts to determine which of the two leading characters might be the more sympathetic, but is thwarted by the twins' further interpretation:
"I like the Walrus best," said Alice, "because you see he was a little sorry for the poor oysters."
"He ate more than the Carpenter, though," said Tweedledee. "You see he held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn't count how many he took: contrariwise."
"That was mean!" Alice said indignantly. "Then I like the Carpenter best—if he didn't eat so many as the Walrus."

"But he ate as many as he could get," said Tweedledum.

This was a puzzler. After a pause, Alice began, "Well! They were both very unpleasant characters"
So there - they are unsavory at least. You could substitute any two people you know and then ring a bell.

First, these guys are walking down this beach and are unhappy with all the sand laying around. They wondered if they could get seven women to take a half year to clear all the sand away. The carpenter said "fat chance" and whined and whined. Should they have called the EPA?

Next they con four oysters to walk hand-in-hand with them, and go for a walk down the beach. The rest of the oysters followed along. Perhaps they were really lemmings.
Finally the condiments were brought in - they had a pleasant run - and the argument continues to this day. I do not wish to tackle the Lion and the Unicorn - you can read that here.

Through the Looking Glass is a text full of symbolism and allusions to reality. The allusions and symbols, particularly, Humpty-Dumpty, The Walrus and the Carpenter, and the Lion and the Unicorn, are not nonsensical as criticism might suggest. The subtlety of his craft allowed Lewis Carroll to get away with attacking some of the largest institutions of his time, including imperialism, religion, and England itself. In doing so Carroll Lewis managed to create a simultaneously popular and highly subversive novel.

Minerley, Stephanie. The Subversive Lewis Carroll [Internet]. Version 2. Knol. 2010 Jan 8. 

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