Alice through the Looking Glass
The themes and settings of Through the Looking-Glass make it a kind of mirror image of Wonderland: the first book begins outdoors, in the warm month of May (4 May), uses frequent changes in size as a plot device, and draws on the imagery of playing cards; the second opens indoors on a snowy, wintry night exactly six months later, on 4 November (the day before Guy Fawkes Night), uses frequent changes in time and spatial directions as a plot device, and draws on the imagery of chess. In it, there are many mirror themes, including opposites, time running backwards, and so on.
The White Queen offers to hire Alice as her lady’s maid and to pay her “Twopence a week, and jam every other day.” Alice says that she doesn’t want any jam today, and the Queen tells her: “You couldn’t have it if you did want it. The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.” This is a reference to the rule in Latin that the word iam or jam meaning now in the sense of already or at that time cannot be used to describe now in the present, which is nunc in Latin. Jam is therefore never available today.
Lewis Carroll’s diagram of the story as a chess game
Whereas the first book has the deck of playing cards as a theme, Through the Looking-Glass is based on a game of chess, played on a giant chessboard with fields for squares. Most of the main characters are represented by a chess piece, with Alice being a pawn.
The looking-glass world is divided into sections by brooks or streams, with the crossing of each brook usually signifying a change in the scene, and corresponding to Alice advancing by one square. Furthermore, since the brook-crossings do not always correspond to the beginning and ends of chapters, most editions of the book visually represent the crossings by breaking the text with several lines of asterisks ( * * * ). The sequence of moves (white and red) is not always followed. The most extensive treatment of the chess motif in Carroll’s novel is provided in Glen Downey’s The Truth About Pawn Promotion: The Development of the Chess Motif in Victorian Fiction.
The climax of “Jabberwocky” is violent indeed – a hallmark of the “epic ballad” form, of which this poem is a tiny sample. The warnings in the second stanza of the poem set up the danger, which is quickly followed up by the protagonist heading directly off to rid the forest of the wild and unseemly creatures that are described. Not only does the hero vanquish the most fearsome of his foes, but he also beheads him, dragging the bloody thing back in order to prove his might to his father. The violence here plays to our desire for good to stomp evil right into the ground.
In “Jabberwocky,” the violent dismembering of the Jabberwock is representative of a human desire to annihilate that which threatens us.
The battle in “Jabberwocky” is crucial in placing this poem among older, “epic” poems that typically glorify violent encounters.
- Do you think that “Jabberwocky” is too violent to be called a “children’s poem”?
- Why do you think that the battle, even though it’s the climax of the action, only takes up two lines of the poem?
- Do you think that this poem glorify things like hunting?
- Can you envision an “epic adventure” that isn’t violent? Why do the two so often go together?
In keeping with the “epic” scope of the poem, our protagonist’s journey is no walk in the park. In order to triumph, he must first persevere. This theme is related to the theme of “Men and Masculinity” – it almost seems as if the protagonist has something to prove, as he hears his father’s warnings and promptly goes out to find and vanquish the badness that lurks beyond. He seeks and seeks, and though we don’t have a sense of the temporal element of the his journey (after all, we only get 28 lines), our hero’s determination pays off. He’s rewarded, as one might expect, with a joyous homecoming.
Perseverance In keeping with the “epic” scope of the poem, our protagonist’s journey is no walk in the park. In order to triumph, he must first persevere.
- Why do you think the protagonist is determined to find the Jabberwock, even after being told to “beware” by his father?
- Do you think that there is a larger message about perseverance in “Jabberwocky”?
- Does determination always lead to success? What is the definition of success, anyway? Simply triumph?
- How does the long struggle fit into the overall action curve of the poem? How does it affect the reader?
The implication of a long search in “Jabberwocky” adds authenticity, even through the nonsense, to both the story and the protagonist.
The narrative in the poem is too compressed to give the reader a sense that the protagonist goes through any real struggle to find his adversary.
Good vs Evil
In “Jabberwocky,” “Good vs. Evil” is linked with the theme of “Violence.” When good (our hero) and evil (the Jabberwock) meet in this story, violence ensues. “Jabberwocky” pits the individual (one lone man) against a mythical beast. Since this beast doesn’t exist in our world, it becomes something bigger, a kind of metaphor for Evil with a capital E. If it were simply human vs. human – say, white knight vs. black knight – you could draw the same conclusions, but perhaps the outcome would be less surprising. One small man triumphing over a big huge beast is an order of magnitude unto itself.
- How do you feel about the scene that opens the poem? Do you think that it’s an unequivocally peaceful scene, or is there uneasiness there?
- Beyond the “beware,” what indicators do we have that the Jabberwock is bad news? Why are those indicators threatening?
- Why do we root for the human, and against the beast?
- Collectively, what form does evil take in the narrative (we’re not only talking about the Jabberwock here)?
We fear, and often label as “evil,” that with which we are unfamiliar.
Evil in “Jabberwocky” takes the form of a beast because it makes evil seem alien and inhuman.
Men and Masculinity
Carroll first published a bit of “Jabberwocky” as a kind of satire of Anglo-Saxon verse, which might well be the “manliest” poetry there is (in addition to being the earliest in English). Think Beowulf: a man goes out to fight a monster. While it’s more complicated than that, Beowulf set the tone for centuries to come, and Carroll knew it. “Jabberwocky” is all about conquest, which has traditionally been considered the domain of the masculine. The fact that the protagonist, after hearing the dire warnings given him by his father, picks up his sword and heads out into the woods anyway, is one of those brave-but-maybe-unreasonable things that heroes tend to do in adventure tales. “Jabberwocky” is no exception.
- Why do you think it is that men are typically associated with killing things with swords?
- Couldn’t the hero of “Jabberwocky” have been female?
- How does this poem construct “the man” as a whole?
- What are some other ways to define masculinity that are perhaps less violent? Can you find any instances of this in the poem?
The protagonist in the poem is stereotypically masculine.
The heroic figure in “Jabberwocky” – male and nearly foolhardy – is in keeping with the adventure epics after which the poem is modeled.
Man and the Natural World
“Man and the Natural World” might be the most interesting theme in the whole poem, because it’s the one theme in which we can bring in the goofy language. How, you ask? Well, the “natural world” that Carroll creates certainly doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the “natural world” that we inhabit, yet there are many similarities between the world of the Jubjub bird and the world of the ordinary owl. Carroll’s positioning of hero vs. beast is essentially the age-old story of Man vs. Nature. While the theme “Good vs. Evil” also figures into “Jabberwocky,” the Evil in this case is basically Stuff We Are Afraid Of In the Woods. Even the first peaceful stanza is full of unknowable, strange creatures doing unknowable, strange things. And they get significantly less peaceful when they return in the second stanza, because not all the evil has been banished.
- How does the nonsense-verse impact your sense of the “natural” in this poem?
- Is the outside (i.e., non-human) world in this poem a friendly place? Why or why not?
- From beginning to end, how does “Jabberwocky” construct nature?
- How is Wonderland similar to our land?
“Jabberwocky” is an example of man’s desire to conquer nature.
The fantastic setting of the poem exploits both our fear of, and curiosity about, the unknown natural world.