Language, Nonsense, and Wonderland

The second of today’s guest entries from Rebekah Fitzsimmons’s “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” course comes from Brittany Fining, who examines the importance of language in Carrol’s classic tale.

By Brittany Fining

In “The Language of Nonsense in Alice, by Jacqueline Flescher, nonsense is said to bear the brand of paradox – “the two terms of the paradox [being] order and disorder” (Flescher 128). She determines that nonsense must be upheld by a foundation of a intentionally structured form, that nonsense cannot be considered such standing alone, but only when distinguished by its departure from the original foundation of order it had been built upon. Though there are ways nonsense can be systematized, two in particular that Flescher notes, the above notion seems to predominantly ring true. I find this extremely interesting, as the method of defining the meaning of nonsense seems synonymous to defining meaning in language.

Language only has meaning in the context of a pre-existing structure of rules and agreements. Literary language can be considered utterance, because it is not occurring within a “real” life context to give it a foundation. Thus, it is given meaning through its relationship to other words within the system of the text, not from some inherent force.

To look at a really basic example, pronouns used in daily conversation are given meaning due to the context and environment of said conversation. Pronouns in written literary language, such as a poem, are only given meaning due to their relationship with other words in the text, and sometimes not at all. Let us look at an example:


In this poem, the author, Shel Silverstein, addresses, “you.” Is “you” the individual reader? A specific other person? The larger audience? There is no way to know whom exactly “you” is addressing, because the meaning of this word is not inherent. We can only assume what “you” can be in that it clearly is not “he,” “she,” “it,” “I,” etc.

Homophones provide another example. In conversation, the words “cell” and “sell” sound the same, and one perceives the word’s meaning through the context of the conversation without ever thinking of which spelling is implied. Without a context though, these two words would both just be utterances, with no inherent meaning attached to either spelling – the words only mean something because we have prescribed a meaning to them through context and intertextuality.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice seems to be walking through a world of nonsense. However, her perception of the characters and events that surround her throughout the story are mediated by the “norm” that her entire existence to date had been built upon. For example, Alice encounters an interesting series of events during the Knave’s court proceedings, as he was accused of stealing the Queen’s tarts. One of these events occurs when the Queen orders to jury to hold off on delivering the verdict until a sentence has been decided upon. Alice declares this to be nonsense, not because it is entirely illogical, but because it is the opposite of the way that she has learned that a trial should develop.

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The other characters, too, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland struggle with encounters with nonsense when they meet Alice, and they respond to them in much the same way that Alice does. On one occasion, Alice grows so tall that a Pigeon refuses to believe that she is a young girl. Due to her long neck and her penchant for eating eggs, the Pigeon decides that she must surely be a serpent, as it has never seen or heard of a young girl that eats eggs or has such a long neck. Unable to explain away her long neck, Alice focuses on the egg eating and tries to explain to the Pigeon that all little girls eat eggs. As a pigeon, whose experience has taught it that pigeon eggs must be protected from being eaten by serpents, the Pigeon decides that all little girls must then be a type of serpent. This clearly does not describe an absolute truth but what the Pigeon has learned is norm due to its experiences.

Alice recognizes Wonderland as “nonsense,” because she knows that it is not sense, or what she has learned that sense is. Norms are not inherent, just as meaning in language is not inherent. These are perceived through context, environment, intertextuality, a pre-determined set of codes and conventions and conditioning. Language in itself is essentially nonsense, maybe even more nonsensical than the Wonderland that Dodgson creates.

Brittany is an undergraduate at the University of Florida.

Categories: Critical Conversations, Undergraduate Guest Posts

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