Throughout Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll weaves miniature stories in the form of poems, songs, and nursery rhymes into Alice’s journey. One of the most nonsensical and memorable of these stories is “Jabberwocky,” featured in Through the Looking Glass, in which the poem is in a “Looking-Glass book” and needs to be held up to a mirror in order to be read. The poem uses made-up words such as “brillig” and “slithy” in order to convey a story about a boy who slays the beastliest beast of them all, thus protecting his family and village. This article will analyze and make sense of the nonsense that is “Jabberwocky,” and Carroll’s reasoning for including the poem in the story.
The most striking aspect of “Jabberwocky” is the words that the poem itself is composed of. Alice is initially bewildered by the story (after, of course, she discovers how to actually read it). In fact, the reader is bewildered as well until a few chapters later when Humpty Dumpty explains almost all of the invented words to Alice. Brillig obviously means four o’clock in the afternoon, and slithy is simply a combination of lithe and slimy. The question remains, why did Carroll use these words? Perhaps he wanted to put the reader in the place of a young child around Alice’s age, where many words are undefined. Especially when children begin to read and speak, they see and hear words that do not make sense to them and they have to figure out the definitions of these words through context or with the help of someone older. Humpty Dumpty acts as the adult figure and explains the meanings of these words to Alice. Through these nonsense words, Carroll seems to be pointing out how arbitrary words and language can be. Another reason for the creation of these words may be simply to enhance the nonsense that already emanates throughout Wonderland. If flowers can speak and unicorns exist, then there is no reason why new words cannot be created as one pleases. All of the rules are already broken in Wonderland, so breaking a few more makes total sense – or, total nonsense. These made-up words also may serve to create an imagery that perhaps Carroll did not feel he could achieve with the normal alphabet. Although the reader initially does not understand the vast majority of “Jabberwocky,” the extremely dissonant words set the scene of the poem. Words such as slithy and vorpal roll off the tongue and give the story a slightly creepy feel. The rhythm and words have an odd flow to them that somehow helps the reader to follow along and understand the story, even if every individual word is not understood.
After Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice (and the reader) what all of the nonsense words mean, the story can be reread and understood. Essentially, a boy is told by his father that he needs to watch out for the Jabberwocky, which is some type of fearsome beast. The boy takes his sword and beheads the monster, and returns home to praise from his father. Initially, this seems like quite a random story to put in the middle of Through the Looking Glass. However, many aspects of the plot of this miniature story are quite relevant to Alice herself. For one, the main character in the poem is a child who faces mystical creatures as well as a challenge that he has to overcome. He is courageous and brave despite any fear he may have. This story closely mirrors Alice’s – she, too, is in a strange world with unusual creatures, and she is constantly dealing with bizarre obstacles that she must overcome. Her confidence in Wonderland can often be described as brave, especially for a young child like herself. Furthermore, the first and last verse of “Jabberwocky” are the exact same:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe (124).
This verse does not actually contain any action, but simply sets the scene of the story. The repetition of the verse points out that, although the boy’s actions were quite heroic, the world still goes on quite similarly to how it did before. Likewise, Alice’s world is unaltered from her adventures in Wonderland. When she awakes from her dream, everything is exactly the same as it had been earlier. So in a way, the story of the Jabberwocky mimics Alice’s situation in Wonderland.
Carroll’s inclusion of “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking Glass serves to further the fantastical and whimsical feel of Wonderland by including even more nonsense. The poem also plays around with words and exhibits the effect on imagery and sound that even made-up words can have. Carroll mixed and mashed up previously existing English words, and some of his new words, such as chortled, have actually been added to our current dictionaries. These words enhance the story of the Jabberwocky, while the story simultaneously mirrors Alice’s own situation in Wonderland.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Bantam Books, 1981.