“What is a Boojum?”: A Response to the Writings of Lewis Carroll

Another response for Victorian Mind, this time on Lewis Carroll’s influential children’s tale–which turns out to be not-so-childish after all.  All citations are pulled from the Norton Critical Anthology edited by Donald J. Gray.

In The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin argued that the seemingly “contented face of nature” was mere dissimulation; everything that lived and breathed was in fact at war and struggling for its very existence.  Written within a decade of the publication of Origin, Charles Dodgson’s Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark expose an inner world of humanity that is as anarchic as the external world of nature.  Though imagined by a relatively innocent girl, Alice’s Wonderland is a disorienting place full of mad hatters and hares, mercurial monarchs, and indescribably terrifying monsters.  Alice ultimately escapes the dream world, but she can no more understand the nonsense awake than asleep.  By concluding the stories with Alice’s unanswerable query, “Which dreamed it?” Lewis Carroll leaves his readers with the suggestion of permanent confusion in both the inner and outer worlds of existence.

Although Alice objects to the Cat’s suggestion that she shares his madness, there is overwhelming evidence that Alice is not only a participant in, but the originator of the insanity.  As Alice begins to scold herself for crying at the bottom of the rabbit-hole, Carroll explains, “this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people.”[1] In fact, Alice willingly considers the possibility that she has become Mabel or Ada during her fall down the rabbit-hole.[2] While Alice is initially satisfied with her own explanations of the transformation, she is deeply confused when another identity is imposed on her.  Alice cannot even suggest to the Caterpillar that she has another name, because she “must have been changed several times” since the morning.[3] Here Alice does not claim to have effected the change by eating or drinking various things.  Instead, she says she has been passively transformed by Wonderland against her will and finds “being so many different sizes in a day…very confusing.”[4]

“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad”

When Alice encounters the petrified Pigeon shortly after her conversation with the Caterpillar, she has difficulty answering even what she is, let alone who, and must face the Pigeon’s accusations that she is not a little girl at all, but a serpent.[5] The Unicorn later calls her a “fabulous monster” and Alice gives the inhabitants of Wonderland little reason to believe that she is not a threat to them. [6] She alarms the mouse and birds with her talk of the carnivorous Dinah,[7] summons the crow that scares off the Tweedles by merely thinking of it,[8] and savagely cuts into the animated pudding at the banquet in order to satisfy her own appetite.[9] The reader begins to wonder if Alice perhaps shares the Jabberwock’s “jaws that bite” and “claws that catch.”[10] Might she turn out to be not Alice at all, but one of the mysterious, cunning, unseen Boojums of Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark?

Who can say when a Boojum, like so many other creatures in Wonderland, eludes description?  It seems impossible for Alice to assert that she is a girl, not a Jabberwock or Boojum, in a world untethered from the order established by language and definition.[11] As a result, Alice cannot escape the dream world by finally explaining and identifying herself.  Alice must instead create more anarchy, much like she must walk the opposite direction to arrive at her destination earlier in the story.[12] Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland concludes with the explosion, and subsequent mess, of a deck of cards and her final action in Through the Looking Glass is to overturn the banquet table.  And the anarchy persists in the waking world.  Alice cannot determine “which dreamed it,” herself or the Red King, and Carroll offers no assistance.  He concludes with ambiguity, leaving the reader to puzzle out a more orderly world for him or herself, provided that he or she can so much as answer his enduring question, “Who am I?”

[1] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Donald J. Gray (New York: Norton & Company, 1992), 12.

[2] Ibid., 15.

[3] Ibid., 35. Emphasis added.

[4] Ibid., 35.

[5] Ibid., 43.

[6] Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, 175.

[7] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures, 26.

[8] Carroll, Looking Glass, 148.

[9] Ibid., 200.

[10] Ibid., 118; I am drawing on Nina Auerbach’s and Roger Henkle’s suggestions that the “curious child” can be a very cruel and sinister one as well.

[11] Ibid., 163.

[12] Ibid., 124.


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