10/3 – Why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows

1. “The primary tool of the system is psychic numbing…The mechanisms of psychic numbing include: denial, avoidance, routinization, justification, objectification, deindividualization, dichotomization, rationalization, and dissociation” (Anthology 616).

I found Melanie Joy’s description of psychic numbing to be very relatable. In fact, it perfectly describes what I often feel (and felt even more so as a child) when I eat meat. I use to not eat eggs because whenever I would eat them, I couldn’t stop thinking about baby chicks, and I’d feel sick. Now, I like eggs, but I still eat them very quickly, and I try not to think too much about it. I struggle even more when eating anything with bones. They inhibit my ability to “dissociate” and “deny” that I’m eating a once living, breathing animal. I remember going to Pluckers for the first time a few weeks ago. I was with a huge group, and since everyone else ordered wings, I decided to go ahead and try them. I got the regular wings with bones, but when they came, I could only eat the very outside of the meat. Once my teeth hit bone or I saw the bone, I was done with that wing. I couldn’t finish them. My friend got upset that I was leaving so much meat on the bone, and I agreed with him. I didn’t feel loving or in tune with the world. I felt like a wasteful pansy.

2. “Cruelty is often more disturbing than killing” (Anthology 617).

I don’t believe that I’ve heard this idea before (or at least phrased like this), but I think it’s incredibly accurate. After reading this line, I wondered why I find cruelty more disturbing, and I think it’s because while death remains an inevitable part of life, the intentional infliction of pain as a byproduct of cruelty is avoidable. In certain situations, killing becomes a necessary means of survival. But exhibiting cruelty? I don’t see how that would ever be necessary to one’s survival.

3. “Dogs are neither wild animals nor livestock. … Everyone all over the world must act now” (Anthology 622).

Joy includes this blog post from a member of the ASPCA concerning the consumption of dogs in South Korea. I was horrified when reading this chapter. I couldn’t imagine dogs, man’s best friend, being abused, stuffed in cages, and skinned. I was repulsed beyond measure. However, I think Joy’s inclusion of this section causes us to question why don’t we feel a similar repulsion towards the killing and consumption of cows, pigs, chickens, etc… Sure, “dogs are neither wild animals nor livestock,” but who made cows livestock? We did. Humans decided to label certain animals as livestock, thus justifying their classification as “food.” We freak out over abused cats and dogs, but we disregard abused cattle and chickens simply because of our learned emotions (or lack thereof) towards them.

Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 12.24.13 PM
Boy with “livestock.”
Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 12.25.48 PM
Boy with dog.

It all comes down to how we perceive them. Dichotomization – Who do we deem worthy of our compassion?

4. “He concluded that obedience to authority overrides one’s conscience” (Anthology 626).

I think there’s a lot of truth to this, but I wonder if such obedience derives from a belief in the authority’s honorable power or fear of potential consequences.

5. “I won’t eat something that is raw or half raw. … The sight of blood — I don’t like blood, so I sure won’t want it running out of my food when I’m eating it…It’s not healthy” (Anthology 628).

I, too, dislike rare meat. I always ask for my hamburgers well-done. I have no illusions, though, as to why I do it. It’s not for any false health reasons; it’s because blood reminds me all too well that I’m eating something that was once alive, that had blood – just like me.

6. “Why must the system go to such lengths to keep itself intact? The answer is simple. Because we care about animals, and we care about the truth” (Anthology 637).

After reading Joy’s argument, it seems as if those in the carnistic system are fighting against their inherent nature of compassion and union with other living creatures. Must we constantly convince ourselves that eating meat is normal, natural, and necessary because not eating meat is actually more in line with our innermost being?

Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 1.25.25 PMst_francis_animals

Girl: “I don’t like that farmers chop people up.”
Father: “They don’t chop people up.”
Girl: “I don’t like that they chop animal-people up.” (Youtube video 1:15).

I was struck by the little girl’s connection between people and chickens cows, and pigs. To her, both humans and animals occupy the same level of worth. In her mind, just as farmers shouldn’t kill humans, they shouldn’t kill animals. This makes sense. After all, it wasn’t until I learned that humans have more advanced intellectual capabilities than animals that I began to see humans as superior.


1. “Alice was the next target of the rebellion: ‘the soup ladle was walking up the table towards Alice’s chair’ … Finally, Alice ‘can’t stand this any longer!’ so she jumps up and seizes ‘the table-cloth with both hands: one good pull, and plates, dishes, guests, and candles came crashing down together in a heap on the floor,’ ending not only the mutiny but the stories of Wonderland and the Looking-Glass creatures” (Anthology 314).

I never considered it this way, but the final line of this passage reveals how Alice’s dramatic display of authority ends the entire Alice series. Perhaps, this final scene provides subtle indications as to why Alice left Wonderland. In her previous refusal to abide by the rules of etiquette between humans and food (she cuts the pudding AA 262), Alice demonstrates a sense of dominance over food and a disregard of Wonderland’s mores.
In upheaving the food dishes and guests, Alice further presents herself as more powerful than the other Wonderland creatures. One could contend that her display of superiority represents her departure from the inherent kindness of a child to the learned power complex of an adult. Thus, when she declares, “I can’t stand this any longer!,” Alice is referring to both the chaotic mutiny and her stay in this imagined world. Filled with pride, she is no longer able to remain in the harmonious world of Wonderland, a fabrication of childhood innocence and equality.

2. “In 1859 The Origin of Species proved to many Victorians that the lineage of all living beings could be traced back to common ancestors, demonstrating that animals are indeed our ‘kindred’: members, like us, of the ‘household’ we now call the world ecosystem” (Anthology 315-16).

I really liked this extension of the conventional idea of a “family” to include the entire ecosystem. In my experience, it feels quite natural to love my immediate family (animals included), but it becomes increasingly harder when I consider strangers or people who I don’t instantly identify with. But Darwin is right — under the definition of a “family” as those descended from a common ancestor, both animals and humans constitute a family. If we want to get theological, one could even argue that the entire world – plants, water, creatures – comprise a family, originating from a single creator (i.e. God).

My nephew, Skunk!  It's pretty crazy how much I love him, and he's not even mine.
My nephew, Skunk!
It’s pretty crazy how much I love him, and he’s not even mine.

3. “If one Alice is loving, the other is afraid” (Anthology 317).

How incredibly, horribly true of all humans! Just as Alice’s love subsides when her fear rises, humans, myself included, often turn to anger and cruelty when we become fearful. I suppose it’s a biological reaction for self-preservation, but it’s a terrible reality in today’s world because not only threats to our survival instigate fear but also threats to our pride and physical comfort.

4. “Of course ‘love,’ as vague a term as it is in English, is still a popular term for one set of emotions” (Biophilia and Ethics 60).

As my vocabulary of the English language has expanded in recent years, I’ve become increasingly disappointed with the limited availability of words that indicate “love.” We can use it flippantly – “I love Oreos – or in complete seriousness – “I love my mother.” I desperately wish English offered a greater variety of words to express the different forms of love which exist. I’m by no means an expert in Spanish, but after taking it for 5 years, I’ve come to understand the different ways of saying “I love you,” two of which are “te quiero” and “te amo.” “Te quiero” often signifies a more informal “love,” almost signifying “I like you,” while “te amo” is reserved for sincere love for partners and family. This reminds me of Jenna’s link to the website where people create new words for existing states of emotions.

5. “A reader may wonder: if I could free myself momentarily from the net of language, would I feel as free as a child who need not obey the dictates of civilizations and its irrational fears?” (Biophilia and Ethics 63).

While reading, I was struck by the significance of the phrase, “net of language,” which the author uses four times. In our world, language is a two-faced Janus – both enabling and restricting our ability to express ourselves. Of course, in Alice Carroll finds a loophole: creating new words.

Moreover, I think one can extend this idea to humans’ sense of sight. Just as language can inhibit individuals’ ability to convey their true emotions/ideas, sight can prevent them from seeing the world without prejudice and aesthetic judgments.

One of my favorite Youtubers is TommyEdisonXP,  a blind man, who discusses the pros, cons, and all-around realities of being blind. In one clip he says, “You know what’s cool about being blind? There’s no race. I don’t know from beauty. I know people from what comes out of their mouth and what’s in their heart.”

For 10/22 Fabulous Histories Part 2

1. “‘Well,’ he said, ‘I will come, too. But let me advise you not to pay too much heed to their fears, — that will only make matters worse’” (Anthology 794).

When I first read this, I thought the father robin was being a bit harsh in suggesting that the mother not seriously consider her children’s fears. However, after some consideration, I do realize the truth of his words. I remember that as a child the severity of my fears/sadness/pain often correlated with the amount of concern my mother gave me. If she was there to dote upon me, I completely gave in to whatever anxiety I was feeling. However, if I was alone, there was an inherent sense of apathy that arose, as I merely got up and moved on with the day.

This reminds me of a video I once saw, where a kid only cries in front of his mother. Must see:

2. “Though they are good to a great many birds, I am sure that they like us best” (Anthology 798).

I thought this was a bit presumptuous of the father – to presume that the humans liked them best. However, I guess it’s a common narrative strategy to distinguish your main characters as different from the others.

3. “The old bird, finding that Dicky would not venture to fly, went round him while Dicky was not looking. He waited till the little bird had once more spread his wings, and then came suddenly up behind and pushed him off the branch” (Anthology 802).

While I was initially put off by the father’s actions, I realized that he did the right wrong (at least, that’s how I interpret it). If I was on some sort of cliff and I to jump off in order to ensure my survival, I would be grateful that someone else had the courage to push me if I could not do it. However, at the same time, some encouragement by the father would’ve gone a long way in helping poor Dicky.

cliff jumping

4. “They will be all the better friends for being sometimes apart” (Anthology 806).

The father’s remark appears similar to the common testament that many siblings become better friends after one leaves for college. Living in close quarters with others can often spark battles for territory and control. Once these issues no longer pose a problem, many are able to better appreciate their siblings. For my sister and me, this wasn’t entirely true. We bonded early on over TV shows, so her departure for college actually put a strain on our relationship.

5. “See that new-fledged wren; it only left the nest yesterday, and yet how bravely it skims along! Do not let it be said that a redbreast lies groveling on the earth, afraid to fly, while a little baby wren soars above him” (Anthology 808-9).

Another tactic for encouragement: comparison. Personally, I really dislike comparing as a measurement for worth because I’m often disheartened, not inspired, by it. Unfortunately, most of the world runs on comparison. Most things are judged as relative to one another: one is rewarded for surpassing “the average.”

It’s interesting to note that the father’s words do achieve their intended result: Dicky flies to the next. However, Dicky does so after “he felt ashamed of himself” (809).

6. “I quite dread the day when I must take care of myself, and never go back to the nest again” (Anthology 821).

Pecksy’s fear of the future reminded me of the final page in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, when her older sister nostalgically considers the loss of childhood imagination and wonder. In Pecksy’s case, it is carefree irresponsibility that she does not want to lose. Leaving “the nest” represents a sad, yet essential, step in personal development for both human and avian children. In the Wikipedia entry, it mentions that Trimmer agreed that “children should not be forced to become adults too early,” but Pecksy’s commentary serves as a slight nudge of what is to come (738).

For 10/20 Fabulous History Part 1

1. “Trimmer’s textual conversations, Fyfe notes, were ‘controlled by the parent’” (Anthology 739).

The Wikipedia entry comments that Trimmer’s works emphasized hierarchy in concordance with social standing and age. In contrast to parental authority, the power of a child prevails in Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The fact that Trimmer apparently solidifies the command of parents in her books causes me to seriously consider the adult role, or lack thereof, in Alice. Alice’s parents never appear, and even the adults in Wonderland do not present themselves as parental figures. The most notable “parent” in Alice is the Duchess who does a truly horrible job of caring for her baby. I cannot say that I know without a doubt what Carroll’s true intention was when writing Alice (other than appeasing little Liddell), but I’m fairly confident that it wasn’t to maintain the status quo between parents and children.

2. “One of the reasons Trimmer believed fairy tales were dangerous was because they led child readers into a fantasy world where adults could not follow and control their exposure to harmful experiences” (Anthology 742).

This passage made me laugh because Alice is a fictional representation of her fear – a young girl enters a fantastical world without adult guidance and proceeds to follow her curiosity wherever it may lead her. In many ways, Trimmer seems like the opposite of Carroll, for she disliked “scenes of death” (Carroll has a murderous queen) and “characters who were insane” (Carroll has the mad Hatter). I’m excited to explore how her work may connect with Carroll’s.

Alice enters Wonderland alone
Alice enters Wonderland alone

3. “‘We shall enjoy ourselves very much while we bring up our little family,’ said he; ‘But I dare say it will be a great deal of trouble. I would do it all myself I could, but you see I cannot, do what I will, work hard enough to supply all our nestlings with enough to eat. So you must help too’” (Anthology 756-7)

Wikipedia was right! By the end of the second page, Trimmer’s text already seems to be “question[ing] … [the ideologies] surrounding gender and the family,” for the father bird, the supreme provider of the family during the 18th century, concedes that he cannot take care of their multiple children without the mother’s aid (737). In fact, the mother needs to leave the home to find sustenance for the children, as well.

4. “‘Come, my dears,’ he said, ‘let us see what kind of nurse I can make; but an awkward one, I fear’” (Anthology 763).

Trimmer continues to challenge the traditional perceptions of gender roles in the family, as the father bird willingly acts as a “nurse” to his young chicks, while the mother leaves to gather more food. However, I wonder if Trimmer could have reproduced the same actions in a human setting, where a man took care of the children’s basic needs. I think it would be easier for an 18th century reader to accept a male bird, distanced from the human form, as a “nurse” than to accept a human man as a care taker, for he would most likely delegate such duties to a nanny or female servant.

It's quite difficult to find 18th century images with a man holding a baby.
It’s quite difficult to find 18th century images with a man holding a baby.

5. “‘I once had a trouble of the same kind before I married you,’ said the father robin” (Anthology 785).

I was a bit puzzled after I read this line about the robin father being previously married. After all, Trimmer explicitly distinguishes the differences between real life and this “series of Fables,” as she says it in the prologue (745). If she wanted child readers to view the story as particularly fictional, why would she attribute such a humanistic word as “married” to mated animals? Did her desire to promote the teachings of the Church of England (i.e. children within wedlock) supersede her motivation to distinguish animals from humans? I believe so, for the story tells us that the father’s previous “wife” died – one of the few church-approved reasons to remarry.

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 8.15.33 AM

6. “‘Oh, why will men and boys be so cruel and thoughtless?’” (Anthology 791).

Trimmer seems to be singling out men here. Another example of her slightly feminist attitude, perhaps?

Natalie Frank – The Frog Prince

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 2.10.30 PM

Natalie Frank
The Frog King, Or Iron Heinrich I, 2011-14
Gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper

Immediately after choosing my piece, I read the Grimm’s tale, “The Frog Prince,” which told of a beautiful young princess who bartered with a frog to retrieve her golden ball that fell into a well. Though she detests the slimy frog, the princess keeps her end of the promise (i.e. keeping the frog as a companion) primarily due to her father’s insistence. In the end, the princess angrily throws the frog against a wall, the frog turns into a prince, and the two get married. Reasonable, right?

Even after reading the story, it took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust and recognize the illustrated components of the tale in Frank’s artwork. But soon, I identified the girl on the left as the princess, and the golden spheres in the air and in the water as her ball. The image in the middle, of course, is the frog/prince.

When I first approached Frank’s painting, it was this two-faced image of a man’s face with a long tongue next to a round-eyed creature that caught my attention. The frog prince is not only the heart of the story but also of Frank’s work. The expression within the man’s deep blue eyes and the softer rounded eye of the frog speaks volumes. In a podcast available at the museum, Frank said, “For me, eyes are a way for the reader, the viewer, to enter the stories and the picture very concretely – and because the world of the Grimm’s is so chaotic and fantastic, it’s a way to keep normality … eyes are this portal that calms the picture down.”

I fully agree with her commentary. Even if the bright blue of the water or the multi-colored sky initially consumed a viewer’s attention, his or her gaze would eventually find the central, calming eyes of the frog prince. The eyes do serve as a portal into the story of the painting. Even though the fairytale has no mention of the frog or prince crying, Frank distinctly depicts tears falling from their eyes. After being cursed by a witch and abused by a child, their sadness is justified. We can enter the image from their point of view – from the bank, the frog watches a blond girl toss her golden ball into the air, and when it falls into the water, the naked prince, trapped in his animal from, dives into the water to retrieve it.

Just as in Alice, animals play a significant role in Frank’s painting and the Grimm’s tale. However, I’m immensely happy to say that unlike the blonde princess, our Alice does not verbally degrade animals with vicious words or trick them for her own benefit. Even though she kicks poor Bill, I don’t think someone could mimic Frank’s work by replacing the frog prince with Bill the lizard and the young princess with Alice – at least, not with the same effect. Alice’s treatment of animals doesn’t hold the same malice as the young princess’s. Frank’s portrayal of the princess’s face even appears slightly grotesque (with her pointed teeth), subtly hinting at her true nature.

Overall, I thought Frank created a mysterious world of color and magic that provides deeper insight into the written story with its unique presentation of the frog prince and princess.

For 10/15

1) “It is remarkable, too, that in this country animal rights protests are usually made up of whites, with little representation from Asians, Hispanics, or African Americans. It seems that to some extent prosperity and material comfort release energies that people turn to animal welfare, and sometimes, animal activism” (Anthology 861).

How true is this? I must admit that I know many white, older women who spend an excessive amount of money and time on their pets (for hospital bills, animal comforts, etc…).
What does this mean in terms of our priorities? Is it admirable that my aunt paid for a dog whisperer to calm down her schizophrenic dog (I’m not joking – it chases and bites imaginary rodents) instead of giving that money to a disaster relief agency or a homeless shelter? If I’m being honest, I love that my aunt cares so much for her dog – to me, it shows how incredibly compassionate and loving she is.
But, at the same time, shouldn’t we take care of other humans first? Is that flawed thinking? Maybe it is. Maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps, we just have to do the best we can to love those around us – both humans and animals.

2) “Animal extremists are idealists turned revolutionaries … their intense idealism has found a constituency—innocent animals—that is above reproach and will never disappoint their dream of a better world” (Anthology 862).

I was shocked by the potential truth of this passage. I never considered animal extremists in this light before, but it certainly makes sense. For someone to develop extremist passions for a subject/theme/belief, such a subject must maintain a sense of infallibility in order to justify and even encourage their actions. Animals, who aren’t cruel, greedy, or manipulative, thus serve as ideal subjects for some extremists.

Do we glorify our animals? If so, don't they sort of deserve it?
Do we glorify our animals? If so, don’t they sort of deserve it?

3) The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights: “Don’t dissect. If you are a student, refuse to dissect” (Anthology 612).

Wow, this elicited a flashback to 10th grade when I dissected a frog in Biology class. In reading all about animal testing and research, I never once thought of my frog dissection as questionably moral. During the dissection, I learned a lot about a frog’s anatomy, and though I have no immediate plans to enter the medical profession, I would assume the young doctors in my class significantly benefited from the dissection. Nevertheless, as I look back on that time, I can’t recall if my teacher said where the frogs originated. Were they gathered and killed only to be sold to schools? Did they die of old age? I have no idea. Of course, I hope it was the latter, but I wish I had been more cautious and questioning.

4) Batty Rap: “And exercise a little prudence, When dealing with humans, *people talking* Phone call Mr. Darwin All the graduate students please move closer…scapel, more nitrous oxide” (Anthology 851).

I’ve never heard of Ferngully before, but I just had to figure out how this song came about. I listened to Robin Williams’ delivery of the song, and it’s actually much more frightening to hear it than just read the lyrics. Over the “*people talking*,” lullaby-like music plays, giving a stark juxtaposition to the grotesque dissection being verbalized and the sweetness of the tinkling music. Young children probably find the song catchy and entertaining, but adults would certainly be aware of its deeper issues, startlingly portrayed in a light-hearted way.

For 10/13

1) “7. That the evil charged against vivisection consists chiefly in the pain inflicted on the animal.
I maintain, on the contrary, that it consists chiefly in the effect produced on the operator.” (Anthology 353).

Carroll’s commentary on the seventh fallacy of vivisection greatly moved me. I felt as if he were saying, Even if we set aside the rights of an animal for moment, is not the resulting precarious state of our inherent morality and soul enough cause for concern? He brilliantly appeals to one of humanity’s most basic instincts: self-preservation. In this case, the self-preservation of one’s soul.

2) “Is the anatomist, who can contemplate unmoved the agonies he is inflicting for no higher purpose than to gratify a scientific curiosity, or to illustrate some well-established truth, a being higher or lower, in the scale of humanity, than the ignorant boor whose very soul would sicken at the horrid sight?” (Anthology 358).

Carroll’s rhetorical question (which answers itself) vividly illustrates that education does not always correspond with morality. As a liberal arts kid, I hope my education does augment my morality and sympathy for suffering. Even if reading heart wrenching immigration tales and first hand accounts of minority subjugation hasn’t forced me to contemplate my own ethical compass, I know that this class will.

How has our education affected our soul?
How has our education affected our soul?

3) “[A]nd when the man of science, looking forth over a world which will then own no other sway than his, shall exult in the thought that he as made of this fair green earth, if not a heaven for man, at least a hell for animals” (AA 360).

The emotional power of these lines cannot be overstated. Carroll’s final juxtaposition between heaven and hell strongly reminded me of a quote by Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.” Is humanity so consumed with asserting its dominance, with “reigning,” that we’ve created a hell for other creatures? It’s incredibly disheartening to think that we can’t coexist on “this fair green earth” without subjugating another for our own benefit.

4) “Animal suffering, once dismissed as an unavoidable certainty, inspired public sympathy” (Anthology 370).

I’m grateful that animal suffering shifted from a disregarded subject to a public travesty. I think sympathizing with the pain of animals represents an essential component to the development and preservation of our morality. In caring for other creatures, we can expand the realm of our benevolence and confirm the inherent decency of our souls. Additionally, animal sympathy has become a medium of connection for many people who’ve bonded over their extraordinary love for animals. If you need assurance of this fact (though I’m sure we don’t), try listening to this tale of a police officer and his dog without tearing up at least a little:

Cops Don’t Cry

Little Griff and Big Steve
Steve and Griff

5) “If medical students had identified the [antivivisectionism] movement with women, people were now beginning to see it as a working-class issue” (Anthology 849).

This passage from Lansbury’s account of “Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England” serves as evidence for Carroll’s claim that the most educated among us are not always the ones with the greatest morality. In Edwardian England, the women and working class, not the educated students, recognized and opposed the brutality of vivisection.

Lewis Carroll: Project 1

Lauren Hanks

Lewis Carroll

Professor Jerome Bump

October 8, 2015

The Humor of Lewis Carroll: Did He Just Say That?

Inspiring Interest

I must reluctantly admit that the character of Alice always scared me as child. Though I have since discovered her admirable bravery and wonderful imagination, my fear of her character affected my initial reading of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I continually sought out her flaws, perhaps in a half-hearted attempt at justifying my unfavorable stance towards her. Thus, when Alice, trapped in the White Rabbit’s house, kicks the Bill the lizard out of the chimney, I decried the brutality of her act. It was only after the fact that I realized Lewis Carroll intended for this moment to elicit amusement from his young audience, not outrage. Upon this discovery, I began to notice that Carroll’s moments of humor often emerge through casual cruelty. In discussing the topic, Professor Bump also suggested that such references were not confined to his fictional work but appeared in his private correspondence, as well. Thoroughly intrigued, I set off to find evidence of dark humor in Carroll’s personal and professional life.

At the Harry Ransom Center

Following up on Professor Bump recommendation, I visited the Harry Ransom Center in search of Lewis Carroll’s personal letters. While the Byron Sewell collection offers an extensive number of handwritten letters by Carrollians, I found a compilation of letters by Carroll, himself, in the Warren Weaver collection. While his writing gave ample insight into his character and unique style of comedy, I was elated to find a single letter by his father, the content of which clarified, to a great degree, the potential origin of Carroll’s comedic style. My research at the HRC set the stage for my analysis of his unique wit.


Published in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s renowned work, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, represents one of the most majestic and thought-provoking novels for children. The story’s pure originality develops in a myriad of elements, from its fantastical implementation of mathematics and logic to its particular brand of humor. Though Carroll’s humor often derives from an excessive display of nonsense – the backbone of Alice’s tale, it occasionally manifests a degree of sadism. Such dark humor does not merely appear in Wonderland but also arises in Charles Dodgson’s personal letters throughout his life. In considering Carroll’s private application of dark wit, along with its appearance in Alice, one may contend that Carroll accompanies humor with pain and death to mitigate the gloomy notion of our inevitable mortality for children.

Personal Letters

Before delving into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it’s important to note how casual cruelty plays a role in Dodgson’s personal letters. The Harry Ransom center provides a thorough compilation of his private correspondence in its Warren Weaver collection. Though often given without extensive context, the documents provide insight into Dodgson’s propensity for dark humor. In fact, within his family, such a propensity does not solely reside with him but may originate from his father, the Reverend Charles Dodgson. In January of 1840, Dodgson senior, while away from home, received a note of request from his 8-year-old son to bring him back a file, screwdriver, and ring. In answering his letter, Reverend Dodgson assures young Charles that his wish will be fulfilled:

As soon as I get to Leeds I shall scream out in the middle of the street, Ironmongers, Ironmongers… I WILL have a file and a screw driver, and a ring, and if they are not brought directly, in forty seconds, I will leave nothing but one small cat alive in the whole Town of Leeds, and I shall only leave that, because I am afraid I shall not have time to kill it.[1]

The father goes on to describe how, until such items are brought, chaos will reign with “tearing of hair” and “fat geese trying to squeeze themselves into pencil cases.” While his outlandish prose gives insight into the origins of Carroll’s nonsensical writings, it also possesses quite a few witty allusions to sadistic behavior. For instance, Dodgson senior threatens to destroy the entire town if his demands go unmet. The violence appears particularly brutal as three small trifles serve as “sufficient” instigation for such destruction. Moreover, disregarding linguistic subtly, Dodgson declares that only a single cat will remain, simply because he has no time “to kill it.” While the Reverend is, of course, joking with hyperbolic depravity, the fact remains that he’s writing to his son, only 8 years old at the time. By referencing death in jest, he lightens the preconceived severity it may hold in the eyes of a young boy, employing comedy as an outlet for fear.

Perhaps in the footsteps of his father, Dodgson junior also includes elements of death and pain in his humor, evidenced by his letters to children, such as Hallam Tennyson and Agnes Hughes. In January of 1862, Hallam, a young friend of Dodgson’s and an occasional subject of his photography, received a letter from him in reference to a knife Dodgson gave him as a present:

I am glad you liked the knife…perhaps you have begun to use it by this time: if you were allowed to cut your finger with it, once a week, just a little, you know, till it began to bleed, and a good deep cut every birthday, I should think that would be enough.[2]

The relationship between Hallam and Dodgson must have been quite well founded for his suggestions to come across as funny, rather than perverse. Dodgson’s sarcasm may derive from the reality that he will accidently cut himself at some point, and by directly suggesting he do so repeatedly, he prepares him for the inevitable, albeit much less extreme, occurrence. Beyond their sarcastic nature, Dodgson’s words allude to the eventual acceptance of pain, almost as an unavoidable part of life. Curiously, he ends his proposition with “that would be enough.” However, his lack of explanation stimulates many questions: It would be enough for what? Enough to recognize the dangers of a knife? To learn the reality of pain? His true meaning, as it often does, remains a mystery.

Hallam Tennyson photographed by Charles Dodgson
Hallam Tennyson photographed by Charles Dodgson


In addition to the encouragement of self-harm, the product of dark wit appears in another letter by Dodgson to a young girl by the name of Agnes Hughes. In 1871, he wrote to her of a fantastical incident in which three cats knocked on his door:

Why, they were three cats! Wasn’t it curious? However, they all looked so cross and disagreeable that I took up the first thing I could lay my hand on (which happened to be the rolling-pin) and knocked them all down as flat as pancakes! “If you come knocking at my door,” I said, “I shall come knocking at your heads.” That was fair, wasn’t it?[4]

In contrast to his commentary on Hallam’s knife, Dodgson begins this tale apropos of nothing but for the ostensible purpose of entertaining young Agnes. For Dodgson, the curious appearance of three cats and their hasty destruction into pancakes serve as viable material for children humor. Ultimately, the complete absurdity of the incident supersedes the indifferent brutality of his actions. The rhetorical question at the end of his account, “That was fair, wasn’t it?,” further solidifies the content as sarcastic. Nevertheless, readers should consider his motivation behind writing such a savage account. As later letters reveal, the three cats do indeed survive.[5] Thus, perhaps Dodgson employs animal cruelty in conjunction with humor to alleviate the gravity of suffering and death, for despite their terrible odds, the cats live to see another day.

Agnus Hughes photographed by Charles Dodgson
Agnes Hughes photographed by Charles Dodgson


Fictional Work

While Dodgson employs sadistic wit in his letters to young children, his alter persona, Lewis Carroll, does the same, but with a much wider audience, in his brilliant tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One manifestation of Carroll’s unique humor emerges from the Duchess’s lullaby. During her journey, Alice enters the home of a Duchess, where she hears, amidst the clatter of flying pans, the Duchess singing to her baby: “[S]he began nursing her child again, singing a sort of lullaby to it as she did so, and giving it a violent shake at the end of every line: ‘Speak roughly to your little boy, / And beat him when he sneezes: / He only does it to annoy, / Because he knows it teases.’”[7] The verse, a parody of the poem “Speak Gently,” [8] appears alarmingly abusive. Comedic surprise develops from the juxtaposition of the poem’s classification as a “lullaby” (i.e. a soothing song) and its contrastingly disturbing content. Additionally, physical brutality buttresses the poetic assault as the Duchess “violent[ly] shake[s]” her baby throughout her recitation of the verse. While Carroll’s sadistic parody may humorously deride the excessively sweet nature of some Victorian lullabies, the Duchess’s maltreatment of her child by “shak[ing],” “tossing,” and “flinging” him calls into question the severe consequences of her actions.[9] Though death would certainly serve as a potential consequence in the real world for her abuse, Carroll does not kill the child but turns him into a pig, suggesting that the worst outcome of physically abusing an infant would merely be its transformation into an animal. In this episode, Carroll oversteps the strict confines of humans’ mortal limitations, using magic as a loophole.

For many readers, in considering Carroll, humor, and death, the first idea to come to mind would naturally be the Red Queen’s mantra, “Off with their heads!” After all, the Queen’s cry for multiple beheadings represents a primary source of humor due to the contrast between her adamant demands and her total lack of seeing them completed. During her time with the Queen, Alice becomes the victim of her fury, but she refuses to abide by the Queen’s ridiculous orders. Through poignant syntax, Carroll conveys the novel’s view of death:

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at [Alice] for a moment like a wild beast, screamed “Off with her head! Off—”
“Nonsense!” said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.[10]

In interrupting the Queen’s murderous orders with the exclamation, “Nonsense!,” Carroll cleverly surmises the meaning of death throughout Alice’s entire tale: death is nonsense. Alice may experience temporary fear of a white Rabbit, a raving mad Hatter, or a royal procession, but in the face of death, she fearlessly unmasks its true nature[11]. In fact, Carroll may be trying to tell his young readers that fearing death is ultimately nonsensical, for we cannot avoid our mortality. We must simply journey through Wonderland and make the most of our adventures.

Concluding Thoughts

An examination of Lewis Carroll’s personal letters and published novel for children reveal his generous application of dark humor. Perhaps emulating his father, Carroll plays upon the death and suffering of children and animals as a comedic medium. While such prose initially seems perversely sadistic, further consideration suggests that Carroll uses cruel humor to alter a child’s perception of death. Instead of portraying death as a fear-inducing fate, he outwits it, calling it nonsense. Death may serve as the conclusion of all mortals, but children should not dwell upon the severity of the inevitable. They should enjoy life. They should laugh.

Word Count without Quotations: 1,608

[1] Morton Cohen, ed., The Letters of Lewis Carroll Vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 4.

[2] Cohen, The Letters, 53

[3] Charles Dodgson, “Hallam Tennyson,” in Photograph Album 5, Weld Album. (HRC, 1857), 19.

[4] Cohen, The Letters, 160

[5] Cohen, The Letters, 162. After the first night, they never left him.

[6] Charles Dodgson, “Agnes Hughes,” in Photographs Vol III. (HRC, 1859), 65.

[7] Lewis Carroll. The Annotated Alice. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2000), 62

[8] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 62, note 4

[9] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 62

[10] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 82

[11] Carroll, Annotated Alice, (rabbit) 40, (hatter) 67, (procession) 81

Sylvie & Bruno – A Fairytale (?)

Sylvie & Bruno: Chapter 14

1. “[T]o me it looked like the natural action of a lover, who, even while his heart was singing, ‘She is mine!’, would fear to paint his happiness in the cold phrases of a written letter, but would wait to tell it by word of mouth” (Anthology 431).

I was quite surprised when I read this line, for after perusing hundreds of Carroll’s letters at the HRC, I would never have imagined him to say, “the cold phrases of a written letter.” I wonder why he, as an author, would call written words “cold.” Perhaps, despite being a prolific letter writer, Dodgson still preferred face-to-face conversation to written correspondence.

Screen Shot 2015-10-04 at 4.53.44 PM

2. “He either fears his fate too much, / Or his desert is small, / Who dares not put it to the touch, / To win or lose it all” (Anthology 431).

When I came across this stanza of poetry, I was initially struck by the last line: “To win or lose it all.” A powerful antithesis. However, after considering the passage further, I realized the equal significance of the previous lines.

The narrator alludes to these lines of poetry after Arthur declares that he is not going to ask Lady Muriel if she has another suitor for fear that the answer is yes. In such a context, the first line, “He either fears his fate too much,” is applicable to Arthur’s trepidation for the unknown future. He doesn’t trust fate enough to risk asking a potentially heart-breaking question. However, the second line, “Or his desert is small,” opens many doors of interpretation. The “desert” may symbolize one’s capacity for pain, for we often perceive the desert as an incredibly harsh environment to endure. Thus, Arthur’s capacity for suffering may be too small to handle Lady Muriel’s possible rejection. The third line, “Who dares not put it to the touch,” reminded me of the contemporary phrase, “Put it to the test.” However, I like poem’s version much better, for it suggests the idea that in asking a difficult question, Arthur would be bravely sticking out his hand to touch something potentially dangerous. The last line, of course, cinches it all together: If we overly fear the future, refuse to endure pain, or fail to reach out our hand, we may lose it all. Ultimately, we must become vulnerable if want a chance for love.

This stanza actually comes from a beautiful 17th century poem called “My Dear and Only Love” by James Graham, Marquis of Montrose. I highly recommend it.

3. “In the first place, I want to know – dear Child who reads this! – why Fairies should always be teaching us to do our duty, and lecturing us when we go wrong, and we should never teach them anything?” (Anthology 431-2).

In line with Carroll’s habit of parodying common Victorian children stories and songs in Alice (like “How doth the little busy bee” AA23), here he asks the Child reader to question the practice of blindly accepting the morals of children stories and the ideas they implement. In his usual fashion, Carroll turns conventions of their head, suggesting that perhaps, we, the human reader, may have something to teach the mythical, untouchable creatures of children literature.

4. “[I]t was as much as she could do, with both arms, to roll the heavy thing over; and all the while she was talking to it, half scolding and half comforting, as a nurse might do with a child that had fallen down” (Anthology 433).

This line caught my interest because it reminded me of Alice’s interaction with the black kitten at the start of Through the Looking-Glass: “‘Oh, you wicked wicked little thing!’ cried Alice, catching up the kitten, and giving it a little kiss to make it understand that it was in disgrace” (AA 138). Carroll thus twice (that I can recall) references this dual temperament – “half scolding and half comforting.” I think in both instances, he depicts the ideal, in that we can admonish animals while still showing love for them. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always occur.

Sylvie & Bruno: Chapter 21

5. “‘I’m afraid even ladies go to hunt them, sometimes.’

Sylvie shuddered. ‘Oh, no, not ladies!’ she earnestly pleaded” (Anthology 441).

After reading Alice, with a lizard-kicking, queen-defying, adventure-seeking heroine, I was a little surprised by the dramatic, sexist declaration, “Oh, no, not ladies!,” as if that’s where we draw the line for animal cruelty. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Perhaps it’s a compliment for women, as Carroll sees them as gentle humans who often abstain from such practices as animal hunting.

Screen Shot 2015-10-04 at 5.00.13 PM

The Clandestine Adventures of Alice in Saudi Land

6. “Do you think that Alice seems Saudi to you?” asks book club president, Haifa AlOwain with a mischievous smile. A few hushed moments later, answers morph from a definite “No, she is not at all!” to “Maybe she could be, in certain ways.”

This is so true! The transition these women undergo from complete disassociation with Alice to an unexpected connection reminds me of how I often feel about characters in literature. Initially, it seemed like Alice was this other worldly character unconnected to me, just a young girl who goes on nonsensical adventures. However, in conversing in class and thinking critically for blog posts, I began to find small elements of Alice that reminded me of myself. To me, the heart of an English major is fulfilled in class discussions, when you hear something that grabs your interest and leads you to an observation which, if you share, can lead to someone else’s discovery or newfound understanding. The character of Alice is so complex and almost mysterious. In openly discussing her at book clubs or class discussions, we can learn so much more than we would if we accepted our initial reaction of disassociation.