Professor Jerome Bump
October 8, 2015
The Humor of Lewis Carroll: Did He Just Say That?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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. 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.
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.’” The verse, a parody of the poem “Speak Gently,”  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. 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.
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. 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.
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
 Morton Cohen, ed., The Letters of Lewis Carroll Vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 4.
 Cohen, The Letters, 53
 Charles Dodgson, “Hallam Tennyson,” in Photograph Album 5, Weld Album. (HRC, 1857), 19.
 Cohen, The Letters, 160
 Cohen, The Letters, 162. After the first night, they never left him.
 Charles Dodgson, “Agnes Hughes,” in Photographs Vol III. (HRC, 1859), 65.
 Lewis Carroll. The Annotated Alice. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2000), 62
 Carroll, Annotated Alice, 62, note 4
 Carroll, Annotated Alice, 62
 Carroll, Annotated Alice, 82
 Carroll, Annotated Alice, (rabbit) 40, (hatter) 67, (procession) 81