P2 for Peer Review

Lauren Hanks

Lewis Carroll

Professor Jerome Bump

November 23, 2015


In some areas of my analysis of the two Alice books, I feel like I didn’t do enough close reading. I don’t want to fall into the trap of summarizing rather than analyzing. If there’s a particular area you see that needs more close reading, mention that in the critique. Thanks!

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

“[Alice] drew her foot as far down the chimney as she could, and waited till she heard a little animal … scratching and scrambling about in the chimney close above her: then, saying to herself, ‘This is Bill,’ she gave one sharp kick.”[1] The audacity! When I first read this passage from Lewis Carroll’s novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I was horrified, filled with shock that a sweet, seven-year-old girl would brutally kick a poor lizard out of a chimney. It was only after the fact that I realized Carroll intended for this moment to elicit amusement from his young audience, not outrage. When reading Alice’s tales, one may notice that Carroll’s style of humor frequently adopts a sadistic tone. Interestingly, such dark humor is not confined to his fictional work.

Published in 1865 and 1871, respectively, Carroll’s renowned works, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Look-Glass and What Alice Found There, represent two of the most majestic and thought-provoking novels for children. The stories’ pure originality develops in many ways, from their fantastical application of mathematics and logic to their particular brand of humor. Though Carroll’s humor often derives from an excessive display of nonsense (the backbone of Alice’s tales), 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.

Texts at Harry Ransom Center provide evidence of the role casual cruelty played in Dodgson’s personal correspondence throughout his life. To begin, the HRC offers a thorough compilation of his private letters 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 eight-year-old son for 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.[2]

The father goes on to describe how, until such items are brought, chaos will reign with the “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 includes quite a few references to sadistic behavior. For instance, Dodgson Sr. threatens to destroy the entire town if his demands go unmet. The violence appears particularly brutal, for three small trifles serve as “sufficient” instigation for such destruction. Moreover, Dodgson bluntly declares that 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 eight years old at the time. According to one Carrollian scholar, Cornell Professor Phyllis Greenacre, the father’s letter “burlesques the terrible importance of the child’s wants, so that the whole town shall be torn down before the father will go back empty-handed.”[3] However, it seems remiss to consider Dodgson Sr.’s words as simply a mockery of his son’s requests without considering other implications. In relation to the letter, Greenacre also comments, “It is apparent that Lewis Carroll had a firm foundation of his sense of fantastic fun in the early years.”[4] However, it seems unlikely that Charles’s “sense of fantastic fun” directly correlated to overt violence, as no evidence suggests that Charles Sr. or Charles Jr. viewed violence with enjoyment. Rather, their use of lethal violence in their writings goes beyond “fantastic fun” to something more meaningful. For instance, humor often serves as a common method for coping with life’s more serious issues, death included. Thus, by referencing death in jest, Charles’s father lightens the preconceived severity it maintains in the eyes of a young boy, employing comedy as an outlet for fear.

In the footsteps of his father, Dodgson Jr. also includes allusions to death and pain in his humor, evidenced by his letters to children, such as Hallam Tennyson and Agnes Hughes.

A photograph of Hallam Tennyson by Charles Dodgson



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.[6]

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 Hallam, a rambunctious young boy, will accidently cut himself at some point. Thus, by directly suggesting he do so repeatedly, Dodgson 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 prompts 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, dark wit appears in another letter by Dodgson to a young girl by the name of Agnes Hughes.

A photograph of Agnes Hughes by Charles Dodgson



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?[8]

In contrast to his commentary on Hallam’s knife, Dodgson randomly begins this tale simply for the purpose of entertaining young Agnes. For Dodgson, the curious appearance of three cats and their consequential beating serve as viable material for children’s 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 establishes the sarcastic nature of the content. Another Carrollian scholar even classifies this letter as a “good example of the wild and delightful nonsense with which Lewis Carroll used to amuse his friends.”[9] Nevertheless, readers should consider Dodgson’s motivation behind writing such a savage account. As later letters reveal, the three cats do indeed survive.[10] Under the “umbrella of nonsense,”[11] Dodgson’s words indirectly suggest that if three cats, squished into pancakes, can elude death, then young boys, almost as impervious to damage, shouldn’t worry. Thus, perhaps he incorporates 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.

Before delving into Alice, it’s important to note that Victorian authors for children did not avoid the subject of death as modern writers do. In a poll conducted by the Pall Mall Gazette in July of 1898, the most popular books for children included Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairytales, and Robinson Crusoe.[12] Alice has nothing on Grimm’s tales, of course, which often include dying, deceased, or murdered characters, and in his tale, Robinson Crusoe encounters nations of native cannibals, a good number of whom he kills. Even the pre-Victorian mother of morality, Sarah Trimmer, included death in her didactic tales for children. For instance, in her influential novel, Fabulous Histories (1786), she recounts the demise of a poor mother robin at the cruel hands of young boys.[13] Additionally, in Elementary English, an educational journal for English teachers, scholar Judith Moss, confirms, “Writers of the [19th] century reflected in their works the high rates of infant and young-adult mortality. Further, they reflected the fact that children were not shielded from death scenes and funerals as they are today.”[14] Children in the Victorian era could not avoid the reality of death entirely as it surrounded their physical reality. Thus, authors of children literature did not shy away from addressing such issues. Rather, they used often the guise of “enchantment to create ways for children to survive in an otherwise cruel and deadly Victorian world.”[15] Few authors did this better than Lewis Carroll, the master of enchantment. His incorporation of death, evident in his humor, offers young readers a very unique, non-threatening perception of mortality.

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 his unique humor emerges from the Duchess’s lullaby.

An illustration of the Duchess’s house by John Tenniel



During her journey, Alice enters the home of a Duchess, where she hears 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.’[17]

While the verse is a parody of the morally didactic poem, “Speak Gently,” by David Bates, [18] it still appears alarmingly abusive. Comedic surprise develops from the juxtaposition of the poem’s classification as a “lullaby” (i.e. a soothing song) and its disturbing content. Furthermore, physical brutality augments the poetic assault as the Duchess “violent[ly] shake[s]” her baby throughout her recitation of the verse, the child’s pain evident upon his crying face in Tenniel’s illustration of the event. Though Carroll’s 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 reaches an unprecedented level of severity.[19] Though such abuse would potentially result in death in the real world, Carroll does not kill the child but turns him into a pig.[20] Similar to the unexpected durability of the three cats in Dodgson’s letter to young Agnes, the baby’s survival softens the severity of suffering and mortality in the eyes of children. Additionally, in her analysis of Carroll, Greenacre comments, “But in general, the sadism of the Adventures is so outspoken and so grotesque a caricature that it protects rather than stimulates.”[21] The duchess’s cruel lullaby does not evoke outrage but humor, for Carroll oversteps the strict confines of humans’ mortal limitations, using magic as a loophole.

For many readers, when 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 amusement due to the contrast between her adamant demands and her total lack of follow-through. Even in Tenniel’s illustration, the Queen of Hearts appears humorously ridiculous.

An illustration of the Queen of Hearts by John Tenniel



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 suggestive 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.[23]

Through Alice’s interruption of the Queen’s murderous orders with the exclamation, “Nonsense!,” Carroll cleverly surmises the meaning of death in Alice: 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.[24] 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.

Carroll further depicts death as nonsensical when the Queen, King, and executioner argue over the beheading of the Cheshire-Cat. Deeply offended by the cat’s refusal to kiss his hand, the King demands the animal’s execution. However, because only the cat’s head appears, an argument ensues as to the logistics of a beheading:

The executioner’s argument was, that you couldn’t cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from…The King’s argument was that anything that had a head could be beheaded, and that you weren’t to talk nonsense. The Queen’s argument was that, if something wasn’t done about it in less than no time, she’d have everybody executed, all round.[25]

Carroll interweaves humor, logic, and death to produce a witty ensemble of ideas, all culminating in a ridiculous discussion on killing. While the subject of their argument – the beheading of the Cheshire-Cat – is quite serious, the characters’ bizarre dialogue elicits amusement, not fear, from the audience. This complies with Greenacre’s commentary that “the sadism of the Adventures is so outspoken and so grotesque a caricature that it protects rather than stimulates,” for what is more “outspoken” and “grotesque” than an open discussion of a cat’s execution in front of the animal, itself? Tenniel’s illustration further supports Greenacre’s deduction as it visually highlights the absurd nature of the characters’ debate. The Queen appears with her bottom lip sticking out in a petulant pout, and the surrounding court members look on in humorous shock with their mouths in the shape of small Os.

An illustration of the court and Cheshire-Cat by John Tenniel



All the while, the Cheshire-Cat looks down upon them with an enigmatic grin, suggesting that he does not fear his potential execution. He eludes death by having a head with no body – a possibility allowed by magic. In this fantastical world, death holds little power, as childish nonsense reigns.

In addition to Alice’s Adventures, Through the Looking-Glass offers multiple instances of Carroll’s dark humor. The sequel begins with a lighthearted tone, as Alice plays with her little black kitten. However, when the kitten unravels her ball of worsted, Alice responds with a flippant death threat:

‘Do you know, I was so angry, Kitty,’ Alice went on, as soon as they were comfortably settled again, ‘when I saw all the mischief you had been doing, I was very nearly opening the window, and putting you out into the snow! And you’d have deserved it, you little mischievous darling!’[27]

Alice’s subtly violent words starkly contrast with Tenniel’s illustration which radiates innocence and purity.









An illustration of Alice and the black kitten by John Tenniel


As the two companions snuggle in the cushioned chair, Alice declares that just moments before she had considered throwing the kitten out into the snow (into certain death). However, such teasing amuses, rather than frightens, the reader because both Carroll and Tenniel go to great lengths to establish a comfortable, safe setting. Alice only makes her dark threat after she and the kitty are “comfortably settled again,” and she refers to the kitten as her “mischievous darling,” an endearing moniker. Similarly, Tenniel depicts the two lounging in a large, cozy chair with no window in sight. The verbal and visual rhetoric suggest that no real danger exists. Rather, Carroll’s casual reference to mortality leads the reader to disregard death as a current possibility.

As the narrative progress, one can find further evidence of Carroll’s dark humor. For instance, the “battle” between Tweedledum and Tweedledee is rife with such comedy. To prepare for battle, the two brothers don their armor of miscellaneous household items, from “bolsters,” “blankets,” and “hearth-rugs” to “table-cloths, dish-covers, and coal-scuttles.”[29]

An illustration of Tweedledee and Tweedledum by John Tenniel



As Alice helps Tweedledee put a bolster around his neck, he informs her of the importance of protecting one’s neck: “‘You know,’ he added very gravely, ‘it’s one of the most serious things that can possible happen to one in a battle—to get one’s head cut off.’”[31] In response, Alice “laughed loud: but she managed to turn it into a cough, for fear of hurting his feelings.”[32] Once again, Carroll uses the threat of lethal violence to create humor. Tweedledee’s ridiculous understatement on decapitation places death in a somewhat humorous light. Complementing such dialogue, Tenniel’s illustration presents a laughable depiction of the two brothers in which they look more like stationary marshmallows than armed fighters. The entire episode may remind modern readers of the violent, yet ultimately harmless, shenanigans generated by Wile E. Coyote and the Three Stooges. Similar to these shows, the twin brothers’ outrageous guises and comical dialogue supersede the underlying violence of the situation. Subsequently, Alice responds to Tweedledee’s silly understatement by laughing, just as children did then and now. Moreover, just as the roadrunner and the three stooges never died, neither Tweedledee nor Tweedledum gets his head cut off. Carroll burlesques the notion of decapitation, using humor to assure his young readers that such an occurrence remains unlikely to befall them. In this way, death becomes a subject of amusement for young readers, easing their budding fears of mortality.

This slapstick, yet dark, form of humor reappears in Carroll’s description of the White Knight. Alice and the reader witness one catastrophe after another, as the Knight falls off his horse in every way possible:

‘The great art of riding,’ the Knight suddenly began in a loud voice, waving his right arm as he spoke, ‘is to keep—’ Here the sentence ended as suddenly as it had began, as the Knight fell heavily on the top of his head exactly in the path where Alice was walking.[33]

Humor arises from the fact that the Knight falls during his recitation of what encompasses the “the great art of riding.” Obviously, he is not a master at the great art. Furthermore, just as the Duchess’s abuse of her infant may have been fatal in the real world, the Knight’s headfirst fall would surely have resulted in severe spinal injury, if not immediate death. However, in the story the Knight simply gets up and reassures Alice that he didn’t break any bones. His indestructible nature reflects that of young children, capable of bouncing back from almost anything. Carroll couples humor and pain to once again diminish the harshness of death for young children. After seeing a Knight fall on his head, on his back, and into a ditch yet still remain alive, adolescent readers are disinclined to see death as some imminent doom.

Overall, an examination of Lewis Carroll’s personal letters and published novels for children reveal his generous application of dark humor. Though death represents an accepted subject for children’s literature during the Victorian era, Carroll’s unique incorporation of human mortality intertwines closely with 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 with Quotations: 3,586

Word Count without Quotations: 2,807

[1] Lewis Carroll. The Annotated Alice. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2000), 43-44.

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

[3] Phyllis Greenacre, Swift and Carroll: A Psychoanalytic Study of Two Lives (New York: International Universities Press, 1995), 128.

[4] Greenacre, Swift, 128.

[5] Charles Dodgson, “Hallam Tennyson,” in Photograph Album 5, Weld Album. (HRC, 1850-1860), 19.

[6] Cohen, The Letters, 53.

[7] Charles Dodgson, “Agnes Hughes,” in Album 3 (Photographs Vol. III). (HRC, circa 1859-1875), 65.

[8] Cohen, The Letters, 160.

[9] Stuart D. Collingwood. The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll. (New York: The Century Co., 1898), 420.

[10] Cohen, The Letters, 162.

[11] Greenacre, Swift, 261.

[12] Anne Lundin. “Victorian Horizons: The Reception of Children’s Books in England and America, 1880-1900,” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 64.1 (1994): 30-59, 41.

[13] Sarah Trimmer. The History of The Robins. (New York: D.C. Heath & Co., 1869), 36-37.

[14] Judith Moss. “Death in Children’s Literature,” Elementary English 49.4 (1972): 530-532, 530.

[15] Marvin Sasser. “Advent of Denial of Death in Children’s Literature.” (Electronic Theses & Dissertations, 2008).

[16] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 60.

[17] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 62.

[18] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 62, note 4.

[19] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 62.

[20] Carroll, Annotated Alice 64.

[21] Greenacre, Swift, 258.

[22] Carroll, Annotated Alice 82.

[23] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 82.

[24] Carroll, Annotated Alice, (Rabbit) 40, (Hatter) 67, (procession) 81.

[25] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 88-89.

[26] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 88.

[27] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 139.

[28] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 139.

[29] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 191.

[30] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 192.

[31] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 191-92.

[32] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 192.

[33] Carroll, Annotated Alice, 239.


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