Lewis Carroll, as we found out in previous chapters, is most famous for two books: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872). These books follow the adventures of the 7–year-old, Alice, who tumbles down a rabbit hole (Wonderland) and enters a magic mirror (Looking-Glass), entering a nonsensical world of the imagination. If you have not already read these classic books—or wish to reread them—you can access them at the following links:
Alice finds herself challenged to make sense of a seemingly absurd world inhabited by odd creatures. Throughout her adventures, Alice attempts to apply logic to her experiences; in other words, Alice tries to interpret and find meaning in Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land.
Alice acts like a literary critic. In previous chapters, you became like Alice—that is, you learned about a literary theory and applied that theory as you analyzed a work of literature. This chapter asks you to reimagine your role as a literary critic: you will be asked to analyze not only the text but also the role of the reader in constructing meaning. In a sense, you will be asked to be a lot like Alice, trying to figure out your reading experience as you immerse yourself in a literary creation.
Our scene comes from chapter 10, “The Lobster-Quadrille” in Wonderland:
“Stand up and repeat “‘’Tis the voice of the sluggard,’” said the Gryphon.
“How the creatures order one about, and make one repeat lessons!” thought Alice; “I might as well be at school at once.” However, she got up, and began to repeat it, but her head was so full of the Lobster Quadrille, that she hardly knew what she was saying, and the words came very queer indeed:—
“’Tis the voice of the Lobster; I heard him declare,
‘You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair.’
As a duck with its eyelids, so he with his nose
Trims his belt and his buttons, and turns out his toes.
When the sands are all dry, he is gay as a lark,
And will talk in contemptuous tones of the Shark:
But, when the tide rises and sharks are around,
His voice has a timid and tremulous sound.”
“That’s different from what I used to say when I was a child,” said the Gryphon.
“Well, I never heard it before,” said the Mock Turtle; “but it sounds uncommon nonsense.”
Alice said nothing; she had sat down with her face in her hands, wondering if anything would everhappen in a natural way again.
“I should like to have it explained,” said the Mock Turtle.
“She can’t explain it,” said the Gryphon hastily. “Go on with the next verse.”
“But about his toes?” the Mock Turtle persisted. “How could he turn them out with his nose, you know?”
“It’s the first position in dancing.” Alice said; but was dreadfully puzzled by the whole thing, and longed to change the subject.
“Go on with the next verse,” the Gryphon repeated impatiently: “it begins ‘I passed by his garden.’”
Alice did not dare to disobey, though she felt sure it would all come wrong, and she went on in a trembling voice:—
“I passed by his garden, and marked, with one eye,
How the Owl and the Panther were sharing a pie:
The Panther took pie-crust, and gravy, and meat,
While the Owl had the dish as its share of the treat.
When the pie was all finished, the Owl, as a boon,
Was kindly permitted to pocket the spoon:
While the Panther received knife and fork with a growl,
And concluded the banquet—”
“What is the use of repeating all that stuff,” the Mock Turtle interrupted, “if you don’t explain it as you go on? It’s by far the most confusing thing I ever heard!”
“Yes, I think you’d better leave off,” said the Gryphon: and Alice was only too glad to do so.Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. With Forty-Two Illustrations by John Tenniel (New York: D. Appleton, 1927; University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center, 1998), chap. 10, http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/CarAlic.html.
Alice finds herself reciting a poem about a Lobster and then continuing with a poem about an Owl and a Panther. Not only is Alice creating—that is, she makes up these poems—but she also requires the reader to finish the second poem:
While the Panther received knife and fork with a growl,
And concluded the banquet—
By eating the Owl!
“By eating the Owl!” The poem nudges the reader to complete the line by filling in the final ending to the poem: we know that the Panther will eat the Owl. Of course, a reader might complete the poem by writing, “by throwing in the towel,” or “by picking up a trowel,” “by running down the hall,” or even “with an even greater howl.” In any case, you, as the reader, have activated the text.
You have engaged in the theory of reader response.
Illustration by Sir John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).
Reader-response theory suggests that the role of the reader is essential to the meaning of a literary text, for only in the reading experience does the literary work come alive. Frankenstein (1818) doesn’t exist, so to speak, until the reader reads Frankenstein and reanimates it to life, becoming a cocreator of the text.Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein (1831; University of Virginia Electronic Text Center, 1994), http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/SheFran.html.
Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar.”
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
- Read Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar.”Wallace Stevens, “Anecdote of a Jar,” University of Pennsylvania, http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/stevens-ancedote.html.
- Write down your reading experience: What went on in your mind while you were reading the poem? Did you like the poem? Dislike it? Were you confused by the poem?
- Jot down what you think the poem is about—the theme of the poem.
- Break into groups of three or four. Compare your experiences with each other. Then compare your interpretations.
- List the student-group interpretations on the blackboard, whiteboard, or other high- or low-tech medium into two categories: Experiences While Reading and Interpretation of the Poem.
- Discuss the differences between the reading experience and the ways the students interpreted the poem.