According to Victorian guides on the subject, ballroom etiquette, should be conducted "with becoming politeness"; avoiding, at all costs, the appearance of "indecorous" behavior. Yet the madcap dance described by the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon is anything but "becoming and graceful."
"'You may not have lived much under the sea-' ('I haven't ,' said Alice)- 'and perhaps you were never even introduced to a lobster-' (Alice began to say 'I once tasted-' but then checked herself hastily and said 'No never') '-so you can have no idea what a delightful thing a Lobster-Quadrille is!'
'No, indeed,' said Alice. 'What sort of a dance is it?'
'Why,' said the Gryphon, 'you first form into a line along the sea-shore-'
'Two lines!' cried the Mock Turtle. 'Seals, turtles, salmon and so on: then, when you've cleared all the jelly-fish out of the way-'
"That generally takes some time,' interrupted the Gryphon.
'-you advance twice-'
'Each with a lobster as a partner!' cried the Gryphon.
'Of course,' the Mock Turtle said: 'advance twice, set to partners — '
'— change lobsters, and retire in same order,' continued the Gryphon." [Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Norton Critical Edition, 78]
Though tradition abhors "galloping around...while dancing in quadrille," the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon push the boundaries of the fantastic by recommending a wild session involving various species and considerable water aerobics ("Turn a somersault in the sea!" cries the Turtle as he "caper[s] wildly about"). By setting his child's fantasia against the backdrop of established Victorian manners, Lewis Carroll both subverts convention and emphasizes the slightly skewed nature of the world when viewed through the eyes of a seven-year-old.
Just as the very name "Mock Turtle" derives from a child's interpretation of an adult term, so too is the outrageous "Lobster-Quadrille" a perversion of an adult reality. Carroll's images are not simply set in opposition to Lucien Carpenter's world of arid "ballroom etiquette"--rather, they incorporate elements of that sterner realm and realign them into a child's dreamland. While such wordplay is easily accessible to the young audience for whom Carroll originally wrote, it also forms a sly poke at the pious Victorian world so devoted to proper behavior. Like the nineteenth-century songs which recur throughout the book, stripped of their original moral by Carroll and supplemented with an extra helping of silliness, the Lobster-Quadrille draws on contemporary society to frame its hilarity. It is this contextualization which lends the Alice books their peculiar humor; without it, Carroll's satire could not resonate in an adult world.
Last modified December 1995