This essay comes from the author's 2002 Broadview Press edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which contains, in addition to the text and an introduction, Alice's Adventures Under Ground, Lewis Carroll's first version of the story, contemporary reviews, and other materials. (The preceding link contains the full table of contents.)

cholars, critics, psychoanalysts, and logicians have all scrutinized Carroll's writings; but few of them have offered an explanation of why or how his creations are funny. The problem with any serious discussion of humor, of course, is that the analysis inevitably destroys the fun. How much more satisfying it is to elucidate Hamlet's melancholy than to explain Falstaff's jokes! Nevertheless, humor is at the very heart of Carroll's major works, and no discussion of them could be complete without an examination of some of the principles of that humor, especially as they apply to Alice.

Henri Bergson's essay on laughter, published in 1900, is a classic statement of the principles of humor. Although his analysis focuses upon the comedy of manners, it is applicable to Carroll's humor as well. Like Carroll, Bergson lived through the technological revolution that made the duality of man and machine a vital concern of philosophers, novelists, poets, and humorists. Bergson believed that life is a vital impulse, not to be understood by reason alone, and sees the comical as something encrusted on the living.

Early in his essay Bergson observes that laughter and emotion are incompatible: "It seems as though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect unless it fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is thoroughly calm and unruffled. Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion." In both his comic poetry and prose Carroll maintains a fairly consistent detachment from his characters, and his characters likewise usually remain remarkably detached from their environment. The Cheshire Cat best illustrates Bergson's point. The obvious symbol of intellectual detachment, it wears the fixed grin of an amused observer. It can appear as only a head for it is representative of a disembodied intelligence. Alice maintains a similar detachment from her surroundings. She forms no strong or lasting relationships with any of the creatures or persons in Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land. Upon meeting the sorrowful Mock Turtle, Alice "pitied him deeply" and inquires, "What is his sorrow?" Any emotional bond here is quickly undermined by the Gryphon's abrupt answer:"It's all his fancy, that: he hasn't got no sorrow, you know. Come on!"

A sentimentalist might have difficulty in appreciating comedy for, as Bergson notes, "to produce the whole of its effect . . . the comic demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart. Its appeal is to intelligence, pure and simple" (p. 63). Carroll's parodies of the didactic and sentimental verses of Isaac Watts, for example, are funny in so far as the reader is aware of the originals and attentive to the intellectual cleverness involved in reshaping them. The emotions that the moral sentiments originally invoked are repressed by the wit of the parodies.

Bergson refines his observation that laughter appeals to intelligence pure and simple by adding, "this intelligence, however, must always remain in touch with other intelligences." He continues: "The comic will come into being, it appears, whenever a group of men concentrate their attention on one of their number, imposing silence on their emotions and calling into play nothing but their intelligence" (p. 65). Alice provides exactly that focus of concentration for the reader. She is the instrument of humor as Carroll the narrator engages the mind of the reader to share with him the absurdity that arises in her various encounters with the creatures of Wonderland. Carroll invites the reader to conspire with him to laugh at their mutual representative battling with foreign intelligences.

Basic to Bergson's conception of the comic is the tension that exists between rigidity and suppleness: "rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective" (p. 74). He sees a laughable expression of the face as "one that promises nothing more than it gives. It is a unique and permanent grimace. One would say that the person's whole moral life has crystallised into this particular cast of features" (p. 76). He concludes that "automatism, inelasticity, habit that has been contracted and maintained are clearly the causes why a face makes us laugh" (p. 76). Tenniel's illustrations are significant in this respect, for they help to fix the expressions of such characters as the Cheshire Cat with its sinister grin and the Queen of Hearts with her perpetual scowl. The Queen's favorite expression, "Off with his head!" or "Off with her head!" likewise is as fixed and predictable as her expression. The sentiment is obviously not funny, but its repetition is.

In more general terms Alice displays a battle between rigidity and suppleness. Alice embodies secure conventions and self-assured regulations, and Wonderland is dedicated to undermining those conventions and regulations. Later, in Through the Looking-Glass the strict rules of a chess game impose a degree of order upon an unruly set of characters. In this connection another statement by Bergson is revealing: "The attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine" (p. 79). In Through the Looking-Glass Alice and the other characters are treated as chess pieces to be manipulated in a very rational game. In short, they have become things and, as Bergson notes, "we laugh every time a person gives us the impression of being a thing" (p. 97). Similarly, the battles between Tweedledee and Tweedledum and between the Lion and the Unicorn are comic because they are repetitive and predictable. Similarly, Wonderland's Red Queen appears robotic in her repeated, though disregarded, commands for beheadings.

Discussing the humor of disguise, Bergson argues that "any image . . . suggestive of the notion of a society disguising itself, or of a social masquerade, so to speak, will be laughable" (p. 89). Both the Caucus-race and the trial of the Knave of Hearts illustrate Bergson's thesis. In the former, all the contestants are awarded prizes, thereby ignoring the substance of the race, namely, finding a winner. In the trial scene, the procedures are of paramount importance, the guilt or innocence of the defendant being of little significance. In both cases a kind of relentless automatism that converts human beings into comic puppets rules supreme.

One final observation by Bergson has relevance to Carroll's humor: "Any incident is comic that calls our attention to the physical in a person, when it is the moral side that is concerned" (p. 93). The humor resides in one's perceiving the tension in a "soul tantalised by the needs of the body: on the one hand, the moral personality with its intelligently varied energy, and, on the other, the stupidly monotonous body, perpetually obstructing everything with its machine-like obstinacy" (p. 93). Thus, he argues, we laugh at a public speaker who sneezes just at the most pathetic moment of his speech. Our attention is suddenly recalled from the soul to the body. Alice's frustrations in regulating her body size are cases in point. She longs to enter into "the loveliest garden you ever saw" but "she could not even get her head through the doorway." There are numerous passages in the Alice books, such as Alice's flood of tears and the Duchess' baby's uncontrollable sneezing, in which the human body baffles, betrays and embarrasses the soul.

One of the functions of humor, as Bergson sees it, is to make us human and natural during an age of mechanization. One of Carroll's early poems, "Rules and Regulations," establishes that at the outset of his career he both prized and mocked rigidity. In his fascination with mechanical gadgets he possessed in microcosm a well-ordered, smoothly running universe. In the compulsiveness tidiness of both his personal life and his writings he achieved an order not inherent in nature. Neither the elusive garden in Wonderland nor the cool geometry of Looking-Glass Land, however, offers more than a temporary oasis in a mutable, biological, and mortal wasteland. Carroll recognized that the machinery of conventions and customs, mathematics and logic, helped to define by contrast and momentarily sustain and comfort the frightened, imperfect, and comic adventurer.

References

Bergson, Henri. "Laughter," in Comedy, introd. by Wylie Sypher. New York: Doubleday, 1956.


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Last modified: 12 July 2003