The nonsense genre, which involves playing with words and rhyme, writing riddles with no answers, and composing limericks that make no sense, rose in popularity in the nineteenth century. Although English nonsense verse was first invented in 1611 by writer John Hoskyns and then more prolifically used by his successor John Taylor, its use dwindled until its revival in the nineteenth century by authors such as Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Lear primarily wrote absurd limericks intended for children, though many might also contain political commentary. In this era of word games, Lear's nonsensical use of words and rhyme to create not only limericks but near-gibberish stories illustrates the movement towards using this genre, a kind of fantasy, as a harmless escape from life while still tackling larger issues. Lewis Carroll, another master of nonsense verse writing around the same time, brilliantly delivers a critique of the English school system with his character Alice as she constantly misapplies her rote-learned classroom teachings.

Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end? "I wonder how many miles I have fallen by this time?" she said aloud. "I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see; that would be four thousand miles down, I think — " (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the school-room, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) " — yes, that's about the right distance — but the I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I've got to?" (Alice had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say.)" [8]

Alice has no idea what latitude and longitude actually mean, but still she persistently tries to demonstrates her knowledge by using these terms, albeit incorrectly. She also shows the inconsistency of her education in her inability to remember the correct words in the verses she had memorized for school. Alice, while quizzed by the Mock Turtle and the Griffin, completely botches the verses they have her recite. "She hardly knew what she was saying" as she "began to repeat" what she had learned in her lessons (82).

Carroll cleverly uses nonsense to criticize rote school learning in a way that would have been impossible to do within the bounds of more serious writing. Since he uses nonsensical fantasy stories to criticize the English school system, he would not have found himself in trouble for writing something considered offensive. Nonsense, as a collection of words that don't fit into a regular system but rather create one of their own, challenges the conventional structure of thought, and so can easily be used to challenge a reprehensible social system or deliver hidden political commentary. The nonsense genre destructs the logical, coherent view of the world with Symantec mix-ups and linguistic circularity, using circumlocution to effectively conceal the deeper critique.

Questions

1. Who can be considered a more contemporary author who effectively worked within the nonsense genre to moralize his stories? How did he carry on this tradition of nonsensical verse in his storytelling?

2. The nonsense genre, while primarily used for children's stories, can still deliver social critiques and present moralistic values. "Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it" (70) Why and how does this genre manage so effectively to do so?

3. Mother Goose also demonstrates the use of nonsense verse and rhyme in children's literature to instruct children in proper values. The lasting success of these rhymes indicates their value. But how does a seemingly nonsensical rhyme such as the one below manage to deliver such value? Why and how does it stick with children? Can this also be considered social or political commentary? Why or why not?

Mistress Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With cockle-shells, and silver bells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

4. What has the nursery rhyme Humpty-Dumpty to do with the Alice books?

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King's horses, And all the King's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again!

Also, can it be considered a social or political criticism? Why or Why not?

5. Why does Carroll create such an unanswerable riddle as "Why is a raven like a writing desk" if even he has no answer himself? How does this demonstrate the absolute nonsense of the genre?


Victorian Web Overview Lewis Carroll Leading Questions

Last modified 19 March 2009