Alice's Adventures in Wonderland creates a world filled with doubletalk and layered meaning by making frequent use of paronomasia, a kind of pun that deliberately exploits ambiguity between similar-sounding words called homophones, such as heir and air, or rose and rose, for humorous or rhetorical effect. These moments word play based on paronomasic dual significance appear throughout the book but accomplish different objectives each time Carroll employs the device.

Homophones first appear in the story after the Caucus-Race, when all the wet animals want to dry off. In order to do so, the mouse recites "the driest thing he knows," which turns out to be a tedious description of Western historical development. This appearance of a homophone is a witticism that operates on two levels allowing both adults and children to enjoy the story.

The next time the homophone appears, the mouse refers to his "long and sad tale." Alice assumes he's talking about his tail rather than a story, and Carroll uses the opportunity to merge form and content and creates a long tail on the page using the mouse's tale. Alice again misinterprets the mouse's meaning when she accuses him of having gotten to "the fifth bend," (implying insanity) to which the mouse replies, "I have not!" which Alice takes to mean a knot, and promptly offers to help the mouse untangle. This use of puns based upon paronomasia in which Alice misunderstands the mouse yet again helps reinforce the reader's impression of Alice's naiveté and immature perception of the world.

Carroll employs paronomasia again in the scene between Alice and the Duchess, but this time for a more utilitarian purpose. Alice explains, "You see the earth takes twenty-four hours to turn round on its axis —" when the Duchess interrupts Alice and says, "Talking of axes, chop off her head!"In this instance, Carroll uses the paronomasia to move the reader from one scene to the next, because the Queen's edit causes Alice to decide it's time to leave. This homophone also introduces us to the famous oft-uttered phrase of the Queen of Hearts: "Off with her head!"

Questions

1. Does this text include any other salient linguistic techniques that affect the narrative the way the homophones do?

2. Misunderstandings abound in Wonderland, often due to errors in communication. However, no one recognizes these mistakes, leading to conversations that confound and befuddle Alice. Is Carroll commenting on the way we (mis)communicate by replicating this scenario so many times?

3. Have we read any other texts that employ homophones or similar linguistic "tricks" to add to the narrative?

4. The Victorians were fond of playing group game indoors called parlor games many of which involved wordplay, such as Exquisite Corpse. They also employed a great number of sophisticated rhetorical devices in their writing, such as synecdoche, metonymy, and anthimera that writers today use with much less frequency (see the following for definitions of these terms.) What does this emphasis on rhetoric and wordplay say about Victorian culture? How and where does it come through in the texts we've read thus far for class?


Victorian Web Overview Lewis Carroll Leading Questions

Last modified 19 March 2009