The coherence of language and lucidity of communication is the central theme of Lewis Carroll’s Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. When Humpty Dumpty arrogantly says to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less” (Carroll, Through the Looking Glass 205), he unwittingly incites a question regarding the rationality of language and subjectivity of communication.
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In Wonderland, communication becomes a problem for Alice for she could neither understand nor make herself understood. Chaos and irrationality create an incomprehensible system of language that baffles both Alice and the creatures of Wonderland. Incomplete communication produces dissidence, anger, and frustration in Alice and the other creatures. This essay discusses the problem of communication in Wonderland.
Alice finds herself at a loss when she enters Wonderland. She fails to relate to any of the structures, formalities, and codes of this land or make the others understand what she was trying to say. In chapter 7 of Wonderland, Alice’s inability to communicate becomes apparent when her new friends do not understand what she meant when she says, “I believe, I can guess that” (Carroll, Adventures of Alice in Wonderland 97).
However, the March Hare corrected Alice by saying “Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it” (Carroll, Adventures of Alice in Wonderland 97). Alice does not understand her mistake and so the latter exemplifies his argument: “I see what I eat” is not the same as “I eat what I see” (Carroll, Adventures of Alice in Wonderland 98). Thus, the March Hare is logically correct when he says that what Alice had said was not meaningful.
On the contrary, what she actually meant was that she could probably find the answer to the riddle. Thus, the stark distinction between the spoken metaphorical language and the literal meaning of the sentence is clarified by the March Hare. Logical reasoning commands the communication system of the Wonderland. This is reaffirmed in the episode when Alice becomes very tall and speaks to a Pigeon who thinks she is a serpent.
Alice tries to explain that she is just a little girl who eats eggs. The Pigeon concludes that then she must be a kind of serpent. This argument of the Pigeon is logically not incorrect for if serpents have a long neck and eat eggs, then an egg-eating little girl with a long neck must be a kind of serpent. Though the argument is logically coherent, it is not true. Again in the mad tea party, March Hare suggests to Alice:
Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone: “so I can’t take more.”
“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing. (Carroll, Adventures of Alice in Wonderland 106)
Here too, March Hare is logically correct but Alice fails to understand this as it is beyond her understanding of the language. Thus, the dialogue of the March Hare appears nonsensical to Alice.
Communication in Wonderland would be difficult for the creatures even if Alice were not there. There is social and linguistic chaos in Wonderland. In chapter 3, the Eaglet tells the Dodo “Speak English … I don’t know the meaning of half those long words,” indicating that there is a gap between erudite and common English even in Wonderland (Carroll, Adventures of Alice in Wonderland 32). The Eaglet does not understand what the Dodo says.
The former also suggests that the Dodo was pedantic because he used long words, which he did not even understand. Communication seems to be a problem even for the creatures of Wonderland. There are “perversions of language” in Wonderland, which creates a social, and linguistic chaos but some creatures take advantage of this perversion of language (Lecercle 123). This chaos creates discontent. For instance, in chapter 3 of Wonderland, the Mouse mistook Alice’s genuine concern for a pun – “knot” and “not”, and “tale” and “tail” (Carroll, Adventures of Alice in Wonderland 38).
This angers the Mouse who then says, “You insult me by talking nonsense” (Carroll, Adventures of Alice in Wonderland 38). The weird reasoning and semantic discourse of Wonderland puzzle Alice. Thus, the creatures do not understand each other clearly and the nonsensical chaotic communication is not Alice’s fault. If Alice had not arrived in Wonderland, its social structure would have steered life without interference. However, Alice’s arrival created mayhem and chaos.
What is the reason behind the linguistic chaos in Alice’s Wonderland? This is because of the difference in the perceived and real meaning of the words. In reality, words bear a specific meaning and are said with it. On the other hand, in Wonderland, words are just sounds that have sense. Thus, there is a gap between the structure of language and the meaning of the word. Clearly, the sound of the word gains more importance than the meaning of the word. The Duchess’s advice actually gives an insight into unraveling the puzzle of the linguistic chaos in Wonderland: “Take care of the sense, the sounds will take care of themselves” (Carroll, Adventures of Alice in Wonderland 133).
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Carroll, Lewis. Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. Penguin, 2013.
—. Through the Looking Glass. Penguin, 2015.
Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. Philosophy of Nonsense: The Intuitions of Victorian Nonsense Literature. Routledge, 2012.