Dreams and Nonsense: The Interchangeable Nature of ‘Dream’ and ‘Reality’

Dreams in themselves are often understood to be nonsensical in their nature; their lack of clarity, structure and rationality means that they are clearly distinct from our reality. Although in the real world dreams represent a space that simply stems from our minds, within the context of nonsense it is this dream space that becomes a new reality, a distinguished place in which significant events and characters develop, a place in which nonsense can actively flourish. In all Carroll’s canonical text, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, William Shakespeare’s chaotic romantic comedy play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Joel and Ethan Coen’s neo-noir comedy film, ‘The Big Lebowski’, we see this closeness between the space of ‘reality’ and ‘dream’, almost an ‘interchangeability’ between the two. Within nonsense this disruption between the confines that differentiate these two states is prevalent, the lines are continuously blurred, with the implication that dream becomes an alternative reality.

Lewis Carroll is often considered a pivotal figure within the nonsense literary movement, his stories of Alice and her adventures, as well as his general body of work including children’s poetry, were key in delineating his position as a leading member of the movement. Dreams and the process of dreaming forms one of the novel’s principal motifs; Alice’s adventure in Wonderland is revealed to be merely a dream when she wakes up at the end of the story, however there is a clear sense that the character of Alice is in this perpetual liminal state between dreaming and consciousness from the story’s very beginning. If we consider the chosen extract, the novel begins with ‘Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do’, and by Carroll’s next paragraph ‘suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.’[1] There is this lack of clear distinction between Alice’s reality and her dream with no definitive transition between each state, this lack of clarity emphasises a constant feeling of liminality that Alice’s character undergoes, echoed by her frequently fluctuating height. This lack of clarity is underpinned by the extract’s hazy tone and language even before Carroll invites us to explore with Alice the confusing space that is Wonderland, Carroll’s ‘tired of sitting’ creates a somewhat comical, nonsensical image. The active gerund, ‘sitting’, is contrasted by the immobility within the action itself, this paired with Alice’s exhaustion from her physical inactivity amplifies the feeling of confusion and conflicting states that is prominent throughout the extract. This mode of Carroll’s nonsense allows the dreaming platform we often separate from our real life to merge, becoming an alternative reality for Alice to explore.

Similarly, this idea of dream emerging as reality is found within William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream however perhaps it could be said that Shakespeare instead demonstrates an inversion of this idea with reality emerging as dream and fantasy. Although as a writer in the Renaissance period, Shakespeare’s body of work predates both the birth of the nonsense movement and its peak in the Victorian era, many of his romantic comedies are considered a precursor to nonsense as a genre. A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular provides an environment characteristic of nonsense in which confusion and chaos dominates. Wittgenstein, when describing the work of Shakespeare and dreams noted that ‘a dream is all wrong, absurd, composite, and yet at the same time it is completely right: put together in this strange way it makes an impression.’[2] This idea of nonsense causes an excess of meaning that applies significance to the representation of dreams. Whilst Wells identifies that the play only features one explicitly explained dream that figuratively mirrors reality; ‘everything else that is recounted by mortals or fairies having been part of a dream is not a dream at all. The experiences have turned into dream, experienced as if they were dream’.[3] Indeed, the distinguishing boundaries between what both the characters and us, as the audience, know to be real and dream become blurred to the point that the character of Robin Goodfellow leaves us with the suggestion, ‘think but this, and all is mended: That you have but slumbered here, While these visions did appear’,[4] involving us in this nonsensical, perpetual haze of magical intertwining of dream and reality that characterises the play. This ending reminder of Shakespeare’s work as a meta-play adds to the feeling of confusion and liminality; we are left to consider whether the events of the play really took place or were simply a dream. Particularly in the chosen extract, that marks the middle of the play, the audience can observe that the nonsensical nature and silliness of the play is at its high point, the sense of confusion grows. Demetrius’ initial words of ‘you, the murderer, look as bright, as clear As yonder Venus in her glimmering sphere’[5] to Hermia are greatly contrasted by his expression of admiration for Helena ‘O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine! To what, my love, shall I compare thine eye?’[6] Shakespeare combines the structural devices of exclamation and question mark to illustrate the chaos that stems from the ironic dream-like daze that defines their reality. This sudden transferal of affection from Hermia to Helena epitomises the frivolity and nonsense of the play, and demonstrates the dream-like daze induced by the fairies’ magic in which the characters find themselves. The lovers understand this disorderly reality depicted in the extract to be a dream, as it seems to be the only explanation for such nonsensical events to occur. This close proximity between the states echo this idea that reality and dream are interchangeable; the reality is so absurd to the point it can only be recognised as the dream workings of the unconscious mind.

Genre in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski is not definitive as it is characterised by a pastiche of generic tropes rather than an individual, specific generic identification, within its pastiche the film demonstrates key stylistic tropes that are often associated with nonsense as a mode. The story is characterised by confusion and a constant comical state of perplexity both experienced by the principal character of Jeff Lebowski–otherwise known as the Dude–and the audience. His general incompetence, mistaken identity and the addition of peculiar contradictory characters distinguish its relation to nonsense. This nonsensical style at play is encapsulated particularly with the dream sequence that features in the film. Much like the dream-like daze experienced by the male lovers in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jeff appears to have his dream induced by a chemical concoction. Whilst the Dude’s dream is surrealist with its depiction of abstract images and general visual inconsistencies, there is a clear parallel with his reality, acting as a microcosm of his quotidian life. Within the dream, an alternative, distorted reality emerges that both incorporates images associated with Jeff’s bowling hobby and his sexual attraction towards Maude, but also explores his underlying anxiety in relation to his masculinity. The dream depicts a distorted self-perception of Jeff as a hyper-masculine mechanic accompanied with phallic symbols such as the bowling pin paired with the bowling balls, whilst this is part of the dream’s distortion, this portrayal of masculinity very much echoes the film’s subversive portrayal of traditional notions of masculinity, as Walters and Tyree note.[7] The character of Jeffery Lebowski, the antithesis of Jeff, is constantly emasculated, financially dependent on his daughter, Maude, and symbolically castrated when he is violently pulled from his wheel chair. This aspect of the film’s plot is a clear exploration in the dream, with the notion of castration anxiety conveyed through the giant scissors that appear in Jeff’s dream. The dream’s distorted image of reality again somewhat blurs the lines between each space, as ideas and images that permeate the everyday life appear–albeit distortedly–in Jeff’s state of dreaming. Arguably, Jeff rejects the reality of the world throughout the film; he doesn’t participate in society; he is unemployed and generally leads a sedentary, repetitive life that involves a cycle of bowling, smoking and sleeping, his dream becomes an alternative reality that incorporates these aspects without the societal norms he rejects. The subversive exploration of gender that appears in both spaces highlights the nonsensical aspect; this ‘carnivalesque humor’[8] that characterises the film shows the inversion of established hierarchies and orders of gender with the conflicting portrayal of the hyper-masculine Jeff acting as emphasis on his complete lack of abiding with masculine gender archetypes.

With the manifestation of dreams as reality or its inversion, setting that accommodates nonsense is required to facilitate the portrayal in which dreams and reality become interchangeable and ideologically close. In the case of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, setting is depicted as that typically associated with nonsense stylistics. Laurel Moffat argues in her essay that the ‘dream of the woods’ in which the play is set acts as ‘an antithesis of sorts to Athens, the place of philosophy, law, constancy, and absolutes’, [9] essentially a location representative of order and uniformity. It acts as a heterotopia, fundamentally a place of otherness, Foucault defines heterotopia, looking at its role; they function like ‘counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted’.[10] The dreamy forest setting is clearly a space that provides release from established notions of order and rationality and subverts them, as we can see in the extract the forest allows both the mortals and fairies to appear on stage simultaneously, demonstrating how the forest is a space in which two opposing ideas merge, the natural and the supernatural, demonstrating its heterotopic nature. Indeed, given the magical quality of the woods, it acts as a kind of dreamland, a wonderland almost in that the constraints of reality no longer stand. This is emphasised by the fragility and fluctuating nature of romance between the Athenian lovers, as evident in the extract, the character of Lysander who initially loves Hermia professes to Helena ‘And yours of Helena to me bequeath, Whom I do love, and will do till my death’.[11] Nothing is fixed or certain within the confines of the forest, reinforcing the nonsensical manner of the setting; everything is changeable and spontaneous. This sense of chaos and ambiguity denoted by the fluctuating, fickle nature of the love between the Athenians is paralleled with the uncertainty of the boundaries between dream and reality that the play explores. The magic and mischievousness performed by the fairies, as well as their frequent cavorting, dancing and singing, in contrast to the strict rules imposed by the Athenian authority figures, Egeus, Theseus and Hippolyta, further delineates the setting as magical and dream-like. The setting as a place in which established order and convention are continuously subverted is further emphasised with the romantic union that takes place between the disparate characters of the fairy queen, Titania, and the low character, Bottom, a mortal weaver whose head transforms into that of an ass as a result of fairy magic. The integration of the human and the animal within the character of Bottom further demonstrates the ‘other’, nonsensical nature of the setting. Although this is Bottom’s reality it seems like a dream. Shakespeare’s fusion of the domestic and the supernatural intensify the ambiguity and vagueness of the forest. The nonsensical subversion is further emphasised by the hierarchal difference between the two characters; demonstrated through Shakespeare’s contrasting use of Bottom’s working class prose, ‘I could munch your good dry oats’, and Titania’s monarchal verse; ‘Or say, sweet love, what thou desir’st to eat’.[12] This romance between Bottom and Titania perpetuates the unpredictability associated with the forest, disrupting both established hierarchies of authority and intellect. It is clear that the forest acts as a dreamy, nonsensical wonderland in which nonsense can flourish and is constantly perpetuated. As a wonderland, the natural setting of the forest becomes dream-like but is very much the place in which events occur, further reinforcing the blurred lines between the states of dream and reality in the play.

In a similar manner, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland creates a wonderland setting that is Alice’s dream. Wonderland as a setting is much like the forest in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in that whilst it incorporates many aspects of Alice’s reality, the dream continuously subverts them to the point that the story is considered the quintessential nonsense text. A key aspect that defines Wonderland is the complete inversion of conventional roles; one example of this is that the animals that populate Wonderland become anthropomorphic whilst humans are portrayed in animalistic terms. In the chosen extract, ‘a White Rabbit… took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket’,[13] from the very beginning the reader is presented with this idea of a humanised animal; Carroll uses capitalisation of ‘white’ and ‘rabbit’ to personify the rabbit further; he has a distinctive, definitive identity, much like that of a human. This carnivalesque image in which the White Rabbit dons a waistcoat and carries around a pocket watch connotes an image of a Victorian gentleman, an image that perhaps stems from Alice’s reality as a Victorian girl. Added to this is the Rabbit’s exclamation ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’[14] The aural abruptness created through Carroll’s use of exclamation and monosyllabic sentence structure creates a degree of urgency in his manner of speech and suggests that the animal has a certain degree of responsibility and duty. This is contrasted by the impulsive Alice who instinctively satiates her curiosity without consideration of the repercussions of her actions, emphasising the inversion of roles between humans and animals, as well as the established hierarchy of intellect. The Rabbit together with the hole it leaps into is perhaps representative of the unknown, the taboo and the uncertain, with which Alice seeks to discover and become acquainted. Perhaps, it could be said that Alice’s natural child-like curiosity that features in her reality translates through to her dream, ‘down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.’[15] Alice’s real-life rationale translates through to her dreaming state, yet again blurring the boundaries between the two spaces. Added to this are the aspects of reality that formulate her dream, whilst they are nonsensical in that they are inverted they capture an essence of realism. Although John Lehmann argues that Wonderland is a ‘dream world, where the assumptions of the waking world are destroyed one by one’,[16] it is a dream world but a setting that captures Alice’s reality while it simultaneously subverts and twists it, thus creating nonsense; this nonsensical setting ironically parallels reality and dream, demonstrating their spatial closeness

Much like the setting of Wonderland in Alice’s dream, Jeff encounters his own Wonderland, which prominently features the confusion and subversion of established structures of power, along with distorted images that merge the film’s aspects of realism with arbitrary nonsense and images. This surreal dream world depicted in The Big Lebowski, although very much a dream space, greatly parallels with the real world that operates outside of the dream. Jeff’s life resembles a dream-like haze; his life is defined by chaos, a lack of both logic and competence, with no clear, definitive direction or purpose. The dream echoes how Jeff’s unique, subversive life philosophy does not accommodate the established order and structures that may be associated with reality; his sedentary lifestyle and general lack of purpose distinguishes him as a character; he has to enter a fictitious dream world for him to be active and instinctive. The use of intertextuality demonstrated through allusions to Carroll’s Alice stories within the extract further distinguish the setting, as Jeff’s own equivalent to Wonderland. The white and black tile floor is reminiscent of the stories’ obsession with chess; this motif of games associated with Carroll is further paralleled with the dream’s prominent images of bowling. Whilst it would be a tenuous statement to imply these images that appear in a surreal dreamy context are directly interchangeable with the ideas ‘real’ platform in The Big Lebowski, the dream’s images and distortedly mirror the film’s concepts and ideas. Comentale and Jaffe comment on the film’s liberating rationalism that ironically gives way to an appreciation of the surrealism of everyday life. [17] The theme of feminine triumph over masculine influence is demonstrated when Maude appears as a Norse Viking goddess, connoting a sense of virility and masculine strength that transcends the patriarchal structure, the authority figure Sadame Hussein appears as a bowling alley attendant, reflective of the film’s fluctuating orders of power and authority and the phallic symbols that pervade the dream embody the societal obsession with proving one’s masculinity.

To conclude, the anthology demonstrates how the nature of nonsense as a literary style allows dreams to both become and merge with reality. This spatial closeness caused by the blurred boundaries defines nonsense as a literary mode that seeks to disrupt established orders and structures, as well as our own expectations, continuing to entertain and excite its readers and audiences. The breaking of boundaries and abandonment of constraint exposes us to such a vastly different range of ideas and concepts that we are encouraged to consider the possibility of a deeper significance, as well as simply dismiss them as complete nonsense, embodying the idea that nonsense as a genre entails the balancing of a ‘multiplicity of meaning with a simultaneous absence of meaning.’[18] This interchangeability between the unconscious state of dreaming and a considered, calculated notion of reality that nonsense depicts ignites our imagination and curiosity just as nonsense as a genre intends to do.

[1] Lewis Carroll and Peter Hunt, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland And Through The Looking-Glass And What Alice Found There (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) pg. 9

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein and G.H. von Wright, Culture And Value (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998) pg. 83

[3] Stanley Wells and William Shakespeare, ‘Dreams’, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. by Stanley Wells (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pg. 4

[4] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 255-256

[5] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pg. 192

[6] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pg. 196

[7] J. M Tyree and Ben Walters, The Big Lebowski (London: British Film Institute, 2007) pg. 30

[8] Paul “Pablo” Martin and Valerie R. Renegar, ““The Man For His Time” The Big Lebowski As Carnivalesque Social Critique”, Communication Studies, 58 (2007), pp. 299-313 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10510970701518397&gt;.

[9] Laurel Moffatt, “The Woods As Heterotopia In A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Studia Neophilologica, 76 (2004), 182-187 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00393270410033321&gt;.

[10] Michel Foucault and Jay Miskowiec, “Of Other Spaces”, Diacritics, 16 (1986), 22 <http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/464648&gt;

[11] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pg. 197

[12] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pg. 215

[13] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, pp. 9-10

[14] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland pg. 9

[15] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland pg. 10

[16] John Lehmann, Lewis Carroll And The Spirit Of Nonsense (Nottingham: University of Nottingham, 1974) pg. 10

[17] Edward P Comentale and Aaron Jaffe, The Year’s Work In Lebowski Studies (Indiana University Press, 2009)

[18] Wim Tigges, An Anatomy Of Literary Nonsense (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988) pg. 47


Carroll, Lewis; Hunt, Peter, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland And Through The Looking-Glass And What Alice Found There (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) pg. 9-10

Comentale, Edward P; Jaffe, Aaron, The Year’s Work In Lebowski Studies (Indiana University Press, 2009)

Foucault, Michel; Miskowiec, Jay, “Of Other Spaces”, Diacritics, 16 (1986), 22 http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/464648

Lehmann, John, Lewis Carroll And The Spirit Of Nonsense (Nottingham: University of Nottingham, 1974)

Martin, Paul “Pablo”; Renegar, Valerie R., ““The Man For His Time” The Big Lebowski As Carnivalesque Social Critique”, Communication Studies, 58 (2007), pg. 299-313 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10510970701518397

Moffatt, Laurel, “The Woods As Heterotopia In A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Studia Neophilologica, 76 (2004), pg. 182-187 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00393270410033321

Shakespeare, William; Wells, Stanley, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pg. 4

The Big Lebowski (Hollywood: Polygram Filmed Entertainment, 1998)

Tigges, Wim, An Anatomy Of Literary Nonsense (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988) pg. 47

Tyree, J. M; Walters, Ben, The Big Lebowski (London: British Film Institute, 2007) pg. 30

Wittgenstein, Ludwig; von Wright, G.H; Nyman, Heikki; Pichler, Alois, Culture And Value (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998) pg. 83


Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?’

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, `Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!’ (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoatpocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.

In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream


O, why rebuke you him that loves you so?

Lay breath so bitter on your bitter foe.


Now I but chide; but I should use thee worse,

For thou (I fear) hast given me cause to curse.

If thou hast slain Lysander in his sleep,

Being o’er shoes in blood, plunge in the deep,

And kill me too.

The sun was not so true unto the day

As he to me. Would he have stolen away

From sleeping Hermia? I’ll believe as soon

This whole earth may be bor’d, and that the moon

May through the centre creep, and so displease

Her brother’s noontide with th’ Antipodes.

It cannot be but thou hast murd’red him;

So should a murderer look—so dead, so grim.


So should the murdered look, and so should I,

Pierc’d through the heart with your stern cruelty.

Yet you, the murderer, look as bright, as clear,

As yonder Venus in her glimmering sphere.


What’s this to my Lysander? Where is he?

Ah, good Demetrius, wilt thou give him me?


I had rather give his carcass to my hounds.


Out, dog, out, cur! Thou driv’st me past the bounds

Of maiden’s patience. Hast thou slain him then?

Henceforth be never numb’red among men!

O, once tell true; tell true, even for my sake!

Durst thou have look’d upon him being awake?

And hast thou kill’d him sleeping? O brave touch!

Could not a worm, an adder, do so much?

An adder did it! For with doubler tongue

Than thine, thou serpent, never adder stung.


You spend your passion on a mispris’d mood.

I am not guilty of Lysander’s blood;

Nor is he dead, for aught that I can tell.


I pray thee, tell me then that he is well.


And if I could, what should I get therefore?


A privilege never to see me more.

And from thy hated presence part I so:

See me no more, whether he be dead or no.



There is no following her in this fierce vein.

Here therefore for a while I will remain.

So sorrow’s heaviness doth heavier grow

For debt that bankrout sleep doth sorrow owe;

Which now in some slight measure it will pay,

If for his tender here I make some stay.

Lie down and sleep.


What hast thou done? Thou hast mistaken quite,

And laid the love-juice on some true-love’s sight.

Of thy misprision must perforce ensue

Some true love turn’d, and not a false turn’d true.


Then fate o’errules, that one man holding troth,

A million fail, confounding oath on oath.


About the wood go swifter than the wind,

And Helena of Athens look thou find.

All fancy-sick she is and pale of cheer

With sighs of love, that costs the fresh blood dear.

By some illusion see thou bring her here.

I’ll charm his eyes against she do appear.


I go, I go, look how I go,

Swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow.



Flower of this purple dye,

Hit with Cupid’s archery,

Sink in apple of his eye.

When his love he doth espy,

Let her shine as gloriously

As the Venus of the sky.

When thou wak’st, if she be by,

Beg of her for remedy.

Enter Puck.


Captain of our fairy band,

Helena is here at hand,

And the youth, mistook by me,

Pleading for a lover’s fee.

Shall we their fond pageant see?

Lord, what fools these mortals be!


Stand aside. The noise they make

Will cause Demetrius to awake.


Then will two at once woo one;

That must needs be sport alone.

And those things do best please me

That befall prepost’rously.

Enter Lysander and Helena.


Why should you think that I should woo in scorn?

Scorn and derision never come in tears.

Look when I vow, I weep; and vows so born,

In their nativity all truth appears.

How can these things in me seem scorn to you,

Bearing the badge of faith to prove them true?


You do advance your cunning more and more;

When truth kills truth, O devilish-holy fray!

These vows are Hermia’s. Will you give her o’er?

Weigh oath with oath, and you will nothing weigh.

Your vows to her and me, put in two scales,

Will even weigh; and both as light as tales.


I had no judgment when to her I swore.


Nor none, in my mind, now you give her o’er.


Demetrius loves her; and he loves not you.



O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!

To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?

Crystal is muddy. O, how ripe in show

Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow!

That pure congealed white, high Taurus’ snow,

Fann’d with the eastern wind, turns to a crow

When thou hold’st up thy hand. O, let me kiss

This princess of pure white, this seal of bliss!


O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent

To set against me for your merriment.

If you were civil and knew courtesy,

You would not do me thus much injury.

Can you not hate me, as I know you do,

But you must join in souls to mock me too?

If you were men, as men you are in show,

You would not use a gentle lady so;

To vow, and swear, and superpraise my parts,

When I am sure you hate me with your hearts.

You both are rivals, and love Hermia;

And now both rivals, to mock Helena.

A trim exploit, a manly enterprise,

To conjure tears up in a poor maid’s eyes

With your derision! None of noble sort

Would so offend a virgin, and extort

A poor soul’s patience, all to make you sport.


You are unkind, Demetrius; be not so;

For you love Hermia; this you know I know.

And here, with all good will, with all my heart,

In Hermia’s love I yield you up my part;

And yours of Helena to me bequeath,

Whom I do love, and will do till my death.

Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski


Nonsense and Meaning

Studying Meaning and the Relationship Between Author and Reader in Nonsense.

Criticism of nonsense literature often attempts to decipher meaning from authorial and contextual history. Alice in Wonderland is considered to explore Carroll’s anxieties in a post-Darwinian society while themes of otherness in Lear’s limericks are deemed to represent his suppressed homosexuality that marginalised him from society. Similarly, homosexual interpretations of The Importance of Being Ernest are influenced by our knowledge of Wilde’s sexuality, whilst his history as a satirical writer limits the true meaning of the play to a social criticism. All of these criticisms assume that meaning is constructed by the author in nonsense. However, referencing Barthes’ The Death of the Author, I am going to argue that in nonsense, meaning is, in fact, constructed by the reader. In order to support my argument, I will not only remove the author and any historical context from my reading of the selected extracts, but I will also consider each extract as its own individual text, removing it from the context within the greater work, underlining the importance of superficial content over explanation in nonsense. Using this method, I will both highlight the power of the reader and undermine the authority of the author in nonsense. Furthermore, I will argue that to limit nonsense to a definitive meaning devalues it. and so I propose the argument that the ‘purpose’ of nonsense is to free the reader and allow them to experience a degree of subjectivity when experiencing texts.

Roderick McGillis proposes the paradox of meaning in nonsense, claiming, ‘”Non-sense,” then, nicely has it both ways: a work is “nonsense” when it simultaneously defeats meaning and delivers an overplus of meaning’.1 It is interesting to consider his notion of ‘overplus of meaning’ in nonsense, and I will argue that the only way to fully realise this overplus is to remove the author and any historical context from a reading. In The Death of the Author, Barthes argues the problems of considering the author when deciphering a text:

‘The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author confiding’ in us.’2

Barthes explores the limitations of the author further, depicting the removal of the author as liberating:

‘Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing’ (Barthes p. 147).

In eliminating the author, we render authorial intent insignificant, shifting the power from the author to the reader. This idea is apparent in Lear’s limerick The Old Man of Peru. Through the knowledge of Lear’s well documented homosexuality, the reader is somewhat forced to experience the limerick with the view that it works to reflect Lear’s personal marginalisation from society. Therefore when the limerick discusses how the protagonist ‘never knew what he should do’, it is easy for the reader to draw parallels with reference to the obligation Lear would have felt to comply to a predominantly heterosexual society.3 However, Lear tells us very little of the protagonist’s history. It is the Old Man’s confusion that drives him to act in a nonsensical way, and the reason behind his confusion is untold. Whilst this confusion may be rooted in something particular, like his supposed role in society, it is just as likely to be a result of something as trivial as boredom, and to consider the limerick as an expression of Lear’s frustration at his homosexuality limits its possible interpretations. Furthermore, there are ambiguous implications of the past tense ‘knew’, as it is unclear whether his subsequent actions are simply a reaction to this confusion, or whether up until this action he ‘never knew what he should do’, with this action a manifestation of his realisation of what he ‘should’, in fact, do. The reader has the power to decide whether or not his actions provide a solution to his boredom.

Considering the limerick as a manifestation of Lear’s homosexual anxieties suppresses other interpretations, and therefore it can be said that the reader’s experience of the text is limited. This is evident within the limerick when we critique Lear’s use of the word ‘intrinsic’ (Lear), as to state that such a thing as definitive authorial meaning existed, a greater message is likely to be ignored as a result of the oversimplification that derives from applying an author’s autobiographical experience as way of explanation within a text. To exemplify this further, if we isolate the author from the limerick, then word ‘intrinsic’ (Lear) can be seen to work to perpetuate the seemingly natural liminality that exists between animals and humans, when Lear includes abstract references to humans that ‘behaved like a bear’ (Lear). This nonsense constructs an allegorical slant on the text, that would undoubtedly be overlooked if the reader was bound to the constraints that the author imposes upon it. The notion of instinctual behaviour as ‘intrinsic’ (Lear) is comparable to the idea that nonsense is a natural form of expression, uncorrupted by rules or strict conventions. Similarly, no rules are imposed on the reading of nonsense, with the interpretation of it seen as truly natural and unintended by an active attempt to decipher meaning.

The sheer nature of a limerick further highlights the insignificance of the author and consequent powerfulness of the reader. Any notion of deep rooted authorial intention is disregarded when we consider the importance of rhyme and rhythm to the form of the limerick. Whether the Old Man is from Peru or Baku is completely irrelevant, what is important is that the limerick maintains its traditional metre and rhyme scheme. Authority is stripped away from the author by the fact that his word choice is based solely on tradition and form rather than meaning. The fact that there is no intended meaning opens up the interpretation to the reader, highlighting nonsense as an art that relies on the reader in order to be significant.

The similarities between the act of deciphering nonsense and the actions of the Old Man are rather amusing. The absurd and irrational nature of nonsense makes actively searching for meaning within it a confusing and ultimately futile task. The Old Man’s nonsensical reaction underlines the ‘nonsense’ of insisting on some deeper meaning within the genre.

In the selected extract of The Importance of Being Earnest, it is interesting to consider Mcgillis’ notion of nonsense both defeating meaning and delivering an overplus of meaning, and I will argue that neologism in the extract produces this effect. The repetition of the neologism ‘Bunbury’ is exaggerated and at times ridiculous.4 There are times in the extract where the conversation between Jack and Algernon is undeniably sexual, for example, ‘The most wonderful Bunbury I have ever had in my life’ (Wilde p.48), and knowledge of Wilde’s homosexuality further emphasises this idea. Throughout the extract it is easy to replace the word ‘Bunbury’ with a more crude equivalent, and sometimes we do it almost subconsciously. However, this is due to the context that the neologism is used in and not the neologism itself. The fact that ‘bunbury’ could be used in a different context and mean something completely emphasises the notion that in nonsense, meaning is constructed by the reader. In this sense, the neologism defeats meaning, limiting the potential interpretations of the extract. The nature of neologisms means that they empower the reader over the author. Regarding neologisms, Haight argues that ‘the word remains private slang: his attempt to make it mean what he wants in English has failed’.5 Removal of the author renders Wilde’s intent insignificant. There are no rules governing the word and it is taken to mean whatever suits the context. Barthes argues against the idea that the text is ‘the voice of a single person, the author confiding in us’ (Barthes p.247). Haight describes that a neologism ‘is roughly pronounceable; and although it has no official use in English, it has a certain associative, or evocative, power.’ The evocative power of ‘bunbury’ is sexual in this case, however it is heavily dependend on the content of the extract. Furthermore, while neologism may appear to be the voice of a single person, the fact that it is completely open to interpretation and dependent on the context that it is used in means that it is the voice of anyone who wants to interpret it, and in this way, nonsense empowers the reader over the author.

In the first line of the extract, Jack asks Algernon, ‘This ghastly state of things is what you call Bunburying, I suppose?’ (Wilde p.48) His own curiosity concerning the meaning of ‘bunbury’ is similar to that of the reader, with the inclusion of ‘I suppose?’ almost inviting the reader to engage with the indefinable nature of the word. There are also instances where the extract acknowledges its own nonsensical elements, as Algernon claims, ‘You have such an absolutely trivial nature’ (Wilde p.48), and Jack subsequently tells Algernon, ‘that is nonsense; you are always talking nonsese’ (Wilde p.48). Nonsense’s acknowledgement of its own nonsense underlines the notion that any attempt to decipher a definite meaning from it is foolish and useless. By seemingly subverting its own literary value, the author loses all power. Barthes highlights the problematic nature of classic criticism’s strict focus on the author:

‘Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature. We are now~beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant, antiphrastical recriminations of good society in ‘favour of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author’ (p. 148).

Acknowledging itself as nonsense, in effect, kills the author, opening the text up to the reader and inviting any possible interpretation.

Alice in Wonderland is often interpreted as an expression of society’s post-Darwinian anxieties, with the human/animal relationship reflecting the idea of survival that was so prevalent in contemporary society. However, to assign a scientific interpretation to the extract undermines the imaginative and artistic elements of the text that are what make up its value. In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag argues the danger of consciously attempting to decipher meaning from art, making her definition of ‘interpretation’ clear:

‘Of course, I don’t mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules” of interpretation. Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says, Look, don’t you see that X is really— or, really means—A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?’

The idea of actively searching for meaning in the extract is ridiculous, and subverts the value of nonsense.

The Caterpillar’s claim that one side of the mushroom will make Alice grow and the other side will make her shrink raises the idea of perception in the extract, as, ‘Alice remained looking thoughtfully at the mushroom for a minute, trying to make out which were the two sides of it; and as it was perfectly round, she found this a very difficult question’.7 This exemplifies nonsense’s ability to empower the reader. The idea that Alice and the caterpillar potentially view the two sides of the mushroom completely differently echoes the importance of perception in reading nonsense. Authorial intent is insignificant, as just as Alice and the caterpillar perceive the mushroom differently, readers of nonsense perceive the extract differently.

There are also instances in the extract where the information provided is so difficult to comprehend that it almost seems irrelevant, for example, ‘the next moment she felt a violent blow underneath her chin: it had struck her foot!’ (Carroll p. 69). To attempt to visualise such an occurrence is challenging and confusing. However, the reader is empowered by the fact that they are not forced to attempt the challenge of imagining the image, as it adds little to the understanding of the extract as a whole, and could simply be disregarded altogether.

In order to fully liberate the range of interpretations appreciate the expansive range of ideas in nonsense, it is vital to remove it from any authorial or historical context. The nature of nonsense make it so difficult to define, such as its unpredictability, its playful inventiveness and its lack of real rules all contribute to the empowering of the reader over the author. Any attempt to tie down nonsense to a particular meaning is damaging to the genre’s value, as it favours the author over the reader and thus limits the genre’s ability to evoke different ideas and images. In nonsense, the reader constructs the meaning

Word Count: 2212


Barthes, Roland, (1977) “The Death of the Author” from Barthes, Roland, Image, music, text pp.142-148, London: Fontana

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, New York:MacMillan. (1865)

Haight, M. R., Nonsense, The British Society of Aesthetics, pp.247-56

Lear, Edward. The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear. Ed. Holbrook Jackson. 1947. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1951

McGillis, Roderick Introduction: Literary Nonsense’, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Published by John Hopkins University Press.Volume 24, Number 4, Winter 1999, pp. 186-187

Sontag, Susan, (2009) “Against Interpretation” from Sontag, Susan, Against interpretation and other essays pp.3-14, London: Penguin ©

Nonsense extracts:

Alice – ‘You’ll get used to it in time,’ said the Caterpillar; and it put the hookah into its mouth and began smoking again.
This time Alice waited patiently until it chose to speak again. In a minute or two the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth and yawned once or twice, and shook itself. Then it got down off the mushroom, and crawled away in the grass, merely remarking as it went, ‘One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.’
‘One side of what? The other side of what?’ thought Alice to herself.
‘Of the mushroom,’ said the Caterpillar, just as if she had asked it aloud; and in another moment it was out of sight.
Alice remained looking thoughtfully at the mushroom for a minute, trying to make out which were the two sides of it; and as it was perfectly round, she found this a very difficult question. However, at last she stretched her arms round it as far as they would go, and broke off a bit of the edge with each hand.
‘And now which is which?’ she said to herself, and nibbled a little of the right-hand bit to try the effect: the next moment she felt a violent blow underneath her chin: it had struck her foot!
She was a good deal frightened by this very sudden change, but she felt that there was no time to be lost, as she was shrinking rapidly; so she set to work at once to eat some of the other bit. Her chin was pressed so closely against her foot, that there was hardly room to open her mouth; but she did it at last, and managed to swallow a morsel of the lefthand bit.

Lear – There was an Old Man of Peru,
Who never knew what he should do;
So he tore off his hair,
And behaved like a bear,
That intrinsic Old Man of Peru.

Earnest – [They retire into the house with scornful looks.]
Jack. This ghastly state of things is what you call Bunburying, I suppose?

Algernon. Yes, and a perfectly wonderful Bunbury it is. The most wonderful Bunbury I have ever had in my life.

Jack. Well, you’ve no right whatsoever to Bunbury here.

Algernon. That is absurd. One has a right to Bunbury anywhere one chooses. Every serious Bunburyist knows that.

Jack. Serious Bunburyist! Good heavens!

Algernon. Well, one must be serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement in life. I happen to be serious about Bunburying. What on earth you are serious about I haven’t got the remotest idea. About everything, I should fancy. You have such an absolutely trivial nature.

Jack. Well, the only small satisfaction I have in the whole of this wretched business is that your friend Bunbury is quite exploded. You won’t be able to run down to the country quite so often as you used to do, dear Algy. And a very good thing too

Algernon. Your brother is a little off colour, isn’t he, dear Jack? You won’t be able to disappear to London quite so frequently as your wicked custom was. And not a bad thing either.

Jack. As for your conduct towards Miss Cardew, I must say that your taking in a sweet, simple, innocent girl like that is quite inexcusable. To say nothing of the fact that she is my ward.

Algernon. I can see no possible defence at all for your deceiving a brilliant, clever, thoroughly experienced young lady like Miss Fairfax. To say nothing of the fact that she is my cousin.

Jack. I wanted to be engaged to Gwendolen, that is all. I love her.

Algernon. Well, I simply wanted to be engaged to Cecily. I adore her.

Jack. There is certainly no chance of your marrying Miss Cardew.

Algernon. I don’t think there is much likelihood, Jack, of you and Miss Fairfax being united.

Jack. Well, that is no business of yours.

Algernon. If it was my business, I wouldn’t talk about it. [Begins to eat muffins.] It is very vulgar to talk about
one’s business. Only people like stock-brokers do that, and then merely at dinner 2parties.

Jack. How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can’t make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.

Algernon. Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.

Jack. I say it’s perfectly heartless your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances.

Algernon. When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as any one who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins.

Jack. [Rising.] Well, that is no reason why you should eat them all in that greedy way.

[Takes muffins from

Algernon. [Offering tea-cake.] I wish you would have tea-cake instead. I don’t like tea-cake.

Jack. Good heavens! I suppose a man may eat his own muffins in his own garden.

Algernon. But you have just said it was perfectly heartless to eat muffins.

Jack. I said it was perfectly heartless of you, under the circumstances. That is a very different thing.

Algernon. That may be. But the muffins are the same. [He seizes the muffin-dish from Jack.]

Jack. Algy, I wish to goodness you would go.

Algernon. You can’t possibly ask me to go without having some dinner. It’s absurd. I never go without my dinner. No one ever does, except vegetarians and people like that. Besides I have just made arrangements with Dr. Chasuble to be christened at a quarter to six under the name of Ernest.

Jack. My dear fellow, the sooner you give up that nonsense the better. I made arrangements this morning with Dr. Chasuble to be christened myself at 5.30, and I naturally will take the name of Ernest. Gwendolen would
wish it. We can’t both be christened Ernest. It’s absurd. Besides, I have a perfect right to be christened if I like.There is no evidence at all that I have ever been christened by anybody. I should think it extremely probable I
never was, and so does Dr. Chasuble. It is entirely different in your case. You have been christened already.

Algernon. Yes, but I have not been christened for years.

Jack. Yes, but you have been christened. That is the important thing.

Algernon. Quite so. So I know my constitution can stand it. If you are not quite sure about your ever having
been christened, I must say I think it rather dangerous your venturing on it now. It might make you very
unwell. You can hardly have forgotten that some one very closely connected with you was very nearly carried
off this week in Paris by a severe chill.

Jack. Yes, but you said yourself that a severe chill was not hereditary.

Algernon. It usen’t to be, I know–but I daresay it is now. Science is always making wonderful improvements
in things.

Jack. [Picking up the muffin-dish.] Oh, that is nonsense; you are always talking nonsense.

Algernon. Jack, you are at the muffins again! I wish you wouldn’t. There are only two left. [Takes them.] I
told you I was particularly fond of muffins.

Jack. But I hate tea-cake.

Algernon. Why on earth then do you allow tea-cake to be served up for your guests? What ideas you have of

Jack. Algernon! I have already told you to go. I don’t want you here. Why don’t you go!

Algernon. I haven’t quite finished my tea yet! and there is still one muffin left.

[Jack groans, and sinks into a
chair. Algernon still continues eating.]

Alice in Wonderland and Spanish Forms of Narrative Resistance

In this essay I intend to explore the influence of and relationship between Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Spanish art, literature and film throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The role of nonsense in Spanish literature appears to be minimal, or at least identified as such, however there are features of it which are clearly identifiable in influential Spanish movements. For example, the work of Spanish surrealists like Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel can clearly be seen as direct successors to the nonsense movement of the century before, specifically the Alice books. The surrealist preoccupation with dreams is an obvious link between Carroll’s works and the mid-20th century art movement. The writer Ramón Gómez de la Serna, too, seems to have some stylistic techniques in common with Carroll. Ramón’s greguerías, the name for a short, humorous sentence which utilises elements of word play, metaphor and punning in an observation of the world around the writer have much in common with features of the Alice books, for example the Mock Turtle’s ‘reeling and writhing’ lessons in school. Finally, the third text I would like to study in conjunction with Alice in Wonderland is Guillermo del Toro’s El Laberinto del Fauno (2006). This film contains many direct allusions to Alice in Wonderland, from the costume design, for example Ofelia’s dress, to the Underground Realm which would seem to be Ofelia’s warped experience of Wonderland.
However, more than individual themes or features of the Alice books appearing in Spanish works, I would like to explore the narrative conventions, which, taking a lead from Lewis Carroll’s nonsense story, these texts subvert or disobey. Taking into account Spain’s history throughout the 20th century, and specifically the horrors of the Civil War of 1936-39 and the Francoist regime, the significance of a new kind of narrative, one which subverts expectation and often patriarchal, fascist forms of storytelling is highly important. Nonsense as a genre is one which is concerned with narrative innovation and undermining. This can be seen in the works of both Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, the founders of the genre. For example, in Lear’s limericks, the final line, rather than being a humorous revelation or punchline, is generally a circle back to the beginning of the limerick, a near repetition of the first line. The humour of Lear’s limericks lies (unsurprisingly) in their lack of narrative sense or coherence.
‘There was an Old Person of Cadiz,
Who was always polite to all ladies;
But in handing his daughter,
He fell into the water,
Which drowned that Old Person of Cadiz.’
If, as Ismay Barwell asserts, ‘in a narrative each event preceding the last contributes to the explanation or to the evaluation, or to both explanation and evaluation of the last […] narratives are functionally coherent representations of sequences of events,’ then it is clear how nonsense does not comply with this traditional idea of what narrative should be. We can see how in Lear’s limerick the narrative expectation is subverted by the cyclical form and how the various elements of the short narrative are largely unrelated to one another. Using Lear’s limericks as an illustration of the ways in which nonsense, more importantly than its use of made up or nonsensical language, employs techniques of narrative subversion as one of its most significant and arguably most influential features, we can see how these techniques may be used in order to create a new form of narrative, one which can be used as a form of resistance against the conventional formulation of coherence and, indeed, tradition.
In Francoist Spain, tradition and logic were of utmost importance to the regime. This can be seen in Franco’s famous achievement of making ‘the trains run on time.’ Time is a theme which runs throughout both El Laberinto del Fauno and Alice in Wonderland (and the works of both Salvador Dalí and Ramón Gomez de la Serna to a certain extent). This preoccupation with time, and more specifically, punctuality, is one which is related to ideas of coherent logic, understanding and of course, linear narrative. Time is also presented as a tyrannical or oppressive force, as shown by the dictatorial Queen of Heart’s preoccupation with it, going so far as to order the Mad Hatter to be executed because ‘He’s murdering the time!’ Time and lateness is a common anxiety within dreams, and is our first introduction in Alice in Wonderland into the dream world – the White Rabbit’s first words are ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!’ Further to this anxious, time-conscious introduction to Wonderland, as Alice falls down the rabbit hole, the observation is made that ‘either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly.’ This is a demonstration of Alice’s descent into the topsy-turvy, dreamlike world of Wonderland, where time does not play by the same rules as in ‘real life.’ Similarly, in El Laberinto del Fauno, the first words of Captain Vidal are ‘Fifteen minutes late,’ in conjunction with a close up on his broken pocket watch and the sound of its amplified ticking. Thus, when Ofelia enters the setting of her own Wonderland, she is immediately greeted by the constrictions of time and punctuality. As in Alice in Wonderland, this theme continues, for example when she enters the underground realm of El Hombre Pálido, where she must stay within the time constraints of the hourglass given to her by the Faun. These constraints are emphasised by the oppressive, unnatural light of the setting and the frantic and tense non-diegetic soundtrack. However, Ofelia breaks ‘the rules,’ creating her own narrative by breaking out of the Underground Realm outside of the time constraint set by the Faun and the fairy-tale style book of tasks he gives her. The relationship between time and Franco’s regime is emphasised by the fact that Captain Vidal’s rooms are in a part of the mill in which the cogs are visible and comparable to the inner workings of a clock, relating him to the strict limitations of time. When questioned about his father’s watch, Vidal says, ‘Nonsense. He didn’t own a watch.’ Here, we see a direct relation between nonsense and the concept of time. Even Vidal, as the film’s representative of tradition, logic and Francoist Spain, is able to utilise nonsense in order to deny the oppressive conventions of time and create his own narrative by lying about his father’s watch. The frequent denial or disobedience of ever present time in the film starts to build the idea in that the characters, and the narrative itself are creating their own rules of logic and physics. As Calvin R. Peterson says, ‘in psychoanalytic theory, it is the loss of linear perspective that is regarded as giving dreams and fairy tales a logic all their own.’ In Salvador Dalí’s most famous work, The Persistence of Memory , the collapse of time in the form of the melting pocket watches is not only arguably an allusion to Alice in Wonderland, but reflects a rejection of ‘reality’ and how it is conceived and controlled strictly through a linear idea of time. Ramón also touches on this in his gregueria ‘The clock does not exist in happy hours.’ He demonstrates in this short sentence how the liberation of time and its constrictions is synonymous with happiness and its freedom, going so far as to completely eradicate the oppression of time. In all four texts, there is a clear expression of the oppressive constrictions of time, but through their utilisation of disobedience and denial of this, they create a nonsensical narrative by which these constrictions can be broken and reformulated.
Dalí’s preoccupation with dreams is significant in this idea of denial and disobedience to traditional forms of narrative, as rather than classifying dreams as ‘false’ and the waking world as ‘real,’ he instead utilises dreams as a way in which to understand the world without a clear separation. The same is true of Alice in Wonderland and El Laberinto del Fauno. The fantasy or ‘fairy-tale’ parts of Ofelia’s world are not clearly distinguished from her everyday life. For example, emblems of the Underground Realm are visible in the set design of the house in which Ofelia and her mother stay, as seen in the design of the bedframe, which is carved with a design like the curved horns of the Faun. In addition to this, Ofelia is able to use the gift of the chalk from the Faun in order to escape Captain Vidal. This is yet another demonstration of how nonsense or a childlike, fantasy narrative can actually change the course of a traditional narrative and escape a punitive, fascist conclusion. In Alice in Wonderland as in El Laberinto del Fauno, the dreamworld or Wonderland is discovered in broad daylight and in a waking world. Dalí’s painting appears to be set at dawn or twilight, the gateways between night and day, emphasising the unclear distinctions between dream and reality. In Ramón’s greguerías, the writer perceives the world through humorous metaphorical turns of phrase, once again blurring the line between the literal and the more figurative. For example, ‘the spine is the cane we swallow at birth.’ In giving the figurative and the literal, the dreamlike and the real equal authority in their narratives, each of these texts perform a form of resistance against a totalitarian or dichotomous way of reading a narrative. Jennifer Orne says of El Laberinto del Fauno that this is ‘crucial to the film’s social critique of the systemic violence employed by militaristic regimes that wish to create, as Vidal says, a ‘clean’ and decidedly unambiguous world by destroying all that is disobedient – all that does not fit into the master narrative of totalitarianism.’ Considering all of the Spanish texts studied in this essay would have been influenced by Franco’s dictatorship, it is then not surprising that each might use this Alice in Wonderland style of blurring the distinctions found in generic perceptions of what is believable and what is not.
Another way in which nonsense can subvert orthodox forms of narrative in a radical manner is by revealing the ways in which tradition and convention in many ways literally lack sense, or, as James Rother puts it, where ‘reason may most often be seen to fail.’ Nonsense often does this through humour which is almost satirical, as seen in many of the characters in Alice in Wonderland. For example, the Queen of Hearts has been seen by many as a parody of Carroll’s contemporaneous Queen Victoria, but more than this specific comparison, the character of the despotic ruler is a comedic and effective critique of the concept of autocracy itself. Franco, too, has been compared to the Queen of Hearts in a humorous manner , showing the effectiveness of a nonsensical articulation of recognisable ‘real world’ elements and their ability to successfully permeate the cultural consciousness with remarkable longevity. It is this kind of durability which reveals the resonant truths that nonsense has the capacity to express. At a more domestic level, nonsense can also reveal the limitations and incoherence of cultural principles and expectations, such as ideas of courtesy. The potentially ridiculous nature of convention and every day human items and experiences is revealed in Ramón’s greguerías. Juli Highfil states that ‘far from providing a realist mirror of modern life, Ramón’s photographic eye operates more like a funhouse mirror – distorting, enlarging, or shrinking its objects through bizarre metaphysical couplings.’ I would argue that, as we have seen from Carroll, looking at the world through a distorted ‘looking glass’ can in fact reveal more truth than a realist view ever could, in terms of revealing the fallacies and inconsistencies of a world attempting to base itself both on logic and on tradition whilst attempting to conflate the two. An example of the kind of greguería which might reveal the inconsistent and contradictory nature of human language and logic is ‘the unit of power for airplane engines shouldn’t be horsepower, but hippogriffpower.’ In this simple, somewhat childish observation, Ramón reveals how language and its conventions cannot remain both logical and traditional, simply due to the fact that it is largely metaphorical. Carroll too does this at the Mad Hatter’s Tea party – for the Hatter and the March Hare, it is always tea-time, and due to the constraints of time which I have previously explored, they must always have tea. It reveals how, in abiding by tradition, the Hatter and the Hare are led to do quite ridiculous things as a result of following a convention which is solely enforced by language.
As Richard L. Jackson observes, ‘Gomez de la Serna has taken old proverbs and sayings and altered their structure and content for humorous purposes. By changing a word or two, shifting their viewpoints, he manages to add new aspects and possibilities of truth no matter how ludicrously conceived.’ Direct associations can be drawn between this description and the word play which Carroll uses liberally throughout the Alice books. This can be seen in the part in which the Mouse recites his ‘long and sad tale’ to Alice.
‘You are not attending!’ said the Mouse to Alice severely. ‘What are you thinking of?’
‘I beg your pardon,’ said Alice very humbly: ‘you had got to the fifth bend, I think?’
‘I had not!’ cried the Mouse, sharply and very angrily.
‘A knot!’ said Alice, always ready to make herself useful, and looking anxiously about her. ‘Oh, do let me help to undo it!’
‘I shall do nothing of the sort,’ said the Mouse, getting up and walking away. ‘You insult me by talking such nonsense!’
‘I didn’t mean it!’ pleaded poor Alice. ‘But you’re so easily offended, you know!’
This exchange reveals something of the nonsensical nature of language and conventional courtesy. Alice’s confusion is branded as ‘nonsense’ by the animals of Wonderland, the representations of a world in which rules, however absurd and confusing, are paramount, as shown by the tyranny of the Queen of Hearts. As Alvin C. Kibel observes, ‘Alice can recognise its oddities because she knows what the ability to speak presupposes – namely, how to distinguish consistency from inconsistency by attending to context in the use of terms.’ The importance of context in identifying consistency is something which Ramón explores in his greguerías, in isolating his observations from the context of their surroundings. The nonsensical aspect of this is drawn from the fact that without context, language can be interpreted in different ways. Thus, the humour of it lies in a conflict of interpretations and the fact that both are, in fact, correct, revealing the capacity for multiplicity in a nonsense text. This multiplicity is at odds with conventional forms of narrative, in which one thing is true at once and each event follows on from the last to create a coherent, whole, singular narrative.
It is clear to see how each of these texts employs nonsense techniques found in Alice in Wonderland in order to subvert conventional narrative expectations. The most important quality that each of these texts achieve is that of multiplicity, allowing more than one thing to be true at once or for multiple interpretations. It is this quality which causes the narrative of each of the texts to be so radical, a great achievement from works produced in a country plagued by autocracy and dictatorship, and is perhaps formed in part by this. The lack of linear division between a dreamworld and the ‘real’ world, between the figurative and the metaphorical, and the refusal to privilege one over the other is what allows these texts to reveal a complex view of truth and reality. Each text recognises tradition and logic as cornerstones of society, yet purposely chooses to flout the ‘rules’ and reveal what is false about these concepts. In conclusion, it is clear to see the influence of nonsense and specifically Alice in Wonderland in these texts, be it through overt allusions to the story, or through the recognition and subversion of a conventional narrative which Alice in Wonderland provides the building-blocks for.
1. Barwell, Ismay, “Understanding Narratives And Narrative Understanding”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 67 (2009), 49-59
2. Carroll, Lewis, and Helen Oxenbury, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (Cambridge, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 1999)
3. Carroll, Lewis, and Salvador Dalí, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland
4. Dalí, Salvador, The Persistence Of Memory (New York City: The Museum of Modern Art, 1931)
5. El Laberinto Del Fauno (Spain: Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
6. Highfill, Juli, “Metaphoric Commerce: The Greguerias Novisimas And Their Circumstance”, Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies, 9 (2005), 119-135
7. Jackson, Richard L., “A New Literary Genre: The Gregueria”, Books Abroad, 39 (1965), 415-417
8. Jackson, Richard L., “Towards A Classification Of The ‘Gregueria'”, Hispania, 48 (1965), 826-832
9. Kibel, Alvin C., “Logic And Satire In Alice In Wonderland”, The American Scholar, 43 (1974), 605-629
10. Kotecki, Kristene, “Approximating The Hypertextual, Replicating The Metafictional: Textual And Sociopolitical Authority In Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Pan’s Labyrinth'”, Marvels & Tales, 24 (2010), 235-254
11. Orne, Jennifer, “Narrative Desire And Disobedience In ‘Pan’s Labyrinth'”, Marvels & Tales, 24 (2010), 219-234
12. Peterson, Calvin R., “Time And Stress: Alice In Wonderland”, The Journal of the History of Ideas, 46 (1985), 427-433
13. PoemHunter.com, “Limerick: There Was An Old Person Of Cadiz Poem By Edward Lear – Poem Hunter”, 2016 <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/limerick-there-was-an-old-person-of-cadiz/&gt; [accessed 25 January 2016]
14. Rother, James, “Modernism And The Nonsense Style”, Contemporary Literature, 15 (1974), 187-202
15. Shelmerdine, Brian, British Representations Of The Spanish Civil War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006)

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (1865)
Alice sighed wearily. ‘I think you might do something better with the time,’ she said, ‘than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers.’
‘If you knew Time as well as I do,’ said the Hatter, ‘you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Alice.
‘Of course you don’t!’ the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. ‘I dare say you never even spoke to Time!’
‘Perhaps not,’ Alice cautiously replied: ‘but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.’
‘Ah! that accounts for it,’ said the Hatter. ‘He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock. For instance, suppose it were nine o’clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons: you’d only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!’
(‘I only wish it was,’ the March Hare said to itself in a whisper.)
‘That would be grand, certainly,’ said Alice thoughtfully: ‘but then—I shouldn’t be hungry for it, you know.’
‘Not at first, perhaps,’ said the Hatter: ‘but you could keep it to half-past one as long as you liked.’
‘Is that the way you manage?’ Alice asked.
The Hatter shook his head mournfully. ‘Not I!’ he replied. ‘We quarrelled last March—just before he went mad, you know—’ (pointing with his tea spoon at the March Hare,) ‘—it was at the great concert given by the Queen of Hearts, and I had to sing
“Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!”
You know the song, perhaps?’
‘I’ve heard something like it,’ said Alice.
‘It goes on, you know,’ the Hatter continued, ‘in this way:—
“Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea-tray in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle—”‘
Here the Dormouse shook itself, and began singing in its sleep ‘Twinkle, twinkle, twinkle, twinkle—’ and went on so long that they had to pinch it to make it stop.
‘Well, I’d hardly finished the first verse,’ said the Hatter, ‘when the Queen jumped up and bawled out, “He’s murdering the time! Off with his head!”‘
‘How dreadfully savage!’ exclaimed Alice.
‘And ever since that,’ the Hatter went on in a mournful tone, ‘he won’t do a thing I ask! It’s always six o’clock now.’
A bright idea came into Alice’s head. ‘Is that the reason so many tea-things are put out here?’ she asked.
‘Yes, that’s it,’ said the Hatter with a sigh: ‘it’s always tea-time, and we’ve no time to wash the things between whiles.’
Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory (1931)

Guillermo del Toro, El Laberinto del Fauno (2006)


Ramón Gómez de la Serna, a selection of greguerías
‘The spine is the cane we swallow at birth.’
‘The unit of power for airplane engines shouldn’t be horsepower, but hippogriffpower.’
‘The pair of eggs we eat seem like twins, but they’re not even third cousins.’
‘A chicken is the only cook who knows how to make, out of a little corn with no eggs, an egg with no corn.’
‘The crocodile is a suitcase that travels on credit.’
‘The accordion juices musical lemons.’

Nonsense and Food

Food is a motif that occurs frequently within the genre of nonsense literature, and is particularly prevalent within the works of canonical nonsense writers such as Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, who are considered to be the founding fathers of the genre. However, since this is an emerging area of literary study, there is much debate amongst academics regarding what constitutes a definition of nonsense. Therefore, a universal definition of the term nonsense is not available, but instead it is open to interpretation. Terry Eagleton has argued that: ‘if there is one sure thing about food, it is that it is never just food. Like the post-structuralist text, food is endlessly interpretable, as gift, threat, poison, recompense, barter, seduction, solidarity, suffocation.’[1]  In order to explore the theme of food within nonsense texts, this anthology will focus on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, two of Edward Lear’s limericks, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and finally the banquet scene from Guillermo del Toro’s Pans Labyrinth. Within the aforementioned texts the reference to food can be interpreted in a variety of ways, so therefore is in-keeping with Eagleton’s statement. Since nonsense texts tend to be difficult to comprehend (one of the common definitions of nonsense is that it ‘defies sense’[2]), nonsense is arguably ‘endlessly interpretable’, just like Eagleton states that food is. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why food in particular lends itself to this genre. Food plays a fundamental part in everybody’s everyday life so is inextricably linked to notions of class and cultural rituals, as well as often having erotic or religious connotations. Like Alice, many of us take a ‘great interest in questions of eating and drinking.’[3]

Firstly, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, references to food are made towards the end of the opening chapter, in one of the novel’s most iconic scenes. After shrinking due to drinking a bottle labelled ‘DRINK ME’ (p. 13), Alice discovers ‘a very small cake, on which the words EAT ME were beautifully marked in currants’ (p. 14.) I think that Carroll intentionally selected an item of food which is evocative of the heroine, which possesses feminine traits. As a young girl Alice should be ‘small’, sweet and pretty, the latter of which can be linked to the cake’s aesthetically pleasing presentation. It is also significant that Carroll selected an item of food which is considered to be a treat, rather than an everyday staple such as bread, thus adding to the temptation. Since a cake is a luxury food item, and due to the decorative nature of this particular cake, it is a type of food one would associate with the middle class, which reflects Alice’s identity. As Hugh Haughton states in the introduction to the novel: ‘the fictional Alice measures herself by her superior knowledge and social status’ (p. xli.) Although Alice encounters an identity crisis throughout the novel, her dress and speech suggest her (at the very least) middle class social status.

Additionally, the language used in ‘EAT ME’ (p. 14) is performative, and Alice conforms to this command, which is reminiscent of advertising ploys used to persuade potential consumers to purchase food. Alice’s hunger is not mentioned, but rather she is eating because she has been instructed to do so by the narrator, and is therefore being controlled by Carroll as opposed to acting with agency at this point in the novel. In this chapter the heroine is presented as a consumer. Within the concluding sentence ‘she set to work and soon finished off the cake’ (p. 15), the use of ‘work’ makes eating appear like a task, or something which she is forced  to do, whilst the inclusion of ‘anxiously’ (p. 15) in the previous paragraph further stresses that this is not a pleasant process, but on the contrary is laborious. Lisa Coar argues that: ‘it would appear, at times, that Carroll forces Alice to eat in order to feed his own hedonistic hunger for imposing patriarchal punishment on greedy little girls.’[4] Perhaps Carroll intended that Alice’s extreme growth be considered a type of disfigurement, or a source of shame, in order to dissuade her from needlessly consuming calorific food. This would be in-keeping with the attitude towards food and females in Carroll’s era, because ‘in Victorian society, food and femininity were linked in such a way as to promote restrictive eating among privileged adolescent women.’[5] Ideally, girls were expected to have small appetites, and consumption of food to excess was perceived to be an unfeminine trait.

Also, Alice says: ‘she was quite surprised to find that she remained the same size: to be sure, this generally happens when one eats cake, but Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way’ (p. 15.) This emphasises that the happenings in Wonderland are peculiar, thus drawing attention to the fact that this text belongs in the genre of nonsense literature, and also shows how Carroll is subverting the conventions of the real. Although this extract does not mention Alice’s enormous increase in size, the beginning of the following chapter describes this. The fact that the consumption of the cake causes Alice’s growth is interesting, because although consumption of food is necessary in order for a child to grow, Carroll has taken this concept and exaggerated Alice’s growth dramatically, thus taking it into the realm of the absurd. This is in-keeping with the characteristics often associated with the nonsense genre. Haight asserts that absurdity is a keynote of nonsense as a literary form, [6] and Alice’s extreme fluctuations in size are certainly absurd.

Moreover, Alice’s physical growth due to the consumption of the cake can be viewed as a metaphor for her emotional growth. Alice develops significantly throughout the book, and I believe that her shrinking and growing in size represents how the process of growing up is not linear, and that on certain days you may feel more mature than others. Alice’s appetite may also represent her sexual desire; throughout the novel Alice is constantly consuming, yet her hunger never seems to be satiated. This suggests it is not food which she requires in order to satisfy her voracious appetite, but rather it is her sexual appetite that needs to be fulfilled. Since Alice is about the beginning stages of the protagonist’s development into womanhood, in addition to belonging to the genre of nonsense literature, it could also be classed as a bildungsroman.

A substantial number of Lear’s limericks in A Book Of Nonsense deal with the subject of food. Although food is not always depicted negatively in his limericks (for example, in certain limericks food acts as a remedy), the extracts I have selected are concerned with the dangers of food when taken to the extreme. In the ‘Old Man of Calcutta’, food is consumed in excess, because Lear writes that the old man ‘perpetually ate bread and butter (line 2.)’[7] This in itself is nonsensical, because the concept of somebody constantly consuming bread and butter is an impossibility. Moreover the concluding two lines ‘till a great bit of muffin, on which he was stuffing/Choked that old man of Calcutta’ (lines 3-4), contradict the previous lines, because a muffin is not bread and butter. This can be associated with religion, because within the Christian tradition gluttony is considered to be one of the seven deadly sins. In the Bible it is warned that those who are gluttonous will suffer the repercussions: ‘for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe them with rags’ (Prov. 23.21.)  It was generally considered that by consuming excessive amounts of food, you take away resources from those in need of food, who will go hungry whilst others grow fat. There is a clear moral message, or warning in Lear’s limerick, which is not to be greedy. The protagonist is given the worst form of punishment for his excessive eating: death. The use of the pejorative adjective ‘horrid’ (line 4) suggests that there may be a link between overconsumption and immorality, because his overeating is the only information we are given about the old man, so we cannot assume any other reason for him being described as ‘horrid’ (line 4.) Moreover, Lear’s accompanying illustration showcases the enormous size of the food that the old man is consuming, as well as his obese form. Also, the old man’s extravagant clothing (the buttoned waistcoat, shirt and smart trousers), indicate that he is wealthy, thus suggesting that there is a correlation between excessive consumption and the higher classes, which links back to the earlier discussion of class in Alice.

However, as previously stated, Lear is not criticising food itself; another of his limericks is concerned with the perils of not eating enough. ‘The Old Man of Berlin’[8] has a form that is ‘uncommonly thin’ (p. 77), which the accompanying picture illustrates. It depicts a long, narrow, fragile looking man, who, due to his small size, gets ‘mixed up in a cake/ So they baked that old man of Berlin’ (lines 3-4.) This concept is absurd, and the illustration exemplifies the absurdity, because the man, although narrow is still of such a size that the bakers would notice him entering the cake mixture. Moreover, it is ludicrous that the old man has his mouth open during this process, so presumably could have shouted in protest about the impending prospect of him being baked alive. The image also reinforces gender stereotypes about cooking because it is three women who are baking the cake, so suggests that a woman’s role is within the domestic sphere, which is in-keeping with the patriarchal society of Lear’s era. However, conventional notions of gender and power are subverted here, because the female bakers cause the death of the old man.

It is the events in Lear’s limericks which tend to be nonsensical, rather than the incorporation of nonsensical language such as portmanteau words or neologisms, although he does occasionally use words which do not make sense in the given context. Although on the surface this is a comical limerick, it carries alongside it the serious message that not eating enough can cause death. Ideally, with respect to eating, one should find a balance between the ‘Old man of Calcutta’ and ‘the Old man of Berlin.’ The ‘old man’ features frequently throughout Lear’s limericks, and since children are his target audience it adds to the humour that they are reading about the eccentricities of adults, who are supposed to be mature and sensible.

Although Pan’s Labyrinth is much darker than Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, both contain fairy tale like elements, and there are numerous parallels between the two heroines Ofelia and Alice. Both Alice and Ofelia are young girls who enter a subterranean world and embark upon a journey of self-development, encountering strange animals or creatures along their way. I believe that due to the multiple similarities between Pans Labyrinth and Alice (which is a canonical piece of nonsense literature), combined with the fantastical underworld that Ofelia explores, which defies logic with its magical nature, means that this film can be classed as nonsense. Before the second task, Ofelia is instructed ‘not to eat or drink anything during her stay.’[9] This has Biblical allusions to Genesis and the Garden of Eden, where Eve is told not to eat the forbidden fruit. Just as Eve succumbs to temptation and eats the apple, Ofelia eats a grape from the banquet, despite the fact that the fairies actively attempt to prevent her from doing so. As in Eve’s case, whose consumption of the apple leads to the fall of man, so too does Ofelia’s act of disobedience have disastrous consequences. After consuming a grape, the monstrous pale man is awakened. As punishment for Ofelia devouring two of his grapes, the pale man consumes two fairies, in a scene which evokes Francisco Goya’s painting entitled ‘Saturn Devouring His Son.’[10] The death of the fairies is significant, because it could symbolise an attempt to end Ofelia’s obsession with reading fairy tales; at the beginning of the film Ofelia’s mother tells her ‘you’re a bit too old to be filling your head with such nonsense’ (3 minutes 28 seconds.) This is an example of how some people perceive the definition of nonsense to be pejorative, an insult even. Dryden goes so far as to argue that ‘the realms of nonsense are the dumping grounds for literary failures’ (Hugh Haughton Introduction p. 4), which seems peculiar now considering the popularity of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland 150 years after its publication.

Not only does the food in the food in this scene relate to religion, but it can also be linked to issues of class and fascism. Pans Labyrinth is set during the Spanish Civil War, which was a time during which the poor were starving and food had to be rationed. The pale man’s table is laden with a huge assortment of luxurious, fresh food items such as meat, fruit, cakes and wine; it is a feast. Although alluring to the hungry Ofelia, the fact that all items of food are differing shades of red is ominous, because it pre-empts the blood that is about to be spilled. This scene mirrors the dinner scene in the ‘real’ world which comes directly before it. The pale man is sat at the head of the table, just as Captain Vidal is, which is suggestive of his monstrous nature. Indulging in a banquet and hoarding food whilst the poor are starving is indicative of Vidal’s cruel, selfish nature. Connections can be seen here with Lear’s ‘Old Man of Calcutta’ limerick, because both that and Pans Labyrinth deal with the theme of greed, and in both cases the consumption of excess food is associated with negative character traits.

Finally, within Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’[11] food plays a pivotal role, and it is the consumption of the goblin men’s fruit which is the catalyst for the traumatic events that occur throughout this narrative poem. The use of ‘Come buy our orchard fruits’ (line 3) can be linked to the performative ‘EAT ME’ (p. 14) in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. ‘Come buy’ is repeated twice in the fourth line and this persuasive language, as in Alice can be likened to advertisement and a consumer culture. Food is seen as a commodity, and the goblins use appealing adjectives in order to entice the maids to purchase their goods. For example, the goblins employ phrases such as ‘plump unpeck’d cherries’ (line 7) and ‘pomegranates full and fine’ (line 21.) The language used to describe the fruit is highly sensual, such as ‘plump’ (line 7) and ‘full and fine’ (line 21), with the suggestive shapes evoking images of the female body. ‘Peaches’ (line 9) have a fleshy texture, ‘cherries’ (line 7) are often used to symbolise virginity whilst ‘unpeck’d’ (line 7) emphasises purity and ‘ripe’ (line 15) has sexual undertones, suggesting a woman’s sexual maturity. The line ‘taste them and try’ (line 25), especially when coupled with ‘figs to fill your mouth’ (line 28), could be interpreted as having sexual connotations, perhaps alluding to oral sex, whilst the juices of the fruit may symbolise bodily fluids. When uttering the latter phrase aloud, the vowels mean it is necessary to open your mouth into an ‘o’ shape, which mimics the action required to consume the fruit. Eating and sex are activities which share similarities: they are both fundamental to survival, can both be pleasurable and engage the same senses of sight, taste and touch. The lines ‘sweet to tongue and sound to eye’ (line 30), explicitly appeal to the senses of sight and taste, whilst the carefully constructed sonic quality of the poem appeals to the ear. The alliterative quality coupled with sibilance, and the arrangement of spondees and trochees makes the goblin’s words themselves have a sensual quality.

Contemporary readers would perhaps gain more pleasure from this list, because it contains a plentiful variety of exotic fruits, and as Victor Roman Mendoza notes, ‘1859 proved a particularly low-yield year for fruit harvesting in England, and so “fresh fruit would indeed have been largely the stuff of fantasy.”[12] There are similarities between fantasy and nonsense, because both are distinctly separated from the real. Examining the topic of nonsense further, Margaret Reynold writes: ‘If the semiotic is ‘the nonsense woven indistinguishably into sense’, then Rossetti’s nonsense story makes sense and the surface-sense of her best-loved poems may be nonsense.’[13] I believe that the latter part of this is an apt description of Goblin Market, because although one could take the poem at face value as being merely about a girl who consumes fruit, I think that such a reading disregards the true ‘sense’ of the poem. Without delving deeper into the symbolism of the fruit, the poem makes little sense because there is no justification for the poem’s narrative events.

In conclusion, the introduction to this anthology explores some of the various ways in which nonsense texts employ food as a motif.  Since the nonsense texts discussed (aside from Pan’s Labyrinth) have been written primarily with the intended audience of children, the numerous references to food is understandable, because it is something which all children can relate to, as it forms a part of their everyday routine. As we have discovered throughout this exploration, food is laden with symbolism, and can be considered in relation to sex, religion, class and consumerism, amongst others. Even within a single text, the trope of food can be interpreted in numerous ways. For instance, within the extract from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, food can be viewed in terms of sexual desire, class and as a commodity. Intertwined amongst the analysis of food are references to possible ways in which to define nonsense, and some of its common characteristics. However, the purpose of this introduction to the anthology of nonsense texts is not to reach a definitive conclusion with respect to what constitutes nonsense, but rather to analyse the role of food within nonsense texts, and inspire the reader to consider whether they would classify the selected texts as belonging to the genre of nonsense.

[1] Sarah Shieff, ‘Katherine Mansfield’s Fairytale Food’, Journal of New Zealand Literature, 32.2, (2014), 68-84 (p. 68).

[2] Hugh Haughton, The Chatto Book of Nonsense Poetry ([n.p.]: Chatto and Windus, 1988), p.2.

[3] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, ed. by Hugh Haughton (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2009), p. 23.

[4] Lisa Coar, ‘Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice: The Victorian Woman’s All-Consuming Predicament’, Victorian Network, 4.1, (2012), 48-72 (p. 57).

[5] Carole Couniha, Penny van Esterik, Food and Culture: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 168.

[6] M.R Haight, ‘Nonsense’, Brit J of Aesthetics, 11.3, (1971), 247-256 (p. 247).

[7] Edward Lear, The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse, ed. by Vivien Noakes (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2001), p. 74.

[8] Edward Lear, The Complete Book of Nonsense and Other Verse, p. 77.

[9] ‘Pans Labyrinth’, dir. by Guillermo del Toro (Warner Bros, 2006), 56 minutes, 23 seconds.

[10] Figure 1

[11] Christina Rossetti, ‘Goblin Market’, Poetry Foundation, (2015) <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174262&gt; [accessed 10 January 2016] (para 1. of 29

[12] Victor Roman Mendoza, “Come buy’: The Crossing of Sexual and Consumer Desire in Rossetti’s Goblin Market’, ELH, 2006 Winter, 73.4, (2006), 913-47 (p. 923).

[13] Margaret Reynolds, ‘Speaking un-likeness: The double text in Christina Rossetti’s ‘After Death’ and ‘Remember’’, Textual Practice, 13.1, (2012), 25-41 (p. 35).



Carroll, Lewis, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, ed. by Hugh Haughton (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2009)

Lear, Edward, The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse, ed. by Vivien Noakes (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2001)

‘Pans Labyrinth’, dir. by Guillermo del Toro (Warner Bros, 2006)

Rossetti, Christina, ‘Goblin Market’, Poetry Foundation, (2015) <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174262&gt; [accessed 10 January 2016]


Coar, Lisa, ‘Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice: The Victorian Woman’s All-Consuming Predicament’, Victorian Network, 4.1, (2012), 48-72

Couniha, Carole and Esterik, Penny, Food and Culture: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 1997)

Haight, M.R, ‘Nonsense’, Brit J of Aesthetics, 11.3, (1971), 247-256

Haughton, Hugh, The Chatto Book of Nonsense Poetry ([n.p.]: Chatto and Windus, 1988)

Mendoza, Victor, “Come buy’: The Crossing of Sexual and Consumer Desire in Rossetti’s Goblin Market’, ELH, 2006 Winter, 73.4, (2006), 913-47

Reynolds, Margaret, ‘Speaking un-likeness: The double text in Christina Rossetti’s ‘After Death’ and ‘Remember’’, Textual Practice, 13.1, (2012), 25-41

Shieff, Sarah, ‘Katherine Mansfield’s Fairytale Food’, Journal of New Zealand Literature, 32.2, (2014), 68-84

Nonsense Anthology Extracts

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, ed. by Hugh Haughton (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2009), pp. 14-15.

Soon her eye fell on a little glass box that was lying under the table: she opened it, and found in it a very small cake, on which the words `EAT ME’ were beautifully marked in currants. `Well, I’ll eat it,’ said Alice, `and if it makes me grow larger, I can reach the key; and if it makes me grow smaller, I can creep under the door; so either way I’ll get into the garden, and I don’t care which happens!’

She ate a little bit, and said anxiously to herself, `Which way? Which way?’, holding her hand on the top of her head to feel which way it was growing, and she was quite surprised to find that she remained the same size: to be sure, this generally happens when one eats cake, but Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way.

So she set to work, and very soon finished off the cake.

Edward Lear, The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse, p. 77.

‘There was an Old Man of Calcutta,

Who perpetually ate bread and butter;

Till a great bit of muffin, on which he was stuffing,

Choked that horrid Old Man of Calcutta.’

Edward Lear, The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse, p. 74.

‘There was an Old Man of Berlin,

Whose form was uncommonly thin;

Till he once, by mistake, was mixed up in a cake,

So they baked that Old Man of Berlin.’

 The banquet scene, ‘Pans Labyrinth’, dir. by Guillermo del Toro (Warner Bros, 2006), 56 minutes-62 minutes, 21 seconds.

Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’, Poetry Foundation, (2015) <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174262&gt; [accessed 10 January 2016] (para 1. of 29)

Morning and evening

Maids heard the goblins cry:

“Come buy our orchard fruits,

Come buy, come buy:

Apples and quinces,

Lemons and oranges,

Plump unpeck’d cherries,

Melons and raspberries,

Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,

Swart-headed mulberries,

Wild free-born cranberries,

Crab-apples, dewberries,

Pine-apples, blackberries,

Apricots, strawberries;—

All ripe together

In summer weather,—

Morns that pass by,

Fair eves that fly;

Come buy, come buy:

Our grapes fresh from the vine,

Pomegranates full and fine,

Dates and sharp bullaces,

Rare pears and greengages,

Damsons and bilberries,

Taste them and try:

Currants and gooseberries,

Bright-fire-like barberries,

Figs to fill your mouth,

Citrons from the South,

Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;

Come buy, come buy.”


Figure 1

Francisco Goya, ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, An Introduction to Nineteenth Century Art <http://www.19thcenturyart-facos.com/artwork/saturn-devouring-his-children&gt; [accessed 12 January 2016]



Nonsense, the uncanny and Identity

Personal identity is a prominent theme within Nonsense texts which I have chosen to explore, concentrating on Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ , Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ , and Edward Lear’s ‘The Table and Chair.’ All three texts are rife with nonsense motifs that explore the uncanny and personal identity, for example; femininity, childhood, sexuality. However, putting these aside, I have chosen to concentrate on the identity of the protagonist/narrator when faced with a nonsense setting in which normality, the familiar and identity becomes the ‘other’. ‘In establishing an identity, one by definition avoids nothingness and everythingness. But in nonsense identity is highly insecure and erratic, and changes take place frequently.’ They have to either fight or embrace the nonsensical world created around them and use it to liberate themselves and grow, or be consumed by it. ‘It is characteristic of nonsense that all these threats to the identity are presented as a matter of course.’

When Alice falls down the rabbit hole she enters an unfamiliar and nonsensical world, a literal metaphor for the loss, of her home and sense itself. Wonderland as a setting is the world’s uncanny double and the Alice within the space is Alice’s own uncanny ‘other’, her loss of self, a divide between the conscious and the unconscious, the real and the un-real.
‘How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next puzzle is ‘Who in the world am I?’ (Carroll, 1865, pp. 14-15).

Her mind therefore becomes an internal warzone she is slowly losing and yet she continues to try to win because ‘…the internal conflict across the drives…is itself an…incentive to master the internal warzone’ and return to familiarity showing how Alice refuses to accept the uncanny. The uncanny, as Dolar phrases it; ‘is about the irruption of the real into “homely,” commonly accepted reality….the emergence of something that shatters well-known divisions, and which cannot be situated within them.’ In my view, Wonderland and its occupants are an allegory of Alice’s impending maturity and loss of youth through puberty. Alice as the protagonist is therefore dismissive and forcefully fights against the unfamiliar and obtrusive uncanny setting of Wonderland because she does not feel safe and secure as she does in the world she knows, her proverbial youth. The path to resolution is seeking normality and returning to her previous identity as a child.
However, Alice undeniably continues to grow not just in size, a metaphor for her pubescent changes, ‘Even the signifying plane of her body becomes…arbitrary as she shifts in shape and proportion’, but her personality as well as she changes, develops and matures as a character. She begins to forget who she as she becomes immersed in Wonderland.

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I have been changed several times since then…I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.” (Carroll, 1865, p. 34)

This shows how the familiar is fading and the uncanny will soon be accepted . Wonderland is an internalised journey, a labyrinth she has to figure out so she can return to the real, her normal identity. However she cannot go back to the home-space she knows because the familiarity of childhood is fading and this cannot be stopped, so Alice has to progress and conform, accept her fate and create a new identity. To do this she must embrace the nonsense of Wonderland, the nonsense of adulthood.

Alternatively, is Alice right to oppose the uncanny? David Rudd’s reading in ‘Reading the Child in Children’s Literature: An Heretical Approach’ is interesting to consider, ‘the idea that an experience of the uncanny somehow ‘liberates’…is a strange one, given the uncanny is, precisely, disturbing, unnerving.’ Rudd further comments on Nodelman’s work and his ‘claim that though childhood literature constitutes an ‘attempted imposition of adult views of childhood on children; that is, the notion that though childhood might appear safe, children themselves are seen ‘as inherently and dangerously unheimlich (the opposite of homely and familiar) Therefore, when Alice enters Wonderland she is rebellious, using language and facts from the world she knows to understand the characters she meets. Her very presence and actions act to destroy Wonderland, ‘Alice…is not merely a bystander: she herself contributed to the disturbing atmosphere of Wonderland. She is the home wrecker who floods the long hall with her tears subsequently almost destroys the White Rabbits house.’ She uses her own mind, her previous knowledge, to make her own personal opinion and does not simply conform showing she has an open-mind, a spirit which is undoubtedly child-like, selfish and disruptive.

The anthropomorphic characters could be caricatures of Victorian upper-class society, adults who because of maturity have lost their own imagination and opinions in order to conform. Nonsense is a danger to the factual world and Alice consequently becomes ‘the other’, an invader who revolts against the rules of a world she doesn’t understand, yet alone follow. ‘the fears of castration and death (“Talking of axes, ‘ said the Duchess, ‘chop of her head!’ are closely linked to attacks on Alice’s identity, her formerly complacent ideal ego. So, the things that might normally guarantee Alice’s identity, become increasingly ineffective.’ Her disruptive feminine and childish nature challenges the established power structure. I believe Alice’s radical nature is Carroll’s own satirical comment on the adult world. He creates the world simply to mock it, to show how Alice as a character loses her mind to Wonderland and with it her individuality and her freedom.

Edward Lear’s ‘Table and Chair’ overtly personifies the relationship between two inanimate household objects with the function of serving humans. Their function is defined by their names, they are a table and a chair and that is all, that is all they are created to be. As characters, they are not supposed to have an identity. However, despite the rules which govern the norm, the Table and Chair defy their position by changing and removing themselves from the home-space which surrounds them through nonsense. They play with order, combining not only speech but movement which is seemingly illogical and nonsensical. Their creation is to serve but they both, the table in particular, break the barrier to become their own and escape to a new life, to ‘walk’ outside. They are curious, just like Alice, to explore ‘the other’, to experience and understand the space of uncertainty outside of their known and familiar reality.

Said the Table to the Chair,
‘You can hardly be aware,
‘How I suffer from the heat,
‘And from chilblains on my feet!
‘If we took a little walk,
‘We might have a little talk!
‘Pray let us take the air!’
Said the Table to the Chair.

The table uses language to communicate its problems, and using language and giving yourself a name gives you power. The table describes how it suffers from being an inanimate object, ‘How I suffer from the heat…chilblains on my feet!, the exclamation marks exemplify the tables anger at being misunderstood and its need for freedom from the normal and restricting world he is in as a table. The chair, its companion, represents the reality which the Table is fighting against.. As the Chair argues;

Said the Chair to the table,
‘Now you know we are not able!
‘How foolishly you talk,
‘When you know we cannot walk!’

The chair represents authority and superiority over the table, trying to keep it in the home space, the familiar which is safe. “Said the Table with a sigh/It can do no harm to try/I’ve as many legs as you/Why can’t we walk on two?” implying how the table uses the uncanny and embraces it. The table and chair ultimately liberate themselves and break free from their normality to ‘walk’, giving them autonomy and a new identity which they took for themselves by embracing nonsense as a strength and not a weakness.
The table refuses to accept that it cannot walk, showing its determinism to change, and interestingly they are accepted by the outside world ‘And everybody cried/As they hastened to the side/’See! the Table and the Chair/Have come out to take the air!’ which is extremely nonsensical but as a children’s poem superbly moral about not holding yourself back, to question the reality around you, and make it your own regardless of possible opposition.

For married women in the Victorian era, their identities are equally controlled by their homes, the place they live and the men they live within dominate their lives, their Father and then their Husband after marriage. The narrator in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ finds herself at the beginning of the story, entering a home she does not recognise and is repelled by, a nonsense setting which she is forced to comply to because of male Authority. Interestingly, she does not believe her own female opinion is worthy in comparison to the male “Personally I disagree with their ideas(…)but what is one to do?” (Page One/Two) implying how she is not only control of her own life, but her mind and body as well, all our subservient and controlled by the masculine form of authority. Men are the source of power in her life. The first words which open the story reveal the two prominent aspects of the story, marriage and the home “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer’ (Page One) which defined the female narrator’s purpose and identity as a wife. However, the setting acts as opposition to her role as a wife, becoming instead her prison and symbol of suppressed femininity, an identity she rejects in order to embrace a new identity, a free identity as the women in the wallpaper, her double.

The description of the house as haunted illustrates the impending fall of the narrator’s identity. She is taken from her child, her home and taken to a summer home which she describes as strange and gothic, ‘A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house… ” (page one ) It is interesting that the house itself is described as haunted before we are shown inside, a foreboding of her own haunting and possession by the supernatural wallpaper, and of course acts as an allegory of her deteriorating, obsessive mental space.

The narrator is not only trying to escape the house but her own body because she has lost her identity as Mother, Wife, Housekeeper and Friend, the identity which is doubled within Mary who is implied to be nursing her mysterious child, ‘It is fortunate Mary is so good with the Baby’, and Jennie, the new version improved model of desired womanhood. ‘Jennie sees to everything now’ (Page Six) Jennie as a character represents the femininity and rationality the narrator has lost.
The woman in the wallpaper therefore represents a new liberating identity, hidden within the domicile home in order to turn her physical and mental prison into an escape from control. As Perkins writes, ‘there are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.’ (Page Eight) This is very important to her, the wallpaper is hers alone to understand. She turns her disgust into curiosity by writing about her fascination for the wallpaper, an act which leads to her new identity because she is allowing herself to think independently.
“(John) is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction” (page two)

The more the protagonist is repressed, the more vivid the fantasy of the story becomes. ‘In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator…turns an ancestral hall into a haunted house and then encrypts herself therein as a fantasy figure.”, the mad woman in the attic. She herself is fighting against the bars of femininity which enclose and restrict her and this is paralleled by the setting itself, from the bars on the window, to the screwed- down bed and attic room. She want to have choice and this is not available to her, the male characters, from her perspective, are controlling and disregard her. She therefore finds comfort and companionship from the wallpaper, another woman which is imprisoned in the home, ‘the theme of isolation is reinforced through the pattern of the wallpaper, resembling another prison within the prison from which a crawling woman wants to free herself. It is the mirroring…of semantically charged space as well as the woman’s encounter with the her imprisoned double.’ Therefore, her mind starts to accept a new way of thinking, an independence which deteriorates her pre-existing thoughts and conditioned way of life. She finds freedom by destroying the wallpaper, ripping it and releasing the ‘mad woman’, or becoming the woman in the wallpaper herself. Either way, she embraces a new independent identity which may be her imagination but it is hers alone, which is undeniably liberating within a nonsense setting where everything is uncertain.

The woman in the wallpaper, who is nameless just like the narrator, is an interesting aspect to the short story which adds mystery over its identity. Is it a ghost? a figure of the narrator’s deteriorating mind? or the narrator’s own feminine double trying to escape the bound of the home, the uncanny, towards freedom? I personally believe, from a feminist perspective, that the woman in the wallpaper is the narrator’s repressed double breaking free. As she described, “the faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.” (page eight), shaking the pattern of the wallpaper and the pattern of which the narrator lives her life, following instead of leading. Perkins describes the strange encounter the narrator has with the woman in the wallpaper, ‘that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her…that awful pattern began to laugh at me.’ (page thirteen) the laughing is a sinister and interesting aspect to add to their interaction, as it could suggest many things. The mad woman could be laughing because she knows the narrator will be no help as she cannot even help herself, and describing the mad woman as ‘poor’ is ironic, as she represents the freedom the narrator longs for. The critic Golden describes the sharp and dramatic ending of the story to be an imaginary creation, an fantasy identity as the mad-woman, ‘this closing image displays a conjunction of erotic and aggressive impulses, a conjunction which once again suggests that by identifying herself with the wallpaper’s shadow-woman, the narrator has firmly installed herself in the realm of the imaginary.’
“I’ve got out at last, ” I said, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”

Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!” (Page Fourteen)

The narrator eventually dominates her husband, becoming powerful and in charge of her own identity. She therefore breaks down the barriers which control her, the room, the wall, and her husband’s body which faints and becomes docile below her. Goodman elegantly summarises the ending, which is populously ambiguous; ‘The end of the story brings the feeling of loss of home, as the narrator…loses all sense of herself in madness, and as we realize in the context, the loss of self may be the closest the narrator comes to being ‘herself’.’ In summary, the narrator overthrows the uncanny which acts to control her identity, preferring and embracing madness over her dull, feminine identity.

In conclusion, nonsense literature acts to disrupt or remove the protagonist into a world which is unfamiliar and frightening. The future and their identity within it becomes uncertain, lost and confused. ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, and ‘The Table and the Chair’, are all excellent texts to divulge and try to understand the nonsensical journeys the characters have to take to become whole, to regain a sense of lost identity which nonsense removes but also gives back to them. I believe all three texts approach identity and nonsense in the same way, by removing familiarity and showing the protagonist’s true nature as it tries to return to said familiarity. For Alice, she needed to lose her child-like innocence and accept her impending maturity in order to leave Wonderland and grow. Alternatively, the narrator of Gilman’s masterpiece ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, nonsense consumes and changes the female protagonist completely. It is as I said ambiguous to understand what the ending actually represented but personally I believe the narrator embraces madness, the place her restricted femininity is held, in order to liberate herself from the house, the uncanny, which restrains her. Similarly, Lear’s ‘Table and Chair’ personify and subsequently free themselves from the feminine home space to go out into the unknown, the big wide world where, as a children’s poem, discover new places and make friends. All use nonsense to liberate and fight for the identity they need.


Petra Eckhard (2011) Chronoscopes of the Uncanny: Time and Space in Postmodern New York Novels, University of Graz.
[Accessed 20 January 2016]

Lewis Carroll (1920) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Macmillan&Com Ltd.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1997) The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, Dover Publications, Inc: Mineola, New York.
>https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=GLXmvt0z-O8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=the+uncanny+the+yellow+wallpaper&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiDlPj5ubfKAhWD2BoKHUJaDowQ6AEIJzAB#v=onepage&q&f=false&lt; [Accessed 17th January 2016]

Lizbeth Goodman (1996) Approaching Literature and Gender, The Open University: Routledge.
[Accessed 19th January 2016]

Catherine J Golden (2004) Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-paper: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition, New York and London: Routledge.
>https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=V7IdyK6Akf0C&pg=PA95&dq=the+uncanny+the+yellow+wallpaper&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiw2O3Gv7bKAhWGtxQKHaDVD3MQ6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=the%20uncanny%20the%20yellow%20wallpaper&f=false&lt; [Accessed 8th January 2016]

Edward Lear (2012) Edward Lear homepage, The Table and the Chair, Available at: http://www.nonsenselit.org/Lear/ns/table.html (Accessed: 5th January 2016).

David Rudd (2013) The Palgrave Macmillan, Reading the Children in Children's Literature.
[accessed 23rd December 2015]

Rex Whelson (2014) The Palgrave Macmillan, Nietzsche’s Dynamic Metapsychology: This Uncanny Animal, Colorado Springs, USA: University of Colorado
[accessed 21st December 2015]

Nonsense and Politics

‘The traditional literary view of ‘nonsense’ – developed most effectively by the neo-classical satirists and critics of the age of Dryden and Pope – is as dismissive as the dictionary’s other usages suggest. Since the late Seventeenth Century, ‘nonsense’ has been the ultimate critical put down, the most lethal term in the hostile critics armoury of abuse’(1). Haughton’s assertion reflects how historically, nonsense literature has simply been viewed as ‘absurd or meaningless words’(2) with little substance and lacking deeper meaning. It is also traditional for people make the association between nonsense literature and childhood; connecting the innocent language, rhyme and song-like poetry with nursery rhymes. Of course, many nonsense texts do draw upon childhood, but I assert that the nonsense genre is in fact more complex and intellectual than it is given due credit for. I propose that there is a crucial aspect of nonsense texts which is often overlooked – the political aspect. ‘Politics’ is a broad term, which carries many definitions, and this anthology contains nonsense texts which I believe explore governmental politics, but also social politics too. I define social politics as being the generic ideology and beliefs of society as a whole, for example beliefs surrounding manners, women and class. Edward Lear, Sylvia Plath, and the director Louis Bruñel initially appear as a random assortment of writers, but I assert that each one uses the genre of nonsense as a way to comment upon the politics of government or society, or in some cases both. In the case of Lear and Bruñel I will argue that their nonsensical work critiques the politics of their respective eras. Furthermore, Plath’s references to contextually current governmental politics are used to illuminate an underlying comment on social politics, notably the position of women within society.

Lear’s illustrations and limericks challenge and comment negatively upon contextual governmental politics, including the Museums Act of 1845 and The Great Exhibitions Act of 1851. These pieces of government legislation established museums up and down the country. This legislation made knowledge much more accessible to the public, however can also be viewed negatively as displays of governmental power and authority, which is also the view shared by Colley, who writes ‘each act [e.g public displays] symbolised possession or control’(3). Lear’s limericks, specifically the illustrations which accompany them, reflect the Victorian Imperialistic principles which he strongly disagreed with. I assert that his work shows how he disagreed with the colonisation of the animal world, as well as his distaste surrounding animals being displayed as trophies of collection and discovery in public spaces such as zoos. I believe that Lear’s limericks and accompanying illustrations challenge this area of governmental politics through upsetting and dismantling the rigid and prescribed social hierarchy, which results in the triumph of the animal over the human. I would even go so far to argue that it is as if the animal is gaining some sort of revenge over the once oppressive human. One example of this Lear’s Limerick ‘There was an Old Person of Dover’(4). The old man ‘rushes through a field of blue clover’ and is stung by bees, which results in him running away. In my opinion, this limerick illustration highlight Lear’s distaste towards government politics. The ‘Old Person of Dover’ is rushing through a field, a natural space which hasn’t been built on by humans, which may represent human colonisation of the natural world. However, the result of the man’s trespass into the natural world is the bees stinging his nose and knees – an attack on the human perpetrator of the animal world, leading to the animal holding superiority over the human – an utter subversion of the Victorian Imperialistic norm. The smartly dressed man in the illustration could arguably reflect members of the government, the bourgeoisie, colonising new areas; areas which have previously been inhabited by animals only. The aspect of this illustration which I find particularly interesting is that the ‘Old Person of Dover’ appears to have taken on the physical qualities of the bees, mimicking their flying bodies with his outstretched arms and legs. Colley writes that ‘the Old man of Dover looks like the bees who pursue him. He can neither outstep their image or their sting. He is the one preyed upon’ (Colley, p.115). Colley’s assertion certainly aligns with my own beliefs about the illustration. He is engulfed by the bees in this image, not only surrounded by them, but his whole physicality is taken over too; ‘the person gets left behind’ (Colley, p115). This mimics how once animals are placed in zoos, they lose their natural animal identities, and become trapped by humans. In this image however it is the human male who has lost his sense of humankind and self – he is trapped by bees, which thus places him in the same lowered position as an entrapped animal in a cage at a zoo. The traditional hierarchal roles of human and animal have been entirely reversed, which suggests that he has a distaste for the entrapment of animals and the colonisation of the animal words, and thus serves to give human characters revenge in his work. Although Lear’s limericks and illustrations appear simple, I assert that there is a huge political drive behind them. Lear’s companionship with animals and his known fondness for them (Colley, p. 111) is clear in his work which gives them the apprehend in a world dominated by humans.

The political element to Lear’s work does not end with his limericks and illustrations. I consider ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, arguably his most famous poem, to have undertones of governmental and social politics. The poem can be classed as nonsense literature because it consists of a completely fantastical scenario – an Owl and a Pussycat going to sea in a boat, and then being married by a Turkey. There is no human presence in the entirety of the poem, which again, like the limericks and illustrations give animals a sense of superiority in the world in which they inhabit. Furthermore, the Owl and the Pussycat take on very human qualities – the Owl serenades the Pussycat and the pair decide to get married. This again elevates animals in the hierarchy – their embodiment of human characteristics gives them a sense of power and entitlement within the poem. Again, I would argue that this is Lear’s way of giving back lost power to animals – power that has been lost through entrapment in zoos and museums. The poem also begins with the Owl and the Pussycat going ‘to sea/ in a beautiful pea green boat’(5) which alludes to Victorian colonisation and discovery of new found lands and the expansion of the British Empire in this period. Lear immediately draws upon Victorian Imperialistic principles in the first line of the poem, perhaps hinting at an underlying political message.

I assert however that the majority of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ is centered around social politics, mainly the social politics surrounding gender. There is huge ambiguity with regards to the gender of the two main characters in the poem, with a total lack of gender pronouns used by Lear. At first it seems like the Owl is the male, and the Pussycat is the female. This assumption is made because the Owl serenades the Pussycat, singing ‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love/ What a beautiful Pussy you are/You are/You are! What a beautiful Pussy you are!’ (Lear, lines 7-11). Traditionally, the chivalrous act of the serenade has the association of being carried out by a male. Furthermore, the adjective ‘beautiful’ aligns with traditional connotations of femininity, and the connection between female beauty and attraction. ‘Gender is a doing, rather than a being’(6) writes Sara Salih, and the gender performance by the Owl in Lear’s poem suggests that it is a male character. Judith Butler argues that gender is a construct ‘rather than something that someone is born with’ (Salih, p.93); it is socio-historically constructed, and is continually performed as a series of acts – it is not a state of being. However, it is the Pussycat, who we presume is female, that suggests marriage to the Owl. This of course goes against the tradition of a patriarchal society, the tradition of the male proposing to the female. Assuming the Pussycat is female because of ‘her’ beauty, she is completely going against gender norms which are ingrained into modern society. Another complexity to consider is the Owl being referred to as an ‘elegant fowl’ (Lear, line 12). Like beauty, elegance is also associated with aspects of the feminine. So, the Owl could also be female. In which case the poem may be centred around a homosexual relationship. There are so many ambiguities with regards to gender in this poem – is it a ‘beautiful’ female who goes against gender norms and proposes to an ‘elegant’ male? Or is it an ‘elegant’ female who goes against societal gender norms and serenades a ‘beautiful’ male, who then proposes to her? Or is a homosexual relationship portrayed? In this piece of literature, Lear clearly blurs the usual boundaries between gender and sexuality, leaving the reader confused as to the gender and sexuality of both of the characters. I assert that perhaps the poem is challenging stereotypical gender roles, as well as challenging ‘normal’ heterosexual relationships which were seen as the standard in the Victorian era. The nonsense of the story itself mirrors the ambiguity and confusion surrounding gender and sexuality in the poem. Lear is completely pushing the boundaries of Victorian social norms through the presentation of a romantic and possibly sexual relationship which does not explicitly conform to heterosexual norms or stereotypical gender roles. I assert that because of this, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ is arguably a radical text which uses nonsense to challenge Victorian societal politics.

A stark transition from Lear’s Victorian nonsense, Luis Bruñel’s 1972 film, ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ is another example of a ‘text’ that has an underlying political message. Bruñel’s film is bizarre, challenging and complex; centring around a group of friends who continually attempt to eat dinner together. It appears to have no resolution, and could be considered to be rather repetitive and boring, with the constant focus on the group trying to have a dinner party together. It is nonsensical because on the surface the message of the film is unclear, yet behind all of the repetitive scenes there is certainly a political message to be uncovered.  I assert that the film explores the social and political hypocrisy of the modern era, with a particular criticism of government corruption, as well as a criticism of social classes and elitism. I consider that there is a complete obsession with social rituals and manners throughout the film. A reference to social status is even included in the title of the film, with the use of the word ‘Bourgeoisie’; ‘the bourgeoisie […] whose income mainly derives from the sale of commodities produced with bought labour power’(7) in terms of Marxist Theory. The use of Marxist terminology in the title alone arguably instantaneously gives the film a political standpoint and grounding. Bruñel’s acknowledgement of Marxism, particularly Marx’s terms surrounding class and class-antagonism, is a crucial aspect of the film’s examination of social politics. I believe that through nonsense, this film exposes elitist superficiality, particularly the superficiality surrounding the ‘rules’ of certain class practices. This perhaps implies Bruñel’s own personal distaste of such elitist rituals. A key part of the film which illuminates issues surrounding class and hierarchy is the scene in which one particular character shows the rest of the group how to make a dry martini, giving very specific instructions to the detail of the shape of the glass and the temperature of the ice cubes (8). He then asserts ‘Rafael knows a dry martini must be sipped like champagne’. The chauffeur is then invited in to the house just to prove that as a lower ranking character in the class system, he does not know how to drink a dry martini correctly. The fact that a dry martini ‘must’ be sipped, and there is no other correct way, illuminates the rigid rules of the elite. Maurice, who is referred to as ‘a commoner’ and ‘uneducated’ is used by the bourgeois characters almost as a source of entertainment; as a way to reinstate and reassert their own elitism which contrasts to his lower class upbringing. The fact that something so trivial, such as the way a drink is consumed, holds such a great deal of significance to these characters, makes the elite seem utterly superficial. A seemingly simple yet nonsensical scene from the film, which appears on the surface as the characters simply having a drink together, in fact has a hidden message about class. I assert that this underlying message is that the upper classes practice superficial rituals; rituals that assert their own power yet continue to push the lower classes down, using them as little more than entertainment and a way to reinstate their own superiority.

Commentary upon the corruption of governmental politics is also extremely apparent in Luis Bruñel’s nonsense film. Cinematic techniques used by Bruñel are discussed by Kinder, who states ‘every time there is a political discussion […] it is drowned out by some familiar urban noise (traffic, a typewriter or a plane passing overhead) […] to make sure that spectators realize the suppression of information is intentional, the pattern of censorship is repeated’(9). I assert that this is used by Bruñel to represent governmental corruption – the ‘pattern of censorship’ illuminates how certain government activities, particularly corrupt activities such as involvement with illegal drugs, are hidden from the rest of society. Therefore this random noise, which is sometimes comical, is actually an extremely significant part of the film; it explicitly exploits the naivety of the audience; as members of society we think that we know what happens behind closed government doors, however Bruñel cleverly emphasises the fact that some governmental activities are hidden.

I finally consider the work of Sylvia Plath, most notably the poem ‘Daddy’, to also be nonsense that holds political influence. Plath’s challenging and intensely emotional poetry is often difficult to decipher. ‘Daddy’, a deeply emotionally driven piece, opens with the lines ‘You do not do, you do not do/Any more, black shoe/In which I have lived like a foot/For thirty years, poor and white/Barely daring to breathe or Achoo’(10); a complicated and confusing introduction to the poem, with the use of repetition in the first line, and the metaphor of the speaker being a foot making this poem seem very nonsensical. The fact that the speaker has lived in a shoe also connects the poem to the nursery rhyme of the old woman living in a shoe, alluding to nonsense. Immediately the reader is plunged into a state of frenzy, questioning what Plath is writing about, trying to find an element of sense and meaning. Stan Smith writes that ‘All poetry, at its deepest levels, is structured by the precise historical experience from which it emerged… a writer is always the creature of circumstance’(11) and Jo Gill connects this to the work of Plath, writing ‘this understanding sits at the heart of an exciting range of readings Plath’s poetry in relation to particular historical, cultural and ideological circumstances. These readings include analyses of the political nuances of Plath’s work […] they also potentially encompass feminist […] concerns’(12). I consider that ‘Daddy’ has heavy political undertones, with the exploration of governmental politics on the surface of the poem actually reflecting difficult social politics, particularly the position of women within society. Plath undoubtedly draws upon historical and ideological contexts in the poem, using WWII and Holocaust references; this shows Plath’s engagement with the politics surrounding the period in which she was writing – ‘Daddy’ was published in 1962, and thus WWII was a recent memory. I believe that Plath’s exploration of WWII, a key area of contextual government foreign policy, illuminates feminist concerns. She uses a series of dark metaphors, comparing her father to a Nazi and a ‘Swastika’ (Plath, line 46), as well as metaphorically calling herself a Jew: ‘An engine, an engine/Chuffing me off like a Jew/ A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen/I began to talk like a Jew. I think I may well be a Jew’ (Plath, lines 31-35). These metaphors, which explicitly refer to the Holocaust, reflect Plath’s oppression by her father. She compares herself to a member of one of the most persecuted groups in history, drawing upon their mistreatment and alluding to them being sent to concentration camps. The uncomfortable metaphor really does emphasise Plath’s lowered position in comparison to her father; she is the oppressed Jew, he is the celebrated Nazi. In terms of feminism, I believe that Plath is making a bold commentary on the general position of women within society – that of the oppressed female. She writes ‘Every woman adores a Fascist/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you’ (Plath, lines 48-50) which further places the woman in a lowered position, with the adjective ‘brute’ implying violence and bullying. ‘The boot in the face’ further alludes to the idea of women being submissive to men, as well as the term ‘Fascist’ implying the superiority and power that the male holds. I consider Plath’s engagement with governmental politics, specifically the politics of warfare and the Holocaust, to be one of the factors that makes this poem so powerful to read. The strength of these metaphors, and the association of them with one of the most shocking events in history emphasises Plath’s beliefs on the severity of the degradation of women within a patriarchal society.

In conclusion, on the surface Edward Lear, Luis Bruñel and Sylvia Plath are all completely different writers with works that span different subject areas, genres and historical periods. However, I believe that as artists of nonsense they are connected. They have crafted nonsense texts, and in the case of Bruñel a nonsense film, which completely disregard the traditional view of nonsense – nonsense as stupid, nonsense as unintelligent and nonsense as for children. Their works contain significant political commentary. Political commentary which is extremely thought provoking and radical. Edward Lear shows his distaste of Victorian Imperialism through his limericks, just as Luis Bruñel shows his distaste of superficiality in the elite classes. Plath uses strong, uncomfortable metaphors relating to key historical issues to reflect the oppressive patriarchy. She brings a darkness to the nonsense genre. These writers are not simply scripting just ‘nonsense’, they are critiquing our society and our government in a powerful, artistic and creative way. Beneath the seemingly nonsensical exterior lies a foundation of meaning and significance, and I consider this to be one of the reasons why nonsense literature is just so fascinating – there is always something beneath the surface, it is never just nonsense.

Word Count = 3149


(1) Hugh Haughton, The Chatto Book of Nonsense Poetry, https://vle.shef.ac.uk/bbcswebdav/pid-1853648-dt-content-rid-4250194_1/courses/LIT270.B.161853/Hugh%20Haughton%20Introduction.pdf [accessed 9th January 2016] (p.4)

(2) ‘Nonsense, n. and adj.’, Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/128094?rskey=sKcmkC&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid [accessed 9th January 2016]

(3) Ann C. Coley, Edward Lear’s Anti-Colonial Bestiary, https://vle.shef.ac.uk/bbcswebdav/pid-2091209-dt-content-rid-4554154_1/courses/LIT270.B.161853/Colley%20on%20Lear%201.pdf: [accessed 9th January 2016] (p. 114)

(4) Marco Graziosci, ‘Edward Lear Book of Nonsense’, http://www.nonsenselit.org/Lear/BoN/bon040.html [accessed 12th January 2016]

(5) Edward Lear/Poetry Foundation, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat, by Edward Lear’, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171941 [accessed 10th January 2016] (lines 1-2)

(6) Sara Salih, The Judith Butler Reader, ed by. Sara Salih with Judith Butler (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004) p.91

(7) Richard W. Miller, The Cambridge Companion to Marx, ed. by Terrel Carver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) p.55

(8) Meteorightnow, ‘Luis Bruñel’s recipe for a dry martini from ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’’, Youtube (2010) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00roxpI3Y7I [accessed 11th January 2016]

(9) Marsha Kinder, Bruñel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Google Books, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=0vgAWhasEncC&pg=PA13&lpg=PA13&dq=politics+and+the+discreet+charm+of+the+bourgeoisie&source=bl&ots=BT84aygrm4&sig=5mzGRTZCRj9WCrxjWdwkEtuTuGU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiSvYSLtqrKAhWC1BoKHSQqAnk4ChDoAQhMMAc#v=onepage&q=politics%20and%20the%20discreet%20charm%20of%20the%20bourgeoisie&f=false [accessed 11th January 2016] (p.13)

(10) Sylvia Plath/Poetry Foundation, ‘Daddy, by Sylvia Plath’, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178960 [accessed 13th January 2016] (lines 1-5)

(11) Stan Smith, The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath ed by. Jo Gill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2008) p. 125

(12) Jo Gill, The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2008) p. 125


Primary Extracts

Graziosci M, ‘Edward Lear Book of Nonsense’, http://www.nonsenselit.org/Lear/BoN/bon040.html [accessed 12th January 2016]

Lear E/Poetry Foundation, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat, by Edward Lear’, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171941 [accessed 10th January 2016]

Meteorightnow, ‘Luis Bruñel’s recipe for a dry martini from ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’’, Youtube (2010) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00roxpI3Y7I [accessed 11th January 2016]

Plath S/Poetry Foundation, ‘Daddy, by Sylvia Plath’, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178960 [accessed 13th January 2016]

Secondary Materials

Coley A.C, Edward Lear’s Anti-Colonial Bestiary, https://vle.shef.ac.uk/bbcswebdav/pid-2091209-dt-content-rid-4554154_1/courses/LIT270.B.161853/Colley%20on%20Lear%201.pdf: [accessed 9th January 2016]

Gill J, The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2008)

Haughton H, The Chatto Book of Nonsense Poetry, https://vle.shef.ac.uk/bbcswebdav/pid-1853648-dt-content-rid-4250194_1/courses/LIT270.B.161853/Hugh%20Haughton%20Introduction.pdf [accessed 9th January 2016]

Kinder M, Bruñel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Google Books, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=0vgAWhasEncC&pg=PA13&lpg=PA13&dq=politics+and+the+discreet+charm+of+the+bourgeoisie&source=bl&ots=BT84aygrm4&sig=5mzGRTZCRj9WCrxjWdwkEtuTuGU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiSvYSLtqrKAhWC1BoKHSQqAnk4ChDoAQhMMAc#v=onepage&q=politics%20and%20the%20discreet%20charm%20of%20the%20bourgeoisie&f=false [accessed 11th January 2016]

Miller R.W, The Cambridge Companion to Marx, ed. by Terrel Carver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Salih S., The Judith Butler Reader, ed by. Sara Salih with Judith Butler (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004)

Smith S, The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath ed by. Jo Gill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2008)

Other Online Resources

Nonsense, n. and adj.’, Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/128094?rskey=sKcmkC&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid [accessed 9th January 2016]

Nonsense and Politics – An Anthology

EDWARD LEAR – ‘The Old Person of Dover’


Marco Graziosci, ‘Edward Lear Book of Nonsense’, http://www.nonsenselit.org/Lear/BoN/bon040.html [accessed 12th January 2016]

EDWARD LEAR – ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea

   In a beautiful pea-green boat,

They took some honey, and plenty of money,

   Wrapped up in a five-pound note.

The Owl looked up to the stars above,

   And sang to a small guitar,

“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,

    What a beautiful Pussy you are,

         You are,

         You are!

What a beautiful Pussy you are!”

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!

   How charmingly sweet you sing!

O let us be married! too long we have tarried:

   But what shall we do for a ring?”

They sailed away, for a year and a day,

   To the land where the Bong-Tree grows

And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood

   With a ring at the end of his nose,

             His nose,

             His nose,

   With a ring at the end of his nose.

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling

   Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”

So they took it away, and were married next day

   By the Turkey who lives on the hill.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

   Which they ate with a runcible spoon;   

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,

   They danced by the light of the moon,

             The moon,

             The moon,

They danced by the light of the moon.

Edward Lear/Poetry Foundation, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat, by Edward Lear’, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171941 [accessed 10th January 2016]

LUIS BRUÑEL – Clip from ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’

Meteorightnow, ‘Luis Bruñel’s recipe for a dry martini from ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’’, Youtube (2010) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00roxpI3Y7I [accessed 11th January 2016]


You do not do, you do not do   

Any more, black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot   

For thirty years, poor and white,   

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.   

You died before I had time——

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,   

Ghastly statue with one gray toe   

Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic   

Where it pours bean green over blue   

In the waters off beautiful Nauset.   

I used to pray to recover you.

Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town   

Scraped flat by the roller

Of wars, wars, wars.

But the name of the town is common.   

My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.   

So I never could tell where you   

Put your foot, your root,

I never could talk to you.

The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.   

Ich, ich, ich, ich,

I could hardly speak.

I thought every German was you.   

And the language obscene

An engine, an engine

Chuffing me off like a Jew.

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.   

I began to talk like a Jew.

I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna   

Are not very pure or true.

With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck   

And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack

I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,

With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.   

And your neat mustache

And your Aryan eye, bright blue.

Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——

Not God but a swastika

So black no sky could squeak through.   

Every woman adores a Fascist,   

The boot in the face, the brute   

Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,   

In the picture I have of you,

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot   

But no less a devil for that, no not   

Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.   

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,   

And they stuck me together with glue.   

And then I knew what to do.

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.   

And I said I do, I do.

So daddy, I’m finally through.

The black telephone’s off at the root,   

The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——

The vampire who said he was you   

And drank my blood for a year,

Seven years, if you want to know.

Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart   

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.   

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

Sylvia Plath/Poetry Foundation, ‘Daddy, by Sylvia Plath’, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178960 [accessed 13th January 2016]