Somebody Killed Something: Ambiguous Hero and Beast in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’


Since its publication in 1871 as part of Through the Looking-glass, Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” has become one of the quintessential examples of “nonsense poetry” in the English language. Such a classification largely reflects the poem’s apparent non-referentiality when set against the background of a theory of language that claims unambiguous reference as the sole (or at least, highest) goal of language use. Since Carroll used a number of words that appeared to have “no sense”, and hence no referents, “Jabberwocky” as a whole appeared to be not fully “meaningful”, and hence not fully referential — i.e. the poem appeared to be “nonsense”.
This paper argues that any analysis of “Jabberwocky” that begins and ends by noting the poem’s “faulty” referentiality misses the point. For it is precisely this referential ambiguity that Carroll uses to achieve an effect that could not be achieved via the use of fully referential language. In particular, Carroll has created a parody of a ballad of dragon-slaying in which ambiguities about the setting, the hero and the beast force readers/auditors to project their own knowledge, concerns and identities onto their “readings” of the text. In other words, the ambiguity in “Jabberwocky” is not a bug but a feature in a “readerly” text that speaks at once to the personal heroes and beasts in each of us.
To support this claim, three types of data are discussed. First, a semiotic analysis of the poem itself lays bare the means by which the text achieves its effects, focusing particularly on its invocation of an appropriate “beast genre” and on its poetic structure. Second, the cultural context which made (and makes) such a feat possible is considered. And finally, psychological findings about people’s processes of interpreting “Jabberwocky” are reported.
Ultimately, “Jabberwocky” is seen as highly meaningful, both “literally” and “metaphorically”, in ways that make it appropriate for inclusion in a child’s fairy-tale. Moreover, we arrive at a fuller appreciation of Carroll’s genius as an author in full control of his craft.