There was an Old man of Whitehaven
Who Danced a Quadrille with a Raven;
But they said-‘It’s absurd, to encourage this bird!’
So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven. (39)
This is intriguing as it displays social disapproval and outcry to eccentric figures such as the individual dancing with the bird. The ‘quadrille’ is a traditional dance of eight and therefore, to reduce this small community to two is going against social norms, which ‘is why the objection of society to this dance begins’ (Dilworth 1994: 45). Racial and sexual elements have also been analysed in this limerick. In the natural world the raven dances as a display of sexual courtship, and they are also black against the man of ‘Whitehaven’ (Dilworth 1994: 45). This act would be seen as unacceptable in society and therefore the other members of society react badly towards him by ‘smashing’ him. The choice of ‘they’ instead of an individual is interesting and suggests the majority of society. Orwell suggests that ‘They’ are the realists, the practical men, the sober citizens in bowler hats (and) […] to smash somebody just for dancing a quadrille with a raven is exactly the kind of thing that ‘They’ would do’ (Orwell 1953: 182). This extreme violence shows the seriousness and importance of conforming to society, its rules and ideology, and is evident in many other limericks. A clear example is the man with a gong ‘who bumped it all day long’ and is labelled ‘a horrid old bore!’ (6), before being smashed by society. Again this is an example of an individual going against the norms and values of society, as bumping the gong all day is tedious and repetitive. It is this repetitiveness that leads to the man’s alienation and eventual destruction by society; the artistic individual is ‘destroyed by a narrow-minded and vicious society, the omnipotent ‘they’ (Wullschtager 1995: 73). The illustration in this limerick is also interesting and suggests that they are ‘social conformists, as it is suggested by their identical postures and their standing in the same place (Dilworth 1994: 48). Many other issues of the time are also raised in the limericks, including the repression of women. This is the case of the Old Man on some rocks ‘Who shut his wife up in a box’ and refused her to come out, exclaiming ‘You will pass all your life in that box’ (36). This is a clear representation of the subordinated position of women in patriarchal England, quite shockingly displayed in a limerick for children.
It is evident that the majority of Lear’s work reflects the individual’s struggle to conform. Although biographical interpretations are often unnecessary and unreliable, in Lear’s case such reading is beneficial in understanding the reason behind and extent of social rebellion in his work. Dilworth notes how it is common to read Lear’s work ‘as encoded autobiography’ (Dilworth 1994: 43), as Lear himself was a lonely, alienated figure. These emotions built up from his rejection and isolation from society has clearly spilled over into his limericks. The lonely landscape painter has refused adult life by rejecting ‘everything that Victorian society held dear’ (Wullschtager 1995: 70), including class conventions and responsibilities. The escapism that Lear sought in his own life is evident in some of his work, as in certain limericks the individual escapes from the vicious society. This is the case of the Old person of Basing who ‘Purchased a steed, which he rode at full speed, And escaped from the people of Basing’ (21). There are even instances in which the individual rebels against society and flaunts their act of eccentricity, such as the man of West Dumpet who ‘possessed a large nose like a trumpet’ (181). Here an outcast individual is inverting society’s norms and flaunting his disfigurement. The size of his nose would be ‘an immense social liability’ and therefore the man is showing his ‘revenge for social rejection by flaunting the occasion of that rejection’ (Dilworth 1994: 52).
However, it is argued that unless the outcast is able to escape from society, the only way to avoid destruction is to hide. This is apparent in many of Lear’s later limericks, including the man of Hong Kong:
There was an old man of Hong Kong,
Who never did anything wrong;
He lay on his back, with his head in a sack,
That innocuous old man of Hong Kong. (159)
The man’s head is hidden in a bag; therefore any disfigurement he has such as the oversized nose mentioned earlier, is hidden. He is also lying down immobile unlike the majority of individuals who are performing an act. This man is thus completely inoffensive and poses no threat to society, so much as long as he keeps his head hidden and does nothing to violate society’s norms. This is arguably the key message portrayed through Lear’s limericks. It suggests that any divergence from the majority of society, either physical disfigurement or eccentric interests, is completely destructive for an individual. It is only if the marginalized individual is kept hidden that he is able to survive the small-minded, prejudiced individuals of society, ‘they’ in the limericks who resist against variation and change of conventions. Zipes summed up the overall messages contained in these tales when he said, ‘to live, a child had to live properly, restraining natural instincts according to rules established by adults. To disobey these rules or to indulge one’s sensual drives for pleasure meant death’ (Morison & Bell 1962: 127).
Alice in Wonderland is another example of nonsense writing for children that has been analysed for its hidden portrayal of society. Although this, Carroll’s work is arguably much more varied and ambiguous than Lear’s, some suggest that it is yet another commentary of the absurdity of Victorian society. It has been described as a child’s view of adult life through Carroll’s ability to ‘get into the child’s mind and see through the child’s eyes the utter confusion of adult society’ (Guiliano 1982: 98). Such absurdity may include the White Rabbits obsession with time and rule-less games such as the caucus race and croquet game. The childish remarks and chaos of the courtroom also suggests the immaturity and insanity of Victorian rules. Many critics are interested in Carroll’s portrayal of the Victorian educational system, with his constant parodies of well-known poems such as Isaac Watt’s ‘Against idleness and mischief’. The poem of a bee is changed to that of a crocodile, representing threat and impending destruction. It is also interesting how Alice folds her arms when being taught a lesson in the book, such as in discussion with the Caterpillar; ‘Alice folded her hands, and began’ (42). This posture displays questions of obedience and control, which are common themes in Alice in Wonderland.
Alice is always at odds against the selfish adult world and must control and hide her anger. Alice is seen ‘swallowing down her anger’ (42) on many occasions, unable to disrupt the power struggle of society. It is not just Alice who faces control and victimization of society, being in fact, evident throughout most of the text and characters. The Duchess for example, is assaulted by her cook who throws ‘everything within her reach’ (53) at her and the mouse ‘shares its tale of victimization with a ‘ring’ of other animals’ (Knoepflmacher 1998: 181). As with Lear, Carroll’s work is interested with the struggle the individual has against a vicious society, although this text is more concerned with social hierarchies. Class conventions are represented when the White Rabbit mistakes the middle class Alice for his housekeeper. ‘How surprised he will be when he finds out who I am’ (31), Alice exclaims, signifying the question of identity that runs throughout the text. The constant size changes lead to differences of power in society, again supporting her confusion of adult life; she is ‘a prim Victorian child lost in a madhouse’ (Wullschtager 1995: 48). Aside from the class issues of Victorian England expressed in the text, political issues are also arguably raised. Gardner notes how the caucus race in chapter three could represent the disorganisation of political parties and that ‘committee members generally do a lot of running around in circles, getting nowhere’ (Gardner 2001: 32). This is yet another example of a societal issue being raised out of what is questionably ‘nonsense’.
Nina Aurbach wrote an appealing essay on Alice as a Victorian fallen woman caught up in the prejudices of society. She describes Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole as her metaphorical drop down the hierarchy. Fallen women she explains are isolated and ‘Alice is equally alienated (and) […] can save herself from devastation by her dream only by awakening into a vaporous normality (Aurbach 1982: 48). This interpretation depicts the ending of Alice’s awakening as a form of escapism. Alice has escaped the destruction of the strict hierarchy and madness by waking, similar to Lear’s individual who escapes on the steed. However, many critics argue against this and suggest that the conclusion of Alice in Wonderland differs substantially from Lear’s limericks. Whereas the majority of Lear’s individuals are either destroyed or silenced by society, it is argued that Alice rebels against its prejudices and speaks out. The anger that has built up in the suppressed Alice is eventually unleashed in the court scene in which she criticises the Queen and brandishes the representation of hierarchy ‘nothing but a pack of cards’ (108), before awaking from her dream. Alice defeats ‘the rapacious adults of Wonderland […] simply by waking up’ (Oates 1982: 112) and has therefore successfully overthrown the repression of society.
In conclusion it is clear that some material from nonsense books such as Alice In Wonderland and Lear’s Book Of Nonsense is merely that, nonsense, and to pull meaning from it would kill it as some theorists suggests. However, there is arguably more evidence to suggest that the majority of nonsense writing for children is fuelled by society and class conscious authors, whose emotions spill into their writing. Although it is clear that some of the social references such as the political satire in Alice does not say anything ‘serious’ about society, the bulk of the material does. Alice and Nonsense Songs both represent the individual’s struggle against a narrow-minded society, repressing change and difference. The major difference is that Lear’s characters are frequently destroyed by society whereas Alice rebels against it, though the dream ending does make the importance of this rebellion questionable. Overall it is clear that nonsense writing is not just meaningless ‘nonsense’, but in fact, a detailed account of the serious flaws of Victorian society. The reason for their expressions of Victorian Society within their writing seems to be because as like the characters within Lear’s stories and limericks they would be going against the norms of society, and would not be seen as a good representative, especially as children’s writers. Therefore, Lear and Carroll can simply hide their views in nonsense and deny any means at all for disagreeing with their current society. Most of these messages would not reach the child reader, but the adult reader reading the book to the child, emphasising really that Lear’s and Carroll’s work are crossover literature. The literature easily keeps the children entertained with the limericks and fantastical characters, but at the same time criticises all the high class Victorian Society the adults lived in giving the parent or guardian the teachings.
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