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  • Wittgenstein’s Reflection in Lewis Carroll’s Looking-Glass
  • Leila S. May

According to one tradition in the theory of fiction, there is a kind of fantasy whose function is to invite the reader to "acknowledge the possibility of a different reality."1 In this essay I want to ask whether Lewis Carroll's Alice books fit into this category; that is, I want to explore the possibility that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are not the pure nonsense that many readers take them to be. In considering the Alice books as fantasy offering a view of a "different reality" I do not deny that there are in these stories some mimetic elements alongside the fantastic—representations of things going on somewhere, somehow, in Victorian society—in which case the "different reality" presented will not be so terribly different as to be unrecognizable. For example, the Mad Tea Party in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is not only an act of fantasy but also an act of mimesis. It certainly imitates the real tea parties often held throughout Victorian England—if caricature is a form of imitation—but it may also mime those mock tea parties held in English asylums whose goal was to model sane-like behavior to the inmates.2 An analogous question can be asked about Carroll's books in general: In addition to the component of fantasy, are they mimetic of Victorian culture itself, or merely of the Victorian conception of madness? Michel Foucault has argued that, while the very idea of la folie is an historical construct, the dialectical relationship between reason and unreason, with each pole parasitic on the other, is a structural constant. Carroll's Alice books produce images that are discharged in the confused nineteenth-century landscape where these two opposites meet. In that respect, his books are not so different from many of the more standard novels written in mid-century England. In this essay I [End Page 79] will explore features of this landscape, using a theoretical framework that has been synthesized from a number of related claims in the work of the linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. In addition to my long-range aim of urging further study of Wittgenstein's work by literary critics, one of my specific goals is to show that the application of Wittgensteinian methods to the works of Lewis Carroll reveals something about the hidden logic of Carroll's stories, and conversely that this procedure tests some of Wittgenstein's intuitions concerning language. Yet another goal is to suggest that the structure of the discourse of domesticity as reflected in many mid-nineteenth-century novels is curiously similar to the structure of discourse in Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land—that the language-games played at these sites are at the same time functional and dysfunctional in much the same way. That may seem like a lot to attempt in a few pages, . . . but to paraphrase Humpty-Dumpty, when I ask words to do that much extra work, I pay them overtime.

In 1965 the philosopher George Pitcher published an essay, "Wittgenstein, Nonsense, and Lewis Carroll," in which he sought to demonstrate "the remarkable extent and depth of affinity between these two great writers with respect to nonsense." In addition, he showed that "the very same confusions with which Wittgenstein charged philosophers were deliberately employed by Carroll for comic effect," and that many of the examples that Wittgenstein used to illustrate his points "resemble, in varying degrees, examples that are found in the works of Carroll."3 While I agree with Pitcher's observation that the examples of nonsense that Wittgenstein offers are very similar to a primary strain of nonsense that runs through the Alice books, in the first section I intend to go beyond that observation and to apply some of Wittgenstein's tools to Carroll's work and show that Wittgenstein's work can be used to reveal features of literary narrative that might otherwise be obscured, and in the second section, to apply these tools to the works of fiction this side of the Looking-Glass.


Wittgenstein says that a language is a "language-game." He...


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