Summary and Analysis of The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Caroll

Lewis Caroll also known as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (27 January 1832 – 14 January 1898) is primarily famous for his work Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland published in 1865. However, there were many a publications of moderate success in his name already. He is noted for his facility at word play, logic, and fantasy. From a young age, Dodgson wrote poetry and short stories, both contributing heavily to the family magazine Mischmasch and later sending them to various magazines, enjoying moderate success. Between 1854 and 1856, his work appeared in the national publications, The Comic Times and The Train, as well as smaller magazines like the Whitby Gazette and the Oxford Critic. Most of this output was humorous, sometimes satirical, but his standards and ambitions were exacting.

About the poem- Though the full time critics and literary analysts would rake their brains to find significance of the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter, the meaning is ever elusive perhaps because it means nothing because it was meant to mean nothing because it was meant for the children to enjoy. The poem is written in the traditional format of the ballad. It is a story in the format of the dream work also where nonsensical things keep happening. In fact, the poem is a symptomatic poem of the genre of Non-sense literature and Jaberwocky that Caroll gave birth to in English literature.

It appears from the presence of both the moon and the sun and also from the fact that a walrus talks to a carpenter the narrative utilizes a sequence of dream. Perhaps the sequence of dream represents the moral topsy turvines of the universe. Expressing dissatisfaction on the amount of the sand that is present on the beach, both the Walrus and the Carpenter desire it to be cleaned away. Soon the Carpenter and the Walrus invite some oysters to walk with them. The experienced oyster rejected the offer while the new ones went along with the Walrus and the Carpenter. The Walrus and the Carpenter made the oysters walk a great deal only to eat them all after the walrus showed some bogus feelings of sadness.

As already mentioned it is difficult to fix the meaning and thus the theme of the poem is slippery too. Many people have tried to interpret it in many ways. Some have found religious, some have found political and some have found social significance in the poem. While some critics have found out the parody of the teachings of Budhha and some have found the criticism of the teachings of Jesus. These people have implied that the disciples of the religious order have always been duped by the religious leaders. Perhaps this idea would be all the more relevant today with the idea of Jihad making its followers fanatics resulting in their deaths in the name of religion. Similarly the political significance can be seen as the blind following by the political adheres to stupid political beliefs. It could also be a dig at the leaders of these political sects who lead their disciples to doom. The Jaberwocky of Walrus about many things to talk which were basically about,

“Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —

Of cabbages — and kings —

And why the sea is boiling hot —

And whether pigs have wings.”

The stupidity of the common people symbolized by the stupid oysters is also a theme of the poem.

The poem is written in the form of a ballad. A ballad is a story told in the form of a narrative poem. The language appears to be appropriate to the tenor of the poem. The apparent non sense is not reflected in the difficulty of the language. Had it been a post modern poem then the language too would have had been reflective of the perplexed theme of the poem but here is the difference between modernist poetry of early Victorian verse and proper post modern poetry. This theme is common in many a ballads where a number of people is duped and cheated by a trickster. Here too the walrus and the Carpenter trick the oysters out of their safety only to devour them. The poem appears to be a dream and can be interpreted in that same manner. The narrative is often interrupted by the dialogues and in fact towards the end of the poem the entire poem is dictated by the dialogue between the Carpenter and the Walrus. Thus the poem is removed from the category of ballad by this quality.

The whole poem is rich in images right from the beginning. It is Caroll and Caroll only who could think of making the sun and the moon co-exist. Though it is a poem and a poem perhaps about a dream the existence of the sun in the space of the moon is almost a parody of the ‘caves of ice with a sunny pleasure dome.’ Caroll proves once again that it is only through poetry that this synthesis of the impossible can be done and it is done. The very incongruous appearance of the walrus and the carpenter is significant. And if it was not enough for the oysters to walk on the sand they had to wear shoes too without having any feet! The enormity of the sands and the possibility of their being cleared away are hyperbolic and humourous. One of the most brilliant uses of anthropomorphism is the image of the Walrus quickly seconded by the image of the oysters.

Thus the length of poem might initially put us off but the sheer lyricality of the rhyming lines with disciplined stanza lengths and line lengths along with the superb play of the images and the negotiations and renegotiations of the apparent non-sense and allegorical significances do lend the poem a charm that out lasts any negative criticism of the same.

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1 comment

  1. I believe the summary/analysis of the poem is one of the best. I have always been interested in oral interpretation and have read this poem to an audience a number of times. I feel like reading it again tonight to a small group of teachers, and I thought of brushing up on my understanding of the poem. Thank you.

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