The Humor of Lewis Carroll

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The works of Lewis Carroll, and in particular Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, cannot be read without noting the author’s mastery of wit. The creativity and insight permeating the humor in these texts are so clever and artful that the parody, pun, and nonsense are themselves the topic of many a critical essay. Most literature on the subject claims one of two things: either that the humor in his writing is inspired by his mathematical inclinations, or that it is a byproduct of an astounding innate linguistic aptitude. It appears, however, that these two approaches are motivated by the same analysis and that the concepts underlying mathematical and linguistic thought are equivalent.

Helena M. Pycior’s essay “At the Intersection of Mathematics and Humor: Lewis Carroll’s Alices and Symbolical Algebra” attempts to explain Carroll’s wit through concepts in Symbolical Algebra (which is today more commonly known as simply Symbolic Algebra or included in the related subject, Abstract Algebra). The first section of the essay begins with a rather detailed history of the development of Symbolical Algebra, and outlines some of the concepts the subject addresses. Pycior deals very little with Carroll in the first two-thirds of the article, focusing instead on George Peacock, Augustus De Morgan, and William Frend, all of whom were accomplished mathematicians. Eventually Pycior connects Carroll to the others by pointing out their common interests and influences. George Peacock was the mathematician who first “chose to redefine algebra as a science dealing with undefined signs and symbols, governed by laws of the mathematician’s making.” (Pycior 152) This redefinition was necessary, because in the years leading up ...

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...bjects of scrutiny in abstract algebra and linguistics, respectively.

Since there are very few instances in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books explicitly deal with solely math or solely linguistics, the arguments in the two mentioned papers could easily be revised to be the same: that Lewis Carroll had the kind of mind that thought naturally along the conceptual lines shared by mathematics and linguistics, and that this mode of thinking is readily apparent in his works.

Works Cited
Carroll, Lewis. "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Alice in Wonderland. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971. 1-99.

Nilsen, Don L. F. "The Linguistic Humor of Lewis Carroll." Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor (1988): 35-41.

Pycior, Helena M. "At the Intersection of Mathematics and Humor: Lewis Carroll's Alices and Symbolical Algebra." Victorian Studies Autumn 1984: 149-70.
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