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Monday, February 14, 2011

Alice in Wonderland VIV -- chapter 6: THE GREAT UGLY

"The Ugly Duchess," by Quentin Matsys
Perhaps because this chapter is so rife with dissectable material, perhaps because I've worked on it in three sessions, two of which were scattered with questions from confused and working students, these questions are not entirely in order of their book-ed correlates, but in the order they occurred to me.  My apologies; may the beauty (and that beauty so grounded in its Ugly) make up for my shortcomings.
  1. The general lampooning of adults is targeted more specifically in this chapter at the upper class: from the treatment, by Carroll, of the invitation (how pretentious is a letter this big, at least compared to the size of those who handle it, and especially if size is ever an indicator import, or at least self-righteousness, and regarding a game a croquet, no matter whom it's with?) to the wigs getting tangled (what the heck is the importance of such things and such clothes except to boast of the owner's--the owner of the servants whose clothes the servants wear--money, to the fact that the footmen, so lowly!, are mere animals, compared to their "human" owners.  Of course, if Carroll esteems animals generally more highly than human adults, this cants it all left--or right ... or off-center.  Oh, and then once the message is delivered, the poor remaining footman is good for absolutely nothing but sitting around looking stupid!
  2. However, and despite his stupid sitting, the Frog isn't stupid: "There's no sort of use in knocking, and that for two reasons.  First, because I'm on the same side of the door as you are: secondly, because they're making such a noise inside, no one could possible hear you."  However, if this Frog is so bent on appearance, which all formalities are pretty much all about in the first place, why did he bow regally to the fish, but not introduce Alice to its master?  Is this a slight against Alice, or indication of "needing to maintain appearances" bound to be reported to Queen, or something else?
  3. The frog footman: "For instance, if you were inside, you might knock, and I could let you out, you know."  Another symptom of "automatic writing?"
  4. What is meant by the footman's off-hand remark, "Are you to get in at all?  That's the first question, you know."  It's answer, I think, is also telling of Carroll's position here, and, to a degree, an interesting and potential point on an issue predestination (all kinds of ramifications there, especially considering the time and space of the setting!).
  5. We will spend more time with the Cheshire Cat later.  A couple notes in the interim: with the exception of the court scene at the end where many characters temporarily return, the Cheshire Cat is alone in its repeated appearances; consider elements of the moon, and the cat's resemblance to the moon, and the moon's supposed influence on the sanity of those under it.
  6. The treatment of the baby seems entirely contrary to anything Carroll would have believed in regarding children.  Thoughts?
  7. The treatment and change of the baby is the most grotesque of the events in Wonderland (at least on this first of Alice's two trips here).  What would have happened to the baby had it staying with the Duchess?  Would it have still changed into a pig?  Why all the pepper?  Why all the hurling of every potential implement in the kitchen?  How do--if they do--all fit together?
  8. In Sylvie and Bruno, Carroll evinces a distaste for boys (a distaste he did not bury in life) and compared one particularly fat, ugly boy, Uggug by name, to a prize pig.  Consider Alice's statement (and, as we're in Wonderland, Alice is of course channeling, at least to a degree, Carroll himself): "...if one only knew how to change them--" speaking of children who "might do very well as pigs."  
  9. I can't quite articulate it yet, and I know there's a risk in writing before I've organized my still nascent thoughts on it:  There seems a potential connection between the letter and the pig.  Thoughts?
  10. Further, what of the Ugly in this chapter?
  11. "You must be [mad]," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."  More importantly: "And how do you know that you're mad?"
  12. Two final, fun observations (neither of them my own):  First, I've always wondered about--and been annoyed by--the format of Tenniel's illustration of Alice looking up at the Cat in this chapter.  The missing rectangle seems so out of standard when held up to all the rest of the illustration--he doesn't accommodate text with picture shape; however, when held up against, or immediately atop of, the illustration of the cat mid-appearance on the next page it makes perfect sense. I've finally learned the intent: Carroll enjoyed the opportunity to fold the paper of the prior back to reveal the drawing of the latter (the cat, despite Alice's walking ahead, is in the same tree) to the children around him and observe Alice's complete lack of fear.  Second, "a smile without a cat" is perhaps the most subtle of Carroll's mathematical allusions, as it is an altogether apt description of pure mathematics.  (Thanks Selwyn Goodacre for the first, and Martin Gardner and Bertrand Russell for the second.)

Speak Gently
by David Bates

Speak gently! -- It is better far
To rule by love, than fear --
Speak gently -- let not harsh words mar
The good we might do here!

Speak gently! -- Love doth whisper low
The vows that true hearts bind;
And gently Friendship's accents flow;
Affection's voice is kind.

Speak gently to the little child!
Its love be sure to gain;
Teach it in accents soft and mild: --
It may not long remain.

Speak gently to the young, for they
Will have enough to bear --
Pass through this life as best they may,
'T is full of anxious care!

Speak gently to the aged one,
Grieve not the care-worn heart;
The sands of life are nearly run,
Let such in peace depart!

Speak gently, kindly, to the poor;
Let no harsh tone be heard;
They have enough they must endure,
Without an unkind word!

Speak gently to the erring -- know,
They may have toiled in vain;
Perchance unkindness made them so;
Oh, win them back again!

Speak gently! -- He who gave his life
To bend man's stubborn will,
When elements were in fierce strife,
Said to them, 'Peace, be still.'

Speak gently! -- 't is a little thing
Dropped in the heart's deep well;
The good, the joy, which it may bring,
Eternity shall tell.


  1. 2. I think that the frog is a parody of an adult who does not care to "condescend" to children. His eyes are on the top of his head, so he cannot possibly see (pay any regard to) someone that height.
    3. No, I think that this is an intentional joke. Who would ever want to enter that raving hell? Better to get out of it!
    4. Hmm... I had not considered the predestination idea. I'll have to think it over. I just like the way it tells you to be careful about presumptions.
    6. What he is saying, I think, is that the baby turns into a pig because it is treated as such. In other words, parenting has an impact on the child. Notice the Cheshire Cat's words upon finding out that it's turned into a pig, "I thought it would."
    7. Not sure about the pepper, but I think that my answer in 6 plays into the rest. I'd take more time, but I have class in a few minutes....
    9. Hmm... let me think.
    10. Carroll seems to believe in the relativity of ugly. It could either be an ugly human or a beautiful pig. In other words, whether something is ugly depends entirely on one's presupposition of what it "should" look like.
    11. The interesting thing about this to me is that the answer that the Cheshire Cat gives is transparently (at least to me right now) illegitimate. The takeaway? We're still left with the question that the Cheshire Cat poses. Madness seems to be merely nonconformity rather than an actual condition.
    12. Could you explain how it applies to mathematics? I'm completely oblivious, as with most mathematical things. Thanks.

    Finally, oddly enough, as soon as I started to read this, two lit. majors on a couch about 3 feet away began discussing Carroll, which I found a rather odd coincidence because I'm reading it on my Nook, so they couldn't possibly have seen it. Unfortunately, they defined him as basically popularizing "nonsense" in writing and seemed to have a rather low view. Now, I wouldn't DARE disagree with someone who's spent 3 years at a fine institution studying literature, but this seems incredibly naive and even a bit annoying. The more I read Carroll, the more I'm convinced that he's like most of my political theory books. There are layers, and 90% of people will only figure out the first layer by themselves. So rather than getting the point that he's trying to make, it just comes across as "nonsense." Still frustrating to hear people criticize him who don't even get what he's trying to do.

  2. Probably won't be able to get to all these today -- this chapter has a TON to talk about. As for your final remark, this actually doesn't surprise me (and trust me, you wouldn't have any trouble keeping up with a couple of lit juniors who should've never received a label more advanced than sophomore (unless you were more interested in sparing their pride, in which case you should have just gone after them!)): who's more against the establishment that junior (and I mean immature) free-thinkers, or young people trying to be free-thinking and yet still require a context within which they can hope appear impressive and intelligent and new? Perhaps they haven't escaped adolescence yet, where the attitude is anything that isn't cool or isn't me or is adult or is pre-established is wrong. Worse, they likely won't ever be able to admit they're wrong, or admit a position other than what they're positing now until they're far away from all acquaintances who know them currently. Worst, they're just simply missing out.

    You should have invited them to the blog!

  3. Your establishment comment is so true. These things turn on themselves. If you're always anti-establishment, you're not a free thinker; in fact, you're every bit as dogmatic, if not MORE SO than the establishment.

    I would have invited them/confronted them, except for a few things: 1. I didn't want to be creepy. 2. I didn't want to be a jerk. 3. I would rather READ "Alice in Wonderland" than argue about it with a few lightweights. If they would act likewise, they'd probably be better off. The whole thing reminded me of the NaNoWriMo critique that you posted. They were discussing their own writing in reverent tones and then just completely ripped Carroll (which can be ok), except that they totally missed the point of his writing. It's like these people accusing "Huck Finn" of racism; it just makes me want to scream.

  4. I'm usually okay (though it's harder when there's a personal love attached) when someone tears apart a book or work that I appreciate or revere, or whatever, so long as they're able to intelligently defend their point. Ignorant bashing however does nothing more than italicize the stupidity of the basher. (More on the actual questions of this post in a little bit.)

  5. I don't know about you, but sometimes it hurts MORE when someone criticizes a work that I love and I know deep down inside that at least part of what they're saying is actually right. I can simply blow these chumps off.

  6. 2 – I think there’s a bit of formality here as well. I’m amazed by how frequently this very stuff happens now. Think about those who dress up to go grocery shopping. And it starts when we’re so young, when we clean our room by shoving stuff under the bed or behind a shelf in the back of our closet or something. Appearance is so much more important to us than actual substance. The Frog knows he has to maintain appearances before the Queen’s footman, but once the fish is gone, well, screw it! I’ll sit and do nothing, because certainly I’m not required inside. As far as his contact with Alice is concerned, I think you’re right.
    4 – Ought she go in? Certainly she ought! And it’s the writer’s choice to make it happen. Alice has no control here; the outcome is in the pen of the author. And the encounter with the Duchess has lasting effect, as we’ll see in the Queen’s croquet game in a few chapters. It’s the phrasing and emphasis that makes this evident. “Are you to go in?” “Yes, I am to go in.” I am meant to go in. It is right for me to enter. (I’ll stop kicking the horse. Sorry.)
    6, 7 – I’m not so sure. Especially in context of Carroll’s thoughts for boys as well as Alice’s question about what it would take to make such a change, I wonder if the pig had stayed with the Duchess that it would have remained a pig, as if the violence kept it from falling down the line or orders to the level of livestock, which Carroll indicates is, well for boys, a short step. Boys are already useless and ugly, though humanity is at least publicly more desirable (let’s maintain appearances, after all!), so the Duchess beats the humanity into the boy. (Some critics, though I think it rather weak, believe the pepper a physical indicator of the Duchess’s temperament. I have a problem with this because of her treacle-sweet demeanor to come. Pepper isn’t such a changeling substance.)
    9 – I’m thinking something along the lines of letter in, pig out – footman delivered to, Alice delivered away. I don’t know.
    10 – And physical beauty is very important to Carroll. Alice always represented the epitome of beauty to him. Boys in general were ugly, and some worse than others. Again, he indicated as much in various letters to girls he was friends with. “Internal beauty” seemed permitted opportunity or acceptance if external beauty were already welcomed by him. While I admire and sympathize with an awful lot of Carroll’s life and ideals, this is one that’s always bothered me. The one contradiction is the Duchess. She is given a chance, at least by Alice, who seems to share none of Carroll’s prejudice (and it shows clearly through his writing). The Duchess, while more idiotic than most, is quite kind and generous later on.
    11 – There was contemporary discussion to Carroll and Alice about the difference between sanity within the context of dreams and without dreams. In Dreamland, we do things otherwise insane without question, because the context is so different. While the superficial answer here is that Wonderland is a dream (again, she wakes up to escape it), the question, I think, holds: what is her sanity or anyone else’s in Wonderland?
    12 – (I definitely did NOT see this on my own) Pure mathematics disregards context, as a floating smile is without context and may be that of anything. As there is no real smiling cat, why not a cat, which validates some of the general questions about the Cheshire cat, including the cat-shaped cheese famous from Cheshire, which cat grins and is typically eaten tale first leaving, in the end, just the grin.

  7. I think this is why I'm so eager to defend Alice in Wonderland, because I've thought of it my entire life as one of the greatest books ever. It would hurt (talk about dethroning gods!) a lot if this critical pass through it reveals it relatively inept or inconsequential. A rational, realistic contextualization amidst its rightful peers (whatever those books happen to be) won't hurt if it doesn't require demoting it too far.


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