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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Alice in Wonderland X -- chapter 7: RAVENS and WRITING DESKS

"The Mad Tea-Party" is a joke (the good kind) --or, at least, a whole bunch of them all strung up back to back; some are inside jokes, and generally lost on those of us not parcel to Carroll's time and place; there are even a few things that appear to be jokes, but are cultural references, again generally lost on us.  As most of this chapter is nonsense (legitimately and hilariously so), the majority of what I'll put down here are just footnotes and explanations (thanks to Martin Gardener and Wikipedia, though there are few things that I even know on my own! (go figure)).

The Hatter: "mad as a hatter" was a phrase common for the time and referenced the once common occurrence of mercury poisoning from the process of felting beaver fur for hat felt.  This Hatter, however, is most likely--or most convincingly (there is a difference) --a caricature of a local furniture dealer, one Theophilus Carter, who invented an alarm clock bed (and so was rightfully represented as obsessed with time and waking--great foil for the Dormouse) and always wore a top hat.  Note also the quantity of mentioned furniture throughout the chapter.

The March Hare: Hares mate in March.

The Dormouse: This is a nocturnal animal, and therefore fairly groggy in the day.  They were commonly kept as pets by Victorian children who would house them up in old, straw- or straw-lined teapots.

Hair in Need of Cutting: Lewis Carroll reportedly kept his hair rather longer than was considered fashionable for the time (inferred from various letters to, from, and/or about him).  To put this in perspective, and add the only bit of evidence that I can find in this chapter to support my purpose for this particular read, no one made comment--plain and simply no one--about a girl's hair length back then and there.  It was, apparently, more than rude.

Why is a raven like a writing desk?:  From Lewis Carroll (and here without the printer's, not Carroll's, quelling typo) -- "Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter's Riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, vis: 'Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar [sic] put with the wrong end in front!' This, however, is merely an afterthought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all."

There are dozens of entertaining responses to the riddle, many made as entries to contests posted in various Carroll fan- or analytical-publications.  Here rare some of my favorites:

  • Sam Lloyd (my favorite): 1, Because the notes for which they are noted are not noted for being musical notes; 2, because Poe wrote on both; 3, bills and tales are among their characteristics; and 4, because they both stand on their legs, conceal their steels (steals), and ought to be made to shut up.
  • Roy Davenport: Because without them both Brave New World could not have been written.
  • Peter Veal: Because one has flapping fits and the other fitting flaps.
  • George Simmers: Because one is good for writing books and the other better for biting rooks.
  • Tony Weston: Because a writing-desk is a rest for pens and a raven is a pest for wrens.
  • Noel Petty: Because they are both used to carri-on decomposition.
  • Francis Huxley: 1, Because it bodes ill for owed bills; and 2, because they each contain a river--Neva and Esk.

Two days slow: by various extrapolations, it is clear that the book, Alice, takes place on her seventh birthday, May 4.  According to A.L. Taylor (quoted from Martin Gardner), "on May 4, 1862, there was exactly two days' difference between the lunar and calendar months.  This, Taylor argues, suggests that the Mad Hatter's watch ran on lunar time and accounts for his remark that his watch is 'two days wrong.'  If Wonderland is near the earth's center, Taylor points out, the position of the sun would be useless for time-telling, whereas phases of the moon remain unambiguous.  The conjecture is also supported by the close connection of 'lunar' with 'lunacy,' but it is hard to believe that Carroll had all this in mind."

The three little sisters:  Because of a published couplet referring to Carroll and the Liddell family, we know the proper pronunciation of the name: "I am the dean and this is Mrs. Liddell // She plays the first, and I the second fiddle."  This is the second pun drawn between "little" and "Liddell."  In this case Elsie (pronounced L.C., of course) is for Lorina Charlotte (older sister), Lacie is an anagram of Alice, and Tillie is short for Edith's family nickname of "Matilda."

Why not M: Treacle is molasses -- M for molasses; mot to mention the March Hare's potential interest in putting himself in the story, as his name begins with an M, as well as the fact that it is he who calls out "Why not?"

Issues of Language (what are your thoughts (and these are pretty basic)):

  • "The Hatter's remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English"
  • Living on treacle
  • Can't take more or can't take less
  • In the well or well-in
  • Drawing treacle

6 comments:

  1. Loved the lunar calendar point. Also, the moon is one of the things that the Dormouse mentions as beginning with M, perhaps providing more evidence. My edition also points out that March 4 was Alice Liddell's birthday. So the 4th combined with the March Hare, there you go. Not a lock by any means, but certainly a possible connection.

    What do you make of the, "Which is just the case with *mine*" response? There has to be something there once it's unraveled, hasn't there?

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  2. Does your edition really claim that Alice's birthday was March 4? I've never seen that. Always May....

    Where's the "which" comment you're referring to?

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  3. It's right before the part about the remark having no meaning to it but being English.

    Yes, it does. It must be a typo, though. Wiki also says May 4. Now the whole thing makes a lot more sense....

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  4. This took me a few minutes. I noticed it when I first read through, but forgot to go back and re-look when doing the writeup. It's talking about the fact that while Alice's watch doesn't bother telling the year because it stays the same year for so long, the Hatter's watch doesn't tell the o'clock because it stays the same hour for long: 6 o'clock--forever--which he goes on, of course, to explain a little later when he talks about his troubling relationship with the character, Time.

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  5. I should probably do these for each chapter, but that makes the posts really long. Scattered throughout, however, there are explanations, as they're pertinent to my interest in the Carroll/Alice relationship.

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