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Menegol Alice and Humpty Dumpty: A lesson on Signification in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass is a constant and rigorous play of signs and its system, pushing its limits and revealing its weaknesses through puns of every sort. Wonderland is indeed Imaginary world in the Lacanian sense. The very image of Alice walking through the mirror reminds us of Lacan’s Mirror Stage, where the child recognizes his or her image in a mirror and realizes he is trapped in his own body, detached and apart from his mother. This stage is the beginning of a child’s integration into the Symbolic realm where language exists. In Through the Looking Glass, Alice reaches toward the reflection and walks right through it, into a world that is backwards, where symbols are not at what she has learned in the “real” world. By the end of this book, while in this looking-glass world, Alice realizes she is not and does not want to be a part of it. This is a subtle metaphor for the fleetingly traumatic experience of the child recognizing himself in a mirror’s image, realizing that the child in the mirror is not another child, but his image reflected, and he realizes he is one and alone, forever then looking, until death, for the fulfillment of that which is missing (the maternal). Lacan describes the Mirror Stage thus: “[…] once the image has been mastered and found empty, immediately rebounds in the case of the child a series of gestures in which he experiences in play relation between the movements assumed in the image and the reflected environment, and between this virtual complex and the reality it reduplicates…” (Lacan, 1285) Carroll’s playful yet obviously intentional ambiguous use of language, as it takes place
2 only through the looking glass can be read as Alice’s own self-discoveries regarding the social system she has been incorporated into (and is trapped in). Signifiers exist as characters, settings, actions and effects limitlessly, as they would in the subconscious, where the mind will make its own associations according to one’s experience and dream-thoughts1, in a way never to be fully comprehended (though theorized about). When Alice crawls through the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, and in the second book, Through the Looking Glass, climbs in through the mirror and into the other side, she begins a journey into a world of signs she is familiar with: Wonderland. Wonderland, in this reading, signifies the imposed world of language and its possibilities, and Alice, the biased interpreter of the signs therein. There is a great number of passages that exemplifies my statement. However, one in which Alice challenges the limits of language most explicitly throughout the book is in chapter VI, “Humpty Dumpty”. Humpty Dumpty, before he is identified by Alice as such (before being named) was an egg she purchased from a sheep in the previous chapter, placed on a shelf that moved further from Alice as she tried to approach it. The shop became a forest and the shelf, a high wall. The egg “grew large” and Alice noticed it “grow more and more human.” I choose to place these phrases within quotations, because we must not approach the terms naively. We can assume the landscape did not transform at all, and that the egg did not really grow and become humanlike, but it was that way all along. Alice – who is, like we, the readers trapped in language (those existing outside Wonderland – a place that, as we shall see, depends directly on our world), most probably linked the egg to a memory of a nursery rhyme, and thus the egg was identified as Humpty Dumpty.
“[…]a complex of thoughts and memories of the most intricate possible structure, with all the attributes of the trains of thought familiar to us in waking life. They are not infrequently trains of thought starting out from more than one center, though having points of contact. Each train of thought is almost invariably accompanied by its contradictory counterpart, linked with it by antithetical association.” (Freud, 926)
3 He is introduced in the chapter (focalized through Alice) as follows:
" However, the egg only got larger and larger, and more and more human: when she had come within a few yards of it, she saw that it had eyes and a nose and mouth; and when she had come close to it, she saw clearly that it was HUMPTY DUMPTY himself. 'It can't be anybody else!' she said to herself. 'I'm as certain of it, as if his name were written all over his face' It might have been written a hundred times, easily, on that enormous face.” (Carroll, 113) Alice has demonstrated one of Saussure’s characteristics of language, an “auditory image associated with a concept.”2 Although in Wonderland there are no apparent restraints on signification, we eventually notice that this is not so: signification is determined by Alice herself. Although things seem to be as they are (and not what they seem), in truth, they are concepts that Alice has linked together. Saussure would say that these ideas are “united in the brain by an associative bond.” (Saussure, 963) Notice how the expression “written all over his face” is taken into consideration by Alice: his name can be literally written all over his face. “Humpty Dumpty” is a nonsense name, so to speak, as it does not really “mean” anything, yet it signifies a character familiar to anyone who has recited the popular Mother Goose rhyme. The concept of a large egg, in Alice’s lexicon, is most immediately linked to the sound-image “Humpty Dumpty.” Therefore, Alice is the arbitrary determinant of what the egg was to become. The egg becomes annoyed as Alice talks to herself, seemingly. She is forced an
“It is the social side of speech, outside the individual who can never create nor modify it by himself; it exists only by virtue of a sort of contract signed by the members of a community. Moreover, the individual must always serve an apprenticeship in order to learn the functioning of language; a child assimilates it only gradually.” (Saussure, 961)
4 introduction, which goes as follows: 'My name is Alice, but - ' 'It's a stupid name enough!' Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. 'What does it mean?' 'Must a name mean something?' Alice asked doubtfully. 'Of course it must,' Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: 'my name means the shape that I am -and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.' 'Why do you sit here, all alone?' said Alice, not wishing to begin an argument. 'Why, because there's nobody with me!' cried Humpty Dumpty. 'Did you think I didn't know the answer to that? Ask another.' (Carroll, 115-6) We have two linguistic dilemmas in the dialogue above: one, a misunderstanding as to the “meanings” of names, and the second, the “meaning” of the adverb “alone.” Saussure states that the linguistic sign is arbitrary, and that meaning is agreed on by a “linguistic community.” Evidently, Alice and Humpty Dumpty do not belong to the same community, as they don’t quite understand each other. Saussure mentions that onomatopoeia3 is a phenomenon that does not conform to these social agreements. Humpty Dumpty’s name is onomatopoeic in a way that combines senses, audio and visual; its rhythm might simulate the way a very round creature with short legs might walk. It is an egg-like name, but only for our culture, because of its precedents that have built these sonic implications. Alice and Humpty do not agree on the implications of the word “alone.” This disagreement
“Onomatopoeia might be used to prove that the choice of the signifier is not always arbitrary. But onomatopoeic formations are never organic elements of a linguistic system.” (Saussure, 965)
5 makes a statement; words take on multiple meanings as the language system becomes not only rich with words, but the way in which these are used, whole expressions. While Alice asks the egg why he is “alone” – meaning “why is he not accompanied”- the egg assumes she asks an explanation of his state (“alone”) in the most elemental and literal sense. Lacan and Saussure would consider this disagreement a natural flaw in language, as a word does not have the ability “to cover a whole field of the signified.4” Carroll represents linguistic confusion in yet another form: through the language of clothes, a system (though concrete and superficial), charged with signification. Alice is uncomfortable with the egg’s bad temper and tries to make things more pleasant by complementing his clothing. Amusingly, since the egg is a completely round body, Alice cannot tell whether the item he wears is a cravat or a belt: 'What a beautiful belt you've got on!' Alice suddenly remarked. [...] 'At least,' she corrected herself on second thoughts, 'a beautiful cravat, I should have said - no, a belt, I mean - I beg your pardon!' she added in dismay, for Humpty Dumpty looked thoroughly offended, as she began to wish she hadn't chosen that subject. 'If only I knew,' she thought to herself, which was neck and which was waist!' (Carroll, 120-121) Not being able to tell “which is neck and which is waist” is an anxiety born from language and expectations of its usage; depending on which is which, she should choose what to name the item and hence avoid being offensive. Alice may have been spared if she had allowed Humpty Dumpty to take the reins and saying, aware that she is in a world where language is a lot like, but not quite, the one she is accustomed to, “What a lovely thing that
“[…] language questions us as to its very nature. And we will fail to pursue the question further as long as we cling to the illusion that the signifier answers to the function of representing the signified, or better, that the signifier has to answer for its existence in the name of any signification whatever.” (Lacan, 1293)
6 is5, that which you are wearing, what is it called?” – and even so, may have been subject to some sort of linguistic defiance from the subversive Humpty Dumpty. The attitude of a community, regarding its language, is as Humpty Dumpty’s in this passage: 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean -neither more nor less.' 'The question is,' said Alice 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.' 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.' (Carroll, 124)
Works cited: Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; Through the Looking Glass and what Alice Found There. Connecticut: Konecky & Konecky, 1999. Freud, Sigmund. “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Vincent B. Leich, ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton and Company, 2001.
“No signification can be sustained other than by reference to another signification […]” (Lacan, 1293)
7 Lacan, Jaques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative: The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious.” Vincent B. Leich, ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton and Company, 2001.
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