Ambiguity as a Source of Humor in Lewis Carroll’s "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Charlotte Bahr (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Literary background to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Ambiguity

3. Background Studies on Ambiguity

4. Background Studies of Ambiguity in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

5. Analysis of the Ambiguity in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
5.1 The Caucus Race and a long Tale
5.2 The Queen’s Croquet-Ground
5.3 The Mock Turtles Story

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I‘m mad. You‘re mad. ‘

(Carroll 2009: 57)

This quote captures like nothing else the essence of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book Alice in Wonderland. The story of a young girl getting bored during a hot summer day and slipping into a dreamland full of odd creatures has enchanted generations of children myself included. Alice is not a typical children’s book though, as it is quite multilayered, thanks to Carroll’s clever play with language. Carroll, common name Charles Lutwige Dodgson, was quite fond of using several stylistic devices like punning, to delight the young readership his stories were for. But I also noticed that he used ambiguity in quite a few instances. Many characters are very fond of ambiguity most prominently The Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, the Mock Turtle, Gryphon and the Red King. Carroll mostly uses ambiguity to create confusion through misunderstandings, mostly on Alice’s dispense, which in return tends to create a certain humor for the reader.

In this seminar paper I will discuss Carroll’s use of ambiguity in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by analyzing several instances of it that appear throughout the novel. I will start out by defining ambiguity and in what ways ambiguity has been researched by other linguists and what results their studies produced. I am also going to explore the origins of Alice in Wonderland. How did Carroll come up with it? What kind of story is it? On the stylistic level I will examine what Carroll’s general stance on ambiguity was and how he used it to create both confusion and comedy? I will take a closer look at the different forms of ambiguity he employs and how characters react to the usage of it.

2. Literary background of Alice Adventures in Wonderland

Carroll came up with the original idea of Alice Adventures in Wonderland on a rowing trip he took with the three daughters of the befriended Liddell family. Alice, one of the sisters, liked the story so much she asked Carroll to write it down for her. He immediately began to develop a script for a full length story. The first draft was called Alice Adventures under Ground, but after testing it with other children he changed some parts again and ultimately published it as Alice Adventures in Wonderland in 1865.

The target audience for Carroll’s tales was first and foremost children, thanks to his stories being “abound in the spontaneous enigmatic coinings of dreams, slips of tongue, jokes and improvisatory free-association.” Carroll’s main goal was mainly to entertain and amuse the young readership he thought was reading his story, so he inserted a lot of puns and word play into the story, something he considered amusing to children. But although being a “sophisticated fairytale” according to Carroll, Alice Adventures in Wonderland are also “riddling, aesthetically highly wrought products of a child-haunted adult, obsessed by questions of meaning, and have something of the eerie perfection of the literary sphinx about them, of Wildean contrivance as well as the vertiginous spontaneity of improvisation. (cf. Carroll 2009: xii) Being a mathematician and logician, he also put several higher concepts into the story like questions about meaning, identity, names, logic and the philosophy of language, making it an interesting read for adults as well. (cf. Carroll 2009: xiv)

As much as the Alice books are children’s literature, they are also books about childhood. Like Hugh Haughton wrote in the introduction of the Penguin Edition, the books are “[i]n foregrounding problems of language and meaning […] as formally disorientating and psychologically searching representations of childhood subjectivity as Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist or Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.” When hearing the words “Wonderland” and “Adventure” they sound like “fairytales” and “romance”, yet most creatures Alice encounters are questioning and correcting everything she says like “querulous logicians and niggling philosophers” to turn something normal into something nonsensical. Alice constantly encounters puzzles, paradoxes and riddles and is caught up in numerous arguments on her journey, which question the stability of language and the foundations of her world. (cf. Carroll 2009: xiv) Her Victorian education is brought up by her several times throughout the story, something she seems very proud of, but everything she remembers from her lessons comes out completely wrong making it look like the nonsense she is confronted with is starting to rub off on her since nearly every character Alice encounters on her journey through Wonderland makes little to no sense and everything she tries to say is twisted and turned until it is complete nonsense.

3. Background Studies on Ambiguity

In general ambiguity can be defined as a linguistic condition where a word, phrase or sentence can have multiple meanings and alternative linguistic structures can be built for it (cf. Jurafsky & Martin 2009: 38) Linguist William Empson wrote that ambiguity occurs when “alternative views might be taken without sheer misreading”. (1956: x) He also distinguished between seven types of ambiguity in literature. But being more interested in the linguistic point of view I will mostly concentrate on three forms of ambiguity: phonetic, grammatical and lexical. (cf. Ullmann 1979: 156)

The most common type is the lexical ambiguity, which can interact in complex ways and can be divided into three types: polysemy, homonymy and categorical ambiguity. Polysemous words have numerous meanings, which are related to one another. Taking the word open as an example, it has several different senses in connection to “unfolding, expanding, revealing, moving to an open position, making openings […]”. Homonymous words or phrases have meanings that are not related to one another at all, like the word bark, which denotes both the noise a dog makes and the stuff on the outside of a tree. A word can be both polysemous and homonymous like right having meanings that are concerned with “correctness and righteousness”, but also the right-hand side. (cf. Hirst 1987: 5) There is also no clear distinction between polysemy, homonymy and metaphor, the metaphor tends to blend into the other two or as Hirst puts it: “[T]oday’s metaphor may be tomorrow’s polysemy or homonymy.”(1987: 6)

Categorically ambiguous are words, whose syntactic category sometimes varies. For example, the word sink can both be a noun describing the plumbing fixture or a verb with the meaning becoming submerged.

Generally, verbs have a tendency to be polysemous, while nouns tend to be homonymous, but verbs being homonymous and nouns being polysemous do occur as well. (cf. Hirst 1987: 6)

Lexical ambiguity can also be separated differently into two types: semantic and syntactic ambiguity. The semantic lexical ambiguity is the on the differentiation between polysemy, homonymy and categorical ambiguity explained above. The syntactic ambiguity references to the ambiguity of a category like noun vs. verb. For example can the word fish both denote the action executed by the angler or the target of said action. (cf. Small at al. 1988: 4) Both semantic and syntactic ambiguity are orthogonal, because one word can have several related meanings in different categories like in the example can of fruit vs. to can fruit, or not related meanings in varying categories as seen in the example I saw the carpenter’s saw, but both at the same time is also possible (I saw the carpenter saw ing with the rusty saw.) (Small at al. 1988: 4)

Another type of ambiguity is the phonetic ambiguity, which mostly occurs in spoken language and results from the phonetic structure of a sentence.

Then there is also a large group of ambiguities caused by grammatical factors, divided into two possibilities: the equivoque either results from the ambiguity of the grammatical forms or from the way the sentence is structured. Numerous grammatical forms are ambiguous for example some prefixes and suffixes. These can inherit several different meanings which can create misunderstandings like for example the suffix –able does not have the same meaning in desirable or readable as it does in eatable or debatable. (cf. Empson 1956: 156)

Ambiguity can be resolved or disambiguated in a number of ways. There is for example the part-of-speech tagging. Parts of speech seem to be present in every natural language. This method distinguishes between eight word classes: noun, verb, article (including relative pronouns), pronoun, preposition, adverb and conjunction. (cf. Voutilainen 2003: 220) For example the word duck can be either a noun or verb and to solve this, the part-of-speech tagging is used.

There is also the word sense disambiguation which can be described as a” process of deciding the senses of words of words in context.” For example the word light can mean both not heavy or illumination. In the sentence ‘ He turned on the light.’ the word sense disambiguation helps pointing out the sense of the sentence. (Stevenson & Wilks 2003: 249)

The resolution of part of speech and the word sense ambiguities are two very important kinds of lexical disambiguation. (Jurafsky & Martin 2009: 38)

Another form of disambiguation is the resolve on the sentence level called syntactic disambiguation. Many English sentences tend to have more than one parse, a parse being a device “to analyze (a sentence) in terms of grammatical constituents, identifying the parts of speech, syntactic relations, etc.”(, though there is usually one unique parse preferred for a sentence when semantics and discourse have been considered. The example ‘Nadia left the university on the wrong bus.’ When analyzing this sentence, a semantic bias forms to one of the parsers, because the reader of the sentence does not take the university on the wrong bus as a single noun phrase, because they apply the knowledge, that universities barely ride buses. A syntactic bias can also form, because the English language often has certain preferences in choosing among several possible parsers. (cf. Hirst 1987: 9)


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Ambiguity as a Source of Humor in Lewis Carroll’s "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland"
University of Würzburg
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ambiguity, source, humor, lewis, carroll’s, alice’s, adventures, wonderland
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Charlotte Bahr (Author), 2012, Ambiguity as a Source of Humor in Lewis Carroll’s "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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