Jabberwocky | Study Guide

Lewis Carroll

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Jabberwocky | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

"The Jabberwocky" tells the tale of a heroic young boy who goes out to fight a dangerous monster called the Jabberwock.

Stanza 1

The speaker introduces the tone of the poem and describes the setting in nonsensical words. Words such as "slithy toves," "gimble in the wabe," and "mome raths outgrabe" do not have a literal meaning. Readers must rely on the context of the sound and their own denotations to determine the exact meaning.

Stanza 2

The man warns his son about the Jabberwock, Jubjub bird, and the Bandersnatch. The man addresses the boy in dialogue and informs his son of the dangers of these creatures.

Stanzas 3–4

The boy takes a sword and goes to find the Jabberwock in Stanza 3. He decides to rest by a Tumtum tree and think. In Stanza 4 the Jabberwock races through the woods. It makes burbling noises as it approaches the boy.

Stanzas 5–6

The boy and the Jabberwock fight in an epic battle, but the boy comes out triumphant. He cuts off the Jabberwock's head in Stanza 5. He returns to his father with the head. In Stanza 6 the man asks the boy if he has slain the Jabberwock and then tells him to "come to my arms, my beamish boy!" The man rejoices in his son's victory over the Jabberwock.

Stanza 7

The final stanza is a repetition of Stanza 1.

Analysis

Stanza 1

The beginning of the poem is a string of nonsense words and is an introduction to the tone and type of poem that Carroll has created. Nonsense is a common trope in children's literature, and Carroll wrote the poem primarily for children. The words that are nonsense are all nouns and adjectives. This style of writing gives readers a chance to understand the basic structure of the sentences while they use their imagination to create their own personal scene.

The meaning of the beginning of the poem can be interpreted using word connotations. For example, "slithy" sounds similar to the word "slimy." Later in Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty does his best to explain the first stanza of the poem by defining the nonsense words. Humpty defines the words as follows:

  • Brillig|four o'clock in the afternoon when a person begins broiling food for dinner.
  • Slithy|a combination of "lithe" and "slimy" where "lithe" means the same as "active." The word itself has two meanings that suggest either a slow, slimy creature attempting to be young and spry or an active creature that is inherently slimy.
  • Toves|corkscrew-looking creatures that are a cross between a badger and a lizard. They make their nests under sundials and live on cheese.
  • Gyre|to go around and in circles.
  • Gimble|to make holes. "Gimble "comes from the word "gimlet" which is a small tool that drills holes into wood without cracking the wood.
  • Wabe|the grass plot around the sundial which extends in a circle.
  • Mimsy|a combination of the words "flimsy" and "miserable." The word itself has a dual meaning of flimsy and miserable.
  • Borogrove|a thin bird with ragged feathers that looks slightly like a living mop.
  • Rath|a kind of green pig
  • Mome|Humpty Dumpty is uncertain about the meaning of the word "mome." However, he believes it means "from home" as in someone is lost and unsure how to get home. His uncertainty highlights that readers do not need all of the definitions of the unknown words to understand the overall concept of the poem and to enjoy it.
  • Outgrabe|a noise between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle.

With these definitions in mind, Stanza 1 can be loosely interpreted. It indicates that it is around four o'clock in the afternoon and the slimy but lithe badger-lizards are making holes in a circle around their nest under the sundial. The shabby birds are feeling miserable, and the green pigs are making noise and trying to find their way home.

The poem is intended to be nonsensical and to spark the imagination, even with the definitions provided by Humpty Dumpty later in Through the Looking Glass.

Stanza 2

The plot moves forward by introducing the stakes and the hero's call to action. The speaker introduces the man who is talking to his son. The man warns the boy about the dangers of the Jabberwock, the Jubjub bird, and the Bandersnatch. All of these creatures sound extremely dangerous, and the man's warning is warranted. This stanza introduces more nonsense words in the form of nouns and adjectives. Jabberwock, Jubjub, and Bandersnatch are all fantasy creatures. Carroll leaves his readers to imagine what a Jubjub bird and Bandersnatch look like. The initial publication of Through the Looking Glass included an illustration by Sir John Tenniel (1820–1872) of what the Jabberwock looked like. "Frumious" is another invented word and is a combination of the words "furious" and "fuming."

Stanza 3

The boy's relationship to the Jabberwock is introduced in Stanza 3. The boy takes a sword to find the Jabberwock despite the man's warning. While the boy is searching, he pauses to rest by the Tumtum tree. The Tumtum tree is an invented noun by Lewis Carroll. The clarifying label "tree" allows readers to steer their imagination in the direction of a boy standing near a tree, but what type of tree it is and what it looks like is up to the readers' imagination. Other nonsense words in this stanza include the adjectives "vorpal" and "manxome." These words are never purposefully defined in any type of dictionary, but the placement of the words is intended to guide understanding through context. "Vorpal" is used to describe the sword that the boy takes with him to slay the Jabberwock. Because the boy is ultimately successful in defeating the Jabberwock, readers can infer that the vorpal sword is deadly and sharp. "Manxome" is used before the word "foe" in regard to the Jabberwock. It is another word that is not defined, so readers must use context clues and connotations to determine the meaning. As "Maxome" is used as an adjective to describe "foe" and the poem refers to the Jabberwock as the boy's foe, the word carries a negative connotation. "Manxome" could be interpreted as a combination of monstrous and fearsome, but it is not necessary to know the exact definition of the word to understand the poem.

Stanza 4

The boy comes closer to confronting his nemesis and the poem's suspense increases. The Jabberwock charges through the woods while the boy is thinking. The first nonsense word in Stanza 4 is an adjective that describes the type of thinking the boy is doing. Carroll defines the word "uffish" as "a state of mind when the voice is gruffish, the manner roughish, and the temper huffish." Uffish thought lends itself to exasperation and frustration, perhaps from searching for the Jabberwock and not being able to find it. This small obstacle and the boy's frustrated thoughts are cut short as the Jabberwock comes charging through the woods. Its eyes are "of flame" which means that it is angry and full of rage. "Whiffling" was a 19th-century slang term that meant "variable and evasive." This word evokes a picture of the monster zipping through the woods, dodging trees, and snaking through the growth. "Burbled" is a sound that possibly stems from the word "bubble," as if the Jabberwock is bubbling out its sound in short bursts. "Tulgey" is another nonsense adjective that does not necessarily need a definition for readers to understand the context. However, "tulgey" has since come to mean "thick and dense" through its description of the woods in "The Jabberwocky."

Stanza 5

The boy and the Jabberwock engage in an epic battle between good and evil that is illustrated through sound words. The stanza starts with a repetition of "one, two" which is a common phrase in sword training during a basic drill and comprises the first two numbers when counting. This phrase replaces the action of the fight and leaves the battle to play out in the readers' minds. Carroll adds "snicker-snack" as an onomatopoeia to convey the sounds of the battle and the beheading of the Jabberwock. An onomatopoeia is a word that resembles a sound when read. Examples include comic book words like "pop" and "bam."

The boy takes the Jabberwock's head back to his father. The word "galumphing" which means to move in a clumsy, ponderous, or noisy manner was introduced in this poem and has since made it into the common English vernacular.

Stanza 6

Stanza 6 reintroduces the man through dialogue. The man is elated that his son has slain the Jabberwock and tells him to "come to my arms, my beamish boy." "Frabjous" which means "joyful and delightful" is an invented word by Carroll that has made its way into everyday language. "Chortled" is a common word that Carroll created and is used to describe how the man laughs. "Chortle" is a combination of the words "chuckle" and "snort," so the sound associated with a chortle would be a snorting laugh.

Stanza 7

Stanza 7 is word-for-word repetition of Stanza 1. This repetition gives the poem a cyclical quality by suggesting that day-to-day life continues even though the Jabberwock is slain.

A Hero's Journey

The poem is a small version of the hero's journey and is a children's introduction to a more complex structure. The traditional hero's journey in literature normally has 12 steps, but this shortened version only has 8.

In Stanza 1, Carroll introduces the first step in the journey called the Ordinary World which is where the protagonist exists. The man and the boy start in the ordinary world or at least a world that is ordinary for them.

The second step and fourth steps or the Call to Adventure and Meeting of the Mentor happen in Stanza 2 with the man's dialogue. Carroll abandons the third step or the Refusal to the Call in his narrative. In a traditional hero's journey, the hero initially refuses to accept the offered quest. In "The Jabberwocky" the man tells his son to beware of the Jabberwock, and the boy immediately goes to defeat his longtime foe.

The boy takes up the Call to Adventure and crosses the threshold into the tulgey wood to look for the Jabberwock. The Test, Allies, and Enemies sections of the hero's journey are left out of the poem but alluded to as the boy stands in "uffish thought" and rests by the Tumtum tree. The inference here is that the boy has been searching for the Jabberwock for a while because the boy considers the Jabberwock to be his foe.

The poem offers no Approach to the Inmost Cave step where the hero usually reaches a new level of enlightenment. "The Jabberwocky" instead skips straight to the ordeal where the boy fights the Jabberwock. He defeats the Jabberwock and enters the Reward or Seizing the Sword part of the hero's journey where he takes the Jabberwock's head back to his father.

Carroll omits the Road Back and Resurrection sections of the hero's journey where the hero journeys home and experiences self-renewal. The poem jumps to the Return with the Elixir stage where the boy brings the head of the Jabberwock back to his father and is celebrated as a hero.

In the last stanza, the poem deviates from the hero's journey with the repetition of the first stanza. The traditional ending is "Return with the Elixir" when the hero returns victorious and changed from his adventure. The story ends with a definite change. The boy experiences victory and change when he defeats the Jabberwock, but the repetition of the first stanza is a restart of the hero's journey. This departure from the traditional format creates an atmosphere of wonder. Will the hero need to go on another quest? Will he fight the Bandersnatch next? It also undercuts the boy's triumph because the world returns to the same space it was in before the beheading of the Jabberwock.

The Beauty of Nonsense

The true beauty of "The Jabberwocky" lies in the poem's nonsensical nature. Through the poem Carroll illustrates the beauty of language creation and the power of word associations and connotations. Even though several of the words are later defined in Through the Looking Glass, the poem itself is designed to provoke wonder and puzzlement. "The Jabberwocky" is a puzzle. It is the first thing Alice has to figure out when she enters the looking glass. The poem is written backwards, and only by holding the book up to a mirror can Alice decipher the letters. Upon reading it she discovers that even the words themselves are a puzzle, and she is confused by the poem. She laters brings the poem up to Humpty Dumpty who helps her decipher the first stanza and then recites to her a narrative poem that ends abruptly, never providing a resolution. In this way Carroll continues to defy the expectations of literature.

Jabberwocky Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 It is 4 p.m., and the forest creatures are in chaos.

Rising Action

2 The man warns of the Jabberwock, Jubjub, and Bandersnatch.

3 The boy decides to use his sword to fight the Jabberwock.

4 The Jabberwock races through the forest.

Climax

5 The boy fights the Jabberwock and beheads the creature.

Falling Action

6 The man rejoices over his son killing the Jabberwock.

Resolution

7 Life in the forest returns to its chaotic state.

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