Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll, Summary, Analysis, Absurdity, Vocabulary & Portmanteaus

"Jabberwocky," a renowned poem by Lewis Carroll, emerges from the pages of his novel "Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There." Famed for its whimsical and nonsensical language, the poem takes readers on an imaginative journey. This study guide delves into the essence of "Jabberwocky," exploring its unique linguistic features, providing a summary, stanza-wise explanations, critical analysis, and insights into its form and poetic devices.

Jabberwocky

BY LEWIS CARROLL
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Vocabulary and Portmanteaus in "Jabberwocky" Poem with Meanings

Jabberwock:
Literally "the fruit of much excited discussion."
Brillig:
The time of broiling dinner; evening.
Slithy:
A combination of "slimy" and "lithe"; smooth and active.
Toves:
A species of badger with smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag; lived on cheese.
Gyre:
To scratch like a dog; to twirl.
Gimble:
To bore holes.
Wabe:
Derived from the verb "swab" or "soak"; the wet side of a hill.
Mimsy:
Miserable or unhappy; contemptible.
Borogoves:
Extinct type of parrot.
Mome:
Grave or serious.
Raths:
A species of land turtle with a mouth like a shark and a smooth green body; walked on its knees.
Outgrabe:
Squeaked.
Jubjub Bird:
Dangerous animal.
Frumious:
Combination of "fuming" and "furious"; violently angry.
Bandersnatch:
Another dangerous animal.
Manxome:
Something from the Isle of Man (Celtic name for that island is "Manx").
Tum-tum:
The sound of a stringed instrument.
Uffish:
A state of mind when the voice is gruffish, the manner roughish, and the temper huffish.
Whiffling:
Slang term in the 19th century meaning "variable and evasive."
Burble:
Variant of "bubble"; can also mean "to perplex, confuse, or muddle."
Snicker-snack:
Comes from the old English word "snickersnee," which is a large knife or means "to fight with a knife."
Galumphing:
Combination of "gallop" and "triumphant"; to march on exultantly with irregular bounding movements.
Beamish:
Bright.
Frabjous:
Combination of "fabulous" and "joyous"; wonderful.
Chortled:
Laughing that is a blend of chuckling and snorting.

Summary of Jabberwocky: An Epic of Nonsense

"Jabberwocky" is a whimsical epic poem by Lewis Carroll, unfolding through nonsensical phrases.

The Father's Quest

  • The poem narrates a father's journey to slay the Jabberwock, a mythical beast, for his son.
  • Despite its nonsensical language, the reader can decipher the narrative by interpreting the interplay of nonsense and ordinary words.

The Plot Unveiled

  • Comprising seven four-line stanzas, each contributes to the plot of a young boy heeding his father's warnings about life's absurdities.
  • The mood shifts, building tension and culminating in the son's successful encounter with the Jabberwock.

The Quest Begins

  • The second stanza initiates the hero's quest, with the father cautioning about the dangers, including the Jabberwock, Jubjub bird, and Bandersnatch.

The Heroic Encounter

  • In the fourth stanza, the son, armed with a vorpal sword, faces the Jabberwock in a tulgy wood.
  • The Jabberwock, with eyes of flames, attacks, but the son triumphs by beheading the creature with a "snicker-snack" of the vorpal blade.

The Triumphant Return

  • The hero returns home in the fifth stanza, carrying the Jabberwock's head, and the father rejoices in the epic victory.
  • Celebration ensues as the father exclaims, "Oh, frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"

A Return to Normalcy

  • The last stanza mirrors the first, suggesting a return to the initial setting and normalcy.
  • Life seemingly returns to normal, possibly signifying the eradication of the unsettling atmosphere with the Jabberwock's demise.

Critical Analysis of "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll

"Jabberwocky" stands as a pinnacle of English nonsense literature, skillfully crafted by Lewis Carroll. The poem is renowned for the use of portmanteau words, where two words merge to form a single term, including vorpal, Jubjub, mimsy, borogoves, tumtum, and more.

Nonsense with Purpose

  • The incorporation of seemingly meaningless words defines "Jabberwocky," classifying it as nonsense literature.
  • Originally part of Carroll's novel "Through the Looking Glass," the poem captivates with its whimsical language.

A Brave Adventure Unfolds

  • The narrative begins with strange creatures creating a ruckus in the afternoon.
  • A father warns his son about the fearsome 'Jabberwocky' dwelling in the dense woods with menacing teeth and claws.
  • Other peculiar creatures like the 'jubjub bird' and 'bandersnatch' inhabit the ominous forest.
  • The son, armed with a sword, embarks on a courageous quest to confront these mysterious beings.
  • After a successful encounter, he returns triumphantly, clutching the head of the vanquished Jabberwocky.

A Lesson in Bravery for Children

  • Designed primarily for children, the poem employs funny, fanciful, and lively language to engage young readers.
  • The entertaining words and playful language contribute to the poem's popularity among children.
  • Through the tale of a brave boy, children glean a lesson in courage and facing life's challenges with resilience.

Carroll's Linguistic Ingenuity

  • Regarded as a masterpiece, "Jabberwocky" showcases Lewis Carroll's innovation in linguistic creation.
  • His introduction of neologisms, nonsense, and portmanteau words distinguishes the poem in the realm of English literature.
  • Noteworthy portmanteau examples include "slithy" from "slimy" and "lithe" and "brillig" from the fusion of "boiling" and "grilling."

A Ballad of Linguistic Brilliance

  • The poem follows a ballad structure with an ABAB CDCD EFEF rhyme scheme, showcasing Carroll's adeptness in both structure and language.

Poetic Techniques in "Jabberwocky"

Alliteration

  • Carroll employs alliteration, where words starting with the same letter appear in succession or close proximity.
  • Examples include "gyre" and "gimble" in the first stanza, and "claws" and "catch" in the second stanza.

Enjambment

  • The use of enjambment involves cutting off a line before its natural stopping point, propelling the reader swiftly to the next line.
  • For instance, in stanza five, the transition between lines three and four compels the reader to move quickly to discover the son's actions with the Jabberwock's head.

Letter-Combination "ye"

  • Carroll incorporates the letter-combination "ye" in the original poem, referencing the Early-Middle English letter known as thorn.
  • This element is not commonly included in printings of the poem.

Structural Elements

  • 'Jabberwocky' consists of seven stanzas, each divided into quatrains (four lines).
  • The rhyme scheme follows ABAB CDCD, allowing Carroll flexibility in changing end sounds.
  • This simple and consistent rhyme scheme contrasts with the complexity of the words and imagery in the poem.

Meter

  • The meter predominantly follows iambic tetrameter, with lines containing four sets of two beats.
  • Each line begins with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

Unraveling Complexity with Simplicity

Despite the complex and imaginative language used in "Jabberwocky," Carroll employs these poetic techniques to structure the poem with simplicity. The rhyme scheme and meter provide a contrasting backdrop to the fantastical world painted by the nonsensical words and vivid imagery.

Nonsense Writing in "Jabberwocky"

Lewis Carroll’s 'Jabberwocky' is a prime example of nonsense writing, falling within the broader category of nonsense verse. Originating from traditional nursery rhymes and games, this form of writing evolved through authors like Edward Lear and gained popularity through Carroll. Initially aimed at a young audience, nonsense writing now appeals to both children and adults.

'Jabberwocky' stands out as one of the most renowned nonsense poems in the English language. Carroll skillfully manipulates real and nonsense words, playing with their sounds, meanings, and lack of meaning. Some words seem out of place or order, like "burble" and "tum," which might make sense in different contexts.

Other words in the poem are pure gibberish, unique to 'Jabberwocky.' These words lack specific meanings, inviting readers to either assign their own interpretations or appreciate them solely for their phonetic qualities. The auditory experience of these nonsense words becomes particularly crucial when spoken aloud.

Carroll later provided definitions for a few words in the poem, adding a layer of playful engagement and inviting readers to navigate the delightful realm of linguistic absurdity.

Stanza by Stanza Explanation of "Jabberwocky"

Stanza One

Lines 1-2
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

In this stanza, Carroll introduces strange and nonsensical words to set the scene. "Brillig" is defined as four o'clock in the afternoon, and "slithy toves" may imply slimy or slippery creatures. The toves "gyre" or dance and "gimble" in the grassy area around a sundial, referred to as the "wabe."

Lines 3-4
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

The "borogroves" are described as "mimsy," possibly whimsical or flimsy creatures. The "mome raths" behave in a certain way, and "outgrabe" may suggest a loud squeak.

Stanza Two

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

The speaker warns his son of the Jabberwock, describing its menacing attributes. Other creatures, the Jubjub bird and the Bandersnatch, are also mentioned as dangerous.

Stanza Three

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
And stood awhile in thought.

The son, armed with a "vorpal sword," embarks on a quest to confront the formidable Jabberwock. He rests by the Tumtum tree, contemplating his next move.

Stanza Four

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

While in thoughtful contemplation, the Jabberwock suddenly appears with flaming eyes, moving swiftly through the mysterious "tulgey wood," emitting strange sounds.

Stanza Five

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

A battle ensues between the son and the Jabberwock. The vorpal blade defeats the creature with a swift "snicker-snack." The son returns triumphantly with the Jabberwock's head, "galumphing" back.

Stanza Six

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

The father joyously welcomes his son, praising him for slaying the Jabberwock. He celebrates with exclamations like "frabjous day" and "Callooh! Callay!" expressing his happiness.

Stanza Seven

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

The final stanza echoes the first, conveying that life goes on, with strange creatures continuing their activities in the fantastical world of "Jabberwocky."

The Context of Jabberwocky

The context of "Jabberwocky" adds an interesting layer to its interpretation. The poem is part of Lewis Carroll's novel "Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There." In the story, Alice discovers the poem in a nonsensical book that is written backward. To decipher the contents, Alice holds the pages up to a mirror, revealing the poem "Jabberwocky" in its reflected form.

This contextual detail highlights Carroll's fascination with linguistic play and his penchant for creating whimsical and unconventional worlds. The act of discovering the poem through a mirror aligns with the theme of reflection and distortion, adding to the overall surreal and fantastical atmosphere of Wonderland.

Alice's encounter with "Jabberwocky" is a clever literary device that invites readers to navigate the poem in a playful and imaginative way. The backward presentation and the subsequent need for a mirror contribute to the sense of wonder and absurdity that characterizes Carroll's work.

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