he purpose of this paper is to prove how Nonsense Literature can be explained as the total lack of ‘motivations’ that should justify a story and cause its developments. This analysis will study Edward Lear’s short stories The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World and The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple.
Before doing this, a short narratological introduction will present the main terms on which this search is based (Section 1). A brief survey on the story of children’s literature (Section 2) will allow us to consider Edward Lear (and Lewis Carroll)’s peculiar position inside this field (Sections 3-5). Then, the summary of the two stories (Sections 6,7) will introduce the narratological analysis of the texts (Sections 8-10). The conclusive section (Section 11) will provide a summary of the main points dealt with in the paper.
In his The Stubborn Structure (1970) Northrop Frye presents his theory according to which myths “represent the structural principle of literature” (1970: 102). The seminal myth of all, in Frye’s opinion, is the story told in the Bible: the “creation and its paradisal beginning, the Fall, the displacement and wandering of man and woman, and the final return to a renewed and re-created paradise” (McGillis 1996: 51). All narratives in Frye’s opinion display some aspect of this main myth: “narratives that deal with either the first or the last paradises are pastorals and romances; those that focus on the Fall are tragedies; those that deal with the time of alienation and wandering are works of satire and irony; and those that deal with a fall from social cohesion and a restoration of community are comedies” (McGillis 1996: 51, emphasis added).
Julien Greimas, in Sémantique Structural (1966), distinguishes two narrative levels in all literary texts, a surface structure (i.e., the plot, the characters, the language) and a deep structure (i.e., the motivations), and claims that all narrative texts are characterized in their deep structure by a basic opposition between (contradictory or contrary) elements, the reactions of which results in series of events in the surface structure of the text.
Applying Greimas’ idea to the reading of the Bible it could easily be said that the main opposition that undergoes the whole story is the one between Good and Evil (which in turns manifests itself as the tension between love and hate, life and death, etc.). Combining then Greimas’ and Frye’s theories it could be concluded that all narratives are [somehow] built around the core opposition of Good and Evil. Of course, this is only an intuitively sensible conclusion, but it does not seem to apply, for example, to the most recent forms of Literature (i.e., most of the German Dada, French Surrealism, Modernism and Post-Modernism). It only to applies, without many exceptions, to very specific genres such as myths themselves, tragedies, romance and children’s literature in general.
2. Children’s Literature
Synthesizing the story of Children Literature, Roderick McGillis in The Thimble Reader (1996) writes that “literature for children as we know it – a distinct body of works written and published for the edification and enjoyment of children – only came into being in an organized way in the eighteen century” (1996: 52). The fact that “early peoples produced no literature written exclusively for the pleasure of their children” (Porter Adams 1953: 5) of course doesn’t mean that children were not exposed to literature. “Children, avid for entertainment, treasured the tales of theOdyssey, Iliad, Aeneid, Panchatantra, the fables of Aesop, legends from Arabia, Persia, Egypt, stories of early Hebrews, of the Norsemen, and of far Cathay. The art of story-telling was vigorous and universal, and the exploits of heroes, saints, martyrs, travelers, adventurers, soldiers, and wandering bards were kept alive for hundreds of years without the preservative agents of paper and ink” (Porter Adams 1953: 5). The ‘written’ tradition, according to McGillis’ study, begins in the eighteen century with authors like Sarah Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Day and Mary Wollestoncraft, and it changed from realistic forms to romance, during the Victorian era, before reverting to conventions of realism in recent times.
Nonetheless, as McGillis himself notes, the most dominant influence in children’s books is still romance (see Section 1). “Romance is appropriate for children not only because its plot turns on adventures that tend to end happily […], but also because in romance the structural patterns of myth are less displaced than in other forms of literary expression” (1996: 52, emphasis added). The basic pattern of myth is clearly explained by Frye (1957; 187) as a three-stage mechanism: the quest of the hero to rescue someone or to restore order (agon, or conflict); the crucial struggle with villains representing Evil (pathos, or death struggle); the exaltation of the hero (anagnorisis, or discovery).
Why is it so crucial that a story meant for children respect these three stages?
Because these three stages, which (not coincidentally) parallel the three steps in an Aristotelian syllogisms, represent the necessary and indispensable steps to prove a point. Didacticism, in fact, seems to be one of the main purposes of all narrative intended for children: entertaining the young readers by making them learn about the world, “reassuring them that the world is, ultimately, human in shape and meaning” (McGillis 1996: 52).
Bess Porter Adams in About Books and Children (1953) enlarges this idea so as to include all literature: “Good literature, whether for old or young readers, bears the mark of truth and integrity; it carries the reader along into genuine, if vicarious, experience; it stirs his emotions, arouses his curiosity, stimulates his mind, and gives him a measuring stick for living” (1953: vii, emphasis added).
3. Alice in Crisis
The moment of disruption in the otherwise linear development of children’s literature came in the year 1865, when Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published. “[It] changed the entire course of juvenile literature” (Porter Adams 1953: 69-70). For the first time there “was a straightforward tale, with no attempt to moralize and no apology for its lack of didacticism” (ibid.).
In this book it is not obvious what is Good and what Bad, there is no difference between the two, no hierarchical organization: they are both presented as perfectly viable way for living and behaving. Alice, fond of rules and regulations, fond of “order and simplicity” (McGillis 1996: 194) eager “to make sense of things, to find solution to problems, and to strive unreasonably, at times toward perfection” (ibid.) is confronted with a world of absolute arbitrariness, disorder and capriciousness, and the tension between these two poles (order and disorder), by the end of the story, remains unresolved. This is nonsense.
This may be somehow disturbing for young readers, this may cause some sort of ‘crisis’, at least for those readers used to linear and well morally-oriented stories (“I remember very distinctly […] my dislike for [it] and my feelings of uneasiness toward it,” McGillis 1996: 194). The reason of this ‘crisis’ is that with Alice in Wonderland “the reader is on trial, not the book” (Porter Adams 1953: 181): instead of being lead by the text itself – through the three stages – toward a final resolution of the tension, the reader is left alone, with no guidelines whatsoever for its interpretation.
Carroll has often been considered as the initiator of this kind of literature – Nonsense Literature – and as the best writer of prose nonsense. But some years before Carroll, another English writer was experimenting in the same field: Edward Lear. He is better known for his nonsense verse and his limericks (collected in the Book of Nonsense), but – unbeknownst to most – he was also author of some prose writings which are strikingly similar to Carroll’s, so much so that some critics – without any evidence of Carroll being familiar with Lear’s work – hypothesize a strong influence of Lear on Carroll’s Wonderland.
4. Lear as a Poet
Edward Lear, a skillful illustrator of science books (botany, zoology), started his literary career by chance. As a matter of fact, “most of Lear’s limericks were not written with publication in mind, but rather as gifts for specific children” (Rieder 1998: 50). He was persuaded toward their publication by the enthusiastic reaction of his young audience.
There was an old person of Rimini
Who said, “Gracious! Goodness! O Gimini!
When they said, “Please be still!” she ran down a hill
And was never once heard of at Rimini.
There was an old person of Sestri
Who sat himself down in the vestry,
When they said “You are wrong!” – he merely said “Bong!”
That repulsive old person of Sestri.
This is a typical example of Lear’s limericks, and a perfect example of what is intended by nonsense, that is to say, “language lifted out of context, language turning on itself […] language made hermetic, opaque” (Stewars 1979: 3), language that “resists contextualization, so that it refers to ‘nothing’ instead of to the word’s commonsense designation […] refusing to work as conventional communication ” (Rieder 1998: 49). In other words, what happened to the old person of Rimini? What is wrong with the person of Sestri? It is impossible to answer, because, despite the perfectly grammatical use of the words, they don’t tell much. They are just bizarrely arranged so as to sound appealing. If there is a shadow of a story, usually it is nothing more than that: only a shadow of a story (without causes or consequences). In Lear’s limericks, words introduce “a number of possibilities, including dangerous and violent ones, and at the same time disconnect those possibilities from the real world, that is, from what goes on after the game is over” (Rieder 1996: 49).
In the case of verse, like in the instances presented above, ‘nonsense’ is largely dependent on the needs of rhyme and rhythm. In limericks, “[the] last line [is] an altered repetition of the first” (Harmon 82: 73), and there is “an internal rhyme linking the second and the fourth stressed syllable” (Harmon 1982: 72) in the third line. This is a reasonable explanation for what’s wrong with the person of Sestri: “being ‘wrong’ is just one of the ways of rhyming with ‘Bong’” (Rieder 1996: 49).
5. Lear’s Prose
If with poetry (lyric, epic, etc.) the telling of a (sensible) story is not the main purpose – but rather the evocation of feelings – nonsense verse might be somehow ‘justified’, the same thing hardly applies to the case of prose. Prose is the privileged means for explanation and clarification, rather than for simple evocation.
Now, is there anything that is supposed to be more precise, ‘purposeful’ and practical than a cooking recipe? Probably not.
This is how Lear in his Nonsense Cookery uses prose to show how to make Gosky Patties:
Take a Pig, three or four years of age, and tie him by the off-hind leg to a post. Place 5 pounds of currants, 3 of sugar, 2 pecks of peas, 18 roast chestnuts, a candle, and six bushels of turnips, within his reach; if he eats these, constantly provide him with more.
Then procure some cream, some slices of Cheshire cheese, four quires of foolscap paper, and a packet of black pins. Work the whole into a paste, and spread it out to dry on a sheet of clean brown waterproof linen.
When the paste is perfectly dry, but not before, proceed to beat the Pig violently, with the handle of a large broom. If he squeals, beat him again.
Visit the paste and beat the Pig alternately for some days, and ascertain if at the end of that period the whole is about to turn into Gosky Patties.
If it does not then, it never will; and in that case the Pig may be let loose, and the whole process may be considered as finished.
With this recipe we are told the necessary ingredients, we are told (unreasonable) things to do about them, and finally we are told that, maybe, we may consider forgetting about Gosky Patties at all, leaving all the reader’s expectations unfulfilled.
This, in general, is what happens in Lear’s prose writings: he presents us with seemingly sensible texts, which, event after event, violate the reader’s expectations all the way through, and end in ways that usually falsify and contradict the very premises from which the story had moved.
Let’s consider now Lear’s narrative prose texts. Lear was the author of two short stories, titled The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World and The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple.
6. The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World
This is the account of the extravagant adventures of a group of four children, Violet, Slingsby, Guy and Lionel, accompanied by a small Cat – whose task was “to steer and look after the boat” – e by “an elderly Quangle-Wangle, who had to cook dinner and make tea.” One day “they all thought they should like to see the world,” so, without hesitation, “they bought a large boat to sail quite round the world by sea, and then they were to come back on the other side by land.” Their first stop was on a desert island “made of water quite surrounded by earth […] full of veal-cutlets and chocolate-drops.” Given that there was no one there to talk to or to ask “they loaded the boat with two thousand veal-cutlets and a million of chocolate drops” which “afforded them sustanance [sic] for more than a month.”
Then the four children and their party came to a shore “where there were no less than sixty-five great red parrots with blue tails” asleep on a rail. After the Cat and the Qaungle-Wangle bit off the tail-feathers of all the parrots, Violet “reproved them both severely,” but she kept the beautiful feathers to embellish her bonnet.
Then they arrived on an island “covered with immense Orange-trees of a vast size, and quite full of fruit,” but when they landed for gathering some fruit, a strong wind made all the orange fall from the trees, forcing the children to run for their life back to the boat.
After an unsuccessful stop on an island where a “countless multitude of white Mice” didn’t let the children have any of their custard pudding, the party arrived on the island of the friendly Blue-Bottle Flies, where they finally managed to make some tea by placing “some pebbles in the hot water [while] the Quangle-Wangle played some tunes over it on an Accordion.” The children and the Blue-Bottle Flies became friends, which made the departure of our young heroes a sad moment for everyone.
After that, they came on a shore where Violet made mittens for “a large number of crabs and crawfish,” before arriving on the island of the Co-operative Cauliflower. Here nothing at all happened:
While the whole party from the boat was gazing at him [the Co-operative Cauliflower] with mingled affection and disgust, he suddenly arose, and in a somewhat plumdomphious manner hurried off towards the setting sun, his steps supported by two superincumbent confidential cucumbers, and a large number of Waterwagtails proceeding in advance of him by three-and-three in a row – till he finally disappeared on the brink of the western sky in a crystal cloud of sudorific sand. So remarkable a sight of course impressed the Four Children very deeply; and they returned immediately to their boat with a strong sense of undeveloped asthma and a great appetite.
While sailing, their boat was upset by an enormous pumpkin thrown by a little boy in knickerbockers, but they managed to turn the boat over, after which the Quangle-Wangle threw the pumpkin back to the little boy, who “being quite full of Lucifer-matches,” exploded.
Then, while the children where collecting Mulberry Jam on the island of the Yellow-nosed Apes, their boat got destroyed by a big fish “into fifty-five-thousand-million-hundred-billion bits” so that it was impossible for them to sail back home.
“Fortunately there happened to pass by at the moment, an elderly Rhinoceros” on whose back “the whole party seized and managed to get home”:
Thus, in less than eighteen weeks, they all arrived safely at home, where they were received by their admiring relatives with joy tempered with contempt; and where they finally resolved to carry out the rest of their travelling plans at some more favourable opportunity.
As for the Rhinoceros, in token of their grateful adherence, they had him killed and stuffed directly, and then set him up outside the door of their father’s house as a Diaphanous Doorscraper.
7. The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple
This is the story of seven families belonging to seven different animal species. Each family was composed by the two parents and seven children.
One day all the Seven Fathers and the seven mothers of the Seven Families agreed that they would send their children out to see the world […] so they called them altogether, and gave them each eight shillings and some good advice […]
“If you find a Cherry, do not fight about who should have it,” said the old Parrots to their children.
“If you find a Frog, divide it carefully into seven bits” said the old Storks.
“Do not touch a Plum-pudding Flea” said the old Geese.
“If you find a Mouse, tear him up into seven slices” said the old Owls.
“Have a care that you eat your lettuces […] not greedily but calmly” said the old Guinea Pigs.
“Be particularly careful not to meddle with a Clangel-Wangel” said the old Cats.
“Above all things avoid eating a blue Boss-woss” said the old Fishes
“So all the Children of each Family thanked their parents, and making in all forty-nine polite bows, they went into the wide world.”
But in the course of their adventures, by accident or mistake, they forget to apply those pieces of advice. And because of that they all die. Emblematic is the case of the seven little guinea pigs. When they see the Lettuce, overexcited they all exclaimed:
‘Lettuce! O Lettuce!
‘Let us, O let us,
‘O Lettuce leaves,
‘O let us leave this tree and eat
‘Lettuce, O let us, Lettuce leaves!’
And instantly the Seven young Guines Pigs rushed with such extreme force against the Lettuce-plant, and hit their heads so vividly against its stalk, that the concussion brought on directly an incipient transitional inflammation of their noses, which grew worse and worse and worse till it incidentally killed them all Seven.
After the death of the little animals, Frogs, Plum-pudding Fleas, Mice, Clangel-Wangels and Blue boss Wosses met together to celebrate their good fortune.
The parents of the unlucky animals, instead, hearing the news about their children’s death, decide to commit suicide.
They ate a light supper of brown bread and Jerusalem Artichokes, and took an affecting and formal leave of whole of their acquaintance, which was very numerous and distinguished, and select, and responsible, and ridiculous. […]
And after this, they filled the bottles with the ingredients for pickling, and each couple jumped into a separate bottle, by which effort of course they all died immediately, and become thoroughly pickled in a few minutes; having previously made their wills […] that they themselves in the Bottles should be presented to the principal museum of the city of Tosh, […] to be placed on a marble table with silver-gilt legs, for the daily inspection and contemplation, and for the perpetual benefit of the pusillanimous public.
8. Over-detailed Surface structure
From the few quoted passages above it is easy to see that the most striking and appealing feature of these texts is not the story in itself (the first one being simply a successful adventure, and the second a horribly unsuccessful one), but rather the way it is presented. Wit, humor, derived form ‘topsy-turvy’ inversions or contradictory combinations of words (“the utmost delight and apathy,” “full of joy and respect, sympathy, satisfaction, and disgust”), neologisms, distortion of language and alliteration strongly characterize both Lear’s nonsense stories. As a matter of fact, “form and sound serve as a reliable guidepost for the content of nonsense” (Cohn Livingstone 1981: 137, emphasis added), and they are powerful means that allow the author to “use the touchstones of reality – physical laws as well as objects and people – and transfer them, through carefully controlled imagination, to an impossibleworld” (Cohn Livingstone 1981: 124).
Wim Tigges in his An Anatomy of Literary Nonsense (1988) defines nonsense as an unresolved tension between sense and its absence, where sense can be defined as a set of events which are recognizable according to reality models – parameters drawn form everyday life – or to literary models – parameters drawn from literary texts (see also Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 124). In these two stories, for example, sense (as verisimilitude to everyday life) is continually evoked by the constant search for food on the part of the characters, and at the same time it is denied (nonsense) by the fact that apparently all the characters can do very well without food for months. ‘Literary’ sense (as closeness to literary models) is instead implied by the way the stories are organized: they are presented as adventures, (similar to Arthurian romances and picaresque novels), where the heroes leave their homes, go out into the world, and finally come back with a fuller knowledge of the world itself. This is openly implied by the very words used at the beginning of both stories, where the heroes leave in order “to see the world.” But, whereas in prototypical adventures the expression “to see the world” would be simply an idiom meaning “to know about the world” or “to understand the world,” in the case of Lear’s stories it couldn’t be more literal. The experience of the world is only an aesthetic one: they go, they only see, but they don’t seem to learn anything from what they saw, neither the seven families, which die in the course of the story, nor the four children, who arrive home with the intention of leaving again soon, and the first thing that they do is kill one of their party, the friendly Rhinoceros that took them back home. Not a sensible thing to do, indeed.
Both the stories presented above end with an unreasonable death.
In her essay ‘Happy Endings? Of Course, and Also Joy’ (1970), Natalie Babbit argues that the main characteristic of a book for children is the Happy Ending: “not […] a simple ‘happily ever after’, or not the kind of contrived final sugar coating that seems tacked on primarily to spare the child any glimpse of what really would have happened had the author not been vigilant; not these, but […] something which goes much deeper, something which turns a story ultimately toward hope rather than resignation” (in 1973: 158).
So, if death is there, it must be reasonable, purposeful, motivated (at least as a necessary step in the ‘circle of life’), in order to be understood and accepted by young readers. This is the reason why, as Francelia Butler in ‘Death in Children’s Literature’ (1971) points out, death in children’s books is usually linked to ideas of restoration of life or resurrection, spiritual purification, or sacrificial offerings (death to save other lives). If none of these apply, “romance turns into tragedy when the death of a hero occurs” (McGillis 1996: 60).
Are Lear’s stories tragedies? There seem to be all the surface structure ingredients for such a conclusion. But does the reader actually perceive these stories as tragedies? Do the characters in the stories themselves perceive what happens to them as a tragedy?
In both cases the answer will have to be negative.
As a matter of fact, there is something missing in the deep structure of the stories that prevents them from being read as tragedies.
10. Blurred Deep Structure
As seen at the very beginning, one of the main characteristics of any narrative text is a (more or less) clear and recognizable opposition between two elements in the deep structure. We have seen also that in children’s books, usually, this opposition boils down to the tension between Good and Evil. This is what child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim (1976) claims, too: the polarization between these two extremes is essential in tales for very young readers, mainly because they are unable to see and understand gray and undefined areas.
But in Edward Lear’s stories (even if organized as prototypical stories for children, i.e., with a seeming progression from an inferior stage to a superior one) there’s no such opposition.
Good and Evil, if they can be found somewhere in the deep structure, are not in opposition: they are instead perfectly interchangeable, both viable ways to deal with the world.
Let’s now consider the case of the History of the Seven Families. At the beginning of the story the seven groups of heroes are sent in the wide world by their parents. The fact that the parents impart strict advice for the children to follow seems to imply that there is something bad that the young animals have to beware and keep away from. Most of the good advice focuses on the importance of ‘being friendly’ and ‘not to quarrel’. The opposition would seem clear, at this point: Love (or positive feelings) vs. Hate (or negative feelings). But ‘quarreling’ is the cause of only some of the deaths. The rest of the little animals die because they actually don’t think about what they are doing, and act irresponsibly, without necessarily quarreling. At this point, another opposition seems to be there: Adult’s Wisdom vs. Children’s Inexperience-Naïvete. This actually would apply and explain all the tragic deaths in the story, except for one: the voluntary suicide of the parents, at the end of it. Even if such an ending ideally ‘closes’ the circle of deaths, it is not at all a ‘wise’ thing to do (especially in the case of stories for children). Therefore also the last opposition is discarded.
Shall we then read the story the opposite way – that is, the seven families are the anti-heroes, whereas the animals that cause their death (the frogs, the plum-pudding fleas, the mice, the ‘Clangel-Wangels’ and the ‘Blue Boss Wosses’) are the real heroes? Hardly so. It is not in fact a prototypically heroic behavior that of gathering the mortal remains (even of the enemies) and throwing wild parties on them, as frogs, plum-pudding fleas and the rest of them do.
So who are the heroes and who the antiheroes?
Where is Good and where is Evil?
Nowhere. This in fact is just an open parody of those close-ended moral tales ever so popular in Lear’s days.
The case of the Story of the Four Children is different, and possibly even clearer than the one discussed above. First of all it must be noted the striking similarity with Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: in both stories the hero wanders through a rather ‘surreal’ place, but in Wonderland Alice herself was the first one to realize that there was no distinction between Good and Evil, Order and Disorder, Rules and Chaos – revealing the very core of the whole story – in Lear’s story the characters are part themselves of this ‘disordered’ world and quite at ease with it. Nothing seems odd or weird to them. They just go from adventure to adventure behaving the very same way – not more sensibly – than the surreal characters they meet on their way.
This way, what seems to be the most obvious opposition (Order vs. Disorder) is no opposition at all: Order and Disorder are exactly the same thing, and both perfectly viable ways to deal with the world.
The basic opposition of Good and Evil, then, doesn’t seem to be there either. The ending proves it without any doubt: the supposed heroes of the story, the four children, with no reason at all kill one of their helpers (Propp 1928: 79), the friendly Rhinoceros, and turn him into a ‘Diaphanous Doorscraper’.
Many have been the interpretations of the peculiar form of nonsense that we encounter in Lear’s works. On a linguistic level Susan Stewart describes it as a decontextualized use of everyday language. For Roderick McGillis nonsense grows from a misuse of a ‘conceptual language’ where a ‘literature language’ should be used. Northrop Frye, in Anatomy of Criticism, would identify this kind of text as ‘anatomies’, because they are “not primarily concerned with the exploits of heroes, but [rely] on the free play of intellectual fancy and the kind of humorous observation that produces caricature” (1957: 309).
Other readings have seen in Lear’s work what Mikhail Bakhtin (in his study on Rabelais) defines as ‘carnival’, which in medieval times “celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions” (1984: 10). Along the same lines, John Rieder sees Lear’s work as a way “to expose the arbitrariness or artificiality of convention”‘ (1998: 51), or even to celebrate “eccentrics’ freedom” as opposed to an “intolerant social normality” (Rieder 1998: 52).
All of these are perfectly legitimate readings of these texts. But on a purely narratological level nonsense is this: a free play of words and strange events on the surface structure, caused by the lack of meaningful opposition (or motivation, in Propp’s words) in the deep structure.
As a matter of fact, if there were an opposition between two different elements, there should also be (or at least, it could be inferred) a hierarchical relationship between them, where one necessarily has to be (morally, socially, etc.) preferable over the other (i.e. Love over Hate, Good over Evil, Life over Death, etc.). This way the story would have a recognizable direction as how to develop, it would have a sense, it would proceed (progressing from an inferior stage to a superior one). Not existing any clear opposition, nor hierarchical organization between any element, the story cannot have a direction, a proper sense: it moves randomly up to the point where – ‘chronologically’ more than ‘logically’ – it just stops, rather than being properly concluded.
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© 2000 Michele Sala