The sentence “Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise” could easily be dismissed as inconsequential nonsense. However, nonsense, especially in children’s media, can have more meaning than can be perceived by adults at first glance. Literary nonsense can be defined as stories and writings that do not fit into a pre-established system of logic, and therefore disrupt and enigmatize meaning. Scholarly discussions of nonsense focus on this disruption of meaning and the consequent philosophical or semantic interpretations, especially in relationship to humor and satire. However, this type of analysis does not work in the context of children’s media for one critical reason: adults and scholars cannot infer that their logic systems accurately reflect the logic systems of children. Because of their undeveloped logic system, children are more directly served by nonsense. Examples from Carroll and Lear and the more recent Adventure Time illustrate the use of nonsense in connection to specific issues of development. Whether addressing issues of authority, sexuality, or politics, nonsense serves as a surrogate for the issues children understand only in rules and parameters set by adults, but have not yet experienced for themselves.
Nonsense is a literary tool that is often difficult to define. While nonsense contains elements of both absurdity and surrealism, it is neither. Definitions range from nonsense anthologist John Davies’s simple explanation—“something that makes no sense, but raises a smile “(17)—to the philosophy-based definition of scholar Jean-Jacques Lecercle—“nonsense is meta-sense” (2). Overall, scholars conclude that the negative prefix in the word does not mean that there is no sense. Rather, nonsense works outside of the accepted code of understanding. Elizabeth Sewell most succinctly and universally defines nonsense as “a collection of words or events which in their arrangement do not fit into some recognized system in a particular mind” (3). This will be the definition used throughout the paper. Why, then, do authors use nonsense? First, authors use nonsense to demand attention from the audience. Nonsense incites deeper reading and more questioning by not playing by the rules of the audience’s understanding. Second, nonsense wraps meaning in enigma, which is useful to indicate the difficulty of understanding the issues discussed or to shroud satire and parody.
This definition and the reasons for using nonsense fit well into the history of nonsense literature. Discussions of literary nonsense usually focus on two movements: Victorian children’s literature (specifically the works of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear) and Modernism (specifically the works of Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce). While nonsense has existed in literature outside of these periods, through fables and riddles and Shakespearean dialogue, these two stages are the most critically noteworthy and inform the greatest amount of contemporary children’s literature. In the context of Victorian England, nonsense literature provided an outlet for childlike wonder and experimentation in a world that was increasingly more industrial and driven by societal guilt. The experimentation of the Modernists can be viewed in a very similar light, this time as a reaction to the violence that engulfed the world during WWI.
While these definitions, reasons, and histories are critical to an informed exploration of nonsense, they do not completely hold up in relation to nonsense in children’s media. Taking our chosen definition—nonsense is words and stories that do not fit within an established system of logic—nonsense, as understood by children, may not be considered nonsense at all. It is not until age 12 or older that children begin to understand logic in abstract ways, and so they cannot evaluate nonsense literature and media using the same logic systems adults assume (LearningRx). Nonsense, then, will not clash with a child’s understanding of logic, and therefore the meaning is not disrupted. Given the many things that children do not yet understand, what adults perceive as nonsense can be read as a playful substitute for issues beyond a child’s current development.
Nonsense in children’s literature tied to moments of growth and development that inherently are mysterious to children. Think, for example, of a young child telling a knock-knock joke. While the child may understand the structure of the joke, they often do not understand the logic that links the “knock-knock” to the punch line. Instead, they repeat a pattern and insert nonsense for the elements that they do not fully comprehend. The nonsense fills in the outline rules established by adults, a substitute for what children do not yet understand. A basic example of this working in children’s media is Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky. The poem is often read as a rite of passage, as the boy ventures out and kills the ferocious Jabberwock, therefore becoming a man. Such a developmental step is not within a child’s realm of understanding, and this progression might seem as nonsensical as the phrase “mome raths outgrabe.” Instead, the nonsense works within a framework of rules set out by adults. In Jabberwocky, a dialogue is set up between father and son—and it is the father who gives him the rules of that world: “beware the Jabberwock, my son.” The son then reacts according to these rules. This is not far from more mundane child experiences in relation to a set of adult-given rules. This type of analysis applies to classic examples of literary nonsense. Edward Lear’s classic poem “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” uses nonsense in place of romantic relationships and courting. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland uses nonsense for the unexplained elements of identity and authority. A standard process can be set up by analyzing these classic pieces of children’s media, which can then be used to analyze more contemporary pieces.
“The Owl and the Pussy-cat” is a romantic ballad with a familiar framework. The Owl and the Pussy-cat are in love and decide to get married, but do so in a nonsensical way. The nonsense of the poem can be applied to a child’s lack of understanding of romantic love and courtship, specifically the rituals surrounding it. First, the Owl and the Pussy-cat go out to sea, there leaving the child’s world, much like an adult would leave the world of their children for courtship. If viewed as a child’s understanding of a date, the nonsense begins to be more clear. The couple “took some honey, and plenty of money, wrapped up in a five-pound note” (3). Money and sweets would be ideal choices for a child to take on a trip! The next bit of the poem fits within common logic systems—the Owl and the Pussy-cat gaze at the stars, while the Owl serenades her and tells her how beautiful she is. After this, however, things begin to get nonsensical again. The Pussy-cat proposes marriage and they’re off in search of a ring. There is an element of this next stanza that depicts childish understanding—the ring. The second and third stanzas explore the idea of a ring, an admittedly difficult concept to understand since the tradition has very little purpose in modern society. The Owl and the Pussy-cat use the ring from a pig’s nose as their wedding ring. This reflects a childish lack of understanding of where the ring comes from, and also includes confusion about the difference between the ring on a pig’s nose and the ring someone may wear. This nonsense comes from an over-simplified understanding of reality—after all, why should children understand that there is more than one type of ring, or where the ring may come from? Overall, this poem uses a child’s perspective of romantic courtship and the mystery surrounding it, which ultimately leads to the nonsense so celebrated.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll contains many examples of nonsense taking the place for a concept a child does not understand. First, Alice’s Adventures uses wordplay to show an over-realistic interpretation of colloquialisms, reflecting a child’s inability to understand abstract ideas. One example is when Alice is talking to the Caterpillar. The Caterpillar begins:
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”
“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.
“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.” (60)
Here the phrase “explain yourself” is taken literally by Alice, which results in nonsense, reflecting the child’s confusion of this abstraction. Instead of explaining what she means, as the Caterpillar requested, she can’t “explain herself,” because she doesn’t understand who she is, especially with all of the changes going on.
This confusion over the colloquialism is also related to Alice’s confusion over her own identity, a common confusion for children as they grow up. Alice is not sure how to define herself, and so she questions her own identity consistently throughout the book. The most poignant example of this occurs early in the book, when Alice is shocked by her sudden change in size—she has grown so much she doesn’t fit in the room (which could be interpreted as the confusion of puberty). Alice then thinks:
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle… I’m sure I’m not Ada, for her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn’t go in ringlets at all; and I’m sure I can’t be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things and she, oh! she knows such a very little! Besides, she’s she, and I’m I, and—oh dear, how puzzling it all is!” (19)
Alice then tries to confirm her identity by running through all of the things she knows—times tables and geography and her recitation of “How doth the little—.” However, this does not yield the desired results, for she’s not quite as good at remembering as she previously believed herself to be. Sadly, she decides “I must be Mabel after all, and I shall have to go and live in that poky little house, and have next to no toys to play with, and oh! ever so many lessons to learn!” (21). Alice, like many children, is grappling with her confusion of an abstract identity—something children don’t begin to contemplate until middle-school age. This nonsense stands in place for the parts of identity Alice and the child audience likely will not understand.
With the Duchess and the popular character The Queen of Hearts, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland also uses nonsense to fill in the gaps in a child’s understanding of authority figures and politics. First, the Duchess serves as an authority figure in that she teaches Alice. In one passage, she is telling Alice the moral found in every sentence she utters, and example of one being: “Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise” (134). These morals, pressed upon Alice by the Duchess, rarely connect to what has just been said and don’t make sense anyway. Alice is confused as to why there must be a moral in everything. This nonsensical exchange works within the rules and systems in which an adult teaches children, and then nonsense fills in for the abstract ideas—the morals themselves—that the child does not understand. The Queen, on the other hand, represents the darker side of authority—punishment. The Queen doles out punishment for everything, and Alice usually cannot understand why. This image of the queen can easily be read to reflect a child’s understanding of an adult losing their temper: “In a very short time the Queen was in a furious passion, and went stamping about, and shouting ‘Off with his head!’ or ‘Off with her head!’ about once in a minute” (122). Alice begins to wonder how anyone is alive at all, seeing that “they’re dreadfully fond of beheading people here” (123). For Alice, these adult characters are completely consumed and preoccupied with giving out punishments, regardless of what people have done. The punishments are not given in connection with any lesson to be learned, rather, they are the result of someone doing something that the Queen simply doesn’t like. To a child, this nonsensical representation of punishment more likely reflects their confusion about punishment in real life.
This reading of nonsense is not limited to classic nonsense literature but can also apply to the realm of television as well. While some is certainly just nonsense for nonsense’s sake, the Cartoon Network animated series Adventure Time, in all its post-modern madness, carries weight in that the nonsense is indicative of the complication of independence. Finn, the main character (a human), wanders with Jake the dog (who can stretch into any shape) throughout the candy kingdom seeking adventure. However, Finn is also the only human left—the show hints that this is a post-apocalyptic world—and so has to constantly learn lessons on his own. Throughout many episodes, Finn realizes that the excess of doing whatever he wants can actually harm him, and that he will need to have some maturity in order to stay alive and well. These nonsensical situations serve as a substitute for real-life situations where a child may need to learn moderation but are not yet equipped to handle. One such episode is “Furniture and Meat” (season 6 episode 6), where Finn and Jake realize how much treasure they have hoarded up over the years. They decide to spend it—something they’ve never done before—by going to the Wildberry Kingdom and having a vacation. Quickly after they arrive, Finn and Jake realize that by spending their copious amounts of money, they can get away with breaking rules. Jake latches onto this and starts to make the Wildberry citizens do all sorts of ridiculous things (like sleep on the left side of the bed when the poor citizen normally sleep on the right). This, of course, gets them into trouble quickly. In this episode all of the nonsensical things would not fit into an adult’s system of logic, but it would make sense to a child: these kids have a ridiculous amount of money and of course do ridiculous things with it. The consequences that follow and the overall structure of story reflect that of a standard fable, but the nonsense is inserted for other situations that children would not yet understand.
This pattern—nonsense filling in a parable-esque structure—happens also in the episode “The Limit” (season 2 episode 22). In this episode, Finn and Jake try to rescue some Hot Dog Knights from a labyrinth. Soon after they begin, they find out that in the middle of the maze there is a creature that will grant them wishes. Finn and Jake both really want an Ancient Psychic Tandem War Elephant, and so decide to try and find the creature. While all sorts of crazy things happen throughout the story, Jake and Finn are really figuring out how far they will go in order to achieve this dream. For the nonsense of the story, this literally means Jake stretching himself through the maze. As Jake stretches more and more he is in danger of going too far. For children, this nonsensical element can depict the reality of “stretching yourself too far.” Again, this story works within a standard narrative framework but nonsense elements replace the concepts children may have a hard time understanding.
If nonsense is to be defined as stories and words that do not fit within a pre-established structure of logic, scholars cannot assume that children work within these logic systems. Because of that, nonsense can be read as a depiction of things children don’t yet understand, working within the familiar structure of stories. “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Adventure Time all depict elements of life that children do not yet understand, and the nonsense of then acts as a surrogate for those issues. While children may not understand the satire and significance of some nonsense, they can understand adult issues through nonsense.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Chicago: VolumeOne Publishing, 1998. Print.
Davies, John, ed. Everyman’s Book of Nonsense. London: J M Dent & Sons Ltd, 1981. Print.
Lear, Edward. “The Owl and the Pussy-cat.” Everyman’s Book of Nonsense. Ed. John Davies. 1st ed. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1981. 139-140. Print.
Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. Philosophy of Nonsense: The Intuitions of Victorian Nonsense Literature. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.
Sewell, Elizabeth. The Field of Nonsense. London: Chatto and Windus, 1952. Print.