Study Guide

Jabberwocky Man and the Natural World

By Lewis Carroll

Man and the Natural World

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe. (1-4)

This difficult-to-comprehend initial stanza sets the tone for the "natural" world in which this poem takes place. Carroll seems to deliberately pick words that will give the reader a sense of the natural world, even though there may be no direct evidence for it. (Wabe sounds like wave, toves sounds like groves, as does borogoves, mimsy sounds a bit like pansy.) And even though these words might correspond to something that isn't related to these comparisons (for instance, mimsy is an adjective, not a flower), the sounds still hold, and we still get the sense that we're outside, in a "natural" setting. This is sound play at its finest. Carroll is doing two things at once here. Even though his made-up words don't correspond to anything natural, we get a natural feel from them anyway.

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! (6)

This one line, in terms of man and the natural world, sums up the entire stanza because it contains beastly body parts. We tend to think of nature in terms of differences. How much we're not like a shark, a tiger, or a manatee. This line highlights those differences, because while we have jaws that do in fact bite, we don't use them, say, as predators. And we certainly don't have claws. At any rate, this sort of "parts description" of the Jabberwock de-humanizes it, and puts man in opposition to the non-human (i.e., "natural") world.

So rested he by the Tumtum tree, (11)

This is directly in opposition to the "nature will kill us" stance of the quote above. It's interesting how the natural world fluctuates between mauling us and providing us with comfort, as the Tumtum tree does here. It's a peaceful line right before the chaos – our hero is tired, and so in an idyllic moment, he stops and rests beneath a tree. We can picture the tree arching above him, providing shade and a kind of shelter. This is the "mother" part of Mother Nature, perhaps.

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, (14-15)

And we're swinging back the other way. Now the poem is on fire, and the woods have become something else entirely. Like we noted before, tulgey is one of those nonsense words that seems a little bit ominous. Maybe a little like something bulging, which is a grotesque distortion. At any rate, the woods have suddenly become threatening, and of course the highlight of this passage is the Jabberwock itself, who comes crashing into the scene full of malice. Carroll's turned the natural world on its head again, and now it's full of badness.

He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back. (19-20)

Just a very quick thought on this quote, which doesn't have anything directly do with the natural world, but in spirit is connected. So the Jabberwock has been encountered, and if it represents all in the natural world that threatens us, what should we do? Well, in the case of "Jabberwocky," we kill it. Or at least, the protagonist kills it. This is all about man's dominion over nature, here. If man cannot tame something, man kills it.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe. (25-28)

We've talked about this stanza already. Why are we doing it again? Well, the first stanza has now become the last stanza. So what's different about this ending stanza? If we think about it, the Jabberwock is dead, but what's not? That's right, the Jubjub bird and the Bandersnatch. There are still some horrible things wandering around in those woods, woods that seemed more or less peaceful (if a little slimy) in the first stanza. The same place, at the end of the poem, becomes a much more ambiguous natural scene because of the beasts which still lurk within. So if we thought it was a little iffy at the outset, it's really iffy now.