‘‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’’ begins and ends with reflections on oddity. The first stanza presents an example of something characterized as odd; the last, of something characterized as not at all odd. Thus the poem comes full circle from beginning to end. It is not a closed circle, however, but an open spiral. The difference between a circle and a spiral is the difference between repetition and evolution, but in the instance of ‘‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’’ evolution does not indicate progress but only variation. Progress suggests a linear development, movement, most likely an improvement or, at least, intensification. In ‘‘The Walrus and the Carpenter,’’ something happens that makes a difference in the poem—the story of the oysters’ fate at the hands of the title characters unfolds— yet no progress is made. Rather there is transformation or variation on a theme. The context is changed. The type of phenomenon that the poem shows as odd in the first stanza, and that denotes chaotic disorder in the celestial realm of the cosmos, loses its oddity in the terrestrial realm inhabited by mankind and, although what happens, the consumption of the oysters, is unpleasant, it is part of the natural order. There is movement in the verse, but there is no real development. Only the context that determines whether something is or is not odd has been changed. The circumstances that cause oddity in the first stanza and negate it in the final one are quite similar. In the first instance the reader is introduced to a paradoxical situation. In the latter instance, the paradox has been dissolved, replaced by irony. But in both instances, the circumstance is one of conflict, of competition between strength and weakness, of defeat, and of domination by one party over another.
The first two stanzas of ‘‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’’ recount what amounts to a contest between the sun and the moon. The sun, in the first stanza, is shown as a usurper who is victorious in his usurpation, encroaching upon the moon’s territory. The sun shines at night and thereby violates the natural, cosmological order of things. The moon’s response in the second stanza is to sulk at the encroachment, nothing more. Her weaker status, the moon being of lesser luminosity than the sun and her light being only the reflection of the sun’s essential fire, renders the moon a non-competitor, able only to complain.
The cause of this break in the order is not presented in the poem, nor is the sun’s usurpation and the moon’s distress the matter of any further concern. The presentation of the oddity seems only to be an overture to the remainder of the poem, a context for the events to follow, events that in their expression of seduction and betrayal, of domination for the one side and defeat for the other, offer in other terms a recapitulation of the prelude. One force overwhelms and consumes another. The absurdity of the violence done to the cosmic order in the first stanza immunizes the reader against the cartoon absurdity of the central action of the poem, the sly violence of the natural order. The action of the central section, with its cartoon elements of a talking walrus and walking, talking oysters, is an accurate reflection of how things are in nature and among mankind. Humans live by overshadowing, displacing, devouring each other. The world is a place of predators and prey.
The third stanza, while it retains the structure of the first two, relating attributes of sea and sand, sets up a different relation between the two from that presented in the first two stanzas. Neither sea nor sand usurps the other, nor encroaches upon the other. Each maintains its own proper attribute. The sea is defined by its wetness; the sand is defined by its dryness. In both cases the situation, while needlessly redundant in narration is not odd as before when night is defined by the attribute of day. The third stanza continues in its fastidious redundancy. The sky is cloudless because there are no clouds and there are no birds because there are no birds. The suggestion of something out of the ordinary is only slightly broached by the sixth and final line of the third stanza. Is the assertion of the absence of birds a circumstantial or an absolute one? Does it mean that birds do not happen to be flying then, or does it inform the reader that, in the world of these verses, birds as a species do not exist? As before, with the intrusion of the sun into the moon’s territory, the problem is not explored further, and once again the presentation of the situation is best understood as setting a mood, conveying the sense that anything out of the ordinary can happen. After all, everything that does happen in ‘‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’’ is happening in the world that exists on the other side of the mirror, in a reverse world where left is right and right is left. Readers are overhearing a poem of that world that Alice is hearing. Being of the mirror world, then, odd though the phenomena of that world at first glance may appear, they are, after the reader becomes accustomed to the inversions, accurate reflections of the world before the mirror. Oysters, although they have neither feet nor, presumably, feelings, do get eaten.
What happens in the fourth stanza is circumstantially independent of the events and nonevents of the preceding three. The eponymous characters are introduced walking together, and for whatever reason—once again none is given— they are crying at the sight of the great quantity of sand, lamenting its infinite plenitude. What else do they expect to find on the beach? The following stanza suggests it is food they are looking for. And by extension and displacement, they are mourning the insatiability of their appetites. The exterior surplus of sand mirrors an interior paucity of comestible matter. In this stanza, however, they begin to consider, wishfully, the possibility of all the sand being cleared away, but the realization of the impossibility of effectuating that wish leads them to further weeping. The immensity of their appetite is insurmountable.
With no overt transition, in the sixth stanza, the walrus is no longer crying. He is addressing the oysters, who have appeared as mysteriously as his tears have disappeared. But their appearance, no matter how unprepared, is not odd, for oysters, after all, live in the sea. Nor is their anthropomorphism odd, for such a conventional literary move has already been made in the poem with the lachrymose walrus. Thus the first section of the poem, stanzas 1 through 5, have prepared the reader for what seems to be an animal fable of the Aesopian kind that begins in the second section of the poem, starting at stanza 6. The excitement of the vocative, of the walrus’s direct address to the oysters, replaces the lamentations of the previous stanza. The sand on the shore may be irremovable, but the pangs of appetite can be appeased. Thus the second section of the poem, stanzas 6 through 9, recounts the rhetoric of persuasion and its success. Despite the objection of the skeptical elder oyster, the young are drawn out of their beds. The poem’s characteristic verbal and metrical whimsy recurs in the description of the oysters as well shod despite the fact that they do not have feet. Carroll uses wit to divert the reader’s attention from the brutality of desire. Wit as a narrative device continues through to the end of the poem, not in order to reduce the brutality recounted but to establish the intellectual room for the reader to reflect upon it, as Alice does after Tweedledee finishes his recitation. Her response may serve as a guide to the reader’s.
Alice at first takes sides. She prefers the walrus ‘‘because he was a little sorry for the poor oysters.’’ She switches her allegiance when Tweedledee points out that he ate more than the carpenter, and tried to hide the number. But the carpenter suffers in her opinion, too, when Tweedledum points out that he ate as many as he could. Instructed by her frustration, Alice abandons any attempt to take sides. ‘‘They were both very unpleasant characters,’’ she decides, seeing the situation as a whole, yet implicitly identifying with the oysters, who, like her, left their proper environment seduced by the wonders of an unknown realm that turned against them.
Lured out of their beds and marched along the sand, the oysters are mustered on the beach. The walrus begins his razzle-dazzle rhetoric and courteously desists when the dizzy oysters ask to catch their breath. Instead, he begins to make preparations for a meal, reciting a list of necessary condiments used in the consumption of oysters. Realizing that they are to constitute the meal, the oysters beg him to reconsider, but they have no more power against him than the moon had to vanquish the sun. All they achieve is a rhetoric of sympathy from him and a flood of tears as he devours them. The carpenter, on the other hand, is less a gallant and is more single-mindedly absorbed in securing his bread and getting his share of oysters, making sure he is not cheated by the walrus, given more butter and fewer oysters. The dynamic of rivalry defining the action of the poem is played out even among these apparent partners.
The last stanza begins with a satiric echo of the walrus’s invocation of the oysters in the sixth stanza when he first invited them on their death walk. Now he invites them to return home in mockery of their gullibility and expressing his implicit satisfaction and delight in his success at overwhelming them. Similarly, the narrative commentary of the poem’s coda, the final two lines, echoes the last two lines of the first stanza. But the parody here is grim. The idea of oddity reappears, now to be repudiated. Encroachment in the first stanza suggested a violation of the way things are. Predation, in the final stanza, is presented as merely the way things are. Buried beneath the final lines is the implicit warning, the moral of the story: therefore, be careful.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Lewis Carroll, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
Neil Heims, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Walrus and the Carpenter,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.