Academic journal article Post Script

Introduction: "If You Think We're Alive, You Ought to Speak"

Academic journal article Post Script

Introduction: "If You Think We're Alive, You Ought to Speak"

Article excerpt

In the fourth chapter of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), Alice's journey across the chessboard takes her to a pair of figures standing so still that she initially thinks they're statues: the brothers Tweedledum and Tweedledee, already familiar to her from a nursery rhyme. The madcap brothers quickly provide ample evidence of their liveliness, impulsively drawing Alice into a dance that they just as abruptly abandon. When Alice attempts to ask them for directions, Tweedledee instead recites "The Walrus and the Carpenter," a poem marked not just by Carroll's usual witty nonsense and jokes but also, in its focus on the betrayal and devouring of oysters, by a high degree of grotesque violence. Alice's thoughtful response to the performance--that she likes the Walrus better than the Carpenter because he at least felt remorse for his actions--is undercut by Tweedledee's assertion that the Walrus sneakily ate more of the oysters, but her indignant decision to therefore like the Carpenter instead is similarly frustrated by Tweedledum's reply that "he ate as many as he could get." "This," the narrator suggests, "was a puzzler" (73). Her confused attempt to find an unambiguous moral in the poem is then brought to an end by an alarming noise that turns out to be the Red King's snoring. Tweedledum and Tweedledee tell Alice that the slumbering monarch is dreaming about her, and that if he were to wake up she'd "go out--bang!--just like a candle!" (75). The idea so alarms her that she begins to cry, a response she believes proves her reality, but the brothers are unimpressed: "I hope you don't suppose those are real tears" (76), one scoffs. Alice manages to brush this comment off as ridiculous, but she must still endure and even assist in an enactment of the Tweedledee and Tweedledum nursery rhyme--in which the brothers do battle over a damaged rattle--before she manages to escape them.

Like many of the characters Alice encounters in both Wonderland and in Looking-Glass Land, Tweedledum and Tweedledee aggressively (at times even hostilely) subvert her perceptions and understanding of the world, constructing through their elaborate verbal nonsense and absurd actions a "contrariwise" mode of existence that Alice instinctively distrusts but cannot penetrate. "That's logic" (65), they tell her, even as they unleash bedlam. While Alice can ultimately dismiss the ravings of most of the creatures she meets, the brothers' claims prove particularly unsettling and enduring. The last chapter of Carroll's book finds Alice, awakened from her dream, anxiously questioning her kitten: "let's consider who it was that dreamed it all.... it must have been either me or the Red King. He was part of my dream, of course--but then I was part of his dream, too!" (209). In its final line the narrative turns the question on the reader: "Which do you think it was?" (210). The reader, of course, is not obliged to reply any more than the kitten is, and indeed it might seem that the most sensible response to the conundrums of Tweedledum and Tweedledee is to ignore them altogether, dismissing their inversions of reality and challenges to common sense as nothing more than foolishness. To do so, however, would be to deny ourselves the pleasure of play, and here a particularly rich variety of play flavored by a sense of deeper meaning and potential. Not for nothing have generations of intelligent readers, many questing for a hidden truth they are sure the text conceals, returned to Alice long after abandoning all other childhood books. Moreover, to simply refuse to engage the brothers would be to ignore the advice contained in Tweedledee's first speech, his rebuke to Alice's silent observation of the brothers as though they were mere wax-works: "if you think we're alive, you ought to speak" (64).

For "Alice," read "audience"; for "Tweedledum and Tweedledee," read "Joel and Ethan Coen"; for "The Walrus and the Carpenter," read "Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? …

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