Through the Looking-Glass
Chapter 6: Humpty Dumpty
Alice approaches the egg, which has grown large and transformed into Humpty Dumpty. Humpty Dumpty idly sits on a wall, taking no notice of Alice until she remarks how much he resembles an egg. Irritated by this remark, Humpty Dumpty insults Alice. She starts to softly recite the nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty, and he asks for her name and requests that she state her business. Alice tells Humpty Dumpty her name and he tells her that her name is stupid. In Humpty Dumpty’s opinion, names should mean something, offering his own name as an example since it alludes to the shape of his body. He goes on to remark that with a name like Alice, she could be any shape at all. Concerned for his safety, Alice asks Humpty Dumpty why he sits atop the wall. He replies that the King made him a promise, which spurs Alice’s memory of the rhyme stating that the King’s horses and the King’s men put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Alice’s allusion to the poem angers Humpty Dumpty, who insists that he is well protected and changes the subject.
Humpty Dumpty seems to make a riddle out of every part of their conversation. Alice compliments his cravat, which he explains he received from the White King and Queen for his un-birthday. He explains that an un-birthday is a day that is not his birthday. Humpty Dumpty declares that un-birthdays are better than birthdays and starts to use words that make no sense in the context of what he says. Alice questions what he means, to which he retorts that he can make words do anything that he wants, though he pays words extra if he requires them to do a lot of work. Alice remembers the poem “Jabberwocky,” and she asks Humpty Dumpty to explain the words to her. She recites the first stanza, which he picks apart word by word. Humpty Dumpty then begins his own poem for her, which abruptly ends with a goodbye. Annoyed, Alice walks off, complaining about his behavior when a great crash resounds through the wood.
Humpty Dumpty reintroduces the idea of naming and the role it plays in shaping identity. Unlike the Fawn and the Gnat, Humpty Dumpty has a nuanced understanding of naming. However, Humpty Dumpty maintains an understanding of language that reverses Alice’s understanding of the way language works. Alice believes that proper names do not have profound significance, while names for universal concepts such as a “glory” or “impenetrability” have fixed meanings that all people understand. Humpty Dumpty believes the opposite, stating that he finds the name Alice to be stupid since it fails to connote anything about who she is. Humpty Dumpty continues this manipulation of language, taking liberties with the meanings of known words and establishing definitions for them that suit his purposes. Words become characters under Humpty Dumpty’s employment, an idea he promotes with the claim that he literally pays the words more when he makes them do a lot of work.
Humpty Dumpty’s philosophy of naming demonstrates both the arbitrariness of lanugage and the capacity of literature to convey meaning. Humpty Dumpty redefines the meanings of words at will, but he must use other words that have presumably stable meanings to explain the new definitions. If too many words have fluid meanings, their meanings will change erratically, and language will cease to function as a system capable of communicating ideas. Humpty Dumpty’s ideas about language will fall apart if multiple people adjust the meanings of words to suit their individual fancy. When applied to literature, Humpty Dumpty’s ideas are more appropriate. Authors manipulate the multiple meanings of words they use when writing, giving their language a richness that has the potential to fascinate and delight readers. Carroll’s frequent use of puns and wordplay shows how attuned he was to this property of language. Even in this section, Carroll plays with the pun on the “richness” of language, indicating that Humpty Dumpty pays words more when they work harder.