Symbolism in Lewis Carroll's 'The Walrus and the Carpenter'

Children stories often carry a moral message. This is not a new thing,and has been the case from millenia past, and across many culturesacross the globe.

Sometimes, the moral story is not direct, and indeed can be very deep,and sometimes it is enveloped in satire or even cynicist philosophy.

One such deeply symbolic and satirical story is Lewis Carroll'spoem of The Walrus and the Carpenter. In his famous book Alice in Wonderland, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee tell this storyto Alice.

Here is an excerpt of the relevant parts from the poem. The full poem can be read at the above link.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed--
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed."

"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
"After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said.
"Do you admire the view?

"It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf--
I've had to ask you twice!"

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"The butter's spread too thick!"

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

The very telling verses are where the Walrus says:

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:"I deeply sympathize."With sobs and tears he sorted outThose of the largest size,Holding his pocket-handkerchiefBefore his streaming eyes.

How often do we see Walruses with tears in their eyes?

Whether they are persons, or companies, or nations!

Those who pretend that they are doing what is best, but in reality doing exactly the opposite, but trying to present evil as good?

For example, is the US invasion and occupation of Iraq really for democracy and freedom?

If one takes a darker view, the Walrus and the Carpenter can be symbolic of intentionally luring other people with sweet talk, then preying on them (or their money, or their emotions, ...etc.)

Other interpretations can be found on the Wikipedia article




Cabbages and Kings

To me not so much about religion. Its more about the divide between the corruption of leaders and their naive following labourers. The Carpenter represents a physical labourer at the beginning expressing his desire to sweep the beach clean while the Walrus represents the charming leader (The King). The Walrus then takes the carpenter under his wing in a sense to show him how things can be done without any work at all (while of course using him to his advantage at the same time). He then begins his seduction of the young oysters (the cabbages) and promisses them the world but in the end robs them of their futures. And weather you read the poem or watch the disney animated movie... The carpenter either joins walrus in his ways or goes mad. That is my interpretation for what its worth.

The Walrus and the Carpenter The Lobster Quadrille

The religious metaphor is more or less discounted by the choices offered to the illustrator.

There's also the small matter of Carroll/Dodgson being a deeply religious man who would never include any allusion to Christ in any form.

A possibility could be an a mixed satire on empire/enlisting soldiers.

The walrus being the empire itself intent on consumption and the carpenter being the self absorbed 'hanger on' in which the butterfly and/or baronet would suit purpose not only for metre/iamb but also for associations which could be attached by the reader. In the case of the carpenter the metaphor could easily be the nouveau riche industrialist gaining power in society at the time.

The complaint (from the walrus) about there being so much sand and wondering if it could ever be swept away could be taken to mean local customs and geography etc that the empire found inconvenient (while of course it was happy to plunder the resources)

The older oyster could be the people who are a bit too long in the tooth/wise to volunteer (no national service/conscription then.

The leading of the oysters along he beach to a point when they had come so far that they were resigned to their fate could be recruits waking up to the realities of being canon fodder.

The recurrent theme in the Alice books is the ridiculous nature of society when viewed from outside it and not 'buying in' to the mores by which those who are part of it are able to advance but are at the same time constrained.

The Lobster Quadrille is another example of an independent mind who "would not could not join" a "dance" which ends with the junior partners thrown out to sea.

Ahyhoo, we are free to make of it what we choose. This is what gives all great literature or art its staying power. Namely even when it's situational the relevance transcends specifics.

We're all still talking and thinking about it and I'm sure Mr Dogson is delighted that we are.

Walrus and the Carpenter

What it means to me, and this is in addition to the Christianity perspective:
The walrus refers to a personality type and we all know them. The ones who want to sit around and watch the doers; they use persuasive ideas, subtle manipulation, and enticing untruths to gain what they want, and will sneak it away the first chance they get. The carpenter is the one who does the work, gets the steps lined out, contributes the actual labor only to have it taken out from underneath to chin up and rebuild. Moral dilemma: The ones who take advantage of others for selfish gain, and the ones who work for what they have.