05 July 2024

Lewis Carroll, creator of
a Wonderland: hidden
antisemitism or secret
commentary on the Talmud?

Alice drawing back the curtain on Oxford … is there an antisemitic thread in Lewis Carroll’s writings?

Patrick Comerford

I am musing over these few days about Alice in Wonderland and how the Alice stories began on a boat trip in Oxford on 4 July 1862, when Lewis Carroll first told the ‘Alice’ stories to Alice Liddell and her two sisters.

Alice’s Day is an annual city-wide celebration in Oxford on the first Saturday in July of all things about Alice in Wonderland, and this year it takes place tomorrow (6 July). It commemorates the afternoon of 4 July 1862, when the Christ Church don and mathematician Charles Dodgson took 10-year-old Alice and her sisters Edith (then 8) and Lorina (13), daughters of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, on a boat trip from Folly Bridge to Godstow, where they had a picnic.

Lewis Carroll was the pen-name of the Revd Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. His books have been translated into 70 languages and are still among their best-selling children’s books. They have influenced a great variety of artists and writers, and Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) remains a cult classic.

What Alice Found There (1871) includes several celebrated poems such as ‘Jabberwocky’, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ and ‘The Hunting of the Snark.’

Lewis Carroll was a polymath and was a pioneering photographer and portraitist in the early field of photography. He created several games, including a forerunner of Scrabble. He was also an accomplished mathematician and logician credited with establishing much of the foundation for modern logic, number theory and cryptography. Many of his invented words are now part of everyday conversation and many of his expressions have become common catchphrases, including ‘down the rabbit hole’, ‘curiouser and curiouser’, and ‘off with their heads’.

Carroll was an ordained deacon in the Church of England and remained a faithful Anglican throughout his life. But in recent years many writers and researchers have examined his writings more critically and claim that Carroll exhibits unambiguous antisemitism.

He characterised Jews as, among other things, ‘sarcastic’, ‘either hunchbacked or misers’, ‘obsequious unless very young’, ‘squinting’, ‘dishonest’, ‘look like goats’, ‘have beards a yard long’, and, of course, ‘have hooked noses’.

In his use of syllogisms and establishing logical premises, Carroll frequently used phrases such as ‘All Juwes [sic] are greedy.’ In his Symbolic Logic (1897), he used such propositions as ‘No Gentiles have hooked noses’, ‘No Jew is ever a bad hand at a bargain’, ‘There are no Jews in the house’, ‘No Gentiles have beards a yard long’, and – that frequent antisemitic allegation – ‘No Jews are honest.’ His other phrases include ‘No Gentiles say “shpoonj”,’ ‘No Jew is ignorant of Hebrew,’ ‘Some Jews are rich’.

Recent editions of Symbolic Logic retain these phrases, but include prominent disclaimers that the vile language was not deleted in the interests of retaining the historical accuracy of the original work.

Carroll saw Judaism as a religion of whiners and complainers entirely devoid of spirituality. For example, in Chapter 19 of his Sylvie and Bruno, Dr Arthur Forester, a character Carroll portrays as a highly intelligent and ethical character, depicts the Jews as mentally undeveloped. This is evidenced by a blind and faithful adherence to their Old Testament, in which ‘rewards and punishments are constantly appealed to as motives for action. That teaching is best for children, and the Israelites seem to have been, mentally, utter children.’

In Sylvie and Bruno, Carroll tells the story of a tailor – a stereotypical cliché for Jewish trades, although Carroll does not identify him as Jewish – who agrees to extend credit to a customer only if he agrees to pay double the outstanding debt each year.

In an essay ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’ (1930), the economist John Maynard Keynes cites the attempt by Carroll’s tailor to secure specious and illusory future gain as a metaphor for his proposition regarding the irrationality of postponing personal gratification, and observes that Carroll almost certainly intended the tailor to be Jewish.

In a diary entry in 1885, Lewis Carroll comments on a children’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. He writes: ‘It was a very charming performance, and some of them have lovely voices, specially Elsie Joel who acted Mabel: she looks Jewish.’ It is as though Carroll is saying she was a surprisingly good actress, even though she is Jewish. Other reviewers admired Elsie’s performance without mentioning her Jewish appearance.

On the other hand, in correspondence on 18 August 1884, Carroll wrote: ‘One hospital manager wrote that he knew a place where there were a number of sick children, but he was afraid I wouldn’t like to give them any books – and why, do you think? ‘Because they are Jews!’ I wrote to say [that] of course I would give them some! Why in the world shouldn’t little Israelites read Alice’s Adventures as well as other children?

Perhaps on that occasion Carroll’s love of children trumped his contempt for Jews. He had already characterised Jews as ‘obsequious unless very young’, suggesting his animus towards Jews did not extend to Jewish children.

Carroll delighted in puzzles, metaphors, wordplay, and invented words – consider ‘Jabberwocky’, for example. There are many theories about the cryptic allegorical meanings of the Alice stories. Freudians, for their part, suggest his books represent an outlet for his repressed desires.

Some writers see Alice as a secret history of religious controversies in Victorian England, others as a metaphor for the monstrous mindlessness of the universe. Martin Gardner argues in The Annotated Alice, the entirety of Through the Looking Glass is a chess game ‘in which living pieces are ignorant of the game’s plan and cannot tell if they move under their own will or by invisible fingers.’ Indeed, Alice is the only mature and rational character in Wonderland. ‘We are all mad here’, says the Cheshire Cat.

One of the most intriguing, if not bizarre, hypotheses I have come across in recent weeks is by Dr Abraham Ettelson (1897-1971), an American Hasidic Jew and brain surgeon who fought in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.

In a self-published 80-page small book, Through the Looking-Glass Decoded (1966), Ettelson argues that Alice is actually a cryptogram of the Talmud written in code. He notes the frequency and importance of mirrors and inversion in the Alice stories and concludes that Through the Looking Glass and the Talmud are mirror images of each other.

He argues that the principal subtext of Alice and Looking Glass is ‘the Jewish way’ and sees the books as Carroll’s use of a Midrashic approach that employs layered interpretations and ethical analysis to expound on the pshat or the primary meaning of the text.

Ettelson believes Jabberwocky is a code name for the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement. He divides the word ‘Jabberwocky’ into two halves and then reads each part in a mirror; the result is ‘Rebbaj Yckow,’ or Rabbi Jacob. This gamesmanship echoes Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s construction of his own pseudonym: he formed the name by translating his first and middle names, Charles Lutwidge, into Latin, which became Carolus Ludovicus; reversed their order; and translated the name back into English as Lewis Carroll.

The first stanza of ‘Jabberwocky’ is:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Ettelson suggests these opening lines contain no less than half of all the Hebrew letters. One of Carroll’s nonsense words in ‘Jabberwocky is frumious, which Ettelson reads as a fusion of the words frum, a Yiddish word for a devout Jew, and pious. In another instance, the ferocious jaw-snapping Bandersnatch contains an anagram for Satan.

The ball of worsted wool that Alice’s kitten plays with symbolises the woollen tzitzit, which is not a far-fetched suggestion, for worsted wool is a twisted woollen thread and a tzizit is a tassel of twisted cord. Moreover, Carroll says Alice’s kitten ‘curled up in a corner.’ For Ettelson, this evokes the ‘four corners’ on which tzitzit are worn.

Most commentators dismiss the ‘Talmud theory’ as, at best, sheer fantasy. Yet they agree Ettelson’s methodology and analytical framework favourably compare with Carroll’s own logomania.

The illustrator Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914), who provided 92 illustrations for the Alice books, was the principal political cartoonist for Punch. His portrayal of Jews included the usual antisemitic features such as a hooked nose and dark, oily hair. In particular, he frequently lampooned Benjamin Disraeli as Fagin, the Jewish leader of a crew of child pickpockets and robbers in Dickens’s Oliver Twist. In one drawing, he has Disraeli instructing his fellow politicians how to effectively pick the pockets of the public.

A cartoon by Tenniel in Punch on 9 August 1890 depicts Tsar Alexander III – a staunch antisemite who accused the Jews of the murder of Alexander II and launched pogroms against them – with his boot on the neck of a feeble and helpless bearded Jew and about to wield his sword of persecution. However, the ‘Ghost of Pharoah’ appears behind him and, speaking from bitter experience, warns ‘Forbear! That weapon [of persecution against the Jews] always wounds the hand that wields it.’

In this classic example of antisemitism, Tenniel is claiming the Jews wield a secret power that they use against those who would abuse them. In later drawings, he claims the Jews of Russia appear weak but are actually rich and powerful and use their secret cabal against poor Russian citizens.

Yet, when a number of prominent Oxford graduates joined in sending a memorial of solidarity to British Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler expressing sorrow and amazement regarding the Russian persecution of Jews, Lewis Carroll was one of the 245 signatories.

Carroll’s statements about Jews remain unexplained. No excuses should ever be made for his statements about Jews. They may well have been within the parameters of Victorian British behaviour, like the rest of his idiosyncrasies. Yet Alice in Wonderland is such a remarkable book and a lasting classic, its readers should wish the author was capable of transcending the common prejudices of his day.

Shabbat Shalom, שבת שלום

Could Jabberwocky is a code name for the Baal Shem Tov?

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