Honors Capstone Project
Date of Submission
Professor Patricia Roylance
Professor Claudia Klaver
Arts and Science
Capstone Prize Winner
Won Capstone Funding
English Language and Literature | Other English Language and Literature
This thesis examines Lewis Carroll's writing through the lens of mathematics, arguing that Victorian mathematical theory and pedagogy are crucial contexts for understanding his literary works. Carroll is generally regarded as an author who specialized in works of literary nonsense such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Little attention is paid to his career as a mathematician at Oxford, yet mathematics occupied a considerable amount of his time and consumed his thoughts, as evidenced by his diaries and letters. This thesis therefore addresses a gap in Carroll scholarship and bridges two academic disciplines rarely brought together. Chapter One argues that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass should be considered as products of the mathematical and literary climates in which they were written. At the time, mathematics was overstepping the bounds of reality, including nonsensical elements like imaginary and negative numbers. Similarly, literature was expanding to include non-mimetic genres, like nonsense and fantasy. Carroll was privy to both of these developments, and in the Alice books, he simultaneously references the new mathematical concepts and uses the new literary techniques, indicating that he saw them as analogous phenomena. Alice's negative reaction to these new elements serves as a representation of the Victorian backlash against the shifts in mathematics and literature away from the real. Chapter Two examines a lesser-known series of mathematical riddles that Carroll published in The Monthly Packet magazine. In these riddles, Carroll mocks traditional power hierarchies, specifically those operating in the educational system and class structure of the Victorian period. Carroll judges each of his characters based on their mathematical ability rather than their education or social status, and thus fantasizes a meritocratic system that could replace old notions of power. This meritocracy is echoed in his treatment of readers who submitted solutions for the riddles, who were systematically sorted within Carroll's “classroom” based upon the correctness of their submissions. Carroll therefore undoes traditional hierarchies while still retaining his position at the top, the arbiter of everyone's mathematical merit.
Schneider, Diana, "“Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision”: Carroll's Use of Mathematics and Literature to Critique Victorian Britain." (2010). Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Projects. 704.
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