Throughout April I’m taking part in the Blogging from A-Z Challenge. I’ll be posting every day (except Sundays) on my chosen theme of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll.
For the letter O, I first thought I might write about opposites, of which there are many in Carroll’s works. But then I realised I covered most of that in my post about Mirrors. So today I’m talking about oysters instead.
The oysters feature in the poem ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ which Tweedledum and Tweedledee recite to Alice in Through the Looking-Glass. While walking along the beach one night, the Walrus and the Carpenter discover a bed of oysters and call them out of the ocean and they go for a little walk together. Unfortunately, the poor oysters are much too trusting and sadly end up being eaten by the Walrus and the Carpenter, who have tricked them. It’s quite a dark tale and used to upset me when I was little.
“O Oysters, come and walk with us!”
The Walrus did beseech.
“A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each.”
The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head–
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.
But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat–
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn’t any feet.
The oysters seem to symbolise the naivety and foolhardiness of youth. They are sweet and trusting and you can’t help but feel sorry for them as they trot merrily towards their doom. The story offers a good lesson for Alice, who is also a victim of her own curiosity. She just can’t resist following the white rabbit, even though it leads her into potentially dangerous situations (such as nearly parting company with her own head!)
Some species of oyster contain pearls or have beautiful translucent shells that are used to make jewellery and ornaments. Interestingly, they are also considered to be an aphrodisiac. The oysters in the poem are unaware of their beauty or potential hidden value and this ignorance allows them to be ‘seduced’ by the Walrus’s flattery and ultimately ‘consumed’. So perhaps Carroll’s choice of oysters as the unwitting victims was meant to be a cautionary tale against being led astray by our desires and letting others manipulate and exploit us. The young Alice may not yet understand that not all people are as they seem, and some can have sinister intentions.
The background history about real oysters is interesting. Some species are now an expensive delicacy, but in the early 19th century they were cheap and mainly eaten by the working class. Unfortunately, high demand led to foreign species being introduced and many beds were used up or completely destroyed. The scarcity then meant that oysters became more valuable. Some critics have interpreted ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ as having a political message about the exploitation of the working class by the entitled upper class.
However, perhaps we are just over-analysing the poem and looking for a deep meaning where there is none. The delight of this poem, as well as much other literary nonsense, is that it defies analysis. Perhaps we should just enjoy the comical wordplay and absurdity of it all. What do you think?
- The poem might have been called ‘The Walrus and the Butterfly’. Carroll let Tenniel choose whether he drew a butterfly or a carpenter.
- In the Disney animation, the mother oyster points to a calendar and the letter ‘R’ in one of the months glows. This is because it was once assumed that oysters were only safe to eat in months with the letter ‘r’ in their names because the summer heat would spoil them. This is a myth, but in the UK it is forbidden to harvest oysters between May and August because this is the spawning season.
Before you go…
Do you think the tale about the oysters has any symbolic meaning or is it just meant to be entertaining nonsense?