A Short Analysis of Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’

A reading of Lewis Carroll’s classic piece of nonsense verse by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ is a poem recited by the fat twins, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). The precise meaning of the poem remains elusive, but it remains a popular poem and a classic example of Victorian nonsense verse. It may be foolhardy to attempt an analysis or critical commentary where nonsense literature is concerned, but it’s worth delving a little deeper into this unusual poem.

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done —
‘It’s very rude of him,’ she said,
‘To come and spoil the fun.’

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead —
There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
‘If this were only cleared away,’
They said, ‘it would be grand!’

‘If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said,
‘That they could get it clear?’
‘I doubt it,’ said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

‘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.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more —
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.

‘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.

Perhaps, of all Lewis Carroll’s poems, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ has attracted the most commentary and speculation concerning its ultimate ‘meaning’. Some commentators have interpreted the predatory walrus and carpenter as representing, respectively, Buddha (because the walrus is large) and Jesus (the carpenter being the trade Jesus was raised in). It’s unlikely that this was Carroll’s intention, not least because the carpenter could easily walrus-and-the-carpenter-tenniel-carrollhave been a butterfly or a baronet instead: he actually gave his illustrator, John Tenniel, the choice, so it was Tenniel who selected ‘carpenter’.

Although it’s a longer poem than, say, ‘Jabberwocky’, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ is fairly easy to summarise. The two title characters, while walking along a beach, find a bed of oysters and proceed to eat the lot. But we’re clearly in a nonsense-world here, a world of fantasy: the sun and the moon are both out on this night.

The oysters can walk and even wear shoes, even though they don’t have any feet. No, they don’t have feet, but they do have ‘heads’, and are described as being in their beds – with ‘bed’ here going beyond the meaning of ‘sea bed’ and instead conjuring up the absurdly comical idea of the oysters tucked up in bed asleep.

The question of gender is often curious in the case of nonsense literature. Which is the male and which the female in Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’? Here, the sun is presented as male and the moon female, which is as we might expect, given the traditional associations in literature between the moon and notions of pallor, beauty, and ethereal charm, all of which have also long been associated (by poets from the Renaissance through to the Romantics and beyond) with femininity. The sun is a bold interloper, refusing to set when night comes on and instead boldly and presumptuously encroaching on the moon’s patch.

Yet the two central figures, however we analyse or interpret their significance, appear to be male – the moustachioed walrus and the pragmatic carpenter, suggesting Jesus, Joseph, and other handymen. Their dream is to see the sands of the beach swept away by ‘seven maids with seven mops’ – putting women into servitude in order to clear away the sand, which they dislike for some unspecified reason.

The story of ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ is, in one sense, the story of encroachment and entitlement: the sun upon the moon’s territory or time, the walrus and the carpenters upon the oysters, which they presume to eat – because they can.

It’s therefore possible to read the poem as a commentary on man’s use – or abuse, or even exploitation – of others in order to get what he wants: the walrus is the fat cat (to mix our animal metaphors) and the carpenter his artisan partner whom he co-opts for his venture, subjugating and then feeding upon the poor oysters. Or at least, such a fanciful interpretation might be tenable, if it weren’t for the fact that, as we mentioned above, Carroll nearly wrote a poem called ‘The Walrus and the Butterfly’.

In the last analysis, all such readings of the poem in terms of class, gender, and contemporary politics run the risk of overlooking that fact, and the more salient fact, that nonsense doesn’t like to offer itself up to easily graspable analytical readings. We might talk of many things, but what remains are the comical images and the delightful play of language – nonsense or otherwise.

More nonsense-related fun is to be had with this pick of Edward Lear’s best poems and our collection of fascinating Lewis Carroll facts.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: John Tenniel’s illustration for Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ (1871), via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Pingback: The Best Lewis Carroll Poems | Interesting Literature

  2. Jeanie Buckingham

    Butterflies don’t eat oysters, that would have been silly. Otherwise a lot of it makes sense.

    Sent from my iPad


  3. I almost see it as the young and inexperienced are duped into thinking they are going to go have fun when instead their demise was planned. As the eldest Oyster was wise enough not to go.It’s like a tale of caution.
    I was thinking the sun being out at night might be an eclipse and that’s why the Oysters were out. Similar to how the shrimp run on a full moon.
    It is interesting that the walrus and carpenter didn’t think to remove the sand themselves but rather wondered if the maids would be able to do it.
    What a fun and interesting poem! I love the rhyme and meter.
    Thank you for sharing!