11 January (1897): Lewis Carroll to May Barber

Below, Lewis Carroll explains in few words his nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” The letter is addressed to a young girl, May Barber, whom Carroll had befriended when he taught at her mother’s boarding school in 1894. Over the years, the meaning of Carroll’s “Snark” has been much debated. Carroll, though, avoided explaining his work, for “a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer meant,” and he often chose answers that were even more nonsensical than the original work. To the question, though—“What is the Snark?”—Carroll’s answer was almost always the same: “I don’t know.”


To Mary Barber

The Chestnuts, Guildford
January 12, 1897

My dear May,

            In answer to your question, “What did you mean the Snark was?” will you tell your friend that I meant that the Snark was a Boojum. I trust that she and you will now feel quite satisfied and happy.

            To the best of my recollection, I had no other meaning in my mind, when I wrote it: but people have since tried to find the meanings in it. The one I like best (which I think is partly my own) is that it may be taken as an Allegory for the Pursuit of Happiness. The characteristic “ambition” works well into this theory—and also its fondness for bathing-machines, as indicating that the pursuer of happiness, when he has exhausted all other devices, betakes himself, as a last and desperate resource, to some such wretched watering-place as Eastbourne, and hopes to find, in the tedious and depressing society of the daughters of mistresses of boarding-schools, the happiness he has failed to find elsewhere.

            With every good wish for your happiness, and for the priceless boon of health also, I am

Always affectionately yours,
C.L. Dodgson