Literary Nonsense Genre: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Becky Dotzel

Becky has taught high school and college level courses; she has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in secondary education.

In this lesson, we'll discuss a unique genre of literature known as literary nonsense. We'll review the definition of a genre before studying some historical and modern examples of literary nonsense.

What Is Genre?

A genre is any form of art that is recognizable through its particular set of characteristics or content. Examples in music may include heavy metal, which is defined by its loud singing and even louder guitars, or reggae, which has a simple, repetitious chord structure that results in a hypnotic effect. In movies, some examples include horror, comedy, or drama.

Within these genres are more distinctive sub-genres: If you like heavy metal, do you prefer glam or alternative metal? If you enjoy comedic films, what type is your favorite? Romantic comedies or slapstick? As you can see, a genre defines a broad category that can be further reduced into smaller categories.

This type of categorization is also seen in literature. Two of the main genres of literature are fiction and nonfiction and there are many, many sub-genres of each. Under the umbrella of fiction, we find literary nonsense, a unique genre that was first formally defined in the early 1950s.

Definition: Literary Nonsense

The most important thing to understand about literary nonsense is that it is not devoid of sense. When we hear the word nonsense most of us think of something that is completely meaningless, but understanding what literary nonsense is requires us to put that definition of nonsense away.

Are you familiar with the legendary baseball player Yogi Berra? Whether you follow the sport of baseball or not, most people know this man's name. His famous expressions appear to be complete nonsense, but further examination reveals their inherent truth.

Yogi Berra is also famous for his contributions to American language.
Yogi Berra

Some of his more famous expressions include: ''A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore'', referring to the ever-increasing cost of living, or ''The future ain't what it used to be'', which refers to the inevitable changes and advancements of modern society. Understanding ''Yogisms'' is helpful to understanding the basic tenets of literary nonsense.

Literary nonsense is a type of fiction that often defies common sense and creates an entirely new world through the manipulation of language. Often it constructs then deconstructs the very meaning of words and, through this process, reveals how arbitrary the semantics (or meaning) of language can be. There is an inherent complexity woven within the simplistic appearance of literary nonsense. The story or poem must continually balance between sense and nonsense; it must remain logical, even though it may at first appear completely illogical. Let's look at some examples so we can further understand how literary nonsense manipulates language.

Literary Nonsense: Examples

Scholars trace the roots of literary nonsense to the nursery rhymes of Mother Goose, and rhymes such as Hey Diddle Diddle certainly contain some elements that are reminiscent of nonsense verse. Most scholars, however, identify the true beginning of literary nonsense with the work of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, two English, Victorian Era writers.

Edward Lear is known for the poem The Owl and the Pussycat and his books of limericks, including the aptly titled Book of Nonsense.

In A Book of Nonsense Edward Lear creates over 100 limericks that turn logic and sense upside down.
Edward Lear literary nonsense

In Alice in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass Lewis Carroll creates a dream world that also defies logic, yet consistently remains logical. The characters Alice encounters often manipulate the constructs of everyday language.

Both Alice books by Lewis Carroll are considered literary nonsense.

For example, when Humpty Dumpty tells Alice that words mean what he wants them to mean, she states, ''The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things,'' to which Humpty Dumpty replies, ''The question is, which is to be master, that's all.'' Because of Humpty Dumpty's self-professed language expertise Alice asks him to explain the poem The Jabberwocky to her.

In The Jabberwocky, Carroll takes things a step further by inventing his own language but balances, in a logical way, words we do know, with words we do not. The result is that these nonsense words, rather than coming across as pure gibberish, tell an interesting and comprehensible tale.

''Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

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