My Fairy by Lewis Carroll is a work that is grounded in a hint of satire since a creature as light and playful as “a fairy” is utilized to represent a larger aspect of life that takes away possibilities and offers limitations. These limitations are often ridiculous, like not allowing Carroll to “laugh” or eat, and this overbearing concept speaks a great deal to Carroll’s frustration with the circumstance he is commenting on. As the work progresses, the possibility that Carroll is using this work as a means to comment on the structure of cultures and nations from political and legal aspects gains merit so that this tiny “fairy” seems to be speaking of the number of things we cannot do in order to hold to what was meant to be an elevated means of living. Essentially, just as this tiny “fairy” should not be so concerned with tedium and limitations, the structure we live in is more limiting than we might have noticed, and this is Carroll’s main theme.
My Fairy Analysis
I have a fairy by my side
Which says I must not sleep,
When once in pain I loudly cried
It said “You must not weep”
If, full of mirth, I smile and grin,
It says “You must not laugh”
When once I wished to drink some gin
It said “You must not quaff.”
The very essence of this poem is drenched in irony in that “a fairy” can be thought of as a childish creature. This childishness might manifest in general playfulness or more aggressive mischievousness, but “a fairy” can often have a connotation of trickery or game-playing. By declaring in the initial sentence that he has “a fairy by [his] side,” this could feel like it will be a tale of whimsy and wonder. Instead, this “fairy” does not bring childish thoughts or impulses, but rather limitations and responsibilities. This can be seen beginning in the second line when Carroll notes that this “fairy” won’t let him “sleep.”
From there, the narration goes into being “in pain” and being told by this “fairy” that he “must not weep.” These are details that, to be truthful, do seem a bit childish as a child might try to stay awake or keep from “weep[ing]” if hurt, but the rigidity of the delivery feels more like authoritative commands than impish suggestions. “The fairy” did not tell Carroll that he should “not weep,” for instance, but that he “must not weep.” In this, the tone is harsher than one might expect from a playful tale of “a fairy” being happy or mischievous.
It is also worth noting that between Line One and Line Three, the verb tense shifts so that what was a present-tense problem of “hav[ing] a fairy by [his] side” becomes reminiscing about previous “fairy” troubles. This extends the problem to make it a lasting one to strengthen the struggle Carroll is under. This “fairy” has been with him a while and is always dictating his actions.
As well, this “fairy” could also insist Carroll not do things that are more grounded in happy or merry concepts, like “smile and grin.” “If” Carroll tried to do those things, “[t]he fairy” could insist he “must not laugh,” and later “[t]he fairy” commanded that he not “drink some gin.” These are ideas that the reader might think a playful or mischievous “fairy” would encourage, but regardless, they are concepts that this “fairy” regulated for Carroll.
When once a meal I wished to taste
It said “You must not bite”
When to the wars I went in haste
It said “You must not fight.”
The two concepts at work within this stanza drive the regulation of “[t]he fairy” to new places in that this “fairy” did not want Carroll to eat “a meal [he] wished to taste” or “fight” in “the wars.” This indicates the “fairy[‘s]” ruling over Carroll’s life extended into territory that was at one point potentially life-threatening in that he was not permitted to eat, and at another point, the dictation insisted that Carroll refrain from becoming a solider in some kind of battle. No information is provided about what those “wars” were, but if Carroll felt driven by self-preservation or patriotism to take up arms, his desire did not matter. “The fairy” still insisted he could not do these things. In this, we see that whatever this “fairy” represents is consuming his whole life with limitation.
Third and Fourth Stanzas
“What may I do?” at length I cried,
Tired of the painful task.
The fairy quietly replied,
And said “You must not ask.”
Moral: “You mustn’t.”
By the first line of Stanza Three, Carroll had apparently come to his wits end on the matter enough to blatantly ask the “[t]he fairy” what he could do. The stress that laced this question was due to the previous dictation being considered a “painful task.” While certain elements of the already mentioned limitations could prove “painful,” like hunger that had gone on too long, there is very real likelihood that the “pain” brought on by this concept was because it was a “task”—one that Carroll did not care for. Having his every move dissuaded by this “fairy” would have been tedious, and perhaps he saw the things he could not accomplish under those dictations as things that were “painful” to lose. Essentially, his life had grown less pleasing under this “fairy[‘s]” tyranny, and he felt desperate to find some sort of area in life where he could expand and grow without the noted idea of limitations.
“The fairy,” however, did not cater to his want. Rather, he simply told Carroll that he “must not ask” that question. This idea is followed by the overall “[m]oral” that only consists of “You mustn’t.” What this entails is that whatever thing has been following Carroll throughout his days is full of limiting concepts to the point that he can do nothing. Rather, anything he wants to do, he should already assume that it is not possible.
Given that the nature of this “fairy” is so very different than what one might expect from such a creature—an idea that gains merit when the third stanza states that “[t]he fairy quietly replied,” which is a bit subdued for “a fairy”—the reader might infer that this is not a tale about “a fairy” at all. From this, the reader can begin to look for ways this “fairy” could represent some aspect of Carroll’s life that would cause him such limitation.
This could be a general authority—the law, an employer, society—but it is also possible that Carroll is speaking of a specific person in his life, like a girlfriend or family member who regulates too much of his life. Given the smallness of “a fairy,” the singular person concept feels as though it has merit, but such an overall theme of “You mustn’t” feels a bit too large to represent one person’s control over his life. “You,” as it happens, feels like it is addressing the reader since “[t]he fairy” is not talking at that particular point. Rather, Carroll is stating what he has inferred as true. If the inferred truth were only that he personally had to be so restricted, “I mustn’t” would have been a more likely “[m]oral” to note since it only would have needed to address him. By going with the second-person concept—this “You—it seems that Carroll is letting us know that the bigger image of society or legality—something we all must endure—is what is dictating his every move.
In this, Carroll has depicted a tale of irony in that “a fairy” that could typically be linked to humor and tease would delegate so many cruel regulations on another. This could the hidden danger of the overall regulation we societally endure. Our image of safety and organization in the world’s political and legal structures might only be possible because of the “mustn’t” details. This would make the poem a bit of a satire because Carroll is taking the playfulness from a playful “fairy” to show that things are not always what they seem. Just as this “fairy” is arguably not happy or playful, the overall structure of the world we live in might not be as grand as it might seem due to the limitations we face.
About Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll was a writer, born in 1832, who is best known for his novels, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. These are tales that have found place in a number of modern works, including movie versions of the story and popular characters finding places in other plot lines. He had a playful edge to his writing, being able to craft works that were enjoyable while not always being sensible, and this is a charm of his that has survived the ages. He passed away 1898, but his works continue to hold popularity.