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Finnegans Wake

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

For the street ballad which the novel is named after, see Finnegan's Wake.

Finnegans Wake, published in 1939, is James Joyce's final novel. Following the publication of Ulysses in 1922, Joyce began working on the "Wake" and by 1924 installments of what was then known as Work in Progress began to appear. (The final title of the work remained a secret between the writer and his wife, Nora Barnacle.)

The seventeen years spent working on Finnegans Wake were often difficult for Joyce. He underwent frequent eye surgeries, lost long-time supporters, and dealt with personal problems in the lives of his children. These problems and the perennial financial difficulties of the Joyce family are described in Richard Ellmann's biography James Joyce.

Plot summary

Because Joyce's sentences are packed with obscure allusions and puns in dozens of different languages, it remains impossible to offer an undisputed and definitive synopsis.

The book begins with one such allusion:

"Commodious vicus" refers to Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). Vico believed in a theory of cyclical history. He believed that the world was coming to the end of the last of three ages, these being the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of humans. This opening also contributes to the effect of Joyce's novel as a whole, since it begins and ends with "riverrun" on the lips.

More generally, the introductory chapter gives an overview of the novel's themes. First, we hear of a central character, here called Finnegan and identified as a hod carrier in Dublin (seen as representing all builders of all kinds throughout world history), falling to his death from a scaffold or tower or wall. At his wake, in keeping with the comic song "Finnegan's Wake" that provided Joyce's title, a fight breaks out, whiskey splashes on Finnegan's corpse, and he rises up again alive (Finnegan awakes).

This Finnegan is all men, and his fall is all men's fall. Subsequent vignettes in the first chapter show him as a warrior (in particular, as Wellington at Waterloo), as an explorer invading a land occupied by his aboriginal ancestors, and as the victim of a vengeful pirate queen (Grace O'Malley).

At the end of chapter one, Joyce puts Finnegan back down again ("Now be aisy, good Mr Finnimore, sir. And take your laysure like a god on pension and don't be walking abroad"). A new version of Finnegan-Everyman is sailing into Dublin Bay to take over the story: Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, whose initials HCE ("Here Comes Everybody") lend themselves to phrase after phrase throughout the book (Note they appear as "Howth Castle and Environs" in the opening sentence).

Chapter two opens with an account of how HCE was given the name "Earwicker" by the king, who catches HCE "earwigging" when he's supposed to be manning a tollgate. Although the name begins as an insult, it helps HCE rise to prominence in Dublin society, but then he's brought down by a rumor about a sexual trespass involving two girls in Phoenix Park (close by Chapelizod).

Most of chapters two through four follow the progress of this rumor, starting with HCE's encounter with "a cad with a pipe." The cad asks the time, but HCE misunderstands it as either an accusation or a proposition, and incriminates himself by denying rumors the cad has not yet heard. Joyce expresses HCE's confusion by spelling the cad's Gaelic phonetically, making it look like a suggestive English phrase. Eventually, HCE becomes so paranoid he goes into hiding, where he'll write a book that evidently resembles Joyce's own Ulysses.

HCE is (at one level) a Scandinavian who has taken a native Irish wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle (whose initials ALP are also found in phrase after phrase). At some point these two have settled down to run a public house in Chapelizod, a suburb of Dublin named for the Irish princess Isolde. HCE personifies the city of Dublin (which was founded by Vikings), and ALP personifies the river Liffey, on whose banks the city was built. In the popular eighth chapter, hundreds of names of rivers are woven into the tale of ALP's life. Joyce universalizes his tale by making HCE and ALP stand, as well, for every city-river pair in the world. And they are, like Adam and Eve, the primeval parents of all the Irish and all humanity.

ALP and HCE have a daughter, Issy, whose personality is often split, and two sons, Shem and Shaun, eternal rivals for replacing their father and for Issy's affection (among other things). Shem and Shaun are akin to Set and Horus of the Osiris story, as well as the biblical pairs Jacob & Esau and Cain & Abel, as well as Romulus & Remus and St. Michael & the Devil (Mick & Nick).

Shaun is portrayed as a dull postman, conforming to society's expectations, while Shem is a bright artist and sinister experimenter. (As HCE retreats before the rumors, he seems to transform into Shem, the artist who writes the book.) They are sometimes accompanied by a third personality in whom their twin poles are reconciled, called Tristan or Tristram. Presumably, by synthesizing their strengths Tristan is able to win Issy and defeat/replace HCE, like Tristan in the triangle with Iseult (Issy) and King Mark (HCE).

The book also draws heavily on Irish mythology with HCE sometimes corresponding to Finn MacCool, Issy and ALP to Grania, and Shem/Shaun to Dermot (Diarmaid). This is just a small hint of the many roles that each of the main characters finds him or herself playing, often several at the same time.

The book is transformed into a letter, dictated to Shem by ALP, entrusted to Shaun for delivery, but somehow ending up in a midden heap, where it is dug up by a hen named Biddy (the diminutive form of Brighid, which is the name of both a saint and a goddess on whose feast day Joyce was born). The letter is perhaps an indictment, perhaps an exoneration of HCE, just as Finnegans Wake is a vast "comedy" that seeks to indict and simultaneously redeem human history.

If HCE can also be identified with Charles Stewart Parnell, Shem's attack mirrors the attempt of forger Richard Piggott to incriminate Parnell in the Phoenix Park Murders of 1882 by means of false letters. But Piggott is also HCE, for just as HCE betrays himself to the cad, Piggott betrayed himself at the inquiry into admitting the forgery by his spelling of the word "hesitancy" as "hesitency"; and this misspelling appears frequently in the Wake.

The progress of the book is far from simple as it draws in mythologies, theologies, mysteries, philosophies, histories, sociologies, astrologies, other fictions, alchemy, music, colour, nature, sexuality, human development, and dozens of languages to create the world drama in whose cycles we live.

The book ends with the river Liffey disappearing at dawn into the vast possibilities of the ocean. The last sentence is incomplete. As well as leaving the reader to complete it with his or her own life, it can be closed by the sentence that starts the book – another cycle. Thus, reading the final sentence of the book, and continuing on to the first sentence of the book, we have: "A way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."

Characters in "Finnegans Wake"

The family

  • Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker – (or HCE) an Irish publican, possibly a reincarnation of Finnegan, the hod carrier of the street ballad who falls at the start of the novel
  • Anna Livia Plurabelle – (or ALP) HCE's wife
  • Shem & Shaun (or Jerry and Kevin, also known by many other names) - the sons of HCE and ALP
  • Issy, Iseult (or Isolde), Isabel, daughter of HCE and ALP

Literary significance & criticism

The value of Finnegans Wake as a work of literature has been a point of contention since the time of its appearance, in serial form, in literary reviews of the 1920s (primarily the journal Transition, edited by Eugene Jolas). Some admirers of Joyce's Ulysses were disappointed that none of its characters reappeared in the new work, and that the author's linguistic experiments were making it increasingly difficult to pick out any continuous thread of a plot. Some literary figures believed the book to be a joke, pulled by Joyce on the literary community. Joyce's brother Stanislaus "rebuked him for writing an incomprehensible night-book".[1] Literary critic and friend of the author Oliver Gogarty called it "the most colossal leg pull in literature since Macpherson's Ossian".[2] When Ezra Pound was asked his opinion on the text, he wrote "Nothing so far as I make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization."[3]

In response to such criticisms, Transition published essays throughout the late 1920s, defending and explaining Joyce's work. In 1929, these essays (along with a few others written for the occasion) were collected under the title Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress and published by Shakespeare and Company. This collection featured Samuel Beckett's first published work (entitled "Dante... Bruno. Vico.. Joyce") along with essays by William Carlos Williams, Stuart Gilbert, Marcel Brion, Eugene Jolas and others.

The actual publication of the novel was somewhat overshadowed by Europe's descent into World War II. Joyce died just two years after the novel was published, leaving a work whose interpretation is still very much "in progress."

In the time since Joyce's death, many leading literary critics have struggled against public perception of the novel in order to establish for Finnegans Wake a preeminent place in English literature: in 1957 Northrop Frye described Finnegans Wake as the “chief ironic epic of our time” (Anatomy of Criticism 323); in the 1960s, Jacques Derrida developed his ideas of literary "deconstruction" largely inspired by Finnegans Wake (as detailed in the essay "Two Words for Joyce"); and in 1994, in The Western Canon, Harold Bloom wrote of Finnegans Wake that "[i]f aesthetic merit were ever again to center the canon [it] would be as close as our chaos could come to the heights of Shakespeare and Dante." In 1998, the Modern Library placed Finnegans Wake amongst its list of "Top 100 English-language novels of the twentieth century."

Language and style

The language of Finnegans Wake is confounding. Consider this example:

The language is like that of a dream, not quite conscious or formed, with layers of possible meaning. Yet this is a return to possibility, shaped by the experiences of the world we have fallen (into sleep) from.

In that sense, the book can be seen to have abandoned many of the conventions of the waking mind to represent the working of the sleeping mind. In dreaming, the images and plots that we perceive are not distinct or discrete – they shift and conglomerate and constantly reform. Joyce captures this protean quality of dreams through complex puns and the layering of (often contradictory) meaning. Though he writes "however basically English" (page 116, line 26), he universalizes the "dream" by incorporating dozens of other languages and argots.

His use of the world's languages is part of Joyce's aim to contain the full knowledge of humanity in Finnegans Wake. The novel is packed with allusions to world myth, history, and the arts. Along with "high" culture, Joyce did not ignore the "low". The Wake (as it is often called) is largely composed of popular jingles, nursery rhymes, and other fragments from popular culture, exemplified, as mentioned above, in the title itself.

One of the many sources Joyce drew from is the Ancient Egyptian story of Osiris, who was torn apart by his brother or son Set, and the pieces were gathered and reassembled by his sister or wife, Isis, with the help of their sister or daughter Nephthys. In this narrative, their other brother or son, Horus, emerges to slay Set and rise as the new day's sun, as Osiris himself. Reading Finnegans Wake might be seen as analogous to the process of Isis regathering the dismembered portions of Osiris – there are many fragments and allusions and confusing messages that the reader must put together into a conscious form.

Osiris's night journey through the otherworld is described in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a collection of spells and invocations to enable the recently deceased to join Osiris and rise with the sun. Such a journey, too, is analogous to the experience of reading the Wake – the reader enters its dark world and hopes to emerge in a sense reborn.

Allusions/references in other works

  • In Tom Robbins's Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, the main character, Switters, makes constant references to Finnegans Wake throughout the novel.
  • Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar also features a protagonist contending with Finnegans Wake - indeed, Esther Greenwood's reading of its first pages seems to presage her emotional deterioration.
  • John Cage's Roaratorio: an Irish circus on Finnegans wake takes words from the text and rearranges them in poetic form. The text is Cage's Writing for the Second Time through Finnegans Wake, one of a series of five writings that he did based on the Wake. He also set texts from the book as songs, including The Wonderful Woman of Eighteen Springs and Nowth Upon Nacht.
  • In the movie Enough, Jennifer Lopez's character mentions that the book, "is the hardest book to read in the English language" and she has been reading it for 6 years, though she says later it was not true.
  • Finnegans Wake is mentioned several times in James Blish's science fiction novel A Case of Conscience, where it plays a significant role in the solution to the novels' eponymous "case of conscience". Blish also quoted Finnegans Wake in his Star Trek novel Spock Must Die! .
  • The influence of Finnegans Wake can also be seen in Philip José Farmer's science fiction novella Riders of the Purple Wage, which is written in a Joycean style and includes a central character named Finnegan, as well as referring explicitly to Joyce's novel.
  • Marshall McLuhan calls the extremely long portmanteaus that occur throughout Finnegans Wake the "Ten Thunders" and uses them to support the claim that Finnegans Wake is a giant cryptogram narrating the whole of human history.
  • Argentinian major writer and Princeton professor of Latin America literature Ricardo Piglia include a Joycean short story called "La Isla" in his book "Cuentos Morales". The story also appears as a chapter of his postmodern fiction "Ciudad Ausente" under the title of "La Isla de Finnegan".
  • In Raymond Queneau's We Always Treat Women Too Well, the IRA members are mostly named after minor characters in Ulysses, and use the password Finnegan's Wake.


  • Jean Erdman's 1962 musical play, The Coach with the Six Insides, is based upon Finnegans Wake [1]. The title is a line from the text, found in episode II.3.359 [2].
  • Singer Phil Minton set texts from the book to create the album mouthfull of ecstasy.


  • The phrase "Three quarks for Muster Mark" on page 383 of Finnegans Wake is the origin of the name given by physicist Murray Gell-Mann to quarks, a type of subatomic particle.[4] (In the novel, the phrase is sung by a chorus of seabirds, and probably means 'three cheers' or--judging from Joyce's notes--three jeers.)
  • The minor character of "Mr Browne the Jesuit" was based on Francis Browne, a classmate of Joyce's at Royal University. Browne later distinguished himself as an important photographer (best known for taking the last known photographs of RMS Titanic) and Jesuit preacher.
  • Ronnie Drew of Irish trad band The Dubliners did an à capella rendering of a passage from Finnegans Wake entitled "Humpty Dumpty", an allegorical passage about the fall of Man. Drew introduces the piece by saying "James Joyce is renowned for having written some very very complicated material. Surprisingly he wrote the next song, which is very simple." This is presumably meant to be ironic, as the passage is extremely complicating and confusing, referencing Oliver Cromwell, Mountjoy Jail, the Immaculate Conception, Cain and Abel and Vikings. [3]


  1. ^ Ellmann, p. 603.
  2. ^ Quoted by Ellmann, p. 722, from "the Observer, May 7, 1939".
  3. ^ Ellmann, p. 584, from a letter from Pound to Joyce, dated Nov, 15, 1926.
  4. ^ M. Gell-Mann (1964). "A schematic model of baryons and mesons". Phys. Lett. 8: 214-215.


  • D. Accardi. The Existential Quandary in Finnegans Wake (Loudonville, Siena College Press, 2006)
  • Samuel Beckett; William Carlos Williams; et al. Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination Of Work In Progress (Shakespeare and Company, 1929)
  • Bishop, John. Joyce's Book of the Dark: Finnegans Wake. (University of Wisconsin Press, 1986)
  • Burgess, Anthony (ed.) A Shorter Finnegans Wake (1969)
  • —, Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader (1965); also published as Re Joyce.
  • —, Joysprick: An Introduction to the Language of James Joyce (1973)
  • Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson. A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944)
  • Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Oxford University Press, 1959, revised edition 1983. ISBN 0-19-503381-7.
  • Hart, Clive. Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake. (Northwestern University Press, 1962)
  • McHugh, Roland. Annotations to Finnegans Wake. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991)
  • —, The Sigla of Finnegans Wake. (University of Texas Press, 1976)
  • —, The Finnegans Wake Experience. (University of California Press, 1981)
  • Eric Rosenbloom. A Word in Your Ear: How & Why to Read James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. (Booksurge Publishing, 2005). Note: The PDF is the 1st edition of this excellent introduction; the entirely reset 2nd edition is available in print from Amazon.
  • William York Tindall. A Reader's Guide to Finnegans Wake. (Syracuse University Press, 1996 (first published 1969))
  • Robert Anton Wilson. Coincidance. (New Falcon Publications; Rev edition (February 1991)). Contains essay on Finnegans Wake.

External links

  • James Joyce reads from Anna Livia Plurabelle: downloadable audio and text
  • Elucidations to Finnegans Wake; Home Fweet Home
Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
James Joyce
  • Etext of Finnegans Wake
  • Annotated version of Finnegans Wake
  • Online shorter Finnegans Wake
  • Online really short Finnegans Wake
  • Editions of Finnegans Wake
  • The James Joyce Scholars' Collection includes etexts of several works of Wakean scholarship.
  • Finnegans Wiki, an ambitious project to Wiki the Wake
  • "Icon O Graphing Finnegans Wake" is a visual fable based on James Joyce’s novel "Finnegans Wake" by Toronto artist Boris Dimitrov.
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