Joyce began working on the book shortly after the 1922 publication of Ulysses, and by 1924 installments of the work began to appear in serialized form. The first published parts were announced as A New Unnamed Work; later installments were published as fragments from Work in Progress. The actual title of the work remained a secret between Joyce and his wife Nora Barnacle until shortly before the book was published in its entirety.
Despite being one of the most well-known books of the 20th century, Finnegans Wake remains unread by the larger public. Joyce's methods of stream of consciousness, literary allusions and free dream associations are pushed to the limit in the book, which abandons conventions of plot and character construction and which is written in a unique language based mainly on complex multi-level puns. Although many readers and commentators have reached a broad consensus about the central cast of characters and general story, many details remain elusive.
Having completed work on Ulysses, Joyce was so exhausted that he did not write a line of prose for a year. On 10 March 1923 he wrote a letter to his patron, Harriet Weaver: "Yesterday I wrote two pages — the first I have since the final Yes of Ulysses. Having found a pen, with some difficulty I copied them out in a large handwriting on a double sheet of foolscap so that I could read them. This is one of the earliest references to what would become Finnegans Wake.
The two pages in question consisted of a short sketch called "Roderick O'Conor," concerning the historic last king of Ireland cleaning up after guests by drinking the dregs of their dirty glasses. . Joyce completed another four short sketches in July and August 1923, while vacationing in Bognor. The sketches, which dealt with different aspects of Irish history, are commonly known as "Tristan and Isolde," "Saint Patrick and the Druid," "Kevin's Orisons" and "Mamalujo" (a conflation of the Four Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) . While these sketches would eventually be incorporated into Finnegans Wake in one form or another, they did not contain any of the main characters or plot points which would later come to constitute the backbone of the book. The first signs of what would eventually become Finnegans Wake came in August 1923 when Joyce wrote the sketch "Here Comes Everybody," which dealt for the first time with the book's protagonist HCE. .
By 1926 Joyce had completed both Books I and III. Geert Lernout asserts that the Wake had, at this early stage, "a real focus that had developed out of the HCE ["Here Comes Everybody"] sketch: the story of HCE, of his wife and children. There were the adventures of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker himself and the rumours about them in chapters 2-4, a description of his wife ALP's letter in chapter 5, a denunciation of his son Shem in chapter 7, and a dialogue about ALP in chapter 8. These texts [...] formed a unity." In the same year Joyce met Maria and Eugene Jolas in Paris, just as his new work was generating an increasingly negative reaction from readers and critics, culminating in The Dial's refusal to publish the four chapters of Book III in September 1926. The Jolases gave Joyce valuable encouragement and material support throughout the long process of writing Finnegans Wake. They published various sections of the book in serial form in their literary magazine transition, under the title Work In Progress.
Some early supporters of Joyce's work, such as Ezra Pound and the author's brother Stanislaus Joyce, grew increasingly unsympathetic to his new writing. In order to create a more favourable critical climate, a group of Joyce's supporters (including Beckett, William Carlos Williams, Rebecca West and others) put together a collection of critical essays on the new work. It was published in 1929 under the title Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress.
For the next few years Joyce worked rapidly on the book, adding what would become chapters I.1 and I.6, and revising the already written segments to make them more lexically complex . However in the 1930s, as he was writing Books II and IV, his progress slowed considerably. This was due to a number of factors including the death of his father John Joyce in 1931; concern over the mental health of his daughter Lucia; and his own health problems, chiefly his failing eyesight. During this period he enlisted younger writers to help him with the formidable amount of research the book required; one such assistant was Samuel Beckett. For a while Joyce considered asking his friend James Stephens to complete the book, on the grounds that Stephens was born in the same hospital as Joyce (exactly one week later) and shared the first name of both Joyce and of Joyce's fictional alter-ego (an example of one of Joyce's numerous superstitions). In the end, Stephens was not asked to finish the book.
The challenge of compiling a definitive synopsis of Finnegans Wake lies not only in the opacity of the book's language, but also in the radically unique approach to plot which Joyce employed. The book follows an always shifting dream-narrative with its own arbitrary dream logic, which means that characters, character names, locations and plot details can change abruptly - sometimes resulting in an apparent lack of narrative line. In the words of Patrick A. McCarthy, "throughout much of Finnegans Wake, what appears to be an attempt to tell a story is often diverted, interrupted, or reshaped into something else, for example a commentary on a narrative with conflicting or unverifiable details.". In other words, while crucial plot points - such as HCE's crime or ALP's letter (see below) - are endlessly discussed, the reader never gets to encounter or experience them directly, and as such they remain unknown and perhaps unknowable. Suzette Henke has accordingly described Finnegans Wake as an aporia. Joyce himself tacitly acknowledged this new approach to plot and character in a 1926 letter to Harriet Weaver, outlining his intentions for the book:
One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.
Many Joyce experts - such as Joseph Campbell, John Gordon, Anthony Burgess and William York Tindall - have attempted to summarise Finnegans Wake's plot. While no two summaries are exactly alike, there are many points upon which these commentators agree. However, a significant number of Joyce scholars disagree with the very attempt, questioning whether or not the concept of a linear storyline should be pursued at all. David Hayman, for example, has suggested that "For all the efforts made by critics to establish a plot for the Wake, it makes little sense to force this prose into a narrative mold. The book's challenges have led some commentators into generalised statements about its content and themes, prompting critic Bernard Benstock to warn against the danger of "boiling down" Finnegans Wake into "insipid pap, and leaving the lazy reader with a predigested mess of generalizations and catchphrases". Fritz Senn, another Joyce scholar, has also voiced concerns with some plot synopses:
We have some traditional summaries, also some put in circulation by Joyce himself. I find them most unsatisfactory and unhelpful, they usually leave out the hard parts and recirculate what we already think we know. I simply cannot believe that FW would be as blandly uninteresting as those summaries suggest.
Despite Joyce's many revolutionary techniques, the author repeatedly emphasized that the book was neither random nor meaningless. When the editor of Vanity Fair asked Joyce if the sketches in Work in Progress were consecutive and interrelated, Joyce replied "It is all consecutive and interrelated.
"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."
— The opening line of Finnegans Wake, which continues from the book's unfinished closing line
In general, it is accepted that the episodic introductory chapter (1.1) provides an overview of the book's themes, but little of the book's perceived "plot" - Joyce himself referred to it as a "prelude", and as "a kind of air photograph of Irish history, a celebration of the dim past of Dublin". The book opens with a sentence fragment that continues from the last line of the book. Joyce himself revealed in a letter during the book's composition that "[i]t ends in the middle of a sentence and begins in the middle of the same sentence". Glasheen suggests that all first-time readers need know from the book's enigmatic opening is that it establishes the book's setting as "Howth Castle and Environs" (namely Dublin) "before the flood, before the fall. The chapter then settles into a more discernible narrative, concerning a Dublin hod carrier called "Finnegan," who falls to his death from a ladder. Finnegan's corpse becomes a meal spread for the mourners at his wake, but he vanishes before they can eat him.
We are then presented with a series of vignettes, loosely related to the absent Finnegan. First "The Willingdone Museyroom" presents a guided tour through a museum in the Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park, which commemorates Finnegan's fall, retold as the battle of "Willingdone" versus the "Lipoleums" and "Jinnies" at Waterloo "Mutt and Jute" describes a dialogue between near deaf and dumb aboriginal ancestors who have great difficulty in hearing, seeing and understanding each other. Finally "The Prankquean" depicts Finnegan - under the name of "Jarl van Hoother" - as the victim of a vengeful pirate queen (based on Grace O'Malley). The short tale "concerns the Prankquean arriving three times at the Jarl's castle, each time catching the gentleman unaware, each time asking a riddle and - upon the Jarl's inability to answer it - each time kidnapping a child, until the third visit results in a concession from the furious Jarl.
Eventually, 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 “the dead Finnegan rises from his coffin bawling for whiskey and his mourners put him back to rest”,. However his mourners persuade him that he is better off where he is as a new version of Finnegan is sailing into Dublin Bay to take over the story: Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker.
Chapter two (1.2), which many critics believe begins the "narrative" proper, opens with an account of how Humphrey Chimpden was given the name "Earwicker" by the King, who encountered him trying to catch earwigs with an inverted flowerpot on a stick when he was supposed to have been manning a tollgate. This name helps Earwicker, now known by his initials HCE , to rise to prominence in Dublin society as "Here Comes Everybody." He is then brought low by a rumor which begins to spread across Dublin, apparently concerning a sexual trespass involving two girls in the Phoenix Park, although details of HCE's transgression change with each retelling of events.
Chapters 1.2 through 1.4 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. These rumors spread across Dublin, increasing as they do, until they finally become a song - penned by the character Hosty - called "The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly"; a "scurrilous rann against H.C. Earwicker, which recounts the All-Father's fall from grace." Eventually HCE goes into hiding, where he is besieged and reviled at the closed gate of his pub by a visiting American who is looking for drink after hours. HCE remains silent, dreams, and is eventually put into a coffin and buried at the bottom of Lough Neagh As the rumour gathers momentum HCE is accused of more and more crimes, sins and transgressions, and is eventually brought to trial. HCE, under the name Festy King, is eventually freed and goes once more into hiding. An important piece of evidence during the trial - a letter about HCE written by his wife ALP (signed by "A Laughable Party") - is called for so that it can be examined in closer detail.
ALP's Letter now becomes the focal point as it is analysed in detail in 1.5. This letter was apparently dictated by ALP to her son Shem, a writer, and then entrusted to her other son Shaun, a postman, for delivery. The letter never reaches its intended destination, ending up in a midden heap where it is unearthed by a hen named Biddy. The letter is perhaps an indictment of HCE and perhaps an exoneration. Chapter I.6, often known as "the Quiz", consists of a further digression from the narrative in order to present the main and minor characters in more detail, in the form of twelve riddles and answers. According to Henkes and Bindervoet, the chapter is "strategically placed at the end of the two big questions raised in the previous chapters that are by no means resolved: what is Earwicker’s secret sin and what was the letter all about? In the final two chapters of Book I we learn more about the letter's writer Shem and its original author ALP; the latter in the book's most celebrated passage, published separately as "Anna Livia Plurabelle." This chapter, which is interwoven with thousands of river names from all over the globe, was described by Joyce in 1924 as "a chattering dialogue across the river by two washerwomen who as night falls become a tree and a stone.
While Book I of Finnegans Wake deals mostly with the parents HCE and ALP, Book II shifts that focus onto their children, Shem, Shaun and Issy; we see them at play in 2.1, and studying mathematics in a room above the pub in 2.2. These chapters are murky in themselves - William York Tindall said of them "Than this [...] nothing is denser" - but the succeeding chapters, 2.3 and 2.4, are often acknowledged as the most difficult in the book.
2.1 is most commonly known as "The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies." It opens with a pantomime programme, which outlines, in relatively clear language, the identities and characteristics of the book's main protagonists. Tindall et al. generally summarise the rest of the chapter as concerning a guessing game among the children, in which Shem is the victim of the girls' riddle. Shem is asked three times to guess by "gazework" the colour which the girls have chosen. Unable to answer due to his poor eyesight, Shem goes into exile in disgrace and Shaun, his twin brother, wins the affection of the girls. Finally HCE emerges from the pub and in a thunder-like voice calls the children inside. According to Joyce, the piece was based on a children's game called "Angels and Devils" or "Colours," in which one child ("the devil", here played by Shem, or Nick) is supposed to guess a colour that has been chosen by the others ("the angels," here played by the girls.)
Chapter 2.2; the main narrative of which is known critically as "The Triangle" and which Joyce referred to in letters as "Night Lessons", follows Shem, Shaun and their sister Issy studying upstairs in the pub, after having been called inside in the previous chapter. Joyce described the chapter as depicting "[Shem] coaching [Shaun] how to do Euclid Bk I, 1" and elsewhere he described its structure (which includes observational notes and footnotes surrounding the text) thus: "the technique here is a reproduction of a schoolboys' (and schoolgirls') old classbook complete with marginalia by the twins, who change sides at half time, and footnotes by the girl (who doesn't), a Euclid diagram, funny drawings, etc.". Once Shem (here called Dolph) has helped Shaun (here called Kev) to draw the Euclid diagram , the latter realises that what he has drawn is a diagram of ALP's genitalia, and, according to Benstock, "Kev finally realises the significance of the triangles during a letter-writing session [and] strikes Dolph." After this "Dolph forgives Kev" and the children are given "[e]ssay assignments on 52 famous men."
Section 1: a radio broadcast of the tale of Pukklesen (a hunchbacked Norwegian Captain), Kersse (a tailor) and McCann (a ship's husband) in which the story is told inter alia of how HCE met and married ALP.2.3 is generally interpreted as dealing with the situation in the pub below where the children are studying, as it relates the episodes of "The Norwegian Captain and the Tailor's Daughter" and "How Buckley Shot the Russian General." According to Bishop it shows an aged HCE worrying about work in his pub, and offers narratives about him succumbing to domestication, old age and decline as he is ultimately overthrown by his sons (through the symbolic shooting of The Russian General by Buckley.) Tindall also agrees that the two stories represent Earwicker's marriage and replacement by his son, but exact details and consensus remain elusive. Joyce himself called the Norwegian Captain's story a "wordspiderweb" and referred to it as "perhaps the most complacently absurd thing that I ever did until now [...] It is the story of a Captain [...] and a Dublin tailor which my god-father told me forty years ago, trying to explain the arrival of my Viking in Dublin, his marriage, and a lot of things I don't care to mention here. After Buckley has shot the Russian General, Earwicker returns from upstairs and all of his customers revile him, which forces him to deliver a general confession of his crimes, including an incestuous desire for young girls. Finally Sigurdsen - cast as a policeman - arrives to send the drunken customers home, the pub is closed up ("Shatten up ship" 376.30 - 371.5), and the customers disappear singing into the night as a drunken Earwicker, clearing up the bar, swallows the dregs of the glasses left behind, mysteriously morphs into ancient Irish high king Rory O'Connor, and passes out.
Sections 2-3: an interruption in which Kate (the cleaning woman) tells HCE that he is wanted upstairs, the door is closed and the tale of Buckley is introduced.
Sections 4-5: the tale, recounted by Butt and Taff (Shem and Shaun) and beamed over the television, of how Buckley shot the Russian General (HCE)
— Danis Rose's overview of the extremely complex chapter 2.3, which he believes to take place in the bar of Earwicker's hotel
2.4 is a composite of two shorter pieces called "Mamalujo" and "Tristan and Isolde", which Joyce had written as early as 1923. The chapter chronicles the spying of four old men (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) on Tristan and Iseult's journey. Bishop describes it as evoking "an old man like King Mark being rejected and abandoned by young lovers who sail off into a future without him", while Tindall sees it as focusing more on the four old men who observe Tristan and Isolde, and their four commentaries on the lovers and themselves which are "always repeating themselves".
Book III concerns itself almost exclusively with Shaun, and his task of having to deliver the letter (which was referred to in Book 1, but never seen) in his role as postman. Joyce referred to its four chapters as "The Four Watches of Shaun", and characterised it in one of his letters as "a description of a postman traveling backwards in the night through the events already narrated. It is narrated in the form of a via crucis of 14 stations but in reality is only a barrel rolling down the river Liffey".
III.1 opens with the Four Masters' ass narrating how he thought, as he was "dropping asleep" , he heard and saw an apparition of Shaun the Post, "who was after having a great time [...] in a porterhouse." This leads to Shaun's reapperance, waking up and yawning "Does she lag soft fall means rest down?" The narrators then ask the postman 14 questions, mostly concerning the significance of the letter he is carrying, but Shaun, "apprehensive about being slighted, is on his guard, and the placating narrators never get a straight answer out of him" Indeed, instead of getting to the heart of the letter's contents, the focus is mostly on Shaun's own boastful personality and his admonishment of his artist brother Shem, who wrote the letter. Shaun's sudden and somewhat unexpected promotion to the book's central character is explained by Tindall with the assertion that "having disposed of old HCE, Shaun is becoming the new HCE.
After the inquisition Shaun loses his balance and the barrel in which he has been floating careens over and he rolls backwards out of the narrator's earshot, before disappearing completely from view.
In III.2, despite his disappearance in the previous chapter, Shaun re-appears, this time referred to as "Jaunty Jaun," and delivers a lengthy sermon to his sister Issy, and her 28 schoolmates from St. Brigid's School. Throughout this book Shaun is continually regressing, changing from an old man to an overgrown babbling baby lying on his back, and eventually, in III.3, into a vessel through which the voice of HCE speaks again by means of a spiritual medium (in 3.3). This leads to HCE's defence of his life in the celebrated passage "Haveth Childers Everywhere". Book 3 ends in the bedroom of Mr. and Mrs. Porter; while their children are sleeping down the hall and the dawn is rising outside, they attempt to copulate.
1: The waking and resurrection of [HCE]; 2: the sunrise; 3:the conflict of night and day; 4: the attempt to ascertain the correct time; 5: the terminal point of the regressive time and the [Shaun] figure of Book III; 6: the victory of day over night; 7: the letter and monologue of [ALP]Book IV consists of only one chapter, which, like the book's opening chapter, is mostly composed of a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes. Book IV opens with a call for dawn to break and indeed Tindall refers to it as "a chapter of resurrection and waking up. The chapter goes on to provide some of the strongest evidence that the book has been representing the nocturnal state of sleep and dreaming; such as when the narrator asks “You mean to see we have been hadding a sound night’s sleep?” and later concludes that what has gone before has been “a long, very long, a dark, very dark [...] scarce endurable [...] night.” As such, McHugh finds that the chapter contains "particular awareness of events going on offstage, connected with the arrival of dawn and the waking process which terminates the sleeping process of [Finnegans Wake]." The remainder of the chapter consists of a series of vignettes, which are known critically as "Saint Kevin", "Berkely and Patrick" and "The Revered Letter". Joyce gave some hint of the intention behind the three separate episodes in conversation with Frank Budgen:
— Roland McHugh's summary of the events of Book IV
In Part IV there is in fact a triptych – though the central window is scarcely illuminated. Namely the supposed windows of the village church gradually lit up by the dawn, the windows, i.e., representing on one side the meeting of St Patrick (Japanese) & the (Chinese) Archdruid Bulkely (this by the way is all about colour) & the legend of the progressive isolation of St Kevin, the third being St Lawrence O’Toole, patron saint of Dublin; buried in Eu in Normandy.In an echo of Joyce's earlier work Ulysses the female protagonist has the final word; the book closes on a version of ALP’s Letter (critics disagree on whether this is the definitive version of The Letter which has been discussed throughout, or merely another variation of it) and her final long monologue. At the close of her monologue, ALP - as the river Liffey - disappears at dawn into the vast possibilities of the ocean. The book's last words are a fragment, but they can be turned into a complete sentence by attaching them to the words that start the book:
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.
HCE is referred to by literally thousands of names throughout the book: he is at first referred to as "Harold or Humphrey Chimpden"; a conflation of these names as "Haromphreyld", and as a consequence of his initials "Here Comes Everybody"; but as the work progresses the names by which he may be referred to become more and more abstract (such as "Finn MacCool", "Mr. Makeall Gone", or "Mr. Porter). Bishop argues that while the constant flux of HCE's character and attributes may lead us to consider him as an "anyman," he also argues that "the sheer density of certain repeated details and concerns allows us to know that he is a particular, real Dubliner." The common critical consensus of HCE's fixed character is summarised by Bishop as being "an older Protestant male, of Scandinavian lineage, connected with the pubkeeping business somewhere in the neighbourhood of Chapelizod, who has a wife, a daughter, and two sons. HCE personifies the city of Dublin (which was founded by Vikings), and his wife 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, and similarly hundreds of city names are woven into "Haveth Childers Everywhere," the passage at the end of III.3 which focuses on HCE. 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 (represented by her mirror-twin), and two sons, Shem and Shaun, eternal rivals for replacing their father and for Issy's affection. Like their father, Shem and Shaun are known by many different names throughout the book, such as "Caddy and Primas", "Mercius and "Justius", "Dolph and Kevin" (in chapter II.2) and "Jerry and Kevin" (in chapter III.4). Shem and Shaun are contrasted in the book by allusions to many sets of opposing twins and enemies in literature, mythology and history, such as Set and Horus of the Osiris story, the biblical pairs Jacob & Esau and Cain & Abel, as well as Romulus & Remus and St. Michael & the Devil (with the book's equation of Shaun with "Mick" and Shem with "Nick").
Shaun is portrayed as a dull postman, conforming to society's expectations, while Shem is a bright artist and sinister experimenter. Hugh Staples finds that Shaun "wants to be thought of as a man-about-town, a snappy dresser, a glutton and a gourmet... He is possessed of a musical voice and is a braggart. He is not happy in his work, which is that of a messenger or a postman; he would rather be a priest." These twins are sometimes accompanied by a third personality; in whom their opposite poles are reconciled; called Tristan or Tristram. A common belief among critics is that, 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 is also populated by many mysterious minor characters, such as Kate, "McGrath", the bell-ringer "Fox Goodman", and the Four Masters. The 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.
The most commonly recurring characters outside of the Earwicker family are the four old men known collectively as "Mamalujo" (a conflation of their names: Matt Gregory, Marcus Lyons, Luke Tarpey and Johnny Mac Dougall). These four most commonly serve as narrators, but they also play a number of active roles in the text, such as when they serve as the judges in the court case of I.4, or as the inquisitors who question Yawn in III.4. Tindall summarises the roles that these old men play as those of the Four Masters, the Four Evangelists, and the four Provinces of Ireland ("Matthew, from the north, is Ulster; Mark, from the south, is Munster; Luke, from the east, is Leinster; and John, from the west, is Connaught")
The Earwicker household includes two cleaning staff: Kate, the maid, and Joe, who is by turns handyman and barman in Earwicker's pub. These characters are seen by most critics as older versions of ALP and HCE . Kate often plays the role of museum curator, as in the "Willingdone Museyroom" episode of 1.1, and is recognisable by her repeated motif "Tip! Tip!"
Throughout the book's seventeen year gestation, Joyce alluded many times to the fact that with Finnegans Wake he was attempting to "reconstruct the nocturnal life". While tackling the question of why his peers and public at large were having such problems dealing with the book and its peculiar language, Joyce said in conversation with William Bird:
I can't understand some of my critics, like Pound or Miss Weaver, for instance. They say it's obscure. They compare it, of course, with Ulysses. But the action of Ulysses was chiefly during the daytime, and the action of my new work takes place chiefly at night. It's natural things should not be so clear at night, isn't it now?According to Richard Ellman, Joyce once informed a friend that "he conceived of his book as the dream of old Finn, lying in death beside the river Liffey and watching the history of Ireland and the world – past and future – flow through his mind like flotsam on the river of life.
Various critics have accepted Joyce's claims to be representing the night and dreams either at face value or with a dose of skepticism, and while most agree there is at least some element in which the book can be said to be a "dream," few agree on who the possible dreamer of such a dream might be - is it a character by the name of Mr. Porter (a theory popular in early Wakean criticism which has since gone out of fashion), Joyce's dream, or the universal dream of everybody?
Edmund Wilson's early analysis of the book, The Dream of H. C. Earwicker, made the assumption that Earwicker himself is the Dreamer of the dream; an assumption which continued to carry much weight with Wakean scholars such as Harry Levin, Hugh Kenner, and William Troy. Joseph Campbell, co-author of The Skeleton Key, the first full-length study of Joyce's final work, also believed Earwicker to be the Dreamer, but considered the narrative to be the observances of, and a running commentary by, an anonymous pedant on Earwicker's dream in progress, who would interrupt the flow with his own digressions.
Ruth von Phul was the first to argue that Earwicker was not the dreamer, an argument which has triggered a number of similarly-minded views on the matter; although her assertion that Shem was the dreamer has found less support
The assertion that the dream was that of Mr.Porter, whose dream personality personified iteself as HCE, came from the critical idea that the Dreamer partially wakes during chapter III.4, in which he and his family are referred to by the name Porter. Anthony Burgess, representative of this type of thinking on the matter, summarized the "dream" with which the book concerns itself thus: "Mr. Porter and his family are asleep for the greater part of the book [...] Mr. Porter dreams hard, and we are permitted to share his dream [...] Sleeping, he becomes a remarkable mixture of guilty man, beast, and crawling thing, and he even takes on a new and dreamily appropriate name - Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Burgess sees Mr. Porter through his dream trying "to make the whole of history swallow up his guilt for him" and to this end "HCE has, so deep in his sleep, sunk to a level of dreaming in which he has become a collective being rehearsing the collective guilt of man.
Harriet Weaver was among the first to suggest that the dream was not that of any one dreamer, but was rather an analysis of the process of dreaming itself. In a letter to J.S. Atherton she wrote:
In particular their ascription of the whole thing to a dream of HCE seems to me nonsensical. My view is that Mr. Joyce did not intend the book to be looked upon as the dream of any one character, but that he regarded the dream form with its shiftings and changes and chances as a convenient device, allowing the freest scope to introduce any material he wished—and suited to a night-piece.Bernard Benstock also argued that "The Dreamer in the Wake is more than just a single individual, even if one assumes that on the literal level we are viewing the dream of publican H.C. Earwicker.
Other critics have been more skeptical of the concept of identifying the Dreamer of the book's narrative. Clive Hart summarized this point in 1962 thus:
Whatever our conclusions about the identity of the Dreamer, and no matter how many varied caricatures of him we may find projected into the dream, it is clear that he must always be considered as essentially external to the book, and should be left there. Speculation about the 'real person' behind the guises of the dream-surrogates or about the function of the dream in relation to the unresolved stresses of this hypothetical mind is fruitless, for the tensions and psychological problems in Finnegans Wake concern the dream-figures living within the book itself.
Most recently John Bishop has been the most vocal supporter of exactly the opposite argument - that is, treating Finnegans Wake absolutely, in every sense, as a description of a dream, the dreamer, and of the night itself; arguing that the book not only represents a dream in a superficial or abstract way, but is a literary representation of what it means to be "dead to the world" or asleep. On the subject Bishop writes:
The greatest obstacle to our comprehension of Finnegans Wake [...has been...] the failure on the part of readers to believe that Joyce really meant what he said when he spoke of the book as a "reconstruction of the nocturnal life" and an "imitation of the dream-state"; and as a consequence readers have perhaps too easily exercised on the text an unyielding literalism bent on finding a kind of meaning in every way antithetical to the kind of meaning purveyed in dreamsBishop has also somewhat brought back into fashion the theory that the Wake is about a single sleeper; arguing that it is not "the 'universal dream' of some disembodied global everyman, but a reconstruction of the night - and a single night - as experienced by 'one stable somebody' whose 'earwitness' on the real world is coherently chronological. Bishop has laid the path for critics such as Eric Rosenbloom, who has proposed that the book "elaborates the fragmentation and reunification of identity during sleep. The masculine [...] mind of the day has been overtaken by the feminine night mind. [...] The characters live in the transformation and flux of a dream, embodying the sleeper’s mind."
The characteristic for which Finnegans Wake is best known is the strange, obscure and entirely unique language in which Joyce chose to write his book. Joyce invented this difficult poly-language or idioglossia - referred to by many commentators as Wakese - solely for the purpose of this work. Wakese is composed of composite words from some sixty to seventy world languages to form puns, or Portmanteau words and phrases intended to convey several layers of meaning at once. In a letter to Max Eastman, Joyce suggested that his decision to employ such a unique and complex language was a direct result from his attempts to represent the night:
In writing of the night I really could not, I felt I could not, use words in their ordinary connections. Used that way they do not express how things are in the night, in the different stages - the conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious. I found that it could not be done with words in their ordinary relations and connections. When morning comes of course everything will be clear again [...] I'll give them back their English language. I'm not destroying it for good.
Senn has labeled Joyce's language in Finnegans Wake as "polysemetic", while Tindall refers to it as an "Arabesque". Margot Norris similarly describes it as a language which "like poetry, uses words and images which can mean several, often contradictory, things at once" Allen B. Ruch has dubbed Joyce's new language "dreamspeak," and describes it as "a language that is basically English, but extremely malleable and all-inclusive, rich with portmanteau words, stylistic parodies, and complex puns. Joyce's approach to language is not unique in literature, for example many critics have highlighted its similarity to the language that used by Lewis Carroll in Jabberwocky, although Joyce's application of the technique was far more extensive.
Samuel Beckett and other assistants played an important role in the book's creation. Much of their work consisted in collating words from foreign languages on cards for Joyce to use. As his eyesight worsened they would frequently write down the text from his dictation. Although much has been made of the many languages employed in the book's composite language, most of the more obscure languages appear only seldom in small clusters, and the sense of the language, however obscure, is, for the most part "basically English". Burrell also finds that Joyce's thousands of new words - which he refers to as "neologisms" - are "based on the same etymological principles as standard English.
Regardless of this, many find the language of Finnegans Wake confounding, as in the following:
O here here how hoth sprowled met the duskt the father of fornicationists but, (O my shining stars and body!) how hath fanespanned most high heaven the skysign of soft advertisement! (page 4, lines 11–14)
This sentence has a literal reading which requires a small amount of interpretation: The neologism sprowled is a combination of sprawled/prowled, both words with sinister connotations. Duskt is dusk/dust, alluding to the time setting and to "ashes to ashes, dust to dust". Fanespanned is literally sacredly spanned, from the Latin root fanum > fane, and is hopeful. The words hoth and hath are symmetrically placed and serve similar purposes in their respective clauses, as are sprowled and fanespanned. The sentiment passes from sinister to spiritual. The parenthetical O my shining stars and body alludes to the internal world of the sleeper, comprising the whole world in a dream, while the skysign of soft advertisement recalls the stars once again as well as the more literal concrete image of a "skysign," an obsolete type of mirrored building sign lit by reflected light from the sky (rendered here a more poetic object by reflecting starlight.) Apart from its poetry, the sentence serves a pedestrian literary purpose: it sets the time and location.
While many commentators emphasize how this manner of writing can communicate many levels of meaning simultaneously, some contend that its purpose is as much to obscure and disable meaning as to expand it. Hayman writes that access to the work's "tenuous narratives" may only be achieved through "the dense weave of a language designed as much to shield as to reveal them. Norris agrees, claiming that Joyce's language is "devious" and that it "conceals and reveals secrets."
Faced with the obstacles to be surmounted in "understanding" Joyce's text, many critics have suggested that readers focus on the rhythm and sound of the language, rather than solely on "meaning." As early as 1929, Eugene Jolas stressed the importance of the aural and musical dimensions of the work. In an essay that appeared in the symposium Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, Jolas wrote:
Those who have heard Mr. Joyce read aloud from Work in Progress know the immense rhythmic beauty of his technique. It has a musical flow that flatters the ear, that has the organic structure of works of nature, that transmits painstakingly every vowel and consonant formed by his ear.
Finnegans Wake also draws on many specialist topics, including mythology, theology, philosophy, history, sociology, mathematics, astrology, other fiction, alchemy, music, colour, nature, sexuality, human development, etc. to the point that, leaving aside the difficulty of the language, a good deal of scholarly commentary and specialist knowledge is needed to illuminate the text.
As a sprawling and intricately woven work of metafiction, Finnegans Wake alludes to many other texts, including the Irish ballad "Finnegan's Wake" from which it takes its name, Italian philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico's "La Scienza Nuova", the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Shakespeare's Hamlet, the Bible and many more. These allusions, rather than directly quoting or referencing a source, normally enter the text in a contorted fashion, normally through humorous plays on words. For example, Hamlet Prince of Denmark becomes "Camelot, prince of dinmurk, and St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews becomes a "farced epistol to the highbruws."
The book begins with one such complex allusion to Vico's New Science:
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.
"Commodius vicus" refers to Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), who believed in a theory of cyclical history. In his work "La Scienza Nuova" (The New Science) Vico argued 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. These ideas recur throughout Finnegans Wake, the book even taking its four-part structure from them. Vico's name appears many more times throughout the Wake, indicating the work's debt to his theories, such as in “The Vico road goes round and round to meet where terms begin.” That a reference to Vico's cyclical theory of history is to be found in the opening sentence which is a continuation of the book's closing sentence - thus making the work cyclical in itself - demonstrates the relevance of such an allusion.
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. 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. In fact, Bishop asserts that "it is impossible to overlook the vital presence of the Book of the Dead in Finnegans Wake, which refers to ancient Egypt in countless tags and allusions. At one of their last meetings, Joyce suggested to Frank Budgen that he write an article about Finnegans Wake, entitling it "James Joyce's Book of the Dead." Budgen followed Joyce's advice with his paper "Joyce's Chapters of Going Forth by Day.
The book also draws heavily on Irish mythology with HCE sometimes corresponding to Fionn mac Cumhaill, Issy and ALP to Gráinne, and Shem/Shaun to Dermot (Diarmaid). Not only Irish mythology, but also many notable real-life Irish figures are alluded to throughout the text. For example, HCE is often identified with Charles Stewart Parnell, and Shem's attack on his father in this way mirrors the attempt of forger Richard Piggott to incriminate Parnell in the Phoenix Park Murders of 1882 by means of false letters. But, given the flexibility of allusion in Finnegans Wake HCE assumes the character of Piggott as well, 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. 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 - and the complex nature of allusion in the work.
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". Literary critic and former friend of the author Oliver Gogarty called it "the most colossal leg pull in literature since Macpherson's Ossian". 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 clap can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization. D. H. Lawrence declared, in reaction to the sections of the Wake being published individually under the title "Work in Progress"; "My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest, stewed in the juice of deliberate journalistic dirty-mindedness – what old and hard-worked staleness, masquerading as the all-new!". Vladimir Nabokov, who admired Ulysses, described Finnegans Wake as "nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room [...] and only the infrequent snatches of heavenly intonations redeem it from utter insipidity."
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.
In the time since Joyce's death, many leading literary critics have struggled against public perception of the book in order to establish for Finnegans Wake a preeminent place in English literature. One of the book's early champions was Thornton Wilder, who wrote to Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas in August 1939 (only a few months after the book's publication) "One of my absorptions [...] has been James Joyce's new novel, digging out its buried keys and resolving that unbroken chain of erudite puzzles and finally coming on lots of wit, and lots of beautiful things has been my midnight recuperation. A lot of thanks to him". In 1957 Northrop Frye described Finnegans Wake as the “chief ironic epic of our time”; 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: "[if] 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." American author Tom Robbins has also expressed his admiration for Joyce's complex last work, stating:
the language in it is incredible. There's so many layers of puns and references to mythology and history. But it's the most realistic novel ever written. Which is exactly why it's so unreadable. He wrote that book the way that the human mind works. An intelligent, inquiring mind. And that's just the way consciousness is. It's not linear. It's just one thing piled on another. And all kinds of cross references. And he just takes that to an extreme. There's never been a book like it and I don't think there ever will be another book like it. And it's absolutely a monumental human achievement. But it's very hard to read.In recent years, literary theory - in particular Post-structuralism - has embraced Joyce's innovation and ambition in Finnegans Wake. Jacques Derrida, who wrote a book on the use of language in Ulysses, tells an anecdote about the two books' importance for his own thought; in a bookstore in Tokyo,
an American tourist of the most typical variety leaned over my shoulder and sighed: "So many books! What is the definitive one? Is there any?" It was an extremely small book shop, a news agency. I almost replied, "Yes, there are two of them, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.
In 1998, the Modern Library placed Finnegans Wake seventy-seventh amongst its list of "Top 100 English-language novels of the twentieth century."
Finnegans Wake has proved a source of inspiration for many succeeding writers, and a number of adaptations of the text exist. For example Jean Erdman's 1962 musical play The Coach with the Six Insides, is based upon Finnegans Wake , the play taking its title from a line in the text, found in episode II.3.359 Mary Manning adapted parts of the book for the stage as Passages from Finnegans Wake, which was in turn used as the basis for a film by Mary Ellen Bute.
In other media, Danish visual artists Michael Kvium and Christian Lemmerz made a multimedia project called "the Wake" based on the book. It's an 8 hour long silent movie and the visual style is ferverish, and dream-like. Regarding their approach to this seemingly unfilmable book, Kyium and Lemmerz emphasize that their film was inspired by James Joyce, and is not a filmatization of Finnegans Wake per se. "At bottom we thought that if it was a dream book, why not just continue the dream? We read from it at night before going to sleep, and wrote the scenes the following morning.
Perhaps more than any other medium, Finnegans Wake has provided the source for a number of musical adaptations, its musicality and lack of fixed meaning perhaps more suited to music than other print or film media. For example, 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 Widow of Eighteen Springs and Nowth upon Nacht.
The book's opening and closing lines have provided reference points for two pieces of music: Stephen Albert's Symphony No. 1, subtitled 'Riverrun' after the opening word in Joyce's book, is a Pulitzer Prize winner; Experimental musicians Current 93 begin the extremely brief "Be", opener to Side B of the album Imperium, with the line "from swerve of shore, to bend of bay", also from the book's opening line; and Toru Takemitsu composed a piece called 'A way a lone', after the last sentence in Joyce's book. Italian singer Pippo Pollina wrote a song called "Finnegans Wake", published in the album "Rossocuore", performed with the Italian singer Franco Battiato.
Chapter I.2 of Finnegans Wake closes with a Joyce-penned song called "The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly," written in the Wake's own language and replete with a handwritten musical score. Ronnie Drew of Irish trad band The Dubliners did an a capella rendering of this passage from Finnegans Wake - which he 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 quite complex, referring to Oliver Cromwell, Mountjoy Jail, the Immaculate Conception, Cain and Abel and Vikings.
Some songwriter's have also used the Wake's unique language as inspiration for their own lyrics. Phil Minton has set passages of the Wake to music, on his album mouthfull of ecstasy. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum uses an excerpt of the book as lyrics for the song "Helpless Corpses Enactment" on their third album, "In Glorious Times"
Finnegans Wake is often referenced in other works of fiction, most usually as the ultimate example of a difficult or unreadable text. For example Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar features the protagonist contending with the extremely difficult Finnegans Wake - indeed, Esther Greenwood's reading of its first pages seems to presage her emotional deterioration. In Charles Willeford's High Priest of California, the central character Russell Haxby mentions unwinding after a day of mischief by rewriting passages of Finnegan's Wake (and Ulysses) in plain and simple language. American political comedian Jon Stewart's America (The Book) lists Finnegans Wake as a sign that Europe is in decline, with the explanatory caption "More unreadable by the hour."
The book has also been used in film and television as a synonym for "difficult" or "unreadable," such as, for example, in the movie Enough, in which Jennifer Lopez's character mentions that the book "is the hardest book to read in the English language" and that she has been reading it for 6 years, though she says later it was not true. Similarly in Season 3, Episode 4 (Ghosts Forge) of the Jonathan Creek TV series, Jonathan mentions to Maddie that the book is 'virtually unreadable' but notes the significance of the apostrophe to describe one Finnegan's wake or many Finnegans waking up.
In other references, Finnegans Wake is evoked in order to ponder the nature of language itself,such as in Tom Robbins's Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, in which the main character, Switters, "reads and rereads Finnegans Wake, and obsessively ponders the fate of language in the cybernetic future that is rapidly taking shape around us.