Man Ray Joyce

Finnegans Wake


[Dubliners|A Portrait|Ulysses|Finnegans Wake]

Finnegans Wake

(1939)

Penguin, 1999, ISBN 0-14-118126-5; Paperback $16.95. [Browse/Purchase]

“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.”

After Ulysses, Joyce spend nearly the remainder of his life working on his final masterpiece, a book he kept veiled in secrecy, referring to it only as “Work In Progress.” As the years wore on, a few installments were published periodically in various literary magazines, and the results both excited and alarmed his friends and supporters. Something very weird was going on in Joyce’s brain, and it was clear that his next book would be as far away from Ulysses as that epic novel was from Portrait.
In that, at least, they were not disappointed. Purely in terms of literary technique, Finnegans Wake is probably the most astonishing – and controversial – book ever written. Completed in 1939 after seventeen years of labor, it was received with a mix of reactions ranging from bafflement to delight to open hostility. Many critics initially dismissed it as a waste of paper, a tangled web of nonsense and gibberish without plot, without content, without meaning. More than a few even questioned Joyce’s very sanity! And yet, today, whole careers have been dedicated to studying Finnegans Wake, and its many adherents past and present approach it with something close to awe. Fans of the Wake have called the book an unequaled masterpiece, a cultural artifact, a unique event, a cosmic joke; it has even half-jokingly been referred to as a near-sentient artificial intelligence. There is some mystical quality to Finnegans Wake that remains suspended between the sublimity of poetry and the mystery of religion – even quotations taken from its pages are cited in a Biblical fashion.
So, then – what’s the big deal?
Well . . . glad you asked. But, describing Finnegans Wake is a difficult assignment – one must work up to it in stages, in spirals, each pass revealing more of what’s really going on. In order to do this, I find it easiest to frame the discussion as a kind of FAQ file. (Finnegans Ache Quailified?) After laying down a little groundwork, I’ll describe the unique narrative and language of Finnegans Wake, then I’ll attempt to summarize its “plot” and structure. While this might seem a bit backwards, please bear with me. I guarantee that by the end, you’ll either rush out to buy the book, or you’ll be hiding under your bed clutching a bottle of aspirin.


sentenced to be nuzzled over a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noodle sink or swim by that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia
(FW 120.12-14.)

So Finnegans Wake is difficult. So was Ulysses. What, is it just another tricky novel to read?
It is indeed difficult, but in a very different way than we think of Ulysses or Moby-Dick or Gravity’s Rainbow as being difficult. Even placing it in a category is tricky – Finnegans Wake is a work that utterly defies labels and genre. While some refer to it as a novel, it is certainly like no novel ever written; others find it a closer relation to poetry, but that, too, only goes so far. It also shares similarities to an epic, a myth, a riddle, a puzzle, and a philosophical text. Derek Attridge, a prominent Joyce scholar, has affectionately called it “an unassimilable freak.” At the end of the day, Finnegans Wake is a book that stands alone, a unique creation in the world of literature that marks a turning point between High Modernism and postmodernism.

OK, it’s unique, I get it. So what’s it about?
The usual Reader’s Digest answer to that question is, If Ulysses is about a day, Finnegans Wake is about a night. But this is misleadingly simple. Although the narrative of Ulysses plays unusual tricks at times, the story of Stephen, Bloom and Molly remains fairly consistent. Despite a few distortions and hallucinations, their day is easy to understand: people wake up, go about their business, and then go to bed. To say that Finnegans Wake is about a night is not to imply the same thing, however – this is not a book that takes 628 pages to describe a family asleep in Dublin.
But before I continue, a brief word, because on a very superficial level, the book is about a family asleep in Dublin: an amiable but curiously guilty husband, his forgiving wife, their lovely daughter, and their two competitive sons. But the narrative does not concern itself with describing their tossing and turning and snoring and such: during the course of the night, the father dreams, and Finnegans Wake is the text of this dream. And not just any dream, for his dreams have dreams of their own, and these dreams encompass the whole of history, with all its races, religions, mythologies, and languages; all its loves and hates, enmities and affinities – all melting and flowing into each other, revealing the cyclical, unchanging nature of life.

Does this mean that Finnegans Wake is essentially a book about a long dream?
Not exactly – Finnegans Wake does not describe a dream; as mentioned above, the text is a dream. Or at least, it comes as close as Joyce could bring it to imitating a dream.

How does he do that?
In Finnegans Wake, Joyce takes stream-of-consciousness narrative to the next level, plunging the reader into another world, one where the narrative conventions of the waking world are abolished. In dreams, an entirely different set of rules congeals from the fog, and since analysis is a tool of the waking mind, we are not granted immediate comprehension of these rules – that is, assuming they can even be understood. In dreams, we are utterly complacent when the strange woman we are talking to suddenly becomes our mother, or a house we have never seen rings with all the familiarity of home, and then becomes a castle; or a tree becomes a stone. The narrative of Finnegans Wake reflects this mercurial reality, this hypnogogic logic: characters and scenes melt into each other (sometimes literally!), and allegorical or mythic counterparts exist for everything and everybody. Here time collapses and becomes meaningless, and all identities are mutable – a series of masks to be shuffled and discarded as the need arises. In the Wake, even the words themselves are impossible to pin down to any one clear definition.

So characters and places switch around. I’ve seen Mulholland Drive, I can handle that. Is that the only way the Wake (See, I said “The Wake,” eh?) reflects the dreamworld?
Again, not exactly. Even though it embraces the bizarre logic of dreams, Finnegans Wake is more than a perplexing book filled with mysterious disconnections and seamless paradoxes. It goes much farther than a David Lynch film, or even the “Circe” and “Penelope” episodes of Ulysses, which certainly assume dreamlike qualities. In the Wake, Joyce wanted to do something much more extraordinary: he wanted to create a new language, one that reflected the plastic and elusive workings of the subconscious mind itself.
To accomplish this, Joyce spent seventeen years creating a kind of dreamspeak, a language that is basically English, but extremely malleable and all-inclusive, rich with portmanteau words, stylistic parodies, and complex puns. And by this, I don’t mean a bunch of neologisms and puns scattered throughout a basic narrative stream; the whole book is related in this language. And it goes much further than just puns and parodies. Like tributaries streaming into the collective English sea, dozens of other languages merge into the narrative, swirling into each other as they forever change the chemistry of the body that receives them. Assuming the role of literary alchemist, Joyce uses this chaotic pool as a semantic reactor vessel, smashing words into basic elements and then rearranging them to coin fresh molecules of language. Like energetic particles, some words vibrate on several levels at once, charging each sentence with polyvalent layers of meaning. Some words even exert a strange attraction over their neighbors, so one suggestive noun or verb will color an entire sentence with related shades of nuance, ripples in a chain reaction of associations....

Whoah, there, Mr. Wizard! An example, please!
Take this famous passage, one of many wherein the Wake refers to itself:

in the Nichtian glossery which purveys aprioric roots for aposteriorious tongues this is nat language in any sinse of the world
(FW83.10-12)

Nicthian is a pun that resonates on several levels. First, it suggests “Nicht,” German for “nothing;” as well as the related German word “nichtig,” or “futile.” It also evokes several related words for “night,” from the English “night” to the German “Nacht” to the Latin “noctis.” Finally, it vaguely calls to mind “Nietzschean.” Glossery mimics the noun “glossary,” but the “e” gives it the feel of a verb, perhaps implying “the act of glossing over.” Aprioric ironically combines “a priori” with “aporia” – an assumed precondition merged with a negating paradox. Along with the philosophical compound aposteriorious, it strengthens the overtones of Nietzschean philosophy while adding a bit of levity with “posterior tongues.” Nat is Danish for “night,” but it also sounds like English for “not,” especially in light of the possible sentence “not English in any sense of the word.” But of course, what we are really given is “sinse of the world,” which will surely be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Christian theology.
Although you may disagree with some of the above interpretations and/or have some of your own, the point is hopefully clear: the “overdetermined” sentences of Finnegans Wake shimmer with multiple meanings, some even contradictory. Even when analyzed, exact meaning is impossible to “pin down”– or at least to the waking mind, which is used to immediate comprehension based on a firm system of logic. The “Nichtian” sentences keep slipping free, melting back into the dream, leaving a set of impressions in their wake.

How does one best approach this type of Joycean “nat language?”
As is probably obvious by now, Finnegans Wake should not be read like a “normal” book. If you are looking to make immediate sense of the language and narrative, you are setting yourself up for disappointment and frustration. It is best to approach the Wake with an relaxed mind, one receptive to the sudden metamorphoses and logical slippages common to dreaming. (Think about those precious moments before sleep – the hypnogogic state where images flow through your mind, relaxing and delicate, full of hieratic meaning – a “sense” that immediately dissolves upon waking.)
Having said that, however, it’s important to remember that Finnegans Wake is still a work of literature, the creation of a waking mind, and has therefore been carefully planned out. Also, because its strange “nat language” is essentially based on English grammar, its syntax is familiar and comprehensible. The confused reader may often rely on context, that good old-fashioned friend of vocabulary, to help in constructing meaning. (Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” is a common comparison to make when discussing understanding the Wake.) Often, upon reflection, one finds that the language does indeed make sense – but a different kind of sense, a mercurial, playful, joyous sense that is difficult to explain under the harsh light of pure reason. And though I realize I’m about to sound like a cultist, when comprehension comes, you can feel silent detonations of understanding ripple through your subconscious. It’s impossible to “get it” in rigid, wake-a-day language: the Wake breaks down the barriers between the structured, rules-oriented mind and the slippery, protean subconscious. Finnegans Wake is located near the primal stratum of the collective unconscious, where “countlessness of livestories have netherfallen by this plage, flick as  flowflakes, litters from aloft, like a waast wizzard all of whirlworlds.”

Yes, in fact you did sound like a cultist. So what about a plot? Is there even a plot at all?
The answer is both yes and no. While there is never anything so straightforward as a traditional plot, there is definitely a set of characters, associations, and events that serve to loosely organize the narrative. The complexity arises in the fact that there are several layers to these characters, associations, and events. Like the convoluted puns Joyce uses to carry his story, the world of the novel itself contains multiple dimensions. Finnegans Wake is similar to a mathematical fractal: each iteration exposes a deeper universe of meaning, and yet all is somehow self-contained and self-generating.
With this metaphor as a guide, I’ll take the “plot” through a few iterations. (Caveat lector: The following “layers” are not meant to mirror a chronological plot development; the replicating associations take place throughout the book, and every “character” has particular episodes in which the focus falls on them.)
The first layer of plot is the most simple, and may be taken as the “waking world.” Let us return the aforementioned family. Our principle cast seems to be one Mr. Porter, his wife Ann, their daughter, and their two sons, Kevin and Jerry. Mr. Porter is dreaming at night, and throughout the book we hear the tap tap tapping of a branch at his window. But this book does not concern itself with the waking world, so the Porters could hardly be called the protagonists; and besides groggily checking in on his sons upstairs and (maybe) making sleepy love to his wife in the early morning, we don’t hear much from the dreamers.

Wait a moment. You said, “seems to be” Mr. Porter.
Er. . . yes. By taking the Porter route, I am expressing my own bias in an ongoing debate concerning which “character,” if any, is actually dreaming the text. Unsurprisingly, Joyce never makes it clear. There is plenty of textual evidence to support the Mr. Porter interpretation; although some Wakeans have alternate theories. Some think that Mr. Porter is just another dream projection; a few start right with Earwicker (who will be introduced in a moment); others feel that Finnegans Wake is actually Leopold Bloom’s dream, and may be a kind of “sequel” to Ulysses, taking place the morning of June 17, 1904. Joyce himself suggested that the dreamer was an old man dying by the Liffey; but most critics don’t take this literally, finding it an explanation for certain elements of the Wake rather than its origin.
Although I’ll have more to say on this subject at the end of this introduction, if you wish to read more, try the link below to Jorn Barger’s Finnegans Wake page – he’s done a fantastic job chasing down the countless mysteries and quirks of the Wake. For now, I will stick to the Mr. Porter explanation.

So back to the fractal...?
Let’s move to the second layer, where Mr. Porter’s dreaming mind has recast his family into less mundane identities. Here, Mr. Porter becomes Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker and his wife becomes Anna Livia Plurabelle. Earwicker apparently owns a tavern in Chapelizod, an area of Dublin, and has a prominent profile in the community despite coming from Scandinavian stock. (Which makes him feel, like Leopold Bloom, something of an outsider.)
Apparently Earwicker feels guilty of two sins. The first concerns an episode that took place in Phoenix Park, where a trio of soldiers observed him peeping at a pair of temptresses. (Or he possibly exhibited himself, or might have even masturbated in front of them; it is never clear.) His second reason for guilt is a vague feeling of incestuous desire for his daughter, Isabel, who reminds him of her mother as a younger woman, and consequently brings to mind his own faraway youth. His sons – now rechristened Shem and Shaun – do not get along; Shem is of the artistic temperament, and Shaun is of a political bent. Their sibling rivalry will form many of the novel’s later adventures. Other characters include an elderly servant named Kate, twelve men who frequent Earwicker’s tavern, and four old men who appear in the capacity of judges. All of them will take on deeper roles as well.
And so we get to the third iteration of this literary fractal. Here things get even more complicated, and we begin to see characters pick up mythological associations, while identities radically destabilize and undergo frequent displacement. Joyce does, however, provide us with an internal guide to this mythological face dancing. Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle pop up in many places and under many guises, but you can usually tell who’s who by the appearance of the initials HCE or ALP.
In this layer, HCE becomes something of a debased Zeus-like figure, a hero who sails in after the age of titans comes to a close. He then–

Hang on a moment! The titans?
Oh, yes – the fall of the titans. The book actually begins on this note, with the Fall of Finnegan. You know, the guy from that old Irish ballad, “Finnegan's Wake?” But Finnegan is also Finn MacCool, the “titan” of ancient Ireland, and represents the old order of gods....
Well, I warned you that this would get tricky; so let me take another detour here and talk a little bit about the general structure of Finnegans Wake.

Structure? Ha. Ha ha. You are very funny!
Believe it or not, there is a structure to the Wake. In a similar way that he tapped Homer to provide a framework for Ulysses, Joyce structured Finnegans Wake around the theories of Giambattista Vico, author of The New Science (1725). Vico was an Italian philosopher who saw history as an endless cycle proceeding in four main stages: the mythic-theological, the heroic-aristocratic, the human-democratic, and the chaotic ricorso. (Often paraphrased as the age of gods, the age of heroes, the age of man, and the return.) Each age concludes with a Fall, which is heralded by the thunderous voice of God – represented by Joyce in the Wake as hundred-letter “thunderwords.” Each Fall, of course, precipitates the next Rise, and therefore keeps the whole “velocopedal vicocyclometer” turning. (“Phall if you but will, rise you must” FW 4.15)
The text of Finnegans Wake is divided into four main parts, generally called “Books,” each one representing a stage of Vico’s cycle. Each of these Books contain sub-cycles as well, as represented by “chapters,” sometimes called “episodes.” In Book I, two full cycles turn, so it contains 8 chapters. Book II and Book III each contain one full cycle, so they both have 4 chapters. Book IV contains one long chapter, a general “ricorso” sometimes called “Book IV, Chapter 0.”
In order to establish a sense of timelessness and to reflect this cyclical nature, even the overall structure of the book is circular. Ideally Joyce felt that Finnegans Wake should have been bound in a loop, so you could start reading anywhere, never really “finishing” the book; passing around and around again, absorbing more each time, a spiral winding its way into your mythic subconscious. (”Language is a virus,” whispers William S. Burroughs. . . .) Indeed, the book begins in the middle of a broken sentence, it’s first half dangling at the end of the book, anxious for the cycle to begin again.

So then, the Fall of Finnegan represents the closing of a Viconian age? (Weren’t expecting me to pick that up so quick, were you, you pretentious bastard?)
Yes. Joyce’s main emblem of the past mythic cycle is Finnegan, the infamous hod-carrier from the song “Finnegan’s Wake.” (Note the apostrophe in the song is omitted in Joyce’s title. The most common error in writing about the book is misnaming it Finnegan’s Wake.) In the song, Tim Finnegan falls off a ladder and dies, but during his wake, someone kindly spills some whiskey on his lips and brings him back to life. (As Joyce well knew, whiskey is Gaelic for “water of life,” or uisge beatha.) Needless to say, even the title of Finnegans Wake has multiple meanings, especially given the dreamlike nature of the book and the “fin: begin again” aspect of Viconian theory.
Though Mr. Finnegan seems secure in his already legendary status, he also has a deeper mythic resonance in the novel, and stands in for Finn MacCool, the giant from Irish legend. It is the fall of Finnegan/Finn that opens the Wake and sets the stage for the coming of HCE, just as the titans had to be cast down so the gods of Olympus could muck about with dryads and golden showers, or Ragnarok’s Götterdämmerung threw the gods to the wolves to clear the table for heroes with spears and magic helmets.
Now back to the mythic and historical aspects of our illustrious cast. In his mythic aspect HCE is Adam, Noah, and Moses; he is also the Flying Dutchman, Persse O’ Reilly, and even Charles Stewart Parnell. He is the Patriarch, representative of the Heroic age, who must one day himself step aside to allow his human sons their moment in time. But HCE is compromised by guilt, his nebulous sin in the park and his “insectuous longing” burden him with the stain of “original sin.” This anxiety often manifests as a stuttering; and as dark rumors about him spread through dear dreamy Dublin, he will eventually be sentenced to a similar “Phall” as Finnegan’s. His wife, ALP, is all women – and all rivers. She is forgiveness and healing, Eve and Isis and Mary. It is her job to start youth as a fresh, tempting spring, to gather her powers as a river, and to finally wash the filth of men and their creations back to the womb of the great ocean – where she is taken to the heavens (via evaporation) to return again, the eternal feminine. In her younger emanation she is Isabel, her daughter, who has the mythopoetic role of Iseult/Isolde, Tristan’s illicit love, and represents youth, beauty and temptation. Issy is also the twin temptresses in the park, and occasionally breaks into the colors of the rainbow and the phases of the moon. In ALP’s older aspect she is Kate, the crone, “ygathering gnarlybird,” who picks up the pieces of man’s fall in preparation of their eternal renewal.
But it is Shem and Shaun who get the most attention. These warring brothers are all warring “brothers,” and they pass through more mythological permutations than you can shake an ashplant walking stick at. Shem represents the artistic temperament, and at times, like the characters of Gabriel Conroy and Stephen Dedalus, he functions as an alter-ego for Joyce himself. (In one chapter, Joyce, as Shem the Penman, cheerfully subjects himself to self-parody.) Shem’s job is to uncover the Word and reveal the naked truth about humanity, but for this he is often vilified. Under other guises he is Mutt, Glugg, Nick, or Lucifer. Shaun is the Postman – his job is to deliver the Word, but by nature he changes it, censors it, manipulates it. He is politician and warrior; and often despoiler. The Yang to his brother’s Yin, in other guises he is Jute, Yawn, Jaun, Chuff, and the Angel Michael. Alone they are incomplete – they must resolve themselves in the Father, in HCE.
And let’s not forget the twelve pubcrawling wake-goers, who often seem to represent society; and the four old men, annal-chroniclers and all-judges, call them Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; and the three soldiers, who become the various forces of invasion....

And the next iteration...?
Well, here my fractal metaphor gets a bit diffused, but suffice it to say that HCE, ALP, Shem, Shaun, Issy and crew have many adventures as the night continues. There are dreams within dreams, letters within letters, and even a complete play – a drama which out-Gonzagos Hamlet, because in this play, the characters are played by actors, who themselves are portrayed by Shem and Shaun, who are manifestations of Jerry and Kevin, who are being dreamed by HCE, who is being dreamed by Mr. Porter, who is – ultimately! – being “dreamed” by James Joyce....

I’m beginning to think I am dreaming you.
Well . . . er . . . it’s more the other way around, seeing as you are merely my projection of an ideal reader, asking me – an a somewhat irreverent tone, I may add – leading questions about the Wake. In fact, I clearly brought you into existence way back in the fourth paragraph.
But your sarcasm is well-taken; it is all a bit confusing. In a very real sense, Finnegans Wake is being dreamed not only by its “characters” – whether Mr. Porter, HCE, ALP, Bloom, Finn, or that dying guy by the Liffey – but by its author, its readers, and all of humanity as well. In fact, this provocative notion has actually caused some Joyceans to take things a step further, speculating that no dreamer exists at all. They claim that with no objective frames of reference, we can only assume the dream has a dreamer, and any notions of ascribing it to an author or character are illusions.

So, anything else you’d like to add before you banish me from existence?
Well, there is one last thing I’d like to mention. Finnegans Wake is also about . . . Finnegans Wake. The text of Joyce’s final work demonstrates a quite charming awareness of itself and its attendant difficulties, an awareness that encompass Joyce’s previous works as well. (Ulysses especially has its nose tweaked on several occasions.) At the risk of sounding like the sort of fellow who wears aluminum foil on his head and passes out tracts at bus stations: Finnegans Wake seems uncannily alive, as if it’s aware of you reading it. Of course, one of the reasons for this is because the Wake is constantly chattering about itself, asking the reader sly questions and throwing up constant distractions and misdirections. But more importantly, the Wake feels alive because it seems to speak directly to you – a clever illusion, perhaps, but there it is. No reader has to bring more to a text than the reader of the Wake, and in constructing meanings, you often find yourself mirrored in the shimmering language. (Hell, the damn thing even mentions me by name, and knows about my love for coffee and my desire to steal galley copies: “and ruching sleets off the coppeehouses.”)
It is this playful self-awareness that especially attracts postmodern writers and literary critics to the Wake. After all, Finnegans Wake is not just about itself, but by extension, it encompasses all texts, as well as the acts of writing, printing, publishing, reading, glossing, annotating, and criticism. Countless scholars have used the Wake as a testing ground for theories about open texts, authorial intention, reader-responses, the exhaustion of Modernism, the death of the author, and so on ad naseum. The Wake cheerfully accommodates them all; then like a fickle lover, slips casually into the bed of the next rival beau. Finnegans Wake delights in interpretations, and no two readers read – or misread – it the same. Or, to let the Wake speak for itself:

For that (the rapt one warns) is what papyr is meed of, made of, hides and hints and misses in prints. Till ye finally (though not yet endlike) meet with the acquaintance of Mister Typus, Mistress Tope and all the little typtopies. Filstup. So you need hardly spell me how every word will be bound over to carry three score and ten toptypsical readings throughout the book of Doublends Jined (FW 20.10-16)

Advice for the First-Time Reader
Finnegans Wake may not be the most widely-read book ever written, but it has many enthusiastic supporters, including Samuel Beckett, Joseph Campbell, John Cage, Robert Anton Wilson, and Murray Gell-Mann, the scientist who developed the quark theory of matter. (He drew the name “quark” from its pages.) And of course, little old me.
There are several schools of thought on the best way to read Finnegans Wake. Some believe you should arm yourself with a complete set of reference books and annotations, and set into the text like an archeologist on a dig. Others think it’s best to just read it casually, passing over what seems like nonsense and savoring the passages you find striking. Others feel you should read the book out-loud, like poetry, taking delight in the puns as the roll trippingly off the tongue.
Rather than make any reading suggestions of my own, I’d rather just offer a small piece of advice: take into the Wake whatever it is you wish to take out. If you want to spend a year immersed in its pages like a monk, you’ll find many companions to help you, from friendly guidebooks to online communities. If you’d rather just skim through happily reading whatever you find charming, that’s fine, too. After all, most people who start the Wake never finish it, and certainly no one claims to understand it completely. Take it at your own pace, and remember that most of all, Finnegans Wake is meant to be enjoyed.

If our society should go to smash tomorrow (which, as Joyce implies, it may) one could find all the pieces, together with the forces that broke them, in Finnegans Wake. The book is a kind of terminal moraine in which lie buried all the myths, programmes, slogans, hopes, prayers, tools, educational theories, and theological bric-a-brac of the past millennium. And here, too, we will find the love that reanimates this debris . . . Through notes that finally become tuneable to our ears, we hear James Joyce uttering his resilient, all-enjoying, all-animating ‘Yes’, the Yes of things to come, a Yes from beyond every zone of disillusionment, such as few have had the heart to utter.
--Joseph Campbell

Suggested Guides
A more complete listing of guides to Finnegans Wake may be found on the Brazen Head’s Criticism page. Here are three of the most useful to the beginning reader:

A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake

William York Tindall
Syracuse University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-8156-0385-1; Paperback $19.95. [
Browse/Purchase]

Probably the most commonly used guide to the Wake, Tindall’s book is intended for the “average” reader. (It says something about Joyce scholarship that anyone reading Finnegans Wake can still be considered an “average” reader!) Tindall sees Joyce as a Symbolist more than anything else, and he contends that Finnegans Wake is a cosmos in a book; a symbolic labyrinth, a vast and inexhaustible work of literature reflecting the entire world. His goal in A Reader’s Guide is to provide a walk-through of this labyrinth, a tour with frequent stops to admire its design and take delight in its contents.
As befitting a walk-through, the basic structure of A Reader’s Guide breaks the Wake down chapter by chapter. Tindall outlines the basic “plot” of each chapter, calling attention to the symbolic nature of the characters and how certain elements tend to recur, forming a network of structural leitmotifs that give the book its overall shape. Tindall is very good at linking together key elements in the Wake, a task almost impossible for the first time reader. He is also very adept at unfolding the dazzling levels of meaning Joyce packs into a single word. His sense of humor is quite enjoyable, and he’s gracious in crediting others – especially his many students. On the negative side, his writing can be a bit brisk at times, and often comes across as choppy and disconnected. I find myself wishing that he would spend a little more time supporting some of his comments – a few feel tossed off the cuff, some strike an occasional false note, and others bear the faint aroma of academic BS. (I occasionally wonder if his scatological obsession is actually a sly manifestation of a self-awareness of Wakean criticism in general!)
Despite these quibbles, Tindall’s guide remains an excellent resource for the beginning reader, filled with many illuminating insights and much friendly advice. He’s also refreshingly open that many of his ideas are conjecture, and he rarely proffers them as if they were the irrefutable truth. One gets the impression that Tindall would welcome anybody at his Wakean Kaffee Klatsch, expert or beginner alike.

Annotations to Finnegans Wake

Roland McHugh

1. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, ISBN 0-8018-4190-9; Paperback, $33.95. [Browse/Purchase]

2. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, ISBN 0-8018-4226-3; Hardcover, $75.00; Out of print. [Browse/Search for a Copy]

About the size of an average phone book, McHugh’s Annotations sports a friendly, sky-blue cover with quirky lettering, as if to say “Do Not Panic.” Not a walk-through like Tindall’s guide, nor a re-telling like Campbell’s Skeleton Key, McHugh provides here exactly what the cover claims: a lot of annotations to Finnegans Wake. A goddamn whole lot of annotations. In fact, McHugh claims to have relocated his home to Dublin just to better understand the Wake. You have to admire that sort of obsession.
And it is an obsession that pays off handsomely. Designed so you can read the Wake on top of its open pages, McHugh's book matches the Wake page for page, line by line, making it easy to take in a note with a quick glance. The Annotations scatter a thousand points of light through Joyce’s nocturnal maze, illuminating countless intertextual allusions and literary quotations, biographical and historical references, musical notations and songs, geographical places, mythical beings, fragments of philosophy and religion – the list goes on. Additionally, McHugh untangles some of Joyce’s more difficult puns, parodic phrasings, and compound neologisms, often identifying and translating fragments borrowed from other languages. (Often I found myself, when stricken by the incomprehensible suddenly made obvious, slapping my head and muttering, “D’oh!”)
Annotations to Finnegans Wake is invaluable for those who want their Wake well woken, with a full spread of coffee and sandwiches. Although some of McHugh’s interpretations don’t always meet with everyone’s approval, the book is recognized as being the “industry standard,” so to speak, and is itself an evolving work-in-progress

Joyce’s Book of the Dark
John Bishop
University of Wisconsin, 1993, ISBN 0-299-10824-4;
Paperback, $27.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Joyce’s Book of the Dark is an incredible work, a rather unique offering among the crop of Finnegans Wake guides. Not quite an explication, walk-through, or set of annotations, Bishop’s book hovers somewhere between a joyous celebration of the Wake and a free-form meditation on its many subjects.
Basically, Bishop returns to the text itself, seeing the Wake as a nocturnally-structured work which contains the seeds of its own illumination. Through a series of chapters with titles such as “Nothing in Particular: On English Obliterature” and “Earwickerwork,” Bishop adventurously explores the Wake’s characters and themes, all within the context of Joyce’s stated intention that Finnegans Wake is an “imitation of the dream-state.” Although Bishop generally lets Joyce’s text speak for itself, Joyce’s Book of the Dark is filled with typographical maps, linguistic flowcharts, and even anatomical diagrams, all of which leap off pages already charged with Bishop’s insightful ideas and witty prose. The result is a Wakean Wonderland that takes equal delight in both enlightenment and obscurity.
While Bishop’s big “Nightletter” might not be the most appropriate text for the absolute beginner, it goes a long way in making sense of the psychology and texture of the Wake itself. A bit arcane and difficult, yes, but highly recommended.

Suggested Web Links
Nearly two dozen additional links to Finnegans Wake related material may be found on the Brazen Head’s Links page. Here are a few of the more general resources:

Introductory Remarks about Finnegans Wake – Michael Groden’s page, designed for a college class, is a very lucid introduction to the Wake.

Finnegans Web – Trent University’s page contains the text of the Wake, with links to a searchable concordance. It’s kind of fun to type in familiar words and see if they are contained in the Wake! (OK, fun in a geeky way.)

Jorn Barger’s Finnegans Wake Page – Contains introductory notes, a chapter-by-chapter outline and numerous notations. Also holds Jorn Barger’s “shorter” Finnegans Wake. This is a good place to go if you want to learn more about the Wake, but aren’t sure you want to dive in just yet.

The “Joyceworks” Pages

Book through eternity junction – Back to the “Joyceworks” main page. There you will find the standard Brazen Head menu.

The Artfull Eye – “Why read James Joyce?” A somewhat fanatical essay on Joyce, his works, his importance, and why people write somewhat fanatical essays about him.

Quailigans Quake – A small essay on Joyce’s narrative technique, and a few general words of advice on how to first approach to his work.

The Essential Canon – Joyce’s major works:

Dubliners
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Ulysses
Finnegans Wake

The Minor Arcana – A listing of Joyce’s “lesser” works, including his poetry, Stephen Hero, Giocomo Joyce, and Exiles.


Minbad the Mailer and Hinbad the Hailer and Rinbad the Railer and Dinbad the Kailer and Vinbad the Quailer – Send email to the Great Quail – comments, suggestions, corrections, criticisms, submissions . . . all are welcome!

Spiral-Bound – Click here for information about Spiral-Bound, The Modern Word’s monthly electronic newsletter. From this page you can read about Spiral-Bound, browse archived past editions, sign up for the Spiral-Bound e-group, and subscribe to the newsletter itself.


–Allen B. Ruch
26 June 2003
(With special thanks to Jorn Barger, Anthony Burgess, Joseph Campbell, Tim Conley, and Michael Groden.)