Columns > Published on March 20th, 2015

Post-Mortem: Exploring 'Finnegans Wake'

“Well, you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you every telling has a taling and that’s the he and she of it” (213).

James Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake over a period of 17 years (1922-1939), finally publishing two years before his death in 1941. So what happens when you read Finnegans Wake over a period of two weeks? Lots of headaches and barking laughter, that’s what. The first page alone is enough to make many readers head for the hills, with gems such as, "the fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerrnntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy" (3). The one hundred letter word in parentheses is not the only one of its kind in the Wake, belonging to a grouping of ten words called "thunderwords" that appear throughout the novel. 

   “Mark the Wans, why do I am look alike a poss of porterpease?" (21).

Linguistically, Finnegans Wake is an experimental masterpiece, composed of upwards of 60 languages, employing eclectic literary and media structures throughout (nursery rhymes, liturgies, riddles, gossip, sheet music, radio programming, pantomimes, and film, among others), often switching between them in the middle of a sentence. It’s no wonder the Wake is considered to be one of the most challenging books in the English language, one that not only morphs each time you read it, but transforms the way you read, forcing you to adapt to new words and pick up on larger themes within the language.

Joyce uses linguistic patterns to test his reader and make them actually think about what they’re reading. These patterns, though they may not make total sense individually, may very well serve the greater purpose of drawing together themes or instances throughout the book as a whole. These devices serve as guiding lights for the reader, lit by Joyce himself and scattered throughout the narrative. 

Though it’s nearly impossible to fully nail down the plot of Finnegans Wake, the main characters are generally accepted to be members of the Earwicker family: Humphrey Chimpden (HCE), Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP), and their children, Issy, Shem, and Shaun. Duality is a major theme throughout Finnegans Wake and that pertains to its characters as well. Shem and Shaun are seen to be opposites of each other, perhaps the two different personalities of their father. In addition, supporting characters seem to come in pairs: Mutt and Jute, Jarl von Hoother and the prankquean, Mookse and Gripes, the Ondt and the Gracehoper, and Tristan and Iseult. At times, it seems as if the characters are actually just aspects or reincarnations of HCE (male) and ALP (female) throughout time, forming from and reforming into each other.

The Wake plays with gender and sexuality on nearly every page, frequently questioning gender roles and inserting dirty jokes: "And Jarl von Hoother had his baretholobruised heels drowned in his cellarmalt, shaking warm hands with himself and the jimiminy hilary" (21). If you're looking for creative dick jokes, Joyce has you covered.

I've read the Wake before and this time around I was fascinated by the magnificent watery force that seems to be constantly weaving itself through the novel. I'm not the only one who feels this way either; Olwen Fouéré created Riverrun, a one woman theatrical event telling the tale from the river's perspective, which eventually made its way to the National Theatre in London in March of 2014 to rave reviews. Even though the River Liffey changes names throughout, Joyce references Ireland often, making sure that the reader always remembers that this is very much a book concerned with Ireland and its place in history. 

There is a dream-like trance that flows throughout Finnegans Wake. Many critics believe that the Wake is Joyce’s “night” story, where Ulysses is his “day”. The book is circular in nature, beginning in the middle of a sentence and ending with the beginning of that sentence, dealing with birth, death, and reincarnation on a massive scale:

Opening line: "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs" (3).  

Closing line: “Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Los. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the” (628).

“Creator he has created for his creatures ones a creation” (29).

The Wake encompasses nearly every religion and major civilization, sprawling across time periods, frequently switching periods in the middle of a sentence, and is, in a way, a sort of historic wheel that Joyce spins, landing the reader where he will, charting the rise and fall of civilizations and humanity: "there extand by now one thousand and one stories, all told, of the same (5)."  

If it happened before 1939, you can probably find a way to tie it to the Wake.

If dreams are the only place where the impossible are the constant, rather than the exception, then Finnegans Wake is certainly a literary dream, constantly changing, imprinting on you and making a strange sort of sense. The great accomplishment about Finnegans Wake is that, like a dream, it can reveal things to you about yourself, even in the midst of nearly impenetrable language. The Wake isn’t necessarily for every reader and if you’re thinking of picking it up, I’d highly recommend looking for an annotations book as well (I use Roland McHugh's edition), or using one of the many sites dedicated to the Wake, and perhaps picking up a bottle of whiskey.

Also, give yourself more than two weeks to read the damn thing.

About the author

Emily has a Master's degree in early modern literature and drama from King's College London and a Bachelor's in English from the University of Iowa. In addition to being a social media manager, she is a writer and theatre practitioner.

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