Introductory Notes on Finnegans Wake
1) If Ulysses
is a book of the day, then Finnegans Wake is a
book of the night. One way to approach the text is to
consider it as a dream. The narrative operates like a
dream: it is full of distortion, fragmentation, and
sudden and unexplained shifts in the story. If you try
to understand or interpret the details, the text is
also like a dream in that almost every detail is
overdetermined - that is, each one can be explained in
more than one way.
Joyce claimed to disdain Freud, but two of the features of dreams that Freud considered paramount operate in the Wake's text: condensation and displacement. For psychologists, condensation is "the process by which a single symbol or word is associated with the emotional content of a group of ideas, feelings, memories, or impulses" (in other words, one detail, many associations) and displacement is "a defense mechanism in which there is an unconscious shift in emotions, affect, or desires from the original object to a more acceptable or immediate substitute" (that is, any detail might be a stand-in for something else).
Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, "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" (letter dated Nov. 24, 1926; Letters 3:146; Selected Letters 318).
2) But, if Finnegans
Wake is a dream, it is a dream without a
dreamer. Or, rather, since the text never gets outside
the dream, we have no idea who the dreamer is. If we
are never outside the dream, it isn't possible to
relate the dream's details to anything "real" in a
person's conscious life, as you do when you try to
interpret your own dreams or when you tried to make
sense of some of the details in the "Circe" episode of
In the Wake, we remain inside the dream throughout, which means that we stay entirely inside the dream's logic without any recourse to an outside frame of reference. We may see signs of guilt, for example, but we have no idea what the dreamer may be feeling guilty about or whether these feelings bear any relation to anything the dreamer may have done in his (presumably his) waking life.
3) In the way that The
Odyssey stands behind Ulysses, there is
a book behind Finnegans Wake as well. But it
is a work of philosophy rather than of literature:
Giambattista Vico's Scienza Nuova, or New
Science (1725, 1744). Vico argues that history
is cyclical and that each cycle consists of three
different ages - an age of gods, an age of heroes, and
an age of humans - followed by a short transitional
age, a ricorso, that also initiates the next
cycle. Joyce took the attitude he had already worked
with in Ulysses, that Homer's larger-than-life
characters could find equivalents in ordinary 1904
Dublin, and expanded this to the point that all ages,
and people and characters in them, can be seen as
reflections of one another. Patterns persist, but for
Joyce, following Vico, they always fall into this
four-part cyclical structure. This is a profoundly
comic view, since, although all happy moments or ages
will eventually turn sad or tragic, the reverse is
also true: everyone on high will eventually fall, but
everyone who has fallen will eventually rise as well.
Vico's theory lies behind the structure of Finnegans Wake in terms of both its narrative, to the extent that there is one, and its chapter divisions. Like Ulysses, the Wake has chapters that are marked off by page breaks and white space but that have no names or numbers. Critics have supplied numbers and names to make it easier to talk about the units. There are four large divisions, numbered I, II, III, and IV. Part I has eight chapters and Parts II and III each have four. Part IV has only one fairly short chapter. Thus, in its large division into parts, the book follows the 3 + 1 structure from Vico, and each of Books I-III also follows the structure, with I having two cycles and II and III one each.
The Viconian pattern is entirely cyclical and circular. And so, notoriously, Finnegans Wake begins in the middle of a sentence (its first words are "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of short to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." ) and ends with the first half of a sentence that loops into the opening one ("A way a lone a last a loved a long the"). Yes, the last word in the book is "the," the one word that, it would seem, could never be a last word. And note how Vico's name appears within "vicus" in the book's first sentence.
Vico said that the different ages would be announced by huge thunderclaps, and Joyce built ten different hundred-letter words into the book as an equivalent of these thunderclaps. One of these appears on the book's first page:
"bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!" (page 3, lines 15-17).
4) More than
Viconian patterns or dream logic, a reader is
immediately confronted with the Wake's
language. Joyce essentially created his own language
here, one based on English (and, despite some very
long sentences, based on English grammar) but in no
way limited to English. Just as a dream's details are
overdetermined, almost every word in Finnegans
Wake is more than one word packed into a single
lexical unit. The words are sometimes considered puns
- that is, a play on words in which the sounds turn
one set of letters into two different words or in
which two different meanings of one word can both
operate at one time.
But a better description of the Wake's words is the one that Humpty Dumpty tells to Alice as he interprets "Jabberwocky" in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, Chapter 6. Humpty Dumpty is explaining "Jabberwocky"'s first line, "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves," and he says: "Well, slithy means 'lithe' and 'slimy.' 'Lithe' is the same as 'active.' You see, it's like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed into one word."
Almost every word in the Wake is a portmanteau word, whether visually or aurally, or both. Sometimes the double (or triple or quadruple or more) meanings are profound, sometimes trivial, often both at the same time. For example, at one point the text says "Wipe your glosses with what you know." Every reader has to do this: you respond to each word and interpret it ("gloss" it) based on what you recognize in it. But you also wipe your glasses, and you wipe your asses, not only with what you know but with you know what.
Famously, or notoriously, the title of the book is a portmanteau word. At one level, it refers to an Irish-American pub song called "Finnegan's Wake" (or "The Ballad of Tim Finnegan"), about the funeral of a man named Finnegan who fell off a ladder. It can also mean "in the wake of Finnegan," that is, everything post-Finnegan. It can also be "Finnegan is awake" or "Finn again is awake." Because it doesn't have an apostrophe, it can be "Finnegans, Wake!" - wake up, all you Finnegans. "Finn" is also Finn MacCool, a hero in Irish legend (who lies sleeping under all of Dublin and who will once again wake up). "Fin" is French for ending. And this is just a start.
The title is very often printed incorrectly with an apostrophe. Now you know better and can feel superior to those who make the mistake.
Wake doesn't have any characters in a novelistic
sense. Figures keep merging and blending into others.
(In a book called A Census of "Finnegans Wake"
[later versions are A Second Census . . . and
A Third Census . . .], Adaline Glasheen calls
her overview of the book's figures, "Who Is Who When
Everybody Is Somebody Else.") There is a basic
configuration, though, that involves a nuclear family
of husband, wife, twin sons, and daughter. At a level
closest to something that might be called "real," the
husband/father is called Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker
(HCE), the wife/mother is Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP;
the subject of Book I, Chapter 8, and the speaker of
the book's closing monologue), the twin sons are Shem
and Shaun, and the daughter is Issy. HCE owns and runs
a pub in the Dublin suburb of Chapelizod. ALP supports
her husband and raises the children. Shem and Shaun
are utter opposites. Shem (sometimes called Shem the
Penman, and the subject of Book I, Chapter 7) is the
writer, the discoverer of secrets, the private person,
the disreputable conveyor of hidden information. Shaun
(sometimes called Shaun the Postman, and the teller of
Book I, Chapter 7) is the deliverer of the writings,
the public person who is horrified at everything Shem
is. The brothers are constantly at war, but they need
to merge to become successors to their father. Often
they are at war over Issy, their younger sister. Issy
is sometimes a whole person, but sometimes she divides
into 7 (the colors of the rainbow) and sometimes into
28 (the phases of the moon's cycle).
There is a kind of base plot: HCE, with vague political aspirations, did something in Dublin's Phoenix Park. He seems to have exposed himself to a couple of young women, or watched them expose themselves, or urinated or masturbated in front of them, or spied on them urinating. What he did, or whether he did anything at all, is uncertain, but his reputation is shattered. His wife needs to rush to defend him and pick up the pieces, and his children (who will eventually supplant him and ALP in the next generational cycle) need to live with the rumors. There is much talk and gossip about the event, and people look for clues that might provide evidence of his guilt or innocence.
Any other story that falls into this pattern attaches itself to this basic one. The pattern is rise, accusation, and fall, with possible exoneration. Parallel stories: Christ, Parnell, Finn MacCool (the Irish legend lying under Dublin who will awake again some day), Humpty Dumpty (who fell off a wall), Tim Finnegan (from the song - he fell off a ladder).
One of the ways in which the "characters" appear in the Wake is purely linguistic: their initials appear in phrases throughout the book. There are many, many phrases that begin with "h," "c," and "e" and also with "a," "l," and "p" (look, for example, at page 197, line 8 or page 213, line 18).
6) Many of the incidents in Finnegans
Wake involve storytelling and gossip. Some of
the stories come from the distant past, even the
legendary past, and some from the recent present. Book
I, Chapter 8, often called "Anna Livia Plurabelle"
(like Ulysses, Finnegans Wake doesn't
include chapter names), is the chapter about the wife
figure and also the river Liffey (the river that runs
through the center of Dublin). Two washerwomen wash
clothes on opposite sides of the Liffey and gossip
about ALP and her life with HCE. As they describe her,
they are also describing the river. As the river
widens as it approaches the Dublin Sea, and as night
approaches, the women get farther and farther apart
and can't hear each other. Eventually, they start to
turn into a tree and a stone. Typically for Joyce, he
decided to work the names of about 500 rivers into the
chapter. He made a recording of the last three pages
of the chapter.
7) Try to keep this
in mind: Finnegans Wake is funny, often
hilarious. In many places it's incredibly beautiful,
and it does things with language that no one else had
ever imagined doing. And no one fully
understands it. So try to enjoy the chapter without
worrying too much about what you don't understand.
As the refrain of "The Ballad of Tim Finnegan" says,
"Lots of fun at Finnegan's wake!"