Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Finnegans Wake is the last novel written by James Joyce. After Ulysses was published in 1922, installments of what was then known as Work in Progress gradually began to appear (the final title being a secret between the writer and his partner, Nora Barnacle). Some admirers of Ulysses were disappointed that none of its characters reappeared in the new work, and that Joyce's linguistic experiments were making it increasingly difficult to pick out any continuous thread of a plot. Others, including Samuel Beckett and William Carlos Williams, published a book of essays defending and explaining the new work under the title Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination Of Work In Progress 1929. Joyce told his patroness Harriet Weaver that it was "a history of the world." After seventeen years of labor the book was finally published in 1939. Joyce died less than two years later, leaving a work whose interpretation is still very much "in progress".
Because Joyce's sentences are packed with obscure allusions and puns in dozens of different languages, it's still impossible to offer a definite synopsis, but this first approximation is widely accepted.
The book begins with an introductory chapter giving an overview of the themes. First we hear of the fall of a central character, here called Finnegan and identified as a hod carrier in Dublin (or more generally, all builders of all kinds throughout world history), falling to his death from a scaffold or tower or wall. At his wake, in keeping with the comic song "Finnegan's Wake" that provided Joyce's title, a fight breaks out, whiskey splashes on Finnegan's corpse, and he rises up again alive (Finnegan awakes).
This Finnegan is all men, and his fall is all men's fall. Subsequent vignettes in the first chapter show him as a warrior (in particular, as Wellington at Waterloo), as an explorer invading a land occupied by his aboriginal ancestors, and as the victim of a vengeful pirate queen (Grace O'Malley).
At the end of chapter one, Joyce puts Finnegan back down again ("Now be aisy, good Mr Finnimore, sir. And take your laysure like a god on pension and don't be walking abroad"). A new version of Finnegan-Everyman is sailing into Dublin Bay to take over the story: Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, whose initials HCE ("Here Comes Everybody") lend themselves to phrase after phrase throughout the book.
Chapters two opens with an account of how HCE was given the name "Earwicker" by the king, who catches HCE "earwigging" when he's supposed to be manning a tollgate. Although the name begins as an insult, it helps HCE rise to prominence in Dublin society, but then he's brought down by a rumor about a sexual trespass involving two girls in Phoenix Park (close by Chapelizod).
Most of chapters two through four follow the progress of this rumor, starting with HCE's encounter with "a cad with a pipe." The cad asks the time, but HCE misunderstands it as either an accusation or a sexual proposition, and incriminates himself by denying rumors the cad hadn't yet heard. Eventually, HCE becomes so paranoid he goes into hiding, where he'll write a book that resembles "Ulysses".
HCE is (at one level) a Scandinavian who has taken a native Irish wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle (whose initials ALP are also found in phrase after phrase), and at some point they've settled down to run a public house in Chapelizod , a suburb of Dublin named for the Irish princess Isolde. HCE personifies the city of Dublin (which was founded by Vikings), and ALP personifies the river Liffey, on whose banks the city was built. In the popular eighth chapter, hundreds of names of rivers are woven into the tale of ALP's life. Joyce universalizes his tale by making HCE and ALP stand as well for every city-river pair in the world. And they are, like Adam and Eve, the primeval parents of all the Irish and all humanity.
ALP and HCE have a daughter, Issy, whose personality is often schizophrenically split, and two sons, Shem and Shaun, eternal rivals for replacing their father and for Issy's affection (among other things). Shem and Shaun are akin to Set and Horus of the Osiris story, as well as the biblical pairs Jacob & Esau and Cain & Abel, as well as Romulus & Remus and St. Michael & the Devil (Mick & Nick).
Shaun is portrayed as a dull postman, conforming to society's expectations, while Shem is a bright artist and sinister experimenter. (As HCE retreats before the rumors, he seems to transform into Shem, the artist who writes the book.) They're sometimes accompanied by a third personality in whom their twin poles are reconciled, called Tristan or Tristram. Presumably, by synthesizing their strengths Tristan is able to win Issy and defeat/replace HCE, like Tristan in the triangle with Iseult (Issy) and King Mark (HCE). The book also draws heavily on Irish mythology with HCE sometimes corresponding to Finn MacCool, Issy and ALP to Grania, and Shem/Shaun to Dermot (Diarmaid). This is just a small hint of the many roles that each of the main characters finds him- and herself playing, often several at the same time.
The book is transformed into a letter, dictated to Shem by ALP, entrusted to Shaun for delivery, but somehow ending up in a midden heap, where it's dug up by a hen named Biddy (the diminutive form of Brighid, the goddess on whose new-year feast day Joyce was born). The letter is perhaps an indictment, perhaps an exoneration of HCE, just as Finnegans Wake is a vast "comedy" that seeks to indict and simultaneously redeem human history. It is highly relevant that if HCE can be identified with Charles Stewart Parnell, Shem's attack mirrors the attempt of forger Richard Piggott to incriminate Parnell in the Phoenix Park Murders of 1882 by means of false letters. But Piggott is also HCE, for just as HCE betrays himself to the cad, Piggott betrayed himself at the enquiry into admitting the forgery by his spelling of the word "hesitancy" as "hesitency", which spelling is used throughout Joyce's book.
The progress of the book is far from simple as it draws in mythologies, theologies, mysteries, philosophies, histories, sociologies, astrologies, other fictions, alchemy, music, colour, nature, sexuality, human development, and dozens of languages to create the world drama in whose cycles we live.
The book ends with the river Liffey disappearing at dawn into the vast possibilities of the ocean. The last sentence is incomplete. As well as leaving the reader to complete it with his or her own life, it can be closed by the sentence that starts the book – another cycle. Thus, reading the final sentence of the book, on page 628, and continuing on to the first sentence of the book, on page 1: "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."
Language & Style
The language of Finnegans Wake is confounding; consider, for example:
- "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)
The language is like that of a dream, not quite conscious or formed, shimmering with layers of possible meaning. Yet this is a return to possibility, shaped by the experiences of the world we have fallen (into sleep) from.
In that sense, the book can be seen to have abandoned many of the conventions of the waking mind to embody the working of the sleeping mind. In dreaming, the images and plots that we perceive are not distinct or discreet – they shift and conglomerate and constantly reform. Joyce captures this protean quality of dreams through complex puns and layering of meaning (often contradictory). Though he writes "however basically English" (page 116, line 26), he universalizes the "dream" by incorporating dozens of other languages and argots.
His use of the world's languages is part of Joyce's aim to contain the full knowledge of humanity in Finnegans Wake. The novel is packed with allusions to world myth, history, and the arts. Along with "high" culture, Joyce did not ignore the "low". The Wake (as it is often called) is very much formed by popular jingles, nursery rhymes, and other fragments from popular culture, exemplified, as mentioned above, in the title itself.
One of the many sources Joyce drew from is the Ancient Egyptian story of Osiris, who was torn apart by his brother or son Set, and the pieces were gathered and reassembled by his sister or wife, Isis, with the help of their sister or daughter Nephthys; their other brother or son, Horus, emerges to slay Set and rise as the new day's sun, as Osiris himself. Reading Finnegans Wake might be seen as analogous to the process of Isis regathering the dismembered portions of Osiris – there are fragments and allusions and confusing messages that the reader must put together into a conscious form.
Osiris's night journey through the otherworld is described in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a collection of spells and invocations for the recently deceased to successfully join Osiris and rise with the sun. Such a journey, too, is analogous to the experience of reading the Wake – the reader enters its dark world and hopes to emerge in a sense reborn.
The phrase "Three quarks for Muster Mark" on page 383 of Finnegans Wake led to the naming of quarks. (The phrase is sung by a chorus of seabirds, and probably means 'three cheers' or-- judging from Joyce's notes-- three jeers.)
- Etext of Finnegans Wake
- Finnegans Wiki, an ambitious project to Wiki the Wake
- Wikisource of Finnegans Wake
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