I finished James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. The Wake had been haunting me for a few years now. I had first discovered in on Listverse’s article about the most difficult literary works every written. Since that point I had constantly researched it, read articles about it and looked up quotes from its pages. Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads dissuaded me from picking up the Wake but the reputation it had as being nearly unreadable kept me constantly anticipating reading it. I knew that one day my curiosity would get the best of me. And it did.
Last week I finished reading Finnegans Wake. The novel lived up to everything I thought it would. It was difficult, opaque, beautiful, inspiring and at times utterly baffling. But you know what? I absolutely loved it. In fact, Finnegans Wake may be one of my favorite books that I have ever read.
When you read a lot (as I tend to do) you get complacent. You know how a story will evolve, you know what the parts will be and you know what the language will look like. Even in odd or experimental literature, you have some expectation of what will happen, even if that expectation is only that you will recognize the words on the page. But Finnegans Wake completely usurps all expectations. The words used are dense portmanteau words in different languages filled with huge varieties of meaning. The plot is obscure and dense. Every sentence is filled with an unexpected twist or turn of phrase. I relished a new and unique experience while reading James Joyce’s dense prose.
So what is it even about?
I have read a lot about the Wake and have read a few summaries of the contents of its chapters, so I will take a crack at what I think James Joyce intended to do. This may be a completely futile gesture. Joyce purposely made his book obscure so that any interpretation is valid. There is so much in the Wake that any person’s opinion counts, as long as they can support it.
The book tells the story of HCE, who is accused of an unspecified crime and has to deal with the backlash of said crime as well as the effects of his choices upon himself and his family. His wife, ALP, writes a letter and tries to mitigate the crisis as HCE becomes increasingly impotent to solve his problems. In the midst of this the sons of HCE, Shem and Shaun, get stuck in a power struggle against each other to lead the family. Izzy, the daughter, acts as a bystander, but also the focus of the sexual frustration of the men of the family.
That all seems very simple, but it is not. HCE is not really much of a character, he is more of an avatar, an impression of a person. In essence HCE is us (meaning the whole of human kind). He is not so much a character, but rather a mold in which we can fill our thoughts and organize our perceptions throughout the book. HCE represents all of humankind, and his sin is meant to show the burden of our history and culture bearing down on each person. In this case, the person (HCE, or ourselves) is intently aware of what history means and what results it has (think of Stephan’s proclamation in Ulysses: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to escape.”) Like HCE, the reader (us) is on trial for the sins of history and humanity. The events of our past punish us as they become stuck in our collective memory. HCE’s crime is not a real crime, so to speak, but rather the culmination of all the crimes of humanity. This is represented by the jumbled and referential way in which the book is written.
But HCE is also a dream. The most common interpretation of Finnegans Wake is to say that it is representative of a dream. This accounts for the rapid changing of characters, images and settings. A frequently discussed theory is that the Wake is the dream of Mr. Porter, who lives by the river and awakens partially in Book III chapter 4. I personally like the idea of Mr. Porter being the dreamer, because it allows for both the book to be organized more effectively and for the reader to take his place in the story.
Finnegans Wake starts out with the fall of the legendary Finnegan falling off of a ladder and dying, only to be reborn as HCE. The opening is meant (at least in my opinion) to represent Mr. Porter falling into his sleep and becoming subject to the full force of history. In this sense, Mr. Porter is us. We fall into the story and suddenly become subject to James Joyce’s punishing prose as he unloads all the problems of our civilization upon us.
Thus, Mr. Porter (the dreamer) and the reader are viewing humanity all at once through the dream. The identity of the dreamer is not really that important. The fact is that through each vignette a part of human nature is realized and eventually the Wake is meant to represent all of humankind. Everything we know and love is in this book but it is purposely obscured by Joyce’s dream language. This allows us to look at our life style from a different light due to the different language that is being used to express it. Joyce helps us to reevaluate the world through new eyes and not take anything for granted. If the book is confusing, that is because history itself is confusing as we try to look at it from an outside perspective.
Like any dream, it is useless to attempt to place Finnegans Wake into a narrative mold. We can not pull any real narrative meaning from our own dreams. We can be fascinated by each individual part and think about what they mean, but trying to find any overarching structure is just pointless. So even though I mentioned a brief synopsis above, that story is not at all the most important part of the book. Instead, the Wake is best understood in parts. Focusing too much on the overarching narrative will lead to huge frustration and an inability to comprehend the joy of each individual part. Instead of looking at the Wake as a river moving to a certain point (like a normal book), it is better to view it as a series of individual whirlpools who are only related to each other because they exist in the same body of water.
That being said, Finnegans Wake does have some structure. The book is divided into four sections, each corresponding to a particular part of the cycle of history proposed by Giambattista Vico in the 18th century. Those phases are: the mythological-theological, heroic-aristocratic, human-democractic, and the chaotic return. Within each section, the cycles repeats itself. Book 1 has 8 chapters (two cycles), Book 2 has 4 chapters, Book 3 has 4 chapters and Book 4 only has one. This last chapter is meant to signify an awakening from our sleep, or a return to our ancient origins. At the end of the book, we transcend our cruel world and come fully into the light of daytime and clear understanding.
This structure underscores a central theme of Finnegans Wake, the cyclic nature of history and time. The events that occur to us and our nations have happened before and they will happen again. What James Joyce is trying to get us to understand is that eventually this night will break and we will be able to see clearly in the dawn. Like ALP’s final call to wake up, we must all awaken to a greater understanding of our place in the cycle of humankind.
All of this talk of structures and themes ignores one of the best parts of Finnegan’s Wake: the language. This is what trips readers up the most, and honestly it takes a while to get used to. But once you get into Joyce’s flow, it is a breathtaking experience to see how he subverts and expands the meanings of the most elementary parts of our language.
Most of the words in the book are a pun on multiple levels. Even the title is can be seen as a pun. Finnegan can be broken up into “fin” (the end in French) and “egan” (which sounds like “again” in English). So together, this can make the word “Finnegan” mean “to end again”, emphasizing the cyclic nature of the work. This idea is supported by some of the last words of the book. Another favorite of mine is the word “Dyoublong” which is found early on in the book. The sentence reads: “So This is Dyoublong.” Read quickly, this pronounces as an accented “Dublin”, the main setting of the book. But the spelling seems to be a portmanteau of the phrase “do you belong”. This asks us whether we really belong in big cities like Dublin. These are just two examples among thousands that show the language of this book.
Even better, some of Joyce’s words are there for pure aesthetic value. This trips up a lot of readers. Yes, many of the sentences in this book have great depth, but I am thoroughly convinced that sometimes Joyce wrote what he did just because it sounded great. And that is fine. Remember what I said about whirlpools? Finnegans Wake requires you to sometimes let go of meaning and just love a sentence because of the music of the words in it. This is language at the purest form.
Now I will be honest with you. Finnegans Wake is incredibly difficult. Sometimes I would just have to read a chapter just to get through it (looking at you Book II Chapter 3). But the rewards are well worth the struggles. There are parts in this book that are hilarious, sublime, beautiful and filled with bliss. I feel that the last eight pages of the Wake are some of the most rewarding words written in the English language. But you have to be able to put in the time and effort to get the satisfaction out of the Wake.
I am planning on rereading this book many times, but here are some pieces of advice for first time readers.
- Don’t get frustrated if you don’t understand what is happening. If you can not get how a certain part fits into the overall narrative, just forget the narrative and only focus on what you are reading. The joy is in the small details of the book.
- Make a attainable goal for reading and do not shrink from it. I originally set a goal to read at least 20 pages a day, but I ended up reading much more once I realized how much I loved it.
- Mark up your book. Write in the margins, underline, write notes. Really you should write whatever comes to mind, because the words may be working subliminally and you will catch something that you are not consciously thinking about.
- Be up for the challenge. Know that it is going to be a hard read and be ready for it.
- Do research. Read some articles and analysis about the book so that you know what to look for. There are even whole Wiki sites devoted to giving you all possible meanings of the work.
Those pieces of advice will get you on your way. I can not actually recommend Finnegans Wake. I loved it, but I acknowledge that it is not for everybody. Even within the academic community, the opinions are split on this piece of work. But, if you think you are interested, please pick up the book and be ready to dive within the dream of humanity and find the end again with Finnegans Wake.