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Literature / Finnegans Wake

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First Edition, Faber and Faber, UK

"Despite these obstacles, readers and commentators have reached a broad consensus about the book's central cast of characters and, to a lesser degree, its plot."
The Other Wiki on Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wakenote  is a sack of miscellaneous words that might generously be called a novel, written by James Joyce in 1939. It took him 17 years to write, and may take nearly as long to read. The novel is written in English but an idiosyncratic version of the language specifically created for this book. It is an English adapted and inflected with several multilingual and multilayered puns in the style of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky albeit on a far bigger scale. It contains elements, usually obscure puns, from over 60 world languages. The title is a reference to a 1850s Irish ballad called "Finnegan's Wake"note , a drinking song that tells the story of a man resurrected at his funeral when whiskey is spilled on his corpse.

Joyce began writing the book after a year long sabbatical from writing after publishing Ulysses, and the novel was published serially in literary journals in the 20s and 30s under its Working Title: "Work in Progress". It was finally fully published in 1939 under its famous title, two years before Joyce's death. Right from the time of its serial publication, it has attracted controversy, fierce debates, and stern defenses.

The plot, discerned over careful readings, concerns a family in the Chapelizod area of Dublin, a group of individuals identified as Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE), his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP), and their children — brothers Shem and Shaun, and the young sister Issy. Hilarity and Contrapuntal puns Ensue.

It helps to hear it being read aloud.

If you would like to read a description written in the same style as the book, see the self demonstrating page.

Finnegans Wake contains examples of these tropes:

  • All Just a Dream: A common Epileptic Tree, possibly supported by Word of God. Not to mention the word "wake" can mean either a funeral ceremony or waking up. Although part of the point of the book is that dreams aren't "just" dreams.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: The title gives us a twofer:
    • The lack of an apostrophe in "Finnegans." Is it indeed meant to mean "The Wake belonging to the individual named Finnegan," in which case the missing apostrophe is likely meant to be just a taste of the nonstop Linguistic Terrorism to come? Or is it meant to imply a plurality of Finnegans who are undergoing a Wake? Or even in the sense of "in its wake?", the wake of Finnegan(s)? Perhaps as some kind of boast?
    • Is the titular "Wake" supposed to be Finnegan(s) waking up from sleep, or is the word being used in the sense of an Irish funeral?
  • Anachronic Order: Doesn't really have a beginning, doesn't have an ending either. Not to mention the "story" jumps back and forth through many stages of history. There's a good chance any given historical event or person prior to 1939 has been mentioned in the Wake.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: HCE represents the landscape of Dublin, Anna Livia note  the river Liffey, Issy takes the form of clouds and light rain.
  • Arc Number: 1132 appears repeatedly, both as a date and in various addresses. note 
  • Arc Words: More like Arc Cadences, really. Many phrases throughout the book — such as "Buckley shot the Russian general", "hitherandthithering waters off. Night", "Earwicker", and of course "Finnegans wake" itself — recur in highly modified forms, so that often only the broad rhythm survives. The effect is like that of variations in a musical theme.
  • Author Avatar: To a certain degree, HCE does represent Joyce; but he also represents many other things as well. Shem the Penman can also be seen as a stand-in for Joyce, and is used frequently by Joyce to view himself critically.
  • Beast Fable: "The Mookse and the Gripes" and "The Ondt and the Gracehoper" are two quite fun examples.
  • Bilingual Bonus: More like Nonalingual Bonus. As the Hurricane of Puns entry below states, you'd have to be fairly knowledgeable in nine different languages (not including English) to even understand more than half the jokes.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In the book's last several pages, ALP thinks back on her life and her relationships, and apparently embraces the approach of death, symbolically blending into the river as it flows out to the sea. They're the most beautiful and among the most intelligible pages in the book. ... Then, of course, it goes right back to the beginning.
  • Book Ends: as well as the opening/closing sentence fragments, the characters Mutt and Jute from chapter one show up again in the final chapter (as Muta and Juva) to discuss the sunrise and celebrate HCE waking up.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Shem and Shaun towards Issy.
  • Call-Back: In the penultimate chapter, ALP comforts Shaun after he has a nightmare about "phanthares in the room", mirroring Haines' nightmares about a panther in Ulysses. The book is also full of hidden references to Bloom and Stephen's experiences in the earlier books, and even several passages fully rewritten in "Wakese".
  • Decomposite Character: The central cast of HCE, ALP, Shaun, Shem and Issy are often refracted under new names and puns, and no one's sure if these are the same characters or different characters with the same name and theme.
  • Double-Meaning Title: As noted by Anthony Burgess, the title has multiple meanings.
    • Obviously it refers to the famous Irish ballad from the 19th Century music hall. But since it doesn't have an apostrophe like the song, it becomes a plural, implying multiple Finnegans rather than a single Finnegan. Likewise, the words "Fin" or "Fine" means End in French and Italian, forming the multi-lingual pun of "Fin Again Wake" or "End Again Wake" i.e. an eternal cycle of multiple ends and wakes. That's Joyce for you.
    • And of course, the word "Wake" has the classic double meaning of a funeral and waking up from sleep, i.e. it can refer to both life and death. This pun is used to similar effect in the titular Irish ballad and fits the constant theme of cycle, resurrection and repitition that is at the heart of the novel. A cycle of constant death and life, or dream and waking up.
  • Evil Counterpart: Magrath and his wife Lily Kinsella to Earwicker and Anna Livia.
  • Footnote Fever: Many scholarly editions of the book. They also appear in the schoolbook chapter (2.2), representing Issy's commentary on the material (not that it helps the reader much)
  • Genre-Busting: To the point where The Other Wiki, which is usually very good at finagling a book into a particular genre, simply gives its genre as sui generis.note 
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: Joyce would occassionally drop lines in Hindi and Turkish, just because he could. A good example is the non-sequitir: "cha kai rotty kai makkar, sahib" (Tea or bread or butter, mister?).
  • Guide Dang It!: A rare non-video game usage of the trope, as the richness of references used in Finnegans Wake need to be listed and referenced in a separate volume. Joseph Campbell's "Skeleton Key" is quite well known, as is James. W. Atherton's The Books of the Wake which tracks down all the literary references in the books (and numbers to 300 pages just to keep score).
  • Her Codename Was Mary Sue: HCE, as noted above; plus a number of the minor characters are based on his acquaintances.
  • Hurricane of Puns:
    • Almost every single word of the book is a wordplay of some sort, or part of a wordplay. And Joyce didn't limit the puns to English, either — by some official estimates, he crammed words from about sixty separate languages into the book, and you would have to know at least nine different languages other than English (including Latin, Greek, and especially Irish) to get half of the jokes.
    • There are also paragraphs which pun on a specific theme. One paragraph in the Third Chapter puns on William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens, making references to Our Mutual Friend (another book with a theme of resurrection) and The Old Curiosity Shop.
      Vanity flee and Verity fear! Diobell! Whalebones and buskbutts may hurt you (thwackaway thwuck!) but never lay bare your breast secret (dickette's place!) to joy a Jonas in the Dolphin's Barncar with your meetual fan, Doveyed Covetfilles, comepulsing payn-attention spasms between the averthisment for Ulikah's wine and a pair of pulldoors of the old cupiosity shape.
  • I Have Many Names: Most everyone, thanks to the shifting dream-like writing.
  • Inherited Illiteracy Title: The lack of an apostrophe is deliberate.
  • Interrupted by the End: The novel ends in mid-sentence, with the words "A way a lone a last a loved a long the" implying that the real story is just about to begin.
    • I.e. recirculation back to the first page, which continues the sentence interrupted on the last page.
  • Kangaroo Court: the chaotic trial of Festy King.
  • Long List: Used frequently.
  • Mind Screw: No shit, Sherlock.
  • Neologism: Among the many words it coined, the one that caught traction is "Quark" which was later used to describe one of the elementary particles.
  • No Ending: Take a look at the first and last 'sentence'.
  • Parental Incest: HCE with his daughter Issy.
  • Patter Song: The Ballad of Persse O'Reillynote  has elements of this and Word Salad Lyrics.
  • Perfectly Cromulent Word: So full of them that you'll reach the same level of comprehension if you tried to achieve osmotic pressure by holding the book in your hands.
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Shaun and Shem, although to a far lesser degree this is true of most of the main characters.
  • Portmanteau: Just as an example, the word listed below under Written Sound Effect is made up from the words for "thunder" in ten different languages.
  • Reset Button: If you notice the first sentence of the novel and compare it to the last, you can see that the last one can continue the first sentence, this starting the cycle once again.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Extensive, if cryptic, references to Celtic Mythology, the Phoenix Park Murders of 1882, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Egyptian Mythology, among many many others.
  • Self-Deprecation: HCE's "usylessly unreadable blue book of Eccles"
  • Shadow Archetype: Twins Shaun and Shem are each other's shadows; it's also possible that alternate name pairs like "Jerry and Kevin" indicate a higher order of shadowing.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Not in, but from the book, we have three. "Quark" was borrowed from here to name the subatomic particle. Joseph Campbell also first saw the word "monomyth" in its pages, and George R. R. Martin named a castle in A Song of Ice and Fire after the first word, "riverrun".
    • The title of the book comes from an Irish ballad that can itself be rather hard to understand.
    • As is typical of Joyce there are also huge number of references to the whole western literary tradition, from Norse Mythology, to Shakespeare, to Dante onwards. Specific and recurring references include Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder (apparent in the section with the Norwegian Sea captain) and Lewis Carroll (Humpty Dumpty and his poem Jabberwocky), as well as Tristram Shandy (from the second paragraph — "Sir Tristram, violer d'amores" — onwards).
    • Joyce also drops in some movie references (he did start and run Dublin's first cinema hall). One multilingual extended pun refers to "bilker's dozen of dowdycameraman", the dances of "lewd Buylan" (Berlin cabaret) and "the phylli-sophies of Bussup Bulkeley", a double reference to both Bishop Berkeley, the philosopher and Busby Berkeley, the musical choreographernote .
  • Shown Their Work: For a work that is suprisingly imaginative and experimental in style, Joyce nonetheless did a lot of accurate research and background checking.
    • For one thing the opening sentence, rather than the odd non-sequitur that it seems on its surface, describes the general layout of Dublin Bay: the Franciscan Friary, a.k.a. Adam and Eve's Church, is indeed on the River Liffey, and the bay itself is marked on its northern end by Howth Castle and on its southern end by the Vico Road, which starts at the very southernmost promontory of Dublin Bay and goes south from there. Many other scenes refer to actual locations in Dublin, such as a monument to the Duke of Wellington, the actual Phoenix Park and the many other locations referred to there.
    • Likewise, Joyce makes countless accurate references and glosses on history of Ireland and Europe, and also the world. The famous "Anna Livia Plurabelle" chapter refers to rivers flowing through cities from across the world, from Aare to Zambezi. There are also many discrete references to the personal life of Jonathan Swift, via his "Journal to Stella" among many others.
  • Speech Impediment: HCE's stutter, usually over his guilt at his sexual indiscretions, is one of his distinguishing characteristics.
  • Spooky Séance: Shaun (or Yawn) is subjected to one by the Four Masters. They put him to sleep on the Hill of Uisneach, afflict him with nightmares, and channel the spirit of HCE and his many incarnations through him.
  • Those Four Guys: the Four Masters/Evangelists, who always travel together, appear to be seeking out HCE and serve as judges in his trial, spy on Tristan and Iseult, and generally try to impose order and fixity on the book.
  • World of Pun: Every sentence.
  • Written Sound Effect: The ten thunderclaps strewn across the book, the first one being on page one.note