“Finnegan Wakes”: A Reading Journal of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Chapter 1

This is the beginning of Finnegans Wake, maybe...

This is the beginning of Finnegans Wake, maybe…

Deciding how or where to begin my reading journal of Finnegans Wake is akin to, I’m sure, Joyce’s own decision on where to begin the book, or more appropriately, where to actually begin reading the book myself. If you’re not familiar with the Wake, it begins (and ends) mid-sentence. The implication is that the beginning connects to the end of the book, and so, without a natural start or end point, the art of storytelling turns on its head (again, and again, and again, and again). As Joyce put it, he discards the “cutanddry grammar and goahead plot” (Letters, III, 146).

As far as I can tell, Joyce deviates from every literary/storytelling tradition imaginable. As far as Seamus Deane is concerned in his introduction to the text, Joyce reworks storytelling conventions with the goal of redefining the literary tradition—a bold task, but as the canonical status of Finnegans Wake proves, one Joyce succeeds at on some level. I’m not fit to offer a “book review” of a work this prolific, profound, and—frankly—challenging so I won’t digress into qualitative assessments. To rework the literary tradition, Joyce modifies all assumptions about a novel. The Wake supplements referents with the words themselves in order to create an effect of immediacy that (as argued in the introduction) has been lost with Original Sin and the Fall. In other words, it is impossible to read a novel without the mediating effect of language, and the authors very carefully choose language at that thereby further influencing your reception of the text. Joyce, however, wishes his words to really be the things that they refer to. Wake, it is argued, manipulates the idea of the “fall” as a “fall into language” (“Introduction ix), where our rigid language barriers no longer exist.

Joyce confronts his task using a host of multi-lingual puns, phonetic spellings and what appear to be nonce words. In my own battle with the text, the best advice I found was to read out loud. Joyce’s text operates on the phonetic relationships between words, often adding third and fourth meanings to the puns already in play. Moreover, Joyce’s text is considered “a transcription into a miniaturized form of the whole western literary tradition” (vii). Thus, reading out loud often exposes some of the more subtle cadences present within the text.

In some cases, reading aloud exposes some poetic nuance to Joyce’s text. The following passage, for me was a real treat to read, though I could make neither heads nor tails of it:

Of the first was he to bare arms and a name: Wassaily Booslaeugh of Riesengeborg. His crest of huroldry, in vert with ancillars, troublant, argent, a hegoak, poursuivant, horrid, horned. His scutschum fessed, with archers strung, helio of the second. Hootch is for husbandman handling his hoe. Hohohoho, Mister Finn, you’re going to be Mister Finnagain! Comeday morm and, O, you’re vine! Sendday’s eve and, ah, you’re vinegar! Hahahaha, Mister Funn, you’re going to be fined again! (FW 5.5)

As you can see, reading Finnegans Wake is more than a bit challenging at times

As you can see, reading Finnegans Wake is more than a bit challenging at times

At the same time though, Joyce’s sound manipulation offers richer meanings behind the text. Gender politics, especially within the literary tradition are subject to this kind of scrutiny: “Let young wimman run away with the story and let young min talk smooth behind the butteler’s back” (FW 12.3). Obviously, ‘wimman’ refers to “women” and ‘min’ is “men”. Of note is the way that “women” is rewritten differently than “men”, for two reasons in my opinion. First, I think, Joyce is playing with the idiosyncrasies of the English language: “woman” and “women” are two nearly identical words, with varying penultimate letters. Their sounds, however, are modified by the pronunciation of the “o” sound rather than their varying letters. “Women” is pronounced “wimman” as Joyce points out for us, while also reinserting and emphasizing the term “man” inside “women”. While I could extend this conversation to talk perhaps about instances of penetration and other gender politics, the more general idea remains prominent throughout the first section that Joyce is concerned with re-negotiating gender roles, and patriarchal assumptions: Joyce’s collapse of language is “a disintegration that was to be welcomed because it ha[s] been brought about by the coercive exercise of that very patriarchal authority that many other writers wished to rescue and re-establish”(Introduction XIV).

The male/female power relationship is evidenced by the first line inversion of the traditional pairing of Adam and Eve: “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” (FW 3.1) This passage also “introduces” in some ways, one of the main characters of the Wake, HCE. HCE appears in multiples forms throughout the text, always obscured in nonsensical (by normal literary standards, not necessarily in the Wake) acronyms. I’ve found only a few myself in the first section, though I’m certain I’ve missed many more than I’ve found. As I read, I’m focusing much of my attention on the instances where HCE appears. If you’re interested, the appearances of HCE I’ve found are as follows:

“Howth Castle and Environs” (3.1)

“Haroun Childeric Eggeberth” (4)

“Hic Cubat Edilis” (7)

“Hush! Caution! Echoland” (13.5)

“Hither. Craching eastuards” (17)

“Hark, the corne entreats” (21.3)

“Homerigh, castle and earthenhouse.” (21.13)

“Humme the Cheapner, Esc” (29.18)

The multiplicity of HCE’s character has led many scholars to refer to him affectionately as “Here Comes Everybody”. In fact, Clay Shirky wrote an eponymous book paying homage to Joyce’s concept, though his book deals with social media identities and connections among people—perhaps some food for thought, considering you’re reading this on a social site right now.

Most of my research so far tells me that there is not necessarily a discernible plot. The only semblance of a real plot is found in the Chapter outlines at the beginning of the text. HCE appears frequently in the first section, though according to the Chapter outlines at the beginning of my version, he isn’t officially “named” until Chapter 2 (if you can call them Chapters).

The disjunction between HCE’s appearance and his naming prompted me to contact Michael Groden, my professor in my Ulysses course last fall. Dr. Groden is a Distinguished University Professor at Western University, Canada, and a renowned resource in the Joycean Scholarly field. He provided the “Afterword” for the Hans Walter Gabler Ulysses text, one of the most popular and widely used versions of that text.

Dr. Groden provided me a list of guides and papers that I should use to read the text; I’ve left it below. More importantly though, he mentioned an alternative order through the text via Sebastian Knowles’ “Finnegans Wake for Dummies.” (James Joyce Quarterly vol. 46 no. 1[Fall 2008], pp. 97 -111). If you’re interested, I’ll be using that order from this point forward to hopefully ease my voyage through this text.

I suppose at this point I haven’t given you anything of substance just yet, but if you’ve read or are reading the Wake, what are your thoughts so far? Are there any parts that charmed you when reading (The darts game was another I found particularly fascinating as well as Joyce’s transcriptions of thunder)? If you have read it, do you have any tips or ideas? Perhaps concerns with certain aspects of the text, or parts to be wary of? Surely the Wake is not an easy text to enter into, nor to read, or to grasp, but I’m hoping that my thoughts might be able to provoke your thinking and vice versa, so as to stimulate some discussion that might ease the pain a little bit.

Just remember, your brain is a muscle too. Perhaps Finnegans Wake is a heavier load to lift than other texts, but the pay-off for such an exercise could be enormous—or you could have an aneurism.



Possible Guides Through Finnegans Wake:

William York Tindall, A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake

John Gordon, Finnegans Wake: A Plot Summary – “this title makes the book sound like an essential first step, but plot isn’t necessarily a crucial element of the Wake” — excepted from an email from Dr. Michael Groden

Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon, Understanding Finnegans Wake

Edmund Lloyd Epstein, A Guide Through Finnegans Wake

Work Cited: Joyce, James, and Seamus Deane. Finnegans Wake. London [etc.: Penguin Books, 2006. Print*

*Unless otherwise noted, I will use this text in every Reading Journal post.


6 thoughts on ““Finnegan Wakes”: A Reading Journal of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Chapter 1

  1. A great article. This is perhaps the only book till date that I couldn’t finish (actually couldn’t even go beyond a few pages). I think Wake is a very Eurocentric creation in the sense that both the language and the theme would be very hard to be appreciated by someone from another sociocultural background. That being said, do you know (or can imagine) that the book’s Mandarin translation is a best seller in China?

    • It’s astonishing to hear that a translation had such grand success, partially because the book is generally relegated to scholars and students at this point in time, but more so because it’s difficult to say that the Wake is written in a translatable “language” at all. Because it’s created of a patchwork language, with multilingual puns playing off of English cadences, it’s tough to see the subconscious relationships maintained in a translated language. Moreover, other than Joyce himself, I don’t believe anyone could truly do the text justice in transmuting it–after all, scholars today still debate even over the plot of the novel, let alone particular pages, sentences, expressions and words. I would be led to believe that it’s being met with such success based on Joyce’s reputation, as well as that of the novel itself.

      The theme on the other hand, I would argue should be able to be generalized, though of course, some English/Irish history lessons certainly would help. As Joyce said himself “I always write of Dublin because if I can get to heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

      • Spot on. The reason I accused Wake of being Eurocentric was partly because of the jumble of a language Joyce created taking bits and pieces of other European languages that even someone like me who has somewhat of a working knowledge of Spanish, French and German could not make head or tail out of a major portion. I felt bit betrayed by him. Had someone of my own country (India) endeavoured in any such monumental task, (which is possible given India’s multilingual presence) perhaps I would have felt closer to the work.
        Ulysses does allude to various points of history and geo-cultural aspects of united kingdom but, somehow it was still possible for me to feel related, but Wake was a disaster.
        And I wondered the same way you did, how could Mandarin, a single language, have captured the multilayered fuddle of multilingual text and subtext that Joyce created!

        • Absolutely see your point. I think that Ulysses does certainly get closer to the human experience (though I only have minor experience with Wake so far) because the language is meant to replicate thought, while Wake is interested in dreams. Dreams themselves are almost enigmatic by definition, and we muse about interpreting our own dreams without any idea what they might actually be suggesting. Thus, interpreting the dreams of an Irish nationalist (if I might use the term to describe Joyce) becomes a daunting task, especially if you are unfamiliar with Irish history.
          I certainly enjoyed reading Ulysses a fair bit more, though in the beginning, Stephen’s sections were extremely off-putting. If not for reading for class I might not have finished the book. However, upon the introduction of Bloom as a character I felt an immediate connection to the book and began to understand how effective a book from that perspective could be.

  2. our professor told us two things about the Wake
    DONT try and read it in order, and definitely don’t start with the first chapter
    after that he said just except your own ignorance, your own stupidity. the wake is totally, joyously ridiculous and should be dealt with as such
    if possible read it allowed in a group over a rake of pints and before long everyone breaks down laughing

  3. Pingback: There is no Apostrophe!: What it’s like to read “Finnegans Wake” | The Yonge Street Portage

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