January 25, 2024

#08-379: Finnegans Wake

A View of Howth (Wikimedia)

Note: Ahh, James Joyce. Some of his work seems more like a puzzle or guessing game than like literature. At the top of that list is this book, Finnegans Wake.

Get Ready: Do you think reading literature should be a struggle, or as easy as watching television?

The Irish author James Joyce was a towering figure in 20th-century literature in English. He wrote four major prose works, in addition to collections of poems and a play.

We have discussed three of the prose works before: the 1914 collection of short stories called Dubliners; the semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916); and the novel Ulysses from 1922, often considered one of the best English works, if not THE best, of the 20th century.

But we have never really discussed his final major prose effort, Finnegans Wake, other than to note that it is "difficult" and "experimental." So complex is its language that I have never managed to get through it, and more than one of my friends considers it to be a complicated prank that Joyce played on his readers!

Let's look at the first sentence: "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."

Before we even try to unpack its meaning, let's consider a few things:

  1. It starts in midsentence.
  2. The last sentence in the book is also a fragment, and is likely the beginning of this first sentence, making the book a sort of loop: "A way a lone a last a loved a long the"
  3. the first sentence contains made-up words in English ("riverrun") and Latin ("commodius vicus"); literary allusion ("Eve and Adam's"); reference to a place in Dublin ("Howth Castle"); alliteration and near-alliteration ("swerve of shore" and "bend of bay"); and probably more that I'm missing.

And what does it mean? Perhaps nothing, which breaks the rule that the first sentence of a book should be important.

And so it goes for nearly 1.3 million words (or things that look like words), presenting a challenge to anyone who would dare try it.

There is a "story," the experts say: in 17 chapters, we learn that when a hod carrier named Finnegan has fallen to his death, his wife Annie holds a wake for him (hence the title). But the attendees get drunk and fight, and when some of their whiskey splashes on Finnegan's body, he attempts to rise again (wanting a drink), but they convince him he is better off dead.

And that's just Chapter 1!

Chapter 2 introduces "Harold" (or "Humphrey"--the name changes) Chimpden, who is nicknamed "Earwicker" and thereafter called HCE by readers (but not in the book), but the characters are fluid, not fixed; the reader can never be sure who is doing what, and HCE is referenced by those initials ("Here Comes Everybody," "Haroun Childeric Eggeberth," etc.) and may even be Finnegan himself, who was a "man of hod, cement and edifices."

See what I mean?

Other characters constitute his "family" (according to scholars): His wife Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP); a daughter, Issy; one or two sons named Shem and Shaun, who may be twins, or a single split person; and so on.

If you decide to take on reading Finnegans Wake? You've been warned!


  • Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnegans_Wake
  • Read Finnegans Wake FREE Online

Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. alliteration
  2. allusion
  3. environs
  4. experimental
  5. fragment
  6. hod
  7. loop
  8. prank
  9. swerve
  10. towering
  1. trying out something new
  2. having the same first letters
  3. trick; hoax
  4. something that repeats itself
  5. change direction
  6. hugely important
  7. the area around a place
  8. a kind of tray for carrying construction materials
  9. piece
  10. reference to literature, etc.

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for January 25, 2024

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. j; 3. g; 4. a; 5. i; 6. h; 7. d; 8. c; 9. e; 10. f