Finnegans Wake (1939)
Episode #4 of the course Masterpieces of world literature and why they matter by Alisa Miller
Yesterday, we explored the beloved novel, Siddhartha. Today, we will discuss Finnegans Wake, a book that has people either baffled or in love with its complex nature. It took Irish writer James Joyce 17 years to write Finnegans Wake, and readers have spent the last 80 years trying to understand what it means.
When first looking at Finnegans Wake, it quickly becomes apparent this book is not at all a typical novel. The title itself appears to be missing an apostrophe, and the first sentence isn’t even a complete sentence. The book opens with this:
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.
It is as if the book beings mid-thought, which is actually the case. The opening line of the book is connected to the last line of the book:
A way a lone a last a loved a long the
When you put the last line together with the first, you have a complete sentence.
The circularity of the opening and closing lines of the book, while unusual, signal to the reader that coming full circle is an important aspect of the book. The life cycle, the cycle of family generations, and history repeating itself are just a sampling of the many circular themes in Finnegans Wake.
The next surprise in Finnegans Wake is the manner in which Joyce put words together. There are words that initially don’t make sense, aren’t found in an English-language dictionary, or are variations from other languages. This aspect is likely what leads some readers to shut the book and never return. However, the text provides the reader with layers of meaning packed into each sentence and brings the words a lyrical quality.
To better understand the unusual syntax Joyce used, let’s look at these words from page 204, lines 18-20.
… and she laughed
innocefree with her limbs aloft and a whole drove of maiden
hawthorns blushing and looking askance upon her.
When read aloud, the word “innocefree” sounds like “innocently,” but it also reminds the reader of “innocence” and “free.” He uses the words “maiden” and “blushing,” both of which reinforce the ideas of a young, innocent woman. Hawthorns bloom in spring and are a symbol of that season and of love (especially young love), marriage, and fertility. The blushing and looking askance indicate that the young woman may be embarking on something socially unacceptable. So, in only two and a half lines, Joyce paints the picture of a young woman who has found love and may be considering or having a relationship outside the bounds of marriage—without him ever spelling it out plainly.
Reading Finnegans Wake
Because of the density of the text, Finnegans Wake is not a book that lends itself to reading on its own. There are many books to help guide the reader (see links at the end of this lesson). There is an online resource called FWEET that houses almost 85,000 notes on Finnegans Wake. It provides help with hidden meanings, words from languages other than English, connections to mythology or history, and much more. Additionally, many people participate in reading groups, where a single page or two is read aloud, and then the group analyzes the text. Here is a listing of groups with locations around the world.
If the book requires so much support, why bother reading it? This book is not for everyone, but for those who enjoy puzzles, poetry, research, or simply connecting to a rich piece of literature, then diving into Finnegans Wake might be a welcome challenge.
Whether people love it or hate it, there is no denying that Finnegans Wake is a groundbreaking piece of literature that influenced artists such as T. S. Eliot and Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. It introduced words into our lexicon, such as “quark,” and has been used as a point of reference in a variety of other works of literature.
Tomorrow, we’ll move from Ireland to France when we take a look at a book written in a more traditional manner, The Stranger by Albert Camus.
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