30 pages 1 hour read

James Joyce

Finnegans Wake

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1939

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Summary and Study Guide


Finnegans Wake is a 1939 novel by James Joyce. The experimental style of the novel has given Finnegans Wake a reputation for being one of the most challenging texts in the English language. Joyce’s use of idiosyncratic language and phrasing, his structural innovations, and his ambitious themes attempt to explore the boundaries between sleep, dreams, and waking life. Though Finnegans Wake has not been adapted into other media in its totality, its influence and legacy can be found in music, theater, and many other fields. This guide uses an eBook version of the 2012 Oxford World’s Classics edition.

Plot Summary

Finnegans Wake begins in the middle of a dream. Beginning in the middle of a sentence, a pub landlord in Dublin sleeps in his family home above his business. During his dream, Porter, the publican, takes on many different identities. The most frequent identity is Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, who is also referenced by his initials. The initials HCE stand for Humphrey’s names, as well as more abstract phrases such as Here Comes Everybody.

During one of Porter’s dreams, God pronounces the end of the mythological age. The so-called Fall is the moment when the giants of the ancient mythological world come to an end. Among these giants is the traditional Irish folk hero, Finn MacCool. Finn’s exploits are a cornerstone of Irish mythology and folklore. Similarly, the subject of a ballad named Finnegans Wake appears in the dream, a man named Tim Finnegan. According to the legend, Tim Finnegan is a construction worker in Dublin who drinks heavily. When he falls from a ladder and dies, his family and friends hold a wake. The wake becomes rowdy, and someone splashes Tim's body with whiskey, instantly reviving him. Finnegan’s wake is just one of a series of visions by HCE, in which he becomes many of the historical, mythological, and fictional figures from Irish history.

During the dream, HCE experiences a fall of his own. After being raised to a prominent position in Dublin high society, he falls from his position due to disreputable behavior. Like Adam in the Bible, HCE falls from the grace of God. HCE has put himself in a difficult position. He is in trouble with the authorities after supposedly exposing his genitalia to women in a Dublin park. His crime was witnessed by three Welsh soldiers, though the real details of the incident are not made clear, and they change each time the story is retold. The incident may not actually have occurred but soon becomes a gossip item around the city. All HCE’s attempts to explain himself are unsuccessful, and, eventually, the incident becomes a folk ballad and its own unique part of Irish folklore. HCE loses control over the story and is prosecuted by the authorities, who catch him outside a pub.

After some time, HCE is released from jail and goes into hiding. Before the trial, HCE’s wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle (also known as ALP), wrote a letter. In her letter, she tried to defend HCE, but the letter was never delivered. She goes to the court during her husband’s trial and testifies in defense of her husband. The judge calls for the letter to be closely examined, though it never reaches its intended destination. In a series of riddles, the novel explores minor figures in the Dublin community. ALP’s children, Shem and Shaun, argue with each other. Shem, who transcribed the letter according to his mother’s dictation, is accused by his brother Shaun of being a lazy artist. He believes that ALP is protecting Shem. Two washerwomen gossip about ALP and HCE while washing clothes in the River Liffey that runs through Dublin. They talk about ALP’s behavior after her husband’s conviction, but they struggle to maintain their conversation across the river. Eventually, the women transform into a stone and a tree.

The children of ALP and HCE are Shem, Shaun, and Issy. A program from a pantomime production describes the novel’s characters. Shem plays a game with his siblings until his father interrupts him. HCE shouts at the children to come inside. The children go to the living quarters above the pub, where they study for school. The children help each other study by pointing out the footnotes and comments scrawled in the margins of their textbooks. Shaun and Shem (taking the roles of Kev and Dolph, respectively) draw a Euclid diagram and then realize that their drawing resembles their mother’s genitalia. As the children prepare for bedtime, they write a letter to their parents. While the children study, HCE works in his pub where a radio and a television broadcast simultaneously. HCE drifts in and out of the two competing broadcast narratives. At the same time, HCE argues with his uproarious customers until a police officer arrives to send the drunk men home. As the men stumble into the night, a drunken HCE cleans the pub and imagines himself as a figure from Irish history. He dreams about Biblical figures and characters from old, traditional stories.

Shem and Shaun continue to argue. Shaun is a postman trying to deliver ALP’s letter defending HCE. Next, Shaun explains how he and his brother play the roles of the grasshopper and the ant in an old fable, mocking his brother’s artistic inclinations. In this version of events, Shem is the grasshopper and is forced to pay respect to his brother’s more practical, less artistic approach to life. Eventually, Shaun emerges triumphant over his brother. However, as he imagines his great victory, he lacks the artistic talent to communicate his victory to the world. He rides an empty beer barrel along the Liffey, struggling to communicate with the people of Dublin until he falls off the barrel and disappears. When he reappears, he lectures his young sister and her classmates about sexual issues while rapidly transforming between a baby and an old man. His failures make both Shem and Shaun realize that they will never be able to replace their father and that they are, in fact, just two parts of his one whole. As they exhaust themselves, they hear their father’s bellowing voice calling for the return of the Gods.

Shem and Shaun repair their relationship. While dreaming, HCE has become a sleeping giant who rests in Dublin. One day, the sleeping giant will awaken as the famous Finn MacCool. Beside the sleeping, drunken HCE, ALP has a dream of her own. ALP dreams of herself as a life-giving being, but she resents her old age and inability to make way for her daughter Issy. ALP feels herself become the River Liffey, flowing gently through Dublin as she inevitably progresses toward the sea. She shifts between describing her letter and trying to wake her husband, who is asleep next to her. She remembers the time she has spent with HCE, and, one day, she hopes they can recreate their memories, such as a long walk they once shared. As she flows endlessly toward the sea, her thoughts end in the middle of a sentence that begins again with the novel’s opening sentence, creating a perfect loop.