Diagram of linear and circular relationships in Finnegans Wake
March 10, 2015


Finnegans Wake

There's no doubt that Finnegans Wake is a difficult and complex work. The difficulty begins with the title itself. Note the absence of an apostrophe. That means that it's not a possessive, i.e., it's not about the wake of someone named Finnegan. The first word is a plural noun, which means the second is a verb, so it's an imperative that tells Finnegans to wake.

Now at this point everyone is scratching their head and groaning, so I'm not going to try and do a detailed analysis. One very good reason for that is that I read for pleasure, and I didn't try to analyze the book as I went along. Another, perhaps even better reason, is that while parts of it are fun, there's a great amount of it that I don't understand.

So what I'm going to do is comment on a few passages, and perhaps list some of the better puns that occur in the book.

Lets take a look at the opening:

"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.

“Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passen- core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer's rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County's gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all's fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.”*

* Finnegans Wake, 3.

" Now this looks downright impenetrable, so lets take a look at some of the words: Now that helps a little bit. But is every word in the Wake to be subjected to that kind of analysis? Certainly not if you don't want to spend part of your afterlife analyzing it.

The primary characters are Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE) and his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP), as well as their children Shem, Shaun, and Issy. HCE and ALP recur frequently in the book in various forms. Some of those recurrences are listed below. There are also a number of puns, in fact almost every page has one or more puns on it. Some of those are also listed. (In the list that follows I've given page and line number. However, since I counted the line numbers by hand, those should be regarded as approximate.)

  1. honey is the holiest thing ever was, hive, comb and earwax, 25.
  2. annie lawrie promises 38.21
  3. Encourage Hackney Plate 39.5-6
  4. appy, leppy and playable, 41.23
  5. all listened to their plause 93.23-4
  6. the analists 95.27—pun on analyst and analist
  7. beetly dead 100.1— cf. Ulysses and Buck Mulligan's comment about Daedalus's mother
  8. bisexcycle 115.16
  9. yung and easily freudened, 115.22-3—pun on Jung and Freud
  10. a ghimel pass through the eye of an iota 120.27-8—pun involving the Hebrew letter gimel (ℷ), the word camel, the Greek letter iota (ɩ), as well as an allusion to Matt. 19:24
  11. Sainte Andrée's Undershift 147.27-8—Major Barbara reference
  12. Eden Quay 172.16
  13. Usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles 179.25-6—allusion to Ulysses
  14. pelagisarist pen 182.3—Pelagius + plagiarist
  15. Esturian Catholic Heathen 215.19
  16. Psing a psalm of psexpeans,
    apocryphul of rhyme! 242.29-30—Popular children's rhyme, but psexed up a bit. Some religious allusion too. Apocryphulpuns on apocryphal, referring to what are called the deuterocanonical books of the Bible.
  17. Two genitalmen of Veruno 569.31—pun on the Shakespeare play. It should be noted that the play, though nominally a comedy, does have one character who proposes to rape a girl.
  18. Tyronte power 569.33—pun on tyrant and Tyrone. A reference to the movie star Tyrone Power.
  19. Dutch Schulds 602.25—American gangster. His last words have sometimes been regarded as an unconscious parody of Ulysses. They can be found in Dwight MacDonald's volume Parodies.
One of the most famous citations regarding the Wake comes up in discussions of quantum physics. Murray Gell-Mann used the opening line of the poem below as the source for the word quark. There is a plot, more or less, but it is hard to follow. You can find plot summaries either online, in sources such as Wikipedia, or in the introduction to the linked edition of the Wake. It's probably best to try and read it for the language rather than the story, and simply enjoy the puns rather than trying to match up the descriptions offered by scholars with the passages that you've read.

Next up, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.