Finnegans Wake is a work of prose by James Joyce, written over the course of seventeen years and published in 1939. The book is considered one of the most difficult books in the English language due to its excessive experiments with language, its non-linearity, stream of consciousness narration and dream sequences. However, a narrative can be extracted from the book, tracing the lives of the Earwickers, the father, HCE, the mother, ALP, and the sons, Shaun in particular, who attempt to supersede him.
Commentators who have summarised the plot of Finnegans Wake include Joseph Campbell, John Gordon, Anthony Burgess, William York Tindall, and Philip Kitcher. While no two summaries interpret the plot in the same way, there are a number of central "plot points" upon which they find general agreement. A number of Joyce scholars question the legitimacy of searching for a linear storyline within the complex text. As Bernard Benstock highlights, "in a work where every sentence opens a variety of possible interpretations, any synopsis of a chapter is bound to be incomplete." David Hayman has suggested that "For all the efforts made by critics to establish a plot for the Wake , it makes little sense to force this prose into a narrative mold." The book's challenges have led some commentators into generalised statements about its content and themes, prompting critic Bernard Benstock to warn against the danger of "boiling down" Finnegans Wake into "insipid pap, and leaving the lazy reader with a predigested mess of generalizations and catchphrases." Fritz Senn has also voiced concerns with some plot synopses, saying "we have some traditional summaries, also some put in circulation by Joyce himself. I find them most unsatisfactory and unhelpful, they usually leave out the hard parts and recirculate what we already think we know. I simply cannot believe that FW would be as blandly uninteresting as those summaries suggest."
The challenge of compiling a definitive synopsis of Finnegans Wake lies not only in the opacity of the book's language, but also in the radical approach to plot which Joyce employed. Joyce acknowledged this when he wrote to Eugène Jolas that:
"I might easily have written this story in the traditional manner [...] Every novelist knows the recipe [...] It is not very difficult to follow a simple, chronological scheme which the critics will understand [...] But I, after all, am trying to tell the story of this Chapelizod family in a new way.
This "new way" of telling a story in Finnegans Wake takes the form of a discontinuous dream-narrative, with abrupt changes to characters, character names, locations and plot details resulting in the absence of a discernible linear narrative, causing Herring to argue that the plot of Finnegans Wake "is unstable in that there is no one plot from beginning to end, but rather many recognizable stories and plot types with familiar and unfamiliar twists, told from varying perspectives." Patrick A. McCarthy expands on this idea of a non-linear, digressive narrative with the contention that "throughout much of Finnegans Wake , what appears to be an attempt to tell a story is often diverted, interrupted, or reshaped into something else, for example a commentary on a narrative with conflicting or unverifiable details." In other words, while crucial plot points– such as HCE's crime or ALP's letter – are endlessly discussed, the reader never encounters or experiences them first hand, and as the details are constantly changing, they remain unknown and perhaps unknowable. Suzette Henke has accordingly described Finnegans Wake as an aporia. Joyce himself tacitly acknowledged this radically different approach to language and plot in a 1926 letter to Harriet Weaver, outlining his intentions for the book: "One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot." Critics have seen a precedent for the book's plot presentation in Laurence Sterne's famously digressive The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman , with Thomas Keymer stating that "Tristram Shandy was a natural touchstone for James Joyce as he explained his attempt "to build many planes of narrative with a single esthetic purpose" in Finnegans Wake ".
Book II is usually considered the book's most opaque section, and hence the most difficult to synopsize. William York Tindall said of Book II's four chapters "Than this [...] nothing is denser." Similarly, Patrick Parrinder has described Book II as the "worst and most disorienting quagmire[..] in the Wake ."
Despite Joyce's revolutionary techniques, the author repeatedly emphasized that the book was neither random nor meaningless; with Ellmann quoting the author as having stated: "I can justify every line of my book." To Sisley Huddleston he stated "critics who were most appreciative of Ulysses are complaining about my new work. They cannot understand it. Therefore they say it is meaningless. Now if it were meaningless it could be written quickly without thought, without pains, without erudition; but I assure you that these 20 pages now before us [i.e. chapter I.8] cost me twelve hundred hours and an enormous expense of spirit." When the editor of Vanity Fair asked Joyce if the sketches in Work in Progress were consecutive and interrelated, Joyce replied "It is all consecutive and interrelated."
Fargnoli and Gillespie suggest that the book's opening chapter "introduces [the] major themes and concerns of the book", and enumerate these as "Finnegan's fall, the promise of his resurrection, the cyclical structure of time and history (dissolution and renewal), tragic love as embodied in the story of Tristan and Iseult, the motif of the warring brothers, the personification of the landscape and the question of Earwicker's crime in the park, the precise nature of which is left uncertain throughout the Wake ." Such a view finds general critical consensus, viewing the vignettes as allegorical appropriations of the book's characters and themes; for example, Schwartz argues that "The Willingdone Museyroom" episode represents the book's "archetypal family drama in military-historical terms." Joyce himself referred to the chapter as a "prelude", and as an "air photograph of Irish history, a celebration of the dim past of Dublin." Riquelme finds that "passages near the book's beginning and its ending echo and complement one another", and Fargnoli and Gillespie representatively argue that the book's cyclical structure echoes the themes inherent within, that "the typologies of human experience that Joyce identifies [in Finnegans Wake ] are [..] essentially cyclical, that is, patterned and recurrent; in particular, the experiences of birth, guilt, judgment, sexuality, family, social ritual and death recur throughout the Wake . In a similar enumeration of themes, Tindall argues that "rise and fall and rise again, sleeping and waking, death and resurrection, sin and redemption, conflict and appeasement, and, above all, time itself [...] are the matter of Joyce's essay on man."
Henkes and Bindervoet generally summarise the critical consensus when they argue that, between the thematically indicative opening and closing chapters, the book concerns "two big questions" which are never resolved: what is the nature of protagonist HCE’s secret sin, and what was the letter, written by his wife ALP, about? HCE's unidentifiable sin has most generally been interpreted as representing man's original sin as a result of the Fall of Man. Anthony Burgess sees HCE, through his dream, trying "to make the whole of history swallow up hisguilt for him" and to this end "HCE has, so deep in his sleep, sunk to a level of dreaming in which he has become a collective being rehearsing the collective guilt of man." Fargnoli and Gillespie argue that although undefined, "Earwicker's alleged crime in the Park" appears to have been of a "voyeuristic, sexual, or scatological nature". ALP's letter appears a number of times throughout the book, in a number of different forms, and as its contents cannot be definitively delineated, it is usually believed to be both an exoneration of HCE, and an indictment of his sin. Herring argues that "[t]he effect of ALP's letter is precisely the opposite of her intent [...] the more ALP defends her husband in her letter, the more scandal attaches to him." Patrick A. McCarthy argues that "it is appropriate that the waters of the Liffey, representing Anna Livia, are washing away the evidence of Earwicker's sins as [the washerwomen speak, in chapter I.8] for (they tell us) she takes on her husband's guilt and redeems him; alternately she is tainted with his crimes and regarded as an accomplice".
Throughout the book's seventeen-year gestation, Joyce stated that with Finnegans Wake he was attempting to "reconstruct the nocturnal life", and that the book was his "experiment in interpreting 'the dark night of the soul'." According to Ellmann, Joyce stated to Edmond Jaloux that Finnegans Wake would be written "to suit the esthetic of the dream, where the forms prolong and multiply themselves", and once informed a friend that "he conceived of his book as the dream of old Finn, lying in death beside the river Liffey and watching the history of Ireland and the world– past and future – flow through his mind like flotsam on the river of life." While pondering the generally negative reactions to the book Joyce said :
I can't understand some of my critics, like Pound or Miss Weaver, for instance. They say it's obscure . They compare it, of course, with Ulysses . But the action of Ulysses was chiefly during the daytime, and the action of my new work takes place chiefly at night. It's natural things should not be so clear at night, isn't it now?
Joyce's claims to be representing the night and dreams have been accepted and questioned with greater and lesser credulity. Supporters of the claim have pointed to Book IV as providing its strongest evidence, as when the narrator asks“You mean to see we have been hadding a sound night’s sleep?”, and later concludes that what has gone before has been “a long, very long, a dark, very dark [...] scarce endurable [...] night.” Tindall refers to Book IV as "a chapter of resurrection and waking up", and McHugh finds thatthe chapter contains "particular awareness of events going on offstage, connected with the arrival of dawn and the waking process which terminates the sleeping process of [ Finnegans Wake ]."
This conceptualisation of the Wake as a dream is a point of contention for some. Harry Burrell, representative of this view, argues that "one of the most overworked ideas is that Finnegans Wake is about a dream. It is not, and there is no dreamer." Burrell argues that the theory is an easy way out for "critics stymied by the difficulty of comprehending the novel and the search for some kind of understanding of it." The point upon which a number of critics fail to concur with Burrell's argument is its dismissal of the testimony of the book's author on the matter as "misleading... publicity efforts". Parrinder, equally skeptical of the concept of the Wake as a dream, argues that Joyce came up with the idea of representing his linguistic experiments as a language of the night around 1927 as a means of battling his many critics, further arguing that "since it cannot be said that neologism is a major feature of the dreaming process, such a justification for the language of Finnegans Wake smacks dangerously of expediency."
While many, if not all, agree that there is at least some sense in which the book can be said to be a "dream", few agree on who the possible dreamer of such a dream might be. Edmund Wilson's early analysis of the book, The Dream of H. C. Earwicker , made the assumption that Earwicker himself is the dreamer of the dream, an assumption which continued to carry weight with Wakean scholars Harry Levin, Hugh Kenner, and William Troy. Joseph Campbell, in A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake , also believed Earwicker to be the dreamer, but considered the narrative to be the observances of, and a running commentary by, an anonymous pedant on Earwicker's dream in progress, who would interrupt the flow with his own digressions.
Ruth von Phul was the first to argue that Earwicker was not the dreamer, which triggered a number of similarly-minded views on the matter, although her assertion that Shem was the dreamer has found less support.
The assertion that the dream was that of Mr. Porter, whose dream personality personified itself as HCE, came from the critical idea that the dreamer partially wakes during chapter III.4, in which he and his family are referred to by the name Porter. Anthony Burgess representatively summarized this conception of the "dream" thus: "Mr. Porter and his family are asleep for the greater part of the book [...] Mr. Porter dreams hard, and we are permitted to share his dream [...] Sleeping, he becomes a remarkable mixture of guilty man, beast, and crawling thing, and he even takes on a new and dreamily appropriate name– Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker."
Harriet Weaver was among the first to suggest that the dream was not that of any one dreamer, but was rather an analysis of the process of dreaming itself. In a letter to J.S. Atherton she wrote:
In particular their ascription of the whole thing to a dream of HCE seems to me nonsensical. My view is that Mr. Joyce did not intend the book to be looked upon as the dream of any one character, but that he regarded the dream form with its shiftings and changes and chances as a convenient device, allowing the freest scope to introduce any material he wished—and suited to a night-piece.
Bernard Benstock also argued that "The Dreamer in the Wake is more than just a single individual, even if one assumes that on the literal level we are viewing the dream of publican H.C. Earwicker."
Other critics have been more skeptical of the concept of identifying the dreamer of the book's narrative. Clive Hart argues that "[w]hatever our conclusions about the identity of the dreamer, and no matter how many varied caricatures of him we may find projected into the dream, it is clear that he must always be considered as essentially external to the book, and should be left there. Speculation about the 'real person' behind the guises of the dream-surrogates or about the function of the dream in relation to the unresolved stresses of this hypothetical mind is fruitless, for the tensions and psychological problems in Finnegans Wake concern the dream-figures living within the book itself."
John Bishop has been the most vocal supporter of treating Finnegans Wake absolutely, in every sense, as a description of a dream, the dreamer, and of the night itself; arguing that the book not only represents a dream in an abstract conception, but is fully a literary representation of sleep. On the subject Bishop writes:
The greatest obstacle to our comprehension of Finnegans Wake [...has been...] the failure on the part of readers to believe that Joyce really meant what he said when he spoke of the book as a "reconstruction of the nocturnal life" and an "imitation of the dream-state"; and as a consequence readers have perhaps too easily exercised on the text an unyielding literalism bent on finding a kind of meaning in every way antithetical to the kind of meaning purveyed in dreams
Bishop has also somewhat brought back into fashion the theory that the Wake is about a single sleeper; arguing that it is not "the 'universal dream' of some disembodied global everyman, but a reconstruction of the night– and a single night – as experienced by 'one stable somebody' whose 'earwitness' on the real world is coherently chronological." Bishop has laid the path for critics such as Eric Rosenbloom, who has proposed that the book "elaborates the fragmentation and reunification of identity during sleep. The masculine [...] mind of the day has been overtaken by the feminine night mind. [...] The characters live in the transformation and flux of a dream, embodying the sleeper’s mind."