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.
Critics disagree on whether discernible characters exist in Finnegans Wake . For example, Grace Eckley argues that Wakean characters are distinct from each other, and defends this with explaining the dual narrators, the "us" of the first paragraph, as well as Shem-Shaun distinctions while Margot Norris argues that the "[c]haracters are fluid and interchangeable". Supporting the latter stance, Van Hulle finds that the "characters" in Finnegans Wake are rather "archetypes or character amalgams, taking different shapes", and Riquelme similarly refers to the book's cast of mutable characters as "protean". As early as in 1934, in response to the recently published excerpt "The Mookse and the Gripes", Ronald Symond argued that "the characters in Work in Progress , in keeping with the space-time chaos in which they live, change identity at will. At one time they are persons, at another rivers or stones or trees, at another personifications of an idea, at another they are lost and hidden in the actual texture of the prose, with an ingenuity far surpassing that of crossword puzzles." Such concealment of character identity has resulted in some disparity as to how critics identify the book's main protagonists; for example, while most find consensus that Festy King, who appears on trial in I.4, is a HCE type, not all analysts agree on this– for example Anthony Burgess believes him to be Shaun.
While characters are in a constant state of flux—constantly changing names, occupations, and physical attributes—a recurring set of core characters, or character types (what Norris dubs "ciphers"), are discernible. During the composition of Finnegans Wake , Joyce used signs, or so-called“sigla”, rather than names to designate these character amalgams or types. In a letter to his Maecenas, Harriet Shaw Weaver (March 1924), Joyce made a list of these sigla. For those who argue for the existence of distinguishable characters, the book focuses on the Earwicker family, which consists of father, mother, twin sons and a daughter.
Kitcher argues for the father HCE as the book's main protagonist, stating that he is "the dominant figure throughout [...]. His guilt, his shortcomings, his failures pervade the entire book". Bishop states that while the constant flux of HCE's character and attributes may lead us to consider him as an "anyman," he argues that "the sheer density of certain repeated details and concerns allows us to know that he is a particular, real Dubliner." The common critical consensus of HCE's fixed character is summarised by Bishop as being "an older Protestant male, of Scandinavian lineage, connected with the pubkeeping business somewhere in the neighbourhood of Chapelizod, who has a wife, a daughter, and two sons."
HCE is referred to by literally thousands of names throughout the book; leading Terence Killeen to argue that in Finnegans Wake "naming is [..] a fluid and provisional process". HCE is at first referred to as "Harold or Humphrey Chimpden"; a conflation of these names as "Haromphreyld", and as a consequence of his initials "Here Comes Everybody". These initials lend themselves to phrase after phrase throughout the book; for example, appearing in the book's opening sentence as "Howth Castle and Environs". As the work progresses the names by which he may be referred to become increasingly abstract (such as "Finn MacCool", "Mr. Makeall Gone", or "Mr. Porter" ).
Some Wake critics, such as Finn Fordham, argue that HCE's initials come from the initials of the portly politician Hugh Childers (1827–96), who had been nicknamed "Here Comes Everybody" for his size.
Many critics see Finnegan, whose death, wake and resurrection are the subject of the opening chapter, as either a prototype of HCE, or as another of his manifestations. One of the reasons for this close identification is that Finnegan is called a "man of h od, c ement and e difices" and "like H aroun C hilderic E ggeberth", identifying him with the initials HCE. Parrinder for example states that "Bygmester Finnegan [...] is HCE", and finds that his fall and resurrection foreshadows "the fall of HCE early in Book I [which is] paralleled by his resurrection towards the end of III.3, in the section originally called "Haveth Childers Everywhere", when [HCE's] ghost speaks forth in the middle of a seance."
Patrick McCarthy describes HCE's wife ALP as "the river-woman whose presence is implied in the "riverrun" with which Finnegans Wake opens and whose monologue closes the book. For over six hundred pages, Joyce presents Anna Livia to us almost exclusively through other characters, much as in Ulysses we hear what Molly Bloom has to say about herself only in the last chapter." The most extensive discussion of ALP comes in chapter I.8, in which hundreds of names of rivers are woven into the tale of ALP's life, as told by two gossiping washerwomen. Similarly hundreds of city names are woven into "Haveth Childers Everywhere", the corresponding passage at the end of III.3 which focuses on HCE. As a result, it is generally contended that HCE personifies the Viking-founded city of Dublin, and his wife ALP personifies the river Liffey, on whose banks the city was built.
ALP and HCE have a daughter, Issy– whose personality is often split (represented by her mirror-twin). Parrinder argues that "as daughter and sister, she is an object of secret and repressed desire both to her father [...] and to her two brothers." These twin sons of HCE and ALP consist of a writer called Shem the Penman and a postman by the name of Shaun the Post, who are rivals for replacing their father and for their sister Issy's affection. Shaun is portrayed as a dull postman, conforming to society's expectations, while Shem is a bright artist and sinister experimenter, often perceived as Joyce's alter-ego in the book.Hugh Staples finds that Shaun "wants to be thought of as a man-about-town, a snappy dresser, a glutton and a gourmet... He is possessed of a musical voice and is a braggart. He is not happy in his work, which is that of a messenger or a postman; he would rather be a priest." Shaun's sudden and somewhat unexpected promotion to the book's central character in Book III is explained by Tindall with the assertion that "having disposed of old HCE, Shaun is becoming the new HCE."
Like their father, Shem and Shaun are referred to by different names throughout the book, such as "Caddy and Primas"; "Mercius" and "Justius"; "Dolph and Kevin"; and "Jerry and Kevin". These twins are contrasted in the book by allusions to sets of opposing twins and enemies in literature, mythology and history; such as Set and Horus of the Osiris story; the biblical pairs Jacob and Esau, Cain and Abel, and Saint Michael and the Devil– equating Shaun with "Mick" and Shem with "Nick" – as well as Romulus and Remus.
The book is also populated by a number of minor characters, such as the Four Masters, the twelve customers, the Earwickers' cleaning staff Kate and Joe, as well as more obscure characters such as "McGrath", Lily Kinsella, and the bell-ringer "Fox Goodman".
The most commonly recurring characters outside of the Earwicker family are the four old men known collectively as "Mamalujo" (a conflation of their names: Matt Gregory, Marcus Lyons, Luke Tarpey and Johnny Mac Dougall). These four most commonly serve as narrators, but they also play a number of active roles in the text, such as when they serve as the judges in the court case of I.4, or as the inquisitors who question Yawn in III.4. Tindall summarises the roles that these old men play as those of the Four Masters, the Four Evangelists, and the four Provinces of Ireland ( "Matthew, from the north, is Ulster; Mark, from the south, is Munster; Luke, from the east, is Leinster; and John, from the west, is Connaught"). According to Finn Fordham, Joyce related to his daughter-in-law Helen Fleischmann that "Mamalujo" also represented Joyce's own family, namely his wife Nora (mama), daughter Lucia (lu), and son Giorgio (jo).
In addition to the four old men, there are a group of twelve unnamed men who always appear together, and serve as the customers in Earwicker's pub, gossipers about his sins, jurors at his trial and mourners at his wake. The Earwicker household also includes two cleaning staff: Kate, the maid, and Joe, who is by turns handyman and barman in Earwicker's pub. These characters are seen by most critics as older versions of ALP and HCE. Kate often plays the role of museum curator, as in the "Willingdone Museyroom" episode of 1.1, and is recognisable by her repeated motif "Tip! Tip!" Joe is often also referred to by the name "Sackerson", and Kitcher describes him as "a figure sometimes playing the role of policeman, sometimes [...] a squalid derelict, and most frequently the odd-job man of HCE's inn, Kate's male counterpart, who can ambiguously indicate an older version of HCE."