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Finnegans Wake in the Large and in the Small


Seventy years after its publication, Finnegans Wake remains impenetrable to readers who delight in Joyce's earlier work. As they try to approach it, they may be moved to the irritation of one of the washerwomen of I–8, who protests the "Honddu jarkon! Tell us in franca langua. And call a spate a spate" (198: 18–19).1

At times, it even appears that Joyce is teasing his would-be readers:

You is feeling like you was lost in the bush, boy? You says: It is a puling sample jungle of woods. You most shouts out: Bethicket me for a stump of a beech if I have the poultriest notions what the farest he all means.

(112: 3–6)2

Is it all, in the end, nothing but a tease, a game of intellectual one-upmanship worthy of Stephen Dedalus at his least likable? Whatever Joyce had to say to us, why couldn't he tell us in plain words?

One way to answer such questions—and to allay the worry that Joyce was doing no more than showing off—is to propose that language itself is the true topic of the Wake. The evolution of English, brilliantly [End Page 188] reviewed in the "Oxen of the Sun" chapter of Ulysses, is extended, so that, in Samuel Beckett's famous commentary on "Work in Progress," words are no longer mere vehicles of communication, but: "They are alive. They elbow their way onto the page, and glow and blaze and fade and disappear."3 There is no doubt that the Wake offers a feast of language, or that following out the wealth of allusions packed into a single portmanteau word (or into the words of a sentence or paragraph) can be extremely amusing and challenging—in something of the fashion of the wittiest and most sophisticated crossword puzzles. Some of the most sensitive, intelligent, and rewarding scholarship on the Wake develops this focus on language and its allusive possibilities, tracing the ways in which complexes of ideas and symbols are found in widely scattered passages.4 Yet to treat the Wake as a "crossmess parzel," whose contents are words to be savored and admired for the sheer quasi-gustatory pleasure of doing so, or whose principal constituents are webs of allusions, is to ignore the many ways in which it seems to continue the old-fashioned novelistic project of telling stories.5 Why is Joyce's language so constantly and obsessively focused on dim and indefinite figures: on a man indicated by (but probably not named) HCE, on his wife (ALP), on their twin sons (Shem and Shaun), on their daughter (Issy), and other less prominent "characters"? Why do we circle back, again and again, to the same apparently trivial incidents—a seamy episode in a park, a past courtship and marriage, the exile of Shem, and so forth? What is the connection between these elements and the various webs of allusion that sensitive scholars discern?

The "linguistic banquet" conception of the Wake becomes attractive in reaction to the most obvious alternative. Those commentators who have tried the hardest to provide general readers with access to Joyce's final work—a work to which arguably the greatest of all novelists in English dedicated seventeen years of a not–excessively long life—take the repeated mention of particular figures very seriously and try to reconstruct the "story" that is so obscurely told about them.6 Although general readers fascinated with Joyce can only be grateful for the immense labor these authors have exerted, the "plots" they eventually deliver seem a poor return for their industry. For the sequence of events that emerges appears utterly trivial, and, in profound contrast to the example of Ulysses, there appear to be no psychological complexities that provide material for extensive contemplation. Whereas Leopold Bloom is as intimately explored as any character in fiction in any language,7 the shadowy protagonists of the Wake's "plot" remain, after all the commentators' efforts, mutable and indistinct. [End Page 189]

In my judgment, we can do much better than either of these unsatisfactory alternatives...