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Issy's Footnote: Disruptive Narrative and the Discursive Structure of Incest in Finnegans Wake

From: ELH
Volume 66, Number 1, Spring 1999
pp. 203-221 | 10.1353/elh.1999.0010

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ELH 66.1 (1999) 203-221

Within Finnegans Wake, Joyce grants special narrative powers to Issy, the young girl character in the book. A victim of incest at the hands of her father and brothers, Issy speaks with subversive intent that is particularly helpful to Joyce as he simultaneously articulates and undermines notions of control and mastery in narrative. Joyce bestows on Issy authorial knowledge that is not available to other characters. In fact, Issy knows what she cannot know as a character within a text: she knows the sigla Joyce used in his Finnegans Wake notebooks. When designing the novel, a process he described to patron Harriet Shaw Weaver as a mathematical problem akin to squaring the circle, Joyce used these emblems to represent characters and concepts. Writing in a footnote, Issy comments on "The Doodles family," giving the sigla for her father, her mother, herself, the "four old men," the book, and her two brothers. She should not know this information: talking about herself as if she had read her author's preparatory material, Issy disrupts readers' expectations of what comprises proper knowledge for a character. Improper knowledge, in fact, defines Issy. Her wealth of sexual information reveals both how her sexuality is regulated by the social norms of patriarchy and how she subverts those norms, for while her knowledge may appear to cast her as essentially erotic, it also becomes the ground from which she speaks a disruptive story that threatens the gendered economy of power in Finnegans Wake.

Joyce configures Issy according to a revision of the psychological models historically available to him, models that combine disruptive speech with hysteria and thus with unbridled sexuality. Within the novel, Joyce uses incest as a metaphor through which he articulates both his desire for this subversion and his opposition to it. That is, like an incestuous father, Joyce seeks to control and to possess the desired daughter who never can be fully controlled, for she always possesses the dangerous potential to betray the father and overthrow his authority by speaking his secrets. Incest within the novel thus names not only a theme but a narrative principle homologous with the discursive structure of incest. Joyce uses the impossibility of total control by the creator/father to generate a text in which the instability of narrative is an integral part of what the text is about. Although Joyce asserts control over all his texts, organizing them with superstructures that found favor with such hierarchically minded early theorists of modernism as Pound and Eliot, his texts are constantly negotiating an uneasy balance between that control and the counternarratives that resist it. Joyce uses female characters, especially adolescent girls, to embody narratives that resist authorial control. Issy's long footnote in the schoolroom chapter of Finnegans Wake manifests daughters' tendency to contest their fathers' authority, for it contains an accusation of incest against Issy's father, HCE.

Joyce invests Issy with authorial power even when he confines her to the literally marginal space of footnotes. In a footnote that bears no obvious correlation to the text to which it refers, she comments: "Pure chingchong idiotism with any words all in one soluble" (FW, 299 n. 3). Immediately following the footnote, the main body of the text begins with a sentence remarkable for its words of one syllable: "When he rolls over his ars and shows the hise of his heels" (FW, 299.23-25). The text also soon supplies the "chingchong idiotism" Issy had predicted: "Vely lovely entilely! Like a yangsheepslang with the tsifengtse" (FW, 299.25-26). Whereas readers expect the main text to determine footnote content, the footnote is likely to dictate the main text when Issy writes. Issy also reverses the usual hierarchy between text and footnote on the next page, confirming her special narrative powers when she predicts in footnote three the presence of "Baa Baa Black Sheep" on the succeeding page (FW, 300 n. 3; 301.6). Far from being confined to the knowledge she would have as a mere character in an author's text, Issy is granted quasi-authorial knowledge: knowledge of both the originary, deep structure and the plot of the text in which...

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