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  • Possible Worlds Theory and the Fantasy Universe of Finnegans Wake
  • Margot Norris (bio)

In the first chapter of his Narrative Design in "Finnegans Wake," Harry Burrell points to one of the central tensions in the history of Wake criticism by heading his discussion with the single word "Narrative?"1 He writes that "David Hayman, Bernard Benstock, John Bishop, and Margot Norris, for example, have all concluded that there is no underlying narrative and have evolved different systems of dealing with the dilemma" (8). In contrast, he notes, Fritz Senn and Clive Hart continue to yearn for the text's deep structural meaning to be disclosed (8). Burrell's study offers that deep structural meaning by treating the Wake as Joyce's rewriting of the Bible and creation of "a new theology" (7)—a claim that, in many respects, harks back to a founding text of Wake criticism: Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson's 1944 A Skeleton Key to "Finnegans Wake."2 But however provocative its argument, Burrell's study does not end the controversy over the "Narrative?" of Finnegans Wake nor does it engage the question of the Wake's narrative in a theoretical way. Yet the present moment in the early twenty-first century is particularly opportune for narratological study of avant-garde texts, thanks to a new development in the field that offers tools for more rigorously conceptualizing the nature of fiction itself. Called "Possible Worlds" theory, a branch of narratology that addresses "the fictionality of fictional worlds" has blossomed in the last fifteen years.3 Gerald Prince gives the following explanation of "possible worlds" in his Dictionary of Narratology: "Narratives comprise temporally ordered sequences of states of affairs that are taken to be actual/factual ('what happens') and that are linked to other states of affairs considered non-actual or counterfactual and constituted by the mental activity of various characters (their beliefs, wishes, plans, hallucinations, fantasies, etc.)."4 The posited separation between what theorist Marie-Laure Ryan calls a "[t]extual actual world" (n.p.) and the nonactual "worlds" that belong to the minds of characters in fiction can be readily recognized in a genre like realism. Ulysses is full of events that are assumed to be "factual" and to occur in the "actual" 1904 Dublin world posited within the novel—events like Bloom cooking breakfast at 7 Eccles [End Page 455] Street, the funeral of Paddy Dignam, or Stephen's Shakespeare lecture in the National Library, for example. These events are not, in fact, actual or factual in the sense that they historically occurred in the real world, but Joyce's novel Ulysses pretends that they did. This pretended textual actual world in Ulysses is simultaneously connected to the virtual worlds—or possible worlds—of its characters' ruminations, memories, fantasies, and stories. But how do actual and possible worlds function in the fictional realm of Finnegans Wake? Possible Worlds theory offers tools to analyze the Wake's narrative and fictional operation with greater rigor than before. This essay offers an introduction to such an analysis, though it defers exploring the content or significance of the ontological realms that the analysis discloses.

The question of whether Finnegans Wake exhibits anything resembling an "actual" or "factual" textual world—analogous to the richly imagined 1904 world of Dublin and its inhabitants in Ulysses—has, of course, been an issue in Wake criticism from the very beginning. Edmund Wilson's 1939 essay, "The Dream of H. C. Earwicker," posited a model in which the tavern in Book III functions as the site of an actual world in the Wake:

It is a Saturday night in summer, after a disorderly evening in the pub. Somebody—probably Earwicker himself—has been prevailed upon to sing a song: later, when it was closing time, he had to put a man outside, who abused him and threw stones at the window. There has also been a thunderstorm. Earwicker has been drinking off and on all day and has perhaps gone to bed a little drunk. At any rate, his night is troubled. At first he dreams about the day before, with a bad conscience and a sense of humiliation: then, as the night...


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