Study Guide

Finnegans Wake

by James Joyce

Finnegans Wake Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Finnegans Wake is an expression of the dreaming collective psyche as it relives the major conflicts of myth and history. This psyche is divided into the two sexual principles, the major representations of which are Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE) and Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP). As the archetypal husband-father, HCE (Haveth Childers Everywhere/Here Comes Everybody) is burdened with guilt over an indiscretion in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. This obscure event is central to the entire dream. A lone man encounters two girls and performs an obscure offense, an incident witnessed by three soldiers or boys, and news of it spreads by the gossipy Four Old Men. The retellings through rumor, gossip, and popular song render everything about this Original Sin unreliable, except that it happened. Protesting his innocence, HCE goes to sleep. In his dreams, however, he encounters previous versions of his crime, which, encrusted with sexual and scatological innuendo, further cloud the precise nature of the offense.

News of this sin is carried throughout the dreambook of history through rumors and documents, lectures and arguments, accusations and recriminations. Interrogators appear in fours, accompanied by twelve bystanders: variously jurymen, apostles, mourners, and drinkers. As HCE is identified with the Dublin landscape—from Chapelizod to “Howth Castle and Environs”—his wife is the personification of the River Liffey (Livia) flowing through that landscape. She is the universal wife-mother and, like all the rivers of the world, constantly in flux.

The three soldiers and their familial equivalents, Shem and Shaun, represent the younger generation taking advantage of HCE’s and ALP’s age to displace them. Even while so doing, however, Shem and Shaun, the contrary twins, in their various manifestations, represent the contention between opposite character types: introvert and extrovert, artist and man of affairs, relativist and dogmatist. While Shem is an irresponsible bohemian and exile, Shaun is a dull, bourgeois hypocrite. Their sister Issy is the divisive ingenue of Finnegans Wake, in contrast with her mother, whose influence is unitive.

Finnegans Wake progresses through four books, following the structure of human history according to Giambattista Vico’s...

(The entire section is 946 words.)