Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 946
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 theory in Principi di scienza nuova d’intorno alla comune natura delle nazioni (1744; The New Science, 1948), the four phases of theocratic, aristocratic, democratic, and anarchic, and thence through a ricorso to a new cycle. In the course of the nighttime of Finnegans Wake, the five principal “characters” undergo a series of metamorphoses as they pass through these four phases of history, representing the totality of individual and collective development. Through a vast exfoliation of such metamorphoses, James Joyce structures and populates his universe.
Thus while HCE the Protestant innkeeper is a current manifestation of the collective unconscious, the principle he represents appears in many other forms in the course of the night: Jarl van Hoother, Festy King, the Norwegian Captain, the Russian General, Persse O’Reilly, and Mr. Porter. As opposite aspects of Earwicker’s personality, Shem and Shaun are sometimes identified (as Butt and Taff) but are usually at odds: as the Mookse and the Gripes, Chuff and Glugg, Kev and Dolph, the Ondt and the Gracehoper, Jaun and Dave, or Kevin and Jerry. In sum, these characters represent major thematic and structural principles, as, for example, in the argument between St. Patrick and the Archdruid Berkeley: whether reality is best described as white light (unity) or the spectrum of colors (diversity).
In broad outline, the first book, composed of eight chapters, corresponds to Vico’s divine age. Dominated by the two parental figures, it represents the male and female cycles. First, the mythic Finnegan falls and is replaced by Earwicker. His primal transgression is enacted in the trial of Festy King. Meanwhile, following Earwicker’s death, ALP enters the universe through the resurrection of her letter, and her sons Shem and Shaun engage in a duel of wits. Sharing the responsibility for her husband’s sins, ALP makes her exit as the River Liffey dilutes in Dublin Bay.
In book 2 the children replace their parents, both in their heroic quest for knowledge and in their usurpation of their authority; they then reenact their transgressions. Thus, while ostensibly studying grammar, history, and mathematics, they are actually investigating their parents’ identities and their relationships with them. Earwicker, having closed up the bar, falls asleep on the floor and in a dream concedes to his children under various personas: the Norwegian Captain, the Russian General, Fionn Mac Cool, and Roderic O’Conor. This disintegration of his psyche takes the form of the disagreement between the Four Old Men about the departing loveship of Tristram and Iseult.
The four chapters of book 3 represent the future, civil age, and center on Shaun, Earwicker’s heir. With HCE and ALP in bed at midnight, Shaun the Postman enters the dreamer’s vision. Having heard the fable of the Ondt and the Gracehoper, Shaun attacks it and, claiming equal literary ability with Shem, denounces his father and vilifies his brother. Under a succession of personae (Jaun, Juan, Yawn), he degenerates until, tumbling into a barrel, he rolls backward down the river. Issy and all of Ireland mourn him, but his return is assured.
Book 4, a recapitulation of the whole book, takes place in an instant between death and resurrection. As dawn approaches, the sleep of the Porter family (another manifestation of the archetypal family) is interrupted by the child Jerry’s cry. As the new era begins, the newspapers tell of HCE’s indiscretion, St. Kevin is seen meditating in his bathtub-altar, Muta and Juva watch the encounter between St. Patrick and the Archdruid, and ALP’s letter is in the morning mail. Finally, Anna Livia soliloquizes resignedly as she flows out to sea.