Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 808

Finnegans Wake sets out to render the collective unconscious in appropriate form and language. Thus, it encompasses all of human experience through the millennia in a cycle or recurring forms through a universal language, the language of dreams. To this end, it employs a language with simultaneous references to multiple tongues, expressing the major theme of the cyclical nature of history.

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Thus, Finnegans Wake is not a novel with characters and plot, nor is it a narrative with mythic overtones. Earwicker and his family are perhaps best understood as contemporary, local instances of a great allegory. In reading Finnegans Wake readers confront the anxiety and confusion of their own dreams. No character exists as an independent, stable personality. Similarly, perspectives are continuously shifting between various aspects of the collective unconscious. Thus Earwicker is a kind of Everyman. He can be identified with all the characters to some extent, but whereas he can be called Adam in the biblical system, the Finn Mac Cool of Irish myth, the Tim Finnegan of popular song, or a concession to the bias of his living readers, his identity is most easily comprehended as the Chapelizod pubkeeper Earwicker.

The major themes of Finnegans Wake are death and resurrection, the Fall, guilt, family relations, generational conflict, sexual identity and desire—all marshaled under a quasi-Jungian concept of collective identity. Similarly, following Vico, Joyce presumes that all aspects of a culture—its government, religion, language, and other institutions—are related to one another and that all have a profound impact on the way that individuals within that culture view themselves and their world, since Joyce planned to portray his hero, Earwicker, as inseparable from the cultural matrix of his society. All the figures in this dream-vision are fluid composites involving an unconfined blur of myths and fictitious characters as well as nonhuman elements. This vision is structured in cyclic form, establishing intricate parallels between the broad patterns of historical development and the events and conflicts in the life of an ordinary Irish family. In Finnegans Wake, imagination subsumes the events it describes, radically destabilizing language, identity, and narrative. In these ways it constitutes a clear break with the mainstream of English literature.

Decades of attempts to explicate Finnegans Wake appear to confirm Joyce’s prediction that the work would keep the professors busy for centuries. A general opinion among those who take the work seriously is that as a dreambook and a leading expression of the twentieth century worldview, it is indeterminate, untranslatable, and irreducible. It is a work in which every single element has a function; it contains no nonsense yet is finally beyond explication. Critical analyses of Finnegans Wake have been either macrocosmic or microcosmic, emphasizing its overall design (by reference to Vico, dream theory, and other systems) or attempting to gloss particular passages (the Pranquean episode or the Encounter with the Cad, for example). Thus while Finnegans Wake is generally well understood, specialized studies from either of these perspectives continue to appear.

The apparent impenetrability of Finnegans Wake is an essential aspect of its intention: to give adequate shape to the sleeping experience. Thus although it stands up to literal scrutiny, it should not be read in a literal-minded way. Wordplay in Finnegans Wake is multilingual, etymological, associative, and acoustic. Therefore it is best read aloud, and in an open-minded way, the inferences shared and sifted among a group of simultaneous readers. This helps each reader best appreciate the “collideorscape” of its language, figures, moods, and themes, preventing any single reading from becoming unduly dominant.

Finnegans Wake is a virtuoso production: Drawing on more than thirty languages, it has a cast of hundreds from every phase of world history and digests an encyclopedia of information. It is a book of many moods, of many degrees of opacity, a book of many exits and entrances. Some sections are relatively clear set pieces, such as the portrait of Shem or the fable of the Ondt and the Gracehoper—immediately delightful to the new reader. Others, such as the opening chapter, are extremely dense and daunting to first-time readers. Others, however, are poetic prose of supreme beauty, notably ALP’s departure, which was made available in an audio recording of its author’s own voice.

Finnegans Wake is Joyce’s most ambitious literary endeavor. Within the narrow confines of immediate family relations he aims to encompass all human experience, mythic and historical. Drawing on the traditions of intellectual and popular culture, he forges a literary language that is both high-minded and lowbrow. He anticipated, yet underestimated, the difficulties his readers would encounter and was disappointed that so many of those who acclaimed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915, serial; 1916, book) and Ulysses (1922) as supreme expressions of modernity were unprepared to pursue his explorations to the limits of language in Finnegans Wake.

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Finnegans Wake