Finnegans Wake takes place in the course of one night’s dreams of the five members of a Dublin family: Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle, their twin sons Shem and Shaun, and daughter Issy. The fears, desires, conflicts, and confusions of these primary dreamers unfold to embrace social and political themes, so that their nightmares reveal the whole development of human history.
This development is imagined as cyclical, whereby all the experiences of life recur in every generation, and the large sweep of history returns upon itself to repeat previous patterns. Highly elaborated analogies between popular and intellectual culture, Irish and world politics, trivial incidents and momentous events are conveyed by means of an original “night language” drawn from dozens of languages impressed upon an English base. Every element in Finnegans Wake is meaningful and part of the total design. Thus, the title, borrowed from a comic Irish-American ballad, suggests etymologically that ends beget new beginnings.
Finnegans Wake is one of the most brilliant and complex literary works of the twentieth century. It has had a larger influence on writers than on the general public, but even the casual reader will find it a very funny book. Serious readers, however, are divided into devotees and those who consider its language too idiosyncratic to repay the committed study it requires.
(The entire section is 470 words.)