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.
Bishop, John. Joyce’s Book of the Dark: “Finnegans Wake.” Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986. Joyce’s determination to represent noctural experience accounts for the form, shape, direction, and language of Finnegans Wake. Relates Finnegans Wake to dream theory and interpretation, thanatology, optics and phonetics, embryology and gender, sexuality and power.
Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. Elegant and authoritative biography providing valuable information on the writing of Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s intentions, his methods, and the difficulties he encountered.
McCarthy, Patrick A, ed. Critical Essays on James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.” New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. Twenty essays surveying past criticism and broad concerns: studies of structure, voice, narration, language, and interpretation, analyses of important themes, and readings of passages in ways that pose crucial questions about Finnegans Wake as a whole. Shows how enjoyable an experience reading Finnegans Wake is.
McHugh, Roland. Annotations to “Finnegans Wake.” Rev. ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991. A line-by-line explication of foreign words, English overtones, place names, personal names, phrases parodied, song titles and quotations, literary sources, historical events. Basic reference tool, designed to be consulted in tandem with a reading of Finnegans Wake.
Rose, Danis, and John O’Hanlon. Understanding “Finnegans Wake”: A Guide to the Narrative of James Joyce’s Masterpiece. New York: Garland, 1982. A section-by-section synopsis of Finnegans Wake. Very useful companion for the beginning reader, it clarifies the main techniques and themes in the form of a running commentary.