Joyce's Book of the Dark

Since its publication in 1939, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has held the reputation as the definitive modern classic of obscurity, a difficult book that both demands and defies interpretation. The work has been both praised and denounced, explained and explicated by some of the finest literary critics. It has been abridged (by Anthony Burgess) to make it more readable, and filmed with subtitles to make it more comprehensible.

Finnegans Wake has inspired scholars to produce studies such as those elicited by no other modern novel: a census of its characters, a study of the book titles woven into its pages, a list of the river names it contains, a gazetteer of its landscape, and lexicons for the myriad languages that make up its strange, yet evocative, form of English.

For all this scrutiny, however, the book remains a puzzle, the last and perhaps crowning work of one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, but a work which defies even definition, much less discussion. One might echo Finnegans Wake itself: “A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles, and is there one who understands me?”

Although there are many areas of disagreement concerning Finnegans Wake, two points of contention form the essence of the debate: Exactly what was Joyce attempting to do with Finnegans Wake, and was it worth doing? Those who admit their bafflement with Joyce’s intent generally dismiss his book; those who believe that they have fathomed his purpose try, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, to explain its aim and affirm its value.

John Bishop certainly falls into the second category. Only a person who believes in Joyce’s enigmatic production would spend the time and effort Bishop obviously has in first reading and rereading the book, and then writing so helpfully and entertainingly about it. In Joyce’s Book of the Dark: “Finnegans Wake” Bishop has produced the clearest, most sensible, and most encompassing study of Finnegans Wake to date.

In his seminal study James Joyce (1941; revised and augmented, 1960), the noted critic Harry Levin correctly identified the circular process needed to understand the Wake: “The peculiarity of Joyce’s later writing is that any passage presupposes a reading knowledge of the rest of the book. On the other hand, to master a page is to understand the book. The trick is to pick out a passage where a break-through can be conveniently effected.” Thus, by the very “commodious vicus of recirculation” of Joyce’s opening paragraph, the reader must continually construct and reconstruct the Wake in order to perceive its meaning.

This is the technique used by Bishop in Joyce’s Book of the Dark, and while the underlying principle is not new, Bishop’s assumptions and directions yield fresh and valuable insights into Joyce’s curious volume.

In considering the Wake, Bishop takes Joyce at his word: It is a book about night, about sleep, and, to some extent, about dreams. The dream element has dominated most critical discussion of the Wake, but in his study Bishop subordinates the single aspect of dreaming to the entire process of sleep—a mysterious state itself, little understood, but well reflected in the prose of Finnegans Wake. “If one operates on the premise that Finnegans Wake reconstructs the night,” Bishop writes, then the book makes sense on those terms, since “nobody’s ’nightlife’ make sense as a continuous linear narrative whole.”

If not as a linear whole, then how should “nightlife” be depicted? To describe this largely unknown place or state, Finnegans Wake uses “representational mannerisms peculiar to the working of the night.” Bishop argues persuasively that the language of these mannerisms is literal in its effects, but associative in its meanings. When Joyce writes of persons asleep, for example, his words mimic the state of sleep: They become vague and blurry, refusing to locate the reader in any definite place. As Bishop asks, just where is a person when asleep? The body may be in bed, but the mind (at least the conscious mind) is somewhere else, recalled only imperfectly in dreams.


(The entire section is 1758 words.)


AB Bookman’s Weekly. LXXX, August 3, 1987, p. 367.

The Antioch Review. XLV, Spring, 1987, p. 238.

Choice. XXIV, May, 1987, p. 1392.

Library Journal. CXII, May 1, 1987, p. 69.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, January 18, 1987, p. 14.

Partisan Review. LIV, No. 3, 1987, p. 477.