Reading Finnegans Wake: the Closest I’ll Ever Get to Scaling Mount Everest

I’ll never forget the moment I knew I had to stop running.

It was in Pasadena, CA, in the summer of 2011.  That year’s North American James Joyce conference was winding down, and I was quickly checking my email after printing out my plane tickets home.  One of the emails I received was the good news I had been hoping to hear for months: someone wanted to publish my book!  I had submitted my proposal for my manuscript, a study of the love themes in Joyce’s works, to several publishers that spring, and had received several rejections in the process.  All were polite and complementary, and some offered extremely helpful advice on how to proceed, but the voices up to that point were all in unison: it was a good study, but not for them.  But finally, someone had said yes!

And the reader report was even more encouraging!  Critical yet effusive, its revision suggestions seemed more than reasonable and easily workable, which only added to the high the acceptance email initially put me on.  Until I got to the reviewer’s final question, and the record skipped.

Where was Finnegans Wake?

First we feel, then we fall indeed….

Up until that moment, I had been a Joycean on the run, doing whatever I could to keep distance between myself and the book I felt I could not read.  The book I was perplexed that anyone could read.  I was essentially a Joycean ostrich burying its head in Sandymount Strand.  From the moment I had been introduced to Finnegans Wake, I was told that the novel was impossible, and the more I learned about it, the more convinced I became that it would be the literary Everest that I would be unable to climb.

First, there was the lead-off sentence of the introductory essay to my Penguin edition:

There is no agreement as to what Finnegans Wake is about, whether or not it is “about” anything, or even whether it is, in any ordinary sense of the word, “readable” (p. vii)

That was followed by the cursory thumbing through pages that brought this notorious paragraph on the novel’s opening page to my attention:


While immediately joining the ranks of readers intimidated by that parenthetical nightmare, I did have to chuckle over the concluding exclamation point.  If you’re going to randomly drop one-hundred-letter gibberish into a paragraph, at least be emphatic about it!

Then came the numerous people who told me that Finnegans Wake was a novel more for the ear than the eye, that when you heard the text aloud, it would make more sense.  And so I bought an audio recording of the novel … and still couldn’t understand what I was hearing.

And then came the summer during graduate school when I resolved to sit down and read the novel.  I figured that I couldn’t be a Joycean worth his salt without having made it through the Wake, so, armed with my Penguin edition and with Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson’s Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, I buckled down and began to read.  I made it through the first four chapters of Book I before chucking my copy across the room in frustration and giving up.  To this day, Finnegans Wake, ironically a novel about a fall, remains the only book that has taken flight while in my possession.

So, from that summer on, I was resolved to be a Joycean whose expertise ended with Ulysses, taking heart in the fact that not all Joyce scholars studied Finnegans Wake.  Indeed, one of my mentors in graduate school frequently and emphatically stated that he would never go near the novel, and if he could carve out a successful non-Wakean Joyce career, then why couldn’t I?  I would still attend conference panels on the Wake and admire my colleagues who were able to write critically and eloquently on a book that was out of my league.  And I would end the Joyce sequences in my Twentieth Century British Literature courses with a peak at the Wake‘s first page and watch my students’ mouths gradually drop as they worked their way through that immense parenthetical.

And clearly, I am not the only person to consider Finnegans Wake to be an insurmountable challenge.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the above paragraphs described a lot of people’s attempts to work their way through the labyrinthine tome.  Indeed, Joyce’s final novel has gained the reputation of being the most difficult book ever written, the most complicated and opaque novel in the English language (if it’s even written in English to begin with).  And while a smattering of celebrity endorsements may have given the novel a certain mystique (Brie Larson recently said that the first thing she wanted to do after winning her Best Actress Oscar was to finish Finnegans Wake), a simple Twitter search of Finnegans Wake will turn up several assessments more along these lines:

What’s more, many famous authors have similarly echoed their confusion with the novel.  Michael Chabon described his first encounter with Finnegans Wake in this extraordinary fashion:

“After that I came up against the safety perimeter, beyond which there lurked, hulking, chimerical, gibbering to itself in an outlandish tongue, a frightening beast out of legend.”

To be sure, he would eventually go on to conquer the Joycean beast incarnate and find value in the undertaking.  Roddy Doyle would be less complementary in his assessment of Joyce’s final novel, providing this delightful skewering in response to a question about the writer’s influence on his work:

 But what’s the point of Finnegans Wake?  There are so many full-time academics that I don’t want to hurt their economy, but I feel like it’s a complete waste of time.  It’s a great pity, because he spent so much time writing that shit that he could have spent writing real books.  I’ve no problem with cleverness or intellectual muscle men, but I just think now and again it becomes gratuitous and you go beyond any sort of reality and you are just wasting your time.  And there’s a certain snobbery that goes along with it – the inner circle who has read the book and can talk about it while the rest of us are embarrassed to admit we’ve never read it, or are happy to admit we’ve better things to do.

(As a quick response to Doyle’s dismissal, I do think it’s important to point out that he stopped reading Finnegans Wake after only three pages, so his blanket writing off of the last seventeen years of Joyce’s literary career is grounded in his assessment of less than 1% of the novel.  Though what a clever move he takes at the end of that paragraph, labeling the mere act of reading Finnegans Wake itself as “snobbery,” so apparently anyone who thinks it’s off base for him to pan this novel he hasn’t even read is an elitist.  It’s like the self-congratulatory dismissal of Ulysses ramped up to 11.)

Even Joyce’s contemporaries were baffled by his latest novel throughout its composition.  His longtime benefactor, Harriet Shaw Weaver, told him in a November 20, 1926 letter:

But, dear sir, (I always seem to have a ‘but’) the worst of it is that without comprehensive key and glossary, such as you very kindly made out for me, the poor hapless reader loses a very great deal of your intention; flounders, helplessly, is in imminent danger, in fact, of being as totally lost to view as that illfated vegetation you mentioned. (qtd. in Richard Ellmann’s biography, James Joyce, p. 584)

Ezra Pound, in a November 15, 1926 letter to Joyce, similarly stated of what would become Book III:

I will have another go at it, but up to present I make nothing of it whatever. Nothing so far as I make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization (Letters III, P. 145).

And Ellmann notes that Joyce “relayed to Miss Weaver the pained remarks of friends, and such comments by editors as, ‘all Greek to us’ ‘unfortunately I can’t read it’ ‘is it a puzzle?’ ‘has anybody had the courage to ask J. how many misprints are in it?’ ‘those French printers!’ ‘how is your eyesight?'” (p. 581).  So, from its composition through its publication and into its now 77th year in print, Finnegans Wake has maintained the legacy epitomized by Weaver’s February 4, 1927 letter to Joyce: a “Wholesale Safety Pun Factory” created by a literary madman who’s “wasting [his] genius” through nonstop giggling over another pun he’s added to his “deliberately-entangled language system” and inserted into his increasingly incomprehensible text (qtd. in Ellmann, p. 590).

So what is this notorious book about?  To the extent that it’s “about” anything, Finnegans Wake tells the “story” of a family of five: Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker; his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle; their bickering twin sons Shem the Penman and Shaun the Post, and their youngest daughter Issy.  The main action concerns Earwicker’s fall from grace after being caught committing an unspecified transgression in front of two young girls (and/or three soldiers) at the Magazine Wall in Phoenix Park.  He gives away his guilt in a conversation with a cad with a pipe, and the gossip that ensues makes Earwicker a pariah in the novel’s Lucalizod setting.  It is thus up to Anna Livia Plurabelle to save her husband’s reputation by writing a letter, the contents of which will hopefully redeem both Earwicker and their marriage.  At the same time, the novel features several chapters devoted to the warring twins, with Shem the outcast poet (because every Joyce text must have one) fighting his more conventionally popular brother Shaun for the attention of their sister Issy.

A couple of other things about the novel to keep in mind:

First, Finnegans Wake is widely considered Joyce’s journey into the land of dreams.  If Ulysses is Joyce’s book of the (dailiest) day, then the Wake is his book of the night.  It is generally understood that the novel encompasses a descent into dreamland at the beginning of the book and an eventual awakening towards the end, and the events of the text take place within the sleeping subconscious of an unidentified dreamer.  John Bishop’s Joyce’s Book of the Dark is a landmark study in this interpretation of the Wake and enormously helpful in reading the novel from this perspective.

Second, Finnegans Wake is largely a novel about the historical rise and fall of humanity.  Joyce was largely fascinated by the work of Giambattista Vico, a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Italian philosopher and historian who believed, among other things, that history develops from cyclical patterns of rise and fall, where the pursuit of progress is undercut by a roll-back to a more primitive condition.  This return (or ricorso) thus precipitates the next historical stage for humanity to aim high and fall short, and thus the cycle is repeated anew.  It is largely accepted that Joyce is riffing to some extent on Vico’s historical writings in Finnegans Wake, where Earwicker’s rise and fall becomes an allegory for several similar historical falls, and thus our historical narrative as a whole.  This structure is primarily located in the novel’s “thunderwords” (those gigantic parentheticals) that are supposed to signify thunder and herald the dawning of a new historical age, and by Joyce’s decision to split the novel’s concluding sentence in half so that the first half ends the novel and the last half begins it.  Thus, the novel itself is a cycle that continues repeatedly the more you return “by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs” (Finnegans Wake, p. 3) and start a new repetition of the fall of Finnegan.

OK, so that may be a lot to digest, but it may not seem all that daunting on the surface. The Wake essentially becomes a story about a dysfunctional family that stands in for all of history’s dysfunctional families and thus reveals the narrative of human existence to be one giant dysfunctional family forever destined for a fall.   In that sense, Finnegans Wake is Stephen Dedalus’s worst nightmare, a history from which he cannot awake.  Certainly massive and ambitious in scope, but on the whole, that seems relatively straightforward.

So what is it about Joyce’s telling of that story that makes people want to run as far away from Finnegans Wake as possible?  Where do I begin…

The language – this is probably the largest hurdle for most readers of the novel.  Possibly to find a language suitable to capture the disorientation of dreams, Joyce has written his novel in what has become lovingly (or scornfully depending on your take on the Wake) known as Wakese, a Babel-laden mishmash of 60-70 different languages combined into multilingual puns and portmanteaus.  Take that opening thunderword above as an example and let Wake actor and self-professed “JoyceGeek” Adam Harvey walk you through it:

Now imagine every other word in the novel working like that.  Of course, not every word in Finnegans Wake combines 9 languages, but even a regular clip of 2-3 languages per word is a lot to handle.  I have a decent knowledge of Spanish and a cursory understanding of Italian, but how am I going to catch riffs on French, Hindustani, Romanian, and Greek?  And even the words based completely in English are more often than not portmanteaus, so you have to break down a litany of puns and then piece them together to form some semblance of a coherent story.

The characters – this was actually the most intimidating factor to me when I initially discovered Finnegans Wake.  I mentioned above that the novel primarily concerns five main characters (with some other supporting players as well), but Finnegans Wake plays around with characterization in ways I had never seen before.  Again, likely to capture the disorientation of dreams (and also to develop the Viconian historical progression motif), Joyce has each of character transform into at least ten different versions of itself throughout the novel.  So, for example, Earwicker becomes Humpty Dumpty, the Duke of Wellington, Charles Stewart Parnell, Roderic O’Connor, a Norwegian Captain, a Russian General, and a publican named Mr. Porter, among other people.  Over the course of Book III’s four chapters, Shaun the Post transforms from the first chapter’s Shaun to the second chapter’s Jaun to the third chapter’s Yawn to the fourth chapter’s … Kevin?  Why are there now 30 versions of Issy, and why is Anna Livia Plurabelle also both a river and a hen?  It feels like you need to draw a map to keep track of who’s who when everyone keeps changing without warning.

Compounding that character fluidity is the fact that Joyce refers to his characters by acrostics as often as he does by names.  Thus, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker is more famously known as HCE, and Anna Livia Plurabelle is more frequently called ALP, and every acrostic phrase in the novel (Here Comes Everybody; Haveth Childers Everywhere) is meant to symbolize those characters.  Your brain becomes locked into every capital H, C, E, A, L, and P in the book to see if they’re followed by the necessary acrostic letters and thus signify a character name.  How do you keep track of the characters if you’re unsure if the characters are even present?

The set pieces – Finnegans Wake may primarily seem to focus on the Earwicker family troubles, but the novel is also famous for a plethora of side episodes that, at first glance, seem barely relevant to that main plot.  Pieces like “The Museyroom,” “The Ondt and the Gracehoper,” “The Mookse and the Gripes,” “Buckley and the Russian General,” and “St. Patrick and the Druid,” among others.  For example, here’s Harvey’s reading of the first chapter’s “Prankquean” episode, Joyce’s riff on the legendary encounter between Irish pirate queen Grace O’Malley and the Earl of Howth:

Keeping track of the main storyline is already difficult when it’s told through complicated Wakese and the characters keep changing, but trying to make sense of the plot when it suddenly dissolves into a seemingly separate story for several pages may make that task even more impossible.

There are likely other complications readers have faced when finding their way through Joyce’s dreamlike quagmire, but those were the ones that threw me off.  Add that to the novel’s size (628 pages, so comparable to Ulysses), and you can see why I put off reading Finnegans Wake as long as I could.  But I couldn’t run forever, and when tackling the text essentially became a requirement if I wanted my book published, I figured it was time to try again.  So, when I got home from that Pasadena Joyce conference in June 2011, I picked up my novel off of the floor and concocted a plan to conquer my Joycean Everest.

And it worked!  I’m delighted to report that while the Wake got the best of me during my first go-around, I was able to find my way through Joyce’s pun factory during my second try.

Here’s how I did it.  WARNING: this strategy is potentially ridiculous.

First, a qualifier: since I was primarily reading Finnegans Wake so that I could write about it, I had to factor in more work than people who might just be trying to read the book would have to.  For starters, I would essentially have to read the novel twice: an initial read through for “comprehension” (if that word applies to this book) and a second reading that focused more critically and thoroughly on what I wanted to write about.  Plus, I was on a time crunch; I had the summer to get this work done before the next school year started, so I had the rest of June and all of July and August to work with.  To compound matters, I had to immerse myself deeply in Finnegans Wake scholarly criticism so that I could place the points my book would make about the Wake alongside what had already been written about it.  For that reason, I gave myself the rest of June to read the novel itself, July to read as much Wake criticism as possible, and August to write the book chapter.  That meant I had to finish my initial read of Finnegans Wake in about three weeks.  No big deal, right?

So, to accomplish this, I allotted myself a chapter per day, and all I did on those days was consume Finnegans Wake.  Like I said above, I had made it through the first four chapters of The Wake before it went airborne during my first try, so this time, I began where I left off at chapter five.  Then, the day after I finished the concluding Book IV, I hopped a ride on Joyce’s “commodius vicus of recirculation” and returned to the beginning, where I spent my last four days re-reading the first four chapters.  Again, my goal in this first reading was pure comprehension, so I focused almost exclusively on understanding what was going on and not getting held up on portmanteaus or puns that eluded my grasp, since I knew that I would soon be returning to the novel to go deeper.

Campbell and Robinson’s Skeleton Key made a return engagement, but for this go-around, they were joined by three other texts.  During the day, I read my assigned chapter of Finnegans Wake, with the Skeleton Key, Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake, and Adaline Glasheen’s Third Census of Finnegans Wake also open.  Campbell and Robinson provided a general explanation (or translation depending on how you view it) of what was happening on each page; McHugh went line by line and broke down each pun into its linguistic origin and meaning; and Glasheen provided additional page annotations while also keeping me grounded in the character associations and their significance.  Then, during the evening, I read the corresponding chapter of Luca Crispi and Sam Slote’s edited collection, How Joyce Wrote Finnegans Wake: A Chapter-by-Chapter Genetic Guide  This study gave me a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the composition process of the chapter I had read during that day, as each contributing scholar discussed the origins of each episode and how Joyce’s initial intentions for each chapter developed from draft to published journal excerpt to formal book chapter.

So yes, to read one novel, I had to read five books at the same time.  Is that crazy?  Possibly.  Should a person have to read five books in order to read one book?  Probably not.  But it ensured that I wasn’t the “poor hapless reader” without a “key” that Weaver lamented in her letter to Joyce, and the end result was that I came into the first week of July with a fairly comprehensive understanding of the novel so that I could tackle the critical studies on the Wake during the rest of that month.

Now this reading strategy is probably not for everyone, and I imagine other readers have found more effective ways of making their way through the Wake than this.  However, there were a few key benefits I found from this approach:

It broke the novel up into manageable chunks – when I first attempted Finnegans Wake, I tackled the book as a whole, trying to read it straight through like I’d read any other book.  I tried to read and absorb as much of the Wake as possible at a time, which usually didn’t amount to much and ended up contributing to my discouragement.  By contrast, this attempt felt easier because I was only trying to complete a chapter a day.  The goal wasn’t “forge through the novel” as much as it was “forge through this specific section of it.”  This made the process as a whole seem more manageable, and by devoting a whole day to one chapter, it gave me enough time to take my time should that day’s section prove particularly challenging.  And since I was under a time crunch and had to complete a chapter a day due to my writing schedule, other readers not under such a deadline could break the novel down even further (a certain number of pages per day rather than chapters, for example) and thus make the process even more workable.

It allowed me to be aided by the Wake guides while still developing my own reaction to the novel – one of the criticisms of using the Finnegans Wake guides is that an over-reliance on these books detracts from you finding your own way through the novel.  Rather than developing your own reaction, you end up parroting what the creators of your guide focus on, so you come away with Campbell and Robinson’s Wake rather than the Wake itself.  Ironically, I found that the more Wake guides I used, the less that ended up happening because the guides didn’t necessarily agree on how to interpret the same lines or episodes.  There were frequently times when Campbell and Robinson reached different conclusions from MacHugh or Glasheen over the same part of the Wake, and it then became up to me to resolve their dispute based off of my reading of the text.  The result was that I was able to use the guides’ suggestions and disputes to figure out what I felt was going on in the novel without having their interpretations directly determine how I read it, which is really the best of both worlds.

It made me feel like I wasn’t reading the novel alone – one of my initial hesitations about reading Finnegans Wake was always that I was going to have to go it alone.  I never found the experience of reading Ulysses overly challenging because, since I studied it in several Joyce classes, I was always reading alongside my classmates and professor, and so there was always a large group of people ready to bounce ideas off of and to clarify passages and chapters that proved confusing.  However, I could never find anyone to read the Wake with me (the idea for a Wake reading group in grad school fizzled out almost instantaneously), so I had no one to turn to when the novel got confusing (which was quickly).  Reading Finnegans Wake alongside multiple guides and as much Wake criticism as I could find not only clarified particular sticking points in the text, but it made me feel like I wasn’t alone.  I had essentially created my own Finnegans Wake all-star reading group consisting of the leading scholars in the field, which gave me that lifeline I enjoyed with Ulysses and needed so desperately during my first time with the Wake.

Did I ultimately enjoy that first read through of Finnegans Wake?  Yes and no.  Some chapters proved great fun (I loved the concluding three chapters of Book I, with the hilarious quiz show transitioning into the snarky take on Shem the Penman and concluding with the virtuoso ALP chapter), while others I found a chore to read (I found I was not a huge fan of II.2’s Night Lessons or III.4’s Porter family issues).  Some chapters would have been better served if I had more time to split them up over a few days (II.3’s pub scene and the concluding Book IV, for example).

But was I glad that I read the novel?  Absolutely!  Not only did I feel a personal sense of accomplishment in finally scaling my personal Everest, but once I got that initial read out of the way, I began to see the fun in Finnegans Wake.  In that way, the Wake greatly rewards re-readings of it, because when it came time for me to return to the novel in August after my July of critical studies, I really began to enjoy the aspects of the novel that I initially found frustrating.  Having more of a grounding in the novel’s “plot,” I began to have fun breaking down the language and discovering the interpretive possibilities of Joyce’s puns and portmanteaus.  I started to relish the humor in the different versions of HCE’s fall through the different characters he becomes throughout the novel.  I would literally scream out “HCE!” or “ALP!” in excitement whenever I stumbled upon a new acrostic in the text.   And those seemingly-irrelevant set pieces would become some of the most hilarious episodes in the novel once I figured out how they riffed on the main Earwicker plot.

And I began to experience a freedom in reading and writing about Finnegans Wake that I have rarely experienced in another novel.  It’s this freedom that really gives the lie to Doyle’s earlier assertions of elitism, because Wakeans never claim to have all the answers.  In fact, for many Wake scholars, you can’t have all the answers because the novel inherently defies a clear interpretation or “right” answer and leaves it up to you to find your own significance in the Wholesale Safety Pun Factory.  While it may initially seem frustrating that the book consistently foils interpretive certainty on every page, that actually empowered me to assert my reaction to the Wake in a way that you just can’t in more “straightforward” plots.  After reading article after article with arguments grounded in “if this phrase means X, then we conclude Y, but if it means Z, then we conclude A” logic, I discovered that there wasn’t a secret unifying meaning to the narrative that I just wasn’t smart enough to uncover.  Instead, Finnegans Wake became a novel of possibilities, and even if you couldn’t conclusively decide whether a phrase meant X or Y, both theories could still be valid and guide your reading productively.  Similarly, what you noticed in the language could be as valid and persuasive as other people’s interpretations, even if they differed wildly from your take.  It was all of the fun of thinking critically about a text without the anxiety of definitively proving your take was the “right” one.  In this way, while Doyle derided the people who’ve finished Finnegans Wake as a snobbish secret society of self-congratulatory scholars, the very qualities that make the novel seem like an unreadable Goliath ironically make it one of the most open, free, and welcoming interpretive communities I’ve been a part of.

This is further demonstrated by the different Finnegans Wake reading groups that have popped up around the world over the last few decades, from Zurich to London to Leeds to Boston and beyond.  Earlier, I noted my fear of tackling the novel alone, wishing that I had had a reading group to work through the Wake with.  The more I learn about these different Wake groups, the stronger that wish becomes.  Not only does this give Wake readers an opportunity to work through this challenge with and gain more insights and possibilities from the other members, but these groups themselves genuinely sound like a lot of fun.  No one comes to the table armed with all the answers; instead, the members collaborate with each other, throwing out guesses, theories, and interpretations based on their individual backgrounds and what those experiences cause them to notice in the Wakese.  Not versed in French or in numerology?  The person next to you in the group may be, and their insights may add another dimension to your reading experience.  And what makes these groups all the better is that their roster is not limited to Joyce scholars; rather, most of them combine academics and non-academics united by their love of Joyce and the sheer pleasure they get in parsing a pun and laughing at the results.

In fact, for a lot of these groups, finishing Finnegans Wake isn’t even the endgame; once they finally reach the end of the novel, they return to the beginning and start anew because they value the camaraderie that comes from wandering through Joyce’s labyrinth together.  The Thirsty Scholars reading group in Boston, a truly welcoming group of Wakeans from all walks of life, began reading the Wake in the Thirsty Scholar pub in 1997 and finished 13 years later, only to start over upon completion in 2010.

Upping the ante in longevity is the Wake reading group that meets in Zurich led by Fritz Senn, director of the Zurich James Joyce Foundation.  As documented in Dora Garcia’s fabulous documentary, The Joycean Society, Senn’s group has met regularly since 1985 and completed multiple readings of the Wake, and to watch their interactions in Garcia’s film, it’s not hard to understand why they keep coming back.  The joy and laughter that pervade their discussions really demonstrate that this is a community of Joyce lovers who also love sharing their journey through the novel with each other, and it truly refutes assertions of an elitist, academic Wake cult overly proud of their heightened intellect.  In fact, it’s my experiences with these Wake reading groups, be it through conversations with the Scholars or through watching the Joycean Society in action on film, that confirmed to me that Finnegans Wake, like Ulysses, is as open and welcoming as it seems daunting and exclusive.  It’s as Sweny’s Pharmacy said on Bloomsday in the tweet I included in my initial post: exclusivity isn’t Joycean and everyone has a home waiting for them inside Joyce’s novels, no matter how scholarly or impenetrable they may seem.

So, thinking about tackling Finnegans Wake, but unsure where to start?  Thankfully, there are loads of resources at your disposal that could aid you in your journey:

Grab some guides – you may not want to have to read multiple books to have to read one novel, but they really do make the Wake more manageable. (Plus, once you work up a reading rhythm, consulting the guides as you read the Wake doesn’t really get that distracting or bothersome.)  I found the texts I mentioned above (particularly the MacHugh annotations) essential in being able to work my way through the novel, but there are other guides other readers have used as well (Tindall’s A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake and Fweet are among the most frequently cited guides).

Grab a recording – I know I said above that the audio recording of Finnegans Wake I used for my first go-around didn’t work for me, but so many people have said that this is a novel that gains comprehension in being heard that it’s definitely worth a shot.  And if you want to go this route, you’re in luck, because Derek Pyle has recently created a project called Waywords and Meansigns that has set the full text of Finnegans Wake to music.  Now in its second edition, Pyle has brought together multiple artists from different musical and media genres, and Waywords and Meansigns combines unabridged recitations of each chapter with multiple diverse musical accompaniments that enhance the experience of plunging through Joyce’s dreamscape.

Follow a blog or podcast – the beauty of so many people deciding to take the plunge into Finnegans Wake during this social media driven age is that a lot of them have decided to electronically share their experiences, be it through blogs or podcasts of their reactions to individual chapters or themes.  Not only might these give you some foundational grounding in the different parts of the novel, but you’ll get to share the experience of making it through the Wake with people who are in the same position as you and are finding joy or frustration in the same things you are.  As just one example, I recently found the PorterGirl blog, where she’s going chapter by chapter, documenting her reactions to what she’s reading as she makes it through the Wake.  Each post includes interpretations, impressions, and favorite quotes, and her overall tone of self-professed “merry confusion” sounds just the right note.

Follow Finnegans Wake Word of the Day on Twitter – yes, you can get a daily dose of Wakese served to your Twitter feed by following @FW_WOTD:

Getting into the habit of parsing through these daily words may get you used to the way Joyce’s portmanteau words work in the Wake, which may make it easier to tackle the language when you decide to begin the novel.

Join a Finnegans Wake reading group – as I’ve said above, this is a novel that’s easier to understand and enjoy with others, so I would find a group that’s working their way through the Wake and sign up.  And if there is no Finnegans Wake reading group near you, start one!  You don’t need a Joyce expert at your disposal; just gather a group of similarly curious readers, get a few guides, and work through sections together at your neighborhood pub.

Take your time and be OK with not understanding everything– Ulysses and especially Finnegans Wake have really convinced me that you don’t have to comprehend every line or passage in a novel to get a lot out of it.  Allowing yourself not to understand everything you read really does ease a lot of the pressure and frustration that comes with reading a book like this.  Break the novel up into manageable chunks, figure out what you can as you work your way through the chapters, and don’t feel that you’re losing your grip on the Wake if there are puns or portmanteaus that elude your grasp.  You don’t have to get every joke and side plot to get a good understanding of HCE’s fall and ALP’s quest for his redemption (and that’s a truly rewarding journey to experience in itself).

And if you make it through the whole book and have some time on your hands, circle back and begin again.  The second reading is even better!

It may seem like an impossible journey that’s not worth the effort, and I would not have made it if my hand wasn’t forced.  But I’m living proof that it can be done, that the initial discouragement of not understanding a word of that first page can become a desire to never leave the pun factory.  So though there may be times you want to fling the novel across the room, stick with it, and you’ll discover the one thing so many lovers of the novel can say for certain: there really is lots of fun at Finnegans Wake!




Author: postsonthepenman

I'm an Associate Professor of English at Mount Mercy University. I teach courses in British Romanticism, British Modernism, Contemporary British Literature, and Irish Literature and Culture. I'm specifically a lifelong fan of James Joyce and have taken him up on his request that I devote my entire life to understanding his works.

5 thoughts on “Reading Finnegans Wake: the Closest I’ll Ever Get to Scaling Mount Everest”

  1. Thank you for the mention of my blog, much appreciated! As you are aware, it is in no way an academic or literary review of the book, just my own reactions to the pages before me. I am very nearly finished and about to publish my own amateur conclusion in due course. I have never read Joyce before and in fact read very little in the way of novels. I was looking for a way to kill time whilst waiting for my own book to come back from its final line edit and a friend suggested I try Finnegans Wake. Personally, I love it. There are chunks where I have literally no idea what’s going on but there is a great deal of it that is very readable and also very funny – not to mention pretty saucy in places! It is far from impossible, although it is highly improbable – if you can forget everything you thought you knew about books and storytelling, you can get a handle on it no problem.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you have it just right – finding humor in the craziness and not letting the passages that completely bewilder you hold you back. Completely agree that there are hilarious, sensational sections of the Wake even though there were other sections that stymied me. That perspective (what you call “merry confusion” in one of your posts) really does make the Wake a really fun ride.

      If you’ve never read Joyce before and enjoyed the Wake, you may enjoy his other works as well, especially Ulysses. More humor and sauciness with less confusion!

      Looking forward to your “amateur conclusion”!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The workbook looks great – thanks so much! This should be enormously helpful going forward!

      I was in the audience for your performance of Mookse and the Gripes, which I enjoyed very much. That was actually my introduction to The Wake being both comprehensible and hilarious. I also really enjoyed your reading of the beginning of The Wake at the Charleston conference in 2013. (A part of me now can’t read the opening paragraphs without hearing a deep Southern accent reciting them.)

      Thanks very much for the comment – I’ve greatly enjoyed both your performances of the Wake and the JoyceGeek blog!


  2. dear sir – sorry to bother you twice in one day, just shows how much free time i have. just read your finnegans wake article. a few things surprised me. i always wanted to be a joyce scholar, but always felt inadequate because i hadn’t read FW. so i was really surprised when you implied that there were joyce scholars out there today who haven’t read it. i’m stunned. (one of my primary arguments as to why so many joyce critics hate joyce – and i’m sure about that – was because, so many of them, forced to read it: to receive their “scholarly credentials” never could forgive him for writing such an impenetrable book.) well, what did hemingway say, “kill you pets”. Anyway, at some point i acquired the opportunity to waste the rest of my life fiddling with joyce and therefore read FW three times in succession, i also acquired many of your afore mention helper books (which by the way, i’ve read that most if not all have been refuted as being not up to modern standards?) personally i found cambell & robinson, tindall, mchugh, and especial bishop most unhelpful. (i also think the swiss, big cheese is highly over-rated). since my initial soiree i’ve read the wake another 3 or 4 times; in some ways i think i know a lot about it and contrariwise i’m sure i know nothing…. (secretly, i do understand the references to “tale of a tub” and i’ve also discovered who the “four masters” really are.) one final thought for now: back to your Ulysses article, you make mention of the slanderous remarks of “mickey mud & paddy stink” i’ve run into these two clowns before: my question to yourself as an expert in this field and educator is: what is the point? i’ve run into so much of this childish nonsense on the internet: i don’t like Ulysses, i don’t like Moby Dick, i don’t like shakespeare, i don’t like spinach…like who the *#*k cares if you don’t like spinach. the virtues of spinach are both long establish and self evident! a spinach lover!


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