Finnegans Wake

by Pericles Lewis

Throughout the 1930s, James Joyce published excerpts of Finnegans Wake, which combined the anarchic energies of the avant-garde with the epic ambitions of high modernism. The Wake tells of a mythical world, bearing some resemblance to the Dublin of Ulysses, but dreamed of by a sleeping, drunken man, possibly a giant, possibly the dead man at a wake. The novel, known during the 1930s as Work in Progress, is written in a language of multilingual puns and is best read by a group of highly educated people, each one of whom may be able to understand some fragment of this often incomprehensible magnum opus. Joyce complained that critics (including his former mentor Ezra Pound) found the new work “obscure”: “They compare it, of course, with Ulysses. But the action of Ulysses was chiefly in the daytime, and the action of my new work takes place at night. It’s natural things should not be so clear at night, isn’t it now?”[1] It later came to be seen as the first postmodernist text. In his influential critical manifesto of 1971, “POSTmodernISM,” Ihab Hassan wrote that Gertrude Stein “contributed to both Modernism and Postmodernism,” but that “without a doubt, the crucial text is Finnegans Wake.”[2] The Wake’s embrace of linguistic indeterminacy and multiple meanings foreshadowed one important tendency in literature after modernism.

  1. ↑ Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, 2nd ed. with corrections (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 590. See also John Bishop, Joyce’s Book of the Dark: Finnegans Wake (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 4. Bishop’s work serves as the best possible introduction to Finnegans Wake, but the reader will also want to consult Roland McHugh, Annotations to Finnegans Wake, rev. ed. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), to which I am indebted for the following discussion of allusions on the first page of the novel.
  2. ↑ Ihab Hassan, “POSTmodernISM,” New Literary History 3 (1971): 11.