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“Finnegans Wake” proved to be quite the undertaking for James Joyce and a feat that almost proved impossible. After Joyce finished writing “Ulysses,” he was quite mentally spent and did not write another thing for a year. When Joyce began writing again, he would write just a few ideas or statements at a time, or create short profiles of characters that would eventually become segments in “Finnegans Wake.”

The first profile that became serious backbone to the book was that of “Here Comes Everybody” which showcased the protagonist of the novel, HCE. Every time Joyce came up with an idea he first made a note of it and later transferred that note into the developing novel, become obsessed with taking notes and seemingly unable to write without them.

The chapters of the book that Joyce completed would be published one at a time, but to mixed reviews.  Joyce began to tire and worried that he would not be able to finish the novel, looking to his friends for support during this time, even recruiting fellow author James Stephens to finish the novel if Joyce found himself unable to do so.

People seemed to find the “work in progress,” as it was called, obscure and hard to follow, which was quite possibly was Joyce was going for. Eventually he finished the book himself, after seventeen years of writing it, and died two years later. Those who have reviewed or summarized “Finnegans Wake” have had differing opinions on the plot points of the book as it is probable that no one other than Joyce, or possibly not even Joyce himself, knew what was going on in the novel. It has become well-known around the world for its creative styling and utterly confusing yet intriguing plot.

“Finnegans Wake” is a winding compilation of various vignettes, characters that morph into other characters, and changing languages. The novel is thought to be written in a dream state where the settings and characters change on a dime, and there is no real plot to be deciphered.

The novel is often seen as a comedic piece, written more for entertainment value and appreciation of styling than for actual plot. The novel consists of a constantly moving plot and changing languages which, according to many critics, center around the same five characters though with changing names and personas.

Book One begins with a sentence that makes little sense, until it is paired with the final sentence in Book Four, making a complete thought. The first chapter of the first book consists of a series of vignettes that seem to have little to do with one another, aside from the fact that they all, at least somewhat, revolve around a man named Finnegan. Finnegan works as a hod carrier, and falls to his death from a ladder while building a wall.

Finnegan is laid out, as food, at his own funeral by his wife Anne though he disappears before anyone gets a chance to dig in. At the end of the chapter, there is a fight at the funeral which causes some whiskey to spill on Finnegans body. The whiskey seems to rejuvenate Finnegan and causes his dead body to rise from the coffin demanding to be given more whiskey, though the mourners lay his body back down and tell him that he must rest because he is in a better place.

In chapter two Harold, hereby known as HCE, is introduced and becomes the protagonist. HCE is an anagram for “Here Comes Everybody” amongst the Dubliners. HCE appears to be involved in a sexual scandal involving two young girls. The town people create a song about HCE called “The Ballad of Perse O’Reilly” and HCE begins imagining himself as someone else, going on trial for this crime.

There is some talk of a letter his wife ALP wishes to present during the trial, but it never gets there. Discussion of the letter serves as a means to introduce the reader to Shem and Shaun, HCE and ALP’s children. The story shifts to two washerwomen gossiping about the accusations against HCE and his wife’s feelings about the situation.

Book Two centers mainly around Shem, Shaun, and Issy, the three children of HCE and ALP. There are scenes of children playing together interwoven with scenes of HCE working at the pub he owns, which his family clearly lives upstairs from. The boys are referred to as “Dolph” and “Kev” in this section of the novel and present their parents with a letter describing their wish to overcome parental control.

While HCE works in the pub, he hears some broadcasts on the radio, narrated in the voices of his children. In the stories, HCE becomes a Norwegian captain and also a Russian general. He disappears upstairs, and, when he returns to the pub, his customers verbally abuse him, believing he is of questionable character after hearing the last story. HCE feels the need to confess his sins, including his lust for young girls.

The police kick out the drunks and the pub closes for the night as HCE drinks what is left of his patrons’ drinks and he becomes ancient Irishman Rory O’Connor, then falls into a passed out drunken stupor. His drunken dream seems to follow the journey of Tristan and Iseult and the four men who follow them.

In Book Three Shaun, the postman and the son, delivers the letter that ALP was holding in the first book that never made it to the court. Shaun is passed out, and, when he wakes up, he is floating in a barrel down the Liffey River. The narrators who do not seem to be named are asking Shaun various questions about the letter he is delivering and the importance of it.

Shaun manages to say nothing of use about the letter but instead talks about himself and his brother Shem in the highest of regard. Shaun tips over in his barrel and rolls away where the narrators can no longer see him. Shaun turns into a character called Jaunty Juan who gives a speech to Issy’s classmates at school. Shaun constantly changes character and age throughout this book, even acting as the means for HCE’s voice to be heard via a spiritual medium.

The novel jumps to Mr. and Mrs. Porter, presumably HCE and ALP, trying to have sex quietly while their children, Jerry, Kevin, and Isobel, are down the hall. The children, presumably, are Shaun, Shem, and Issy. Jerry wakes from a nightmare with a start and Mrs. Porter leaves her intimate moment with her husband to attempt to calm him her son.  When the sun comes up, and Jerry is calm, she returns to her husband and they continue having sex.

Book Four is the shortest of the novel, as it consists of only one chapter. Similar to the first chapter of Book One, Book Four is comprised of a series of vignettes that seemingly have nothing to do with the rest of the story. When dawn breaks, the dream seems to be coming to an end, and the letter is revealed in several different forms through vignettes, though the final word on the letter is given by ALP. She attempts to waken her husband, feeling that he has slept for an awful long time. She delivers a lengthy monologue, recalling a walk that she and HCE took together at one time. She then changes character, turning in the Liffey River and floating away into the distance as soon as dawn officially breaks.

The last sentence of the novel combines with the first sentence to make the complete statement, “A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

Though many people have guessed at the exact plot line of the novel, convinced that there must be one hidden beneath the surface somewhere, most people believe that the novel was not meant to follow a plot.

Joyce seems to have written the novel to represent a dream-state. When the brain is in a dreamlike state it switches ideas, personas, and venues quickly, as if a movie with no script, as seems to be the case for “Finnegans Wake”. Many critics have attempted to decipher the novel, but there is no solid breakdown, only inference from an educated mind.

Many people believe that Joyce himself has no idea what the purpose of “Finnegans Wake” was, other than a work of comedic masterpiece, as he wrote it over such a lengthy amount of time and pieced it together from random notes he wrote whenever he felt the tinge of a creative spark. The novel is seemingly the idea for many different novels all put together into one fantastical and mind-boggling dream.

Nocturnal Life

Joyce has stated that “Finnegans Wake” is an experiment in reconstructing the notion of nocturnal life. The book is meant to be the dream state that Finn is in while he lies on his death bed, recalling the history of Ireland from his spot by the river Liffey.

The book begins with Finnegan falling asleep or passing out, and it ends with him waking at dawn and the river he had been dreaming of slowly drifting away. Dreams are nonsensical, and often change location and characters at will, and the novel brings that imaginative dream-state to life.

Polar Opposites

This can also be seen as good vs. evil in some circumstances. There is always more than one version of a character, or in the case of Shaun and Shem, twins who represent decidedly different people. HCE and APL can be seen as older versions in Joe and Kate; Shaun and Shem are the good vs evil twins who are totally different people, as are every different representation of them, and Issy is a split-personality, representing the good vs evil within herself. Every character has a version of him/herself that is the polar opposite from the original, if there is even an original.

Sexual Abuse

The book begins with HCE going on trial and being accused of having an inappropriate relationship with two young girls in a park. HCE tries to deny the rumors, but ends up incriminating himself in the process. He admits that his main shortcoming is his desire for young girls, especially his daughter Issy.

Issy seems to have a sexual relationship with her father and her brothers, Shaun and Shem, though it is not clear whether it is against her will. Perhaps the inappropriate sexual relationship may be consensual, but still just as disturbing.


Sibling Rivalry

While Issy does not seem to compete with her brothers, as she is obviously the most intelligent and insightful of the three, Shaun and Shem compete with one another often. Shaun is quiet, reserved, and quite a bit like his father, as some critics have even pegged him as a younger version of HCE. Shem is the “evil twin” who goes to longer lengths and has little regard for rules.

Shem and Shaun compete for the attention and love of many people around them including their parents, girls, and Issy. Shaun makes it his mission to deliver the letter for APL at any lengths because he does not want to let his mother down, and Shem exiles himself when he feels rejected, as he is obviously more dramatic.

Story Within a Story

The story of “Finnegans Wake” follows a dream state, but the dreams are made up of various other stories. There is a series of vignettes that seemingly have nothing to do with the rest of the story, but the story itself makes no sense so conversely, it almost makes sense to add other strange elements.

There are many stories of tragic love, dichotomous characters, and versions of the letter that Shaun makes it his mission to deliver. There are war stories where HCE portrays several different characters, and there are even entirely different (yet the same) families showcased.

Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE)

Also, known as “Here Comes Everybody”. HCE is the protagonist of the novel, married to ALP and father to Shaun, Shem, and Issy. HCE owns a pub where he drinks the dredges of his patrons’ drinks after they have left for the night.

HCE, at some point, morphs into the characters of Finn MacCool, Mr. Porter, Mr. Makeall Gone, Rory O’Connor, a Norwegian captain, and a Russian general, along with many others. He admits to being a despicable man with a taste for young girls, though other than that he seems to be just a typical Irishman with a terribly wild dreamlike imagination. Some people believe that he represents Dublin itself.

Anna Livia Purabelle (ALP)

ALP is the wife of HCE and the mother of Shaun, Shem, and Issy. ALP seems to represent the river which appears in the novel several times. At the end, of the novel ALP becomes the river, at the end of her monologue, and floats away into the dawn. Some believe that she represents the river Liffey, which is part of the foundation of Dublin.

ALP is also presented to the reader as the calm and soft-spoken Mrs. Porter, which is also indicative of her resemblance to a river-run. Though ALP constantly changes characters as the others do, she is the one whose personality and characteristics remain constant.


Shaun is one of the twin sons of HCE and ALP and is sometimes referred to as “Shaun the Post” or as one half of “Jerry and Kev”, “Dolph and Kev”, or “Caddy and Primas”. Shaun is rather dull and dreary, and his main mission seems to be conforming to the world’s values and rules and also delivering the letter about his father to the court.

Shaun takes on many forms throughout the novel and at one point is even stuffed into a barrel and interrogated by the invisible narrators about the letter he carried. Shaun has his own chapter in the book, and it is thought that since HCE is not the focus any longer at this point that HCE is in line to become the next HCE, as he seems to be a bit of a dreamer himself.


Shem is the more independent, wild, and sinister twin and is also quite the artist. It is thought by some that Shem is representative of Joyce’s alter-ego. Shem is the opposite of Shaun, and the twins are portrayed as such, being compared to well-known enemies in mythology. He is also referred to as “Shem the Penman” because he is a writer and quite creative.

In the story, of Saint Michael and the Devil Shaun is equated to Saint Michael and Shem to the Devil. Shem is a bit of a wayward rebel and is always trying to cause trouble for his siblings and his father.


Issy is the only daughter of HCE and ALP and quite a complex character. It is thought that Issy is molested by her brothers and her father and also that she may have enjoyed it. Issy seems to have knowledge that a character in a novel cannot possibly know, as if she were inside Joyce’s head and knew what he was thinking when he developed the characters.

Issy is a split-personality and often appears as her mirror-image. She is like the twins, one good side, one evil side. Though she is of an unhealthy mental state, Issy may be the most intelligent and astute character of the novel.


Finnegan is introduced at the beginning of the novel. He is a hod carrier, which is someone who carries the bricks to the bricklayers, and he dies from falling off of a ladder while building a wall. He is introduced as Mr. Finn who will be “Finnagain.”

At Finn’s funeral, his wife Anne lays his body out as a buffet, though he disappears before anyone can eat. He also has whiskey splashed on his corpse, which causes him to rise and demand a drink. Finnegan does not appear after the beginning of the novel, but it seems as though he and his wife Anne are yet more versions of HCE and ALP or Mr and Mrs Porter, all of whom seem to be the same.


Matt, Marcus, Luke, and Johnny. These four men are seen in many forms throughout the novel, as the Four Masters, the Four Evangelists, narrators, and the judges in HCE’s court case. There is also a time when they do not represent people at all, but the provinces of Ireland (Ulster, Munster, Leinster, and Connaught).

It is also thought that Mamajulo is representative of Joyce’s own family, his wife (mama), daughter Lucia (lu), and son Giorgio (jo). The four old men seem to represent the watchers of the novel, as they appear in many forms and nearly every scene.

Kate and Joe

Kate and Joe are the keepers of HCE’s pub. Kate is the maid, and Joe is the handyman, and, at times, the bartender. It is thought by some critics that Kate and Joe represent elderly versions of HCE and ALP.

Kate is also seen as the museum curator, which is obvious in the way she says “Tip! Tip!” and Joe is also Sackerson. He is usually a handyman but sometimes an authority figure and also Kate’s partner in life. The way Kate and Joe revolve around one another is evidence that they are likely older versions of HCE and APL.

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