How to read Finnegans Wake

By Casey Lawrence

Can there be a “first” line in a book which is a circle?

Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s notoriously perplexing final work, takes beginning in medias res to a whole new level. Its first line dumps the reader into the middle of Dublin’s murky River Liffey, starting the story literally mid-stream: 

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.

A reader unfamiliar with the Wake might wonder if I’ve misquoted here, omitting the first word or neglecting to capitalize the already-puzzling compound “riverrun.” I have not: Finnegans Wake opens lowercase, mid-sentence, mid-thought. If one makes it all the way through Joyce’s abstruse text, they’ll see why. The closing sentence of the Wake’s final chapter reads—

A way a lone a lost a last a loved along the

—to which one might think to add, “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s…”, making the whole book a circle. You could begin reading from the start of any chapter, in the middle of a chapter, in the middle of a line, and still end up in the same place. 

Start Anywhere You Want To

Because the Wake doesn’t have a plot or characters in the strictest sense, it doesn’t have to be read from start to finish, and the story can be picked up from just about anywhere. In fact, many readers do not start with the first page at all! This is especially helpful when one is considering joining a Finnegans Wake Reading Group, such as our very own here at Modernist Studies Ireland.

Instead of telling a linear narrative, the Wake universalizes the story of an Irish family—a father, mother, daughter and twin sons—through the ages, repeating and restarting and remembering and refashioning the basic facts over and over until they encompass, somehow, the history of the world itself. Let us, for a moment, consider a few of “the charictures in the drame” (302.32) you might see in this book, and the forms you might encounter them in:

The Father, HCE: Keep your eye out for words that spell out HCE, or HEC; in the first line quoted above, this is “Howth Castle and Environs” (3.3), but throughout the book these letters appear to signal the presence of our patriarch, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. He is sometimes known as “Here Comes Everybody” (the universal man) or “Haveth Childers Everywhere” (the prototypical father). He is our Finnegan, forever falling, whether off a ladder (as in the song “Finnegans Wake”) or from social graces. HCE has been accused of a terrible crime—a sexual impropriety in Phoenix Park involving two girls, possibly witnessed or interrupted by three soldiers—and his reputation is at risk, but his wife, ALP, has written a letter in his defense. 

The Mother, ALP: HCE’s wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle, is a manifestation of all women and mothers (All Ladies Present). Where her husband, the giant Finn MaCool, is a mountain or land, she is the world’s rivers, and Dublin’s Liffey in particular. She is the perfect balance to HCE: “If Dann’s dane, ann’s dirty, if he’s plane she’s purty, if he’s fane, she’s flirty” (139.22-3). She has dictated a letter to her son Shem, a writer, and entrusted it to her other son, Shaun, the postman, in defence of her husband, HCE. The exact contents of this letter, Anna’s “untitled mamafesta” (104.4), are constantly in question, as is the precise nature of the crime HCE is accused of. 

Statue of Anna Livia Plurabelle beside the Liffey in Croppies Acre, Dublin

The Twins, Shem and Shaun: Shem the Penman and Shaun the Post are opposites. They are opposing brothers Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and Brutus and Cassius; they also sometimes represent concepts such as light and dark, tree and stone, eye and ear, angel and devil. Shem is sometimes figured as Joyce’s alter-ego, an experimental writer who delights in his work pushing boundaries, whereas Shaun, unhappy as a deliverer of others’ messages, would rather be a priest than a postman, but is stuck conforming to societal expectation. Constantly at war between themselves, they fight over their sister, Issy, in a pseudo-incestuous romance. 

The Daughter, Issy: Like her mother the river, Issy is water: a little cloud, who, with every tear, threatens to disappear into thin air. She is torn between the affections of her brothers, and between aspects of herself. Issy’s personality is fractured, and her mental illness (multiple personalities) manifests in her being represented as the colours in the rainbow (seven girls) or days of February (twenty-nine ‘Leap Year Girls’). She is Isolde of the Tristan and Isolde love story (Tristan, born of sadness, is both twins—tree and stone, Shem and Shaun). 

The Others: Other characters you might encounter are four old men (sometimes called MaMaLuJo, or Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, the gospels), who gossip at the bar and are outside observers or narrators; Kate and Sackerson, the family’s servants; the two girls who are part of HCE’s crime, and the three soldiers that witness it; and the customers (twelve members of a jury, twelve apostles, the months of the year) who appear as customers in a pub owned by HCE and ALP.

Wherever you start the story, you will find versions of this family hanging about, though they frequently change names, occupations, and personalities. Versions of HCE’s fall from grace, interpretations of ALP’s letter, and scenes of the twins chasing Issy are told in different words, in different times, in different languages. The story comes together through these vignettes, and the order in which you read them does not matter.

Reading as a group

The repetition of the same stories makes the book intensely readable, despite most critics’ views to the contrary. Critics who didn’t ‘get it’ and readers who gave up on the Wake likely tried to tackle this incredible book alone—which does not make for the best experience. Unlike most books—which are solitary exercises—Finnegans Wake is best read aloud and in a group.

Why? Finnegans Wake is extremely intertextual. It is made up of references to other texts, stories, songs, languages, poems, jokes, faerie tales. Because it tries to be this ‘universal’ text, no single person’s worldly experience is enough to decode it. As a group, we stand a better chance.

Let’s start with the first line on page 3 as an example of ‘how’ to read Finnegans Wake:

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.

What does this line tell us about the mysterious and wonderful book that is to come? 

We start off with this lowercase “riverrun”, already on the move. An experienced reader of the Wake will bring up that it follows from the end of the last line on page 628: “A way a lone a lost a last a loved along the”. Riverrun is a perfectly good word in English, though not typically used this way; it means the course of the river. The movement of the water is the first sensation of the text: the running water, the current of the Liffey. Next, we are given a landmark: “past Eve and Adam’s.” Where are we? Well, Dublin, as is usually the case with Joyce’s work. There is both a church known as Adam and Eve’s – a Roman Catholic church located on Merchants Quay, Dublin – and a pub of the same name. Here Joyce combines two of the most common stereotypes about the Irish—drinking and religion—but also, as anyone with knowledge of the Bible will know, an association with original sin. Eve and Adam (traditionally in the reverse order) cause the Fall of Man, the first of many “falls” taken by our Everyman, HCE. 

Bend of (Dublin) bay near Howth Castle and Environs

In this first line, Joyce takes his reader on a sort of tour of Dublin’s coastline, “from swerve of shore to bend of bay”. Swerving already feels erratic, as though we are being pulled into this crazy book’s current, but if that isn’t enough, once we get to Dublin Bay we are caught in a “commodius vicus of recirculation”! And what, you might ask, is that? Recirculation is apparent enough, perhaps. We go around again. But commodious? Vicus? The Latinate word “commodious” means “roomy” or “spacious”; but what is it doing here? For me, it evokes the commode: the toilet, through which water swirls circularly and, at one point or another, ends up in the Liffey. Another interpretation might be of a vicious cycle, or a situation in which a cause produces a result that itself produces the original cause (a loop, not unlike the Wake itself). “Vicus” is a Latinate word for a small settlement, typically Roman. However, it also recalls Giambattista Vico, an Italian thinker from the 1660s who speculated on the origins and evolution of human language. Vico will come up many times throughout the Wake. Flushed out of the river’s mouth, we are brought unceremoniously “back to Howth Castle and Environs”, the isthmus which juts into Dublin Bay. This land mass is also HCE, our protagonist—if, indeed, a book like Finnegans Wake can be said to have one. 

So much contained in so short a line!

Every reader brings something new to the often-obscure text. In the example of the first line presented above, a different reader might supply each of the glosses: one brings up toilets, another vicious cycles, another Vico. Each of us has something unique to contribute, a speculation here or an observation there. Whether it’s knowing another language, remembering a snippet of a folk song, or decoding an obscure clue, every member of a group encounters the text differently and brings something unique to the table. 

Where to from here?

I am always excited to introduce Finnegans Wake to new readers, because those least familiar with the book’s overall themes and motifs often come up with the most creative and innovative interpretations. A new perspective is always welcome in a Wake reading group for just that reason: the way your mind works is different than mine, and you will see things that I don’t. 

As “difficult” as this text is purported to be, reading Finnegans Wake is also deliciously rewarding. Joyce manages to pack every line of Finnegans Wake with overlapping associations and references of all kinds, all of which awaits the reader tempted to pick up their copy. The Wake is part poetry, part history, part family epic, part song. It defies all categories as a matter of course. I enthusiastically recommend diving right into the “riverrun” if you’re up for a challenge! Join us every other Tuesday from 4-6pm Dublin time as we drift together through this puzzling, ambitious, daring, stimulating, category-defying text. 


Casey Lawrence

Aside from convening our weekly Finnegans Wake Reading Group Zoom, Casey is a PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin in the School of English and writes indefatigably, including (among other places) regularly for MSI and on her own blog.

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