Have you heard of one Humpty Dumpty
How he fell with a roll and a rumble
And he curled up like Lord Olofa Crumple
By the butt of the Magazine Wall.
(Chorus) Of the Magazine Wall,
Hump, helmet and all? (45.1-6)

Thus runs one of many versions of a story that is at the centre of Finnegans Wake, or more accurately a story that is forever displaced in the book. We know more or less what happens, yet we never quite get to see it. In this instance the tale takes the form of a popular street ballad which tells of a man who has run into some kind of trouble in Dublin’s vast Phoenix Park; an Edenic fall of sorts. This man is known throughout the Wake by his initials HCE: a gigantic type who can stand for the Dublin landscape, as well as a multitude of masculine personae. Yet the “Ballad of Persse O’Reilley” makes short shrift of him. The song engages in a full blown character assassination, calling him untrustworthy, a womaniser, a rent dodger and a general nuisance. It ends with a call to arms and the demand that he be handed over to the mob, killed and buried.

Other versions of HCE’s “crime” abound in the book. Some cast aspersions on the man for deliberately exposing himself to a pair of young women in the park, watched over by three soldiers, while others are more sympathetic, describing the incident as an accident or casting him as the passive victim of abuse. The tellers of the tale are essentially anyone who cares to comment, and are drawn from all sections of society, including “a dustman nocknamed Sevenchurches” (59.16-7), “Missioner Isa Wombwell, the seventeenyearold revivalist” (60.22-3), and “Sylvia Silence, the girl detective” (61.1). The story passes from one person to another, picking up new twists and turns as it is “re-taled” (3.17), an act of re-narration that is akin to making a sale.

[net, netted, nettled]
A diverse range of metaphors have been employed to describe the Wake, many of which point to the Wake as a machine-like structure. Jean-Michel Rabaté named it “an automatic word machine” and a “lapsus ex machine”; Jacques Derrida “a hypermnesiac machine”; Joyce “an engine with only one wheel. No spokes of course. The wheel being square”; and Finnegans Wake itself a “wholemole millwheeling vicociclometer” (614.27). The book seems fond of making self-reflexive statements, such as the allusion to a Wizard-like “god of all machineries” (253.33) lurking behind the verbal opulence and confusion. These statements of possible intent sometimes feel like moments of clarity in the darkness, although there is always a strong suspicion that Joyce is playing games with his reader, reeling them in and out.

The idea of the Wake as net as an (albeit loose) metaphor for the book can be usefully added to the list, for the world of the Wake is both knotted and netted in its narrative and language. Joyce had previously made use of the metaphor of the net at the climax of his first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Therein Stephen Dedalus pledges to “fly by” the nets of language, nationality and religion that clipped the wings of the artist. In Finnegans Wake, however, the metaphor operates in a way that is at once more open and more constricted. As an image, the net does not occur frequently in the Wake - though there a plenty of portmanteau words that have a ‘net’ in them: “nettles” (136.16 and passim), “fishnetzeveil” (208.19), “nether nadir” (297.12), “impenetrablum wetter” (178.30), and so on. Yet among the Wake‘s self-reflexive moments the book also mentions “the ravens” that “duv be pitchin their dark nets after him” (136.31) and “Why do you prefer its in these dark nets” (148.3-4), alluding again to the dark adventure of HCE’s crime in the park.

HCE, caught in the re-taling of his crime, is also caught in a net. In a passage that describes his physical demeanour, and his allegorical representation as the city, he is “netted before nibbling [. . .] grossed after meals, weighs a town in himself” (132.25-26). Evoking his appetite and corpulence with a play on net and gross weight in trading discourse, the phrase is suggestive of the vicissitudes that befall HCE: he is ensnared by the net before he can eat.

While the ensnaring of HCE also, on a different level, stands for the ensnaring of the reader, the Wake is neither comprehensible, nor sheer nonsense, but indulges in and makes a theme of unpicking and unravelling its dark, verbal nets. There is a method to the book whose re-talings are “a sot of swigswag, systomy distomy, which everabody you every anywhere at all doze” (597.21-22). This suggests a system, or network, of sorts because of its systolic-diastolic movement that pumps the narration around. With some self-irony, the story is all “swaggery”, and “sing-song”, and all of the listeners or participants (it is not clear which) are asleep. Nonetheless the telling of tales – tall tales, drunken tales, hearsay, false rumours – combined with the intrinsic characteristic that the telling always fails, never achieves a denouement, explain far more of how the Wake “works” than the idea that the book is all a dream.

While sleeping and being asleep is a predominant motif in the Wake, waking up is just as an important state. Rather than representing the logic of the Freudian dream, the Wakean night exists between two states of consciousness. Under the cover of darkness, the world looks softer, blurred, more innocent; sleep offers rest, and a subdued consciousness. Owing to this in-between state, unforeseen changes and unpredictable things happen. One may find oneself suddenly “hapless behind the dreams” – but, reading on, one finds that whatever unfortunate event has taken place, it is not the nightmare that is to blame, but reality, for the complete phrase reads: “hapless behind the dreams of accuracy”.

No matter how obscure, there often are moments of clarity in the Wake. The above phrase is part of a long, meandering sentence about insight and belief: “if a human being duly fatigued by his dayety sooty [. . .] and [. . .] hapless behind the dreams of accuracy [. . .] were [. . .] accorded [. . .] with an earsighted view of old hopeinhaven” would he “byhold at ones what is main and why tis twain” (143.06-18). Paraphrased, the sentence reads: if a human being who has his senses dulled – by sleep or religion – would he be granted a view of hope – of the afterlife, God or Copenhagen (the Duke of Wellington’s horse) – and be able to behold or see at once (distinguish between or see at the same time) what is primary/important and what is secondary?

This raises another point. While duality in the Wake enriches and celebrates plurality, it also has the characteristic of always being besides the point. The way the Wake experiences actuality is always an experience of never quite getting there. This is why the pronouns “it” and “its” are the Wake’s most characteristic words: they purport to refer to something specific, but the way they refer to precisely is always vague or lost. What is “its” that is in the dark nets? Losing the plot is a distinguishing feature of all telling.

Despite this peculiar narrative proclivity, the Wake is nonetheless also to an extent a networked book that makes use of a variety of structural devices that in fact help the reader along. These devices can be obvious, as with the initials of HCE that lurk beneath the surface of the text in “Here Comes Everybody”, “Haveth Childers Everywhere”, “Hark, the corne entreats!” (21.03), “A hatch, a celt, an earshare (18.30-31), “haughty, cacuminal, crubescent” (25.29), “hereditas, columna, erecta” (132.06) – and so on for some 491 of them. The same with ALP, of which there are some 169. Each of these acronyms, instance by instance, very opulently but also very recognizably, creating a complex image of Earwicker and Anna Livia. At other times, the devices cannot be spotted so easily. To tie in the “Four Watches of Shaun” (the four chapters of Book III), Joyce constructed each as a degree in what he thought of as the squaring of the circle. In the text, he added the word “degree” four times as an attribute of Shaun: “a poor hastehater of the first degree” (408.10-11), “flummoxed to the second degree” (438.29), “You’re a nice third degree witness” (522.27) and “consanguineous to the lowest degree” (572.26). On the one hand, the four “degrees” are an exact inversion of what ordinarily provides structure in a narrative, yet in Joyce’s mind they are what holds the chapter together using a method that is on a par with making the chapter about Anna Livia Plurabelle more “fluid” by adding hundreds of river names. In this manner, the Wake can be simple in its complexity. The patterns provide a handle because they are recognizable.


As the stories of the Close and Remote “Here Comes Everybody” project illustrate, the nets or networks of surveillance and speculation that surround HCE bear many of the hallmarks of contemporary culture, and of the online world – information is perpetually transmitted, received and distorted, but the “facts” of the matter remain elusive. Observation, voyeurism and accusation are key themes. Furthermore, a husband’s possible transgressions do not result in speculations about himself alone. The labyrinth of gossip devolves into chatter about his wife, known as ALP or Anna Livia Plurabelle, a woman who may, or may not, have composed a letter in her husband’s defence, a document about which there is a great deal of talk.

ALP takes centre stage in Chapter I.8, a chapter that is known for its rivery, fluid texture, an effect that is enhanced by the incorporation of dozens of river names from the world over. Two washerwomen stand on opposite banks of the Liffey, wringing out the city’s dirty laundry as they exchange rumours about her. The tales told of ALP are, unsurprisingly, confused and sometimes contradictory, but several somewhat consistent threads can be extracted. It is supposed that she has made an unfortunate marriage to HCE, a man who has abused and raped her. Yet she continues to be his helpmeet and defender even going so far as to procure women on his behalf. The stories culminate with a bizarre scenario in which ALP acts as a kind of inverse Santa Claus. She presents to the crowds a long list of gifts that represent all of the ills of humanity; the ultimate act of revenge against the society that has condemned both herself and her husband.

The “gossipocracy” (476.04) of the Wake seems to guarantee that information is doomed to forever circulate, to never settle. But if firm answers and revelations are not forthcoming in the main body of the work, such a thing might be possible in the book’s fourth and final section; a passage that heralds the dawn of a new era, as well as finally introducing the contents of ALP’s long-awaited letter. This document is, however, pointedly unprofound, offering no real solution to the question of what really happened with HCE in the park. As the chapter reaches its climax there is a rather vague sense of revelation as ALP finally acknowledges that her husband is not “the great in all things” that she has thought him, but only “a puny” (627.23-4). Yet this moment of recognition is a rather compromised one, and it does not lead to a Dedalian flight. Rather, in accordance with the book’s famously circular logic, a dying ALP flows out to sea – to her “cold mad feary father” (628.2) and passes the gauntlet onto her daughter. The net folds in on itself. The story begins again.

[spreading their drifter nets]

The aesthetics of the Wake is an aesthetics of exuberance: stories recirculate and proliferate; the language is overabundant. The Wake however, is not only expansive, but also cumulative: it is full of everything. Like a fisherman casting his nets upon the water, Joyce culled images, ideas, languages, discourses and phrases from the world over. He scooped up cultural narratives of the past and present. In these narratives Joyce seeks not only for material that can be made illogical, ambiguous and contradictory, but also that which is already illogical, ambiguous and contradictory. Material that thus, in a way, confirms – affirms, attests, substantiates and asseverates – the world of Finnegans Wake. To this end, Joyce gathers up history, politics, philosophy, biography, hagiography, religion, Catholicism, heresy, mythology, science, engineering, geography, literature, languages, law, journalism, gossip, pub talk, old wives’ tales, police accounts, newspaper reports, legal proceedings, anything that is true and untrue, and creates from it a web of cultural and historical allusions with which, around which and through which he relates what befalls the protagonists.

Before wiring these materials into his text, he notes them down in his notebooks, which act as a temporary storehouse (and sometimes a brewing house where they are allowed to ferment), until they are ready for use. The process of collecting these materials is not without purpose, but the harvesting technique is not unlike the use of spreading drifter nets – or as the Wake puts it quite appropriately in connection with the Four Historians/Evangelists who are preparing for their information gathering: “spreading abroad on their octopuds drifter nets, the chromous gleamy seiners’ nets” (477.11-12). The drifter net is one that sweeps up everything in its (well) wake. In this instance, the “seiner’ nets” that Joyce sweeps up comes from an index of entries on Cornish fishing culture (in a notebook now preserved at the University of Buffalo designated VI.B.14) as follows:

pilchard (Corn) - a pilchard is a small sea fish found in large number on the Cornish and Devon coasts.
master, seiner (net) - a seiner is a Cornish fisherman who use a seine net, which hangs vertically in the water; the master seiner is the man who throws the main rope overboard.
hubba’s up - this is a traditional Cornish fisherman’s cry used when a shoal of fish is spotted.
tuck net - see below.
lurker volyer - lurker and volyer are two types of small boats; the lurker has no net, but tracks the movement of the fish shoal; the volyer then follows with a sein or tuck net which hanging vertically restricts the movement of the shoal.
maund wicker - a maund wicker is a large Cornish hand-basket.

Trying to put as much world in the Wake as possible, details like this get scraped together and put into the text. Although serendipity plays an important part, the process by which this happens is not merely random. There was again some method to the way that Joyce selected his material. He saw its purpose.

For that reason, the Wake is also something rather more encompassing than bits and pieces of information that he let sink, like silt, to the bottom of his meandering prose. Although the Wake has frequently been thought of as a dream, the material with which it is built is that of the existing, wide awake world. Joyce’s aspirations for the book were that it could be a myth, a topography and universal history in its own right. Like all great myths, topographical accounts and histories, it does not work separated from reality, strives to universalize the particular and particularize the universal.

This is the reason why Finnegans Wake has lasted as a work of art.


Dr Chrissie Van Mierlo and Dr Wim Van Mierlo
© 2014