A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: James Joyce's Masterwork

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: James Joyce's Masterwork

by Joseph Campbell, Henry Morton Robinson, Edmund L. Epstein

Since its publication in 1939, countless would-be readers of Finnegans Wake — James Joyce's masterwork that consumed a third of his life — have given up after a few pages and dismissed it as a "perverse triumph of the unintelligible." In 1944, a young professor of mythology and literature named Joseph Campbell, working with Henry Morton Robinson, wrote


Since its publication in 1939, countless would-be readers of Finnegans Wake — James Joyce's masterwork that consumed a third of his life — have given up after a few pages and dismissed it as a "perverse triumph of the unintelligible." In 1944, a young professor of mythology and literature named Joseph Campbell, working with Henry Morton Robinson, wrote the first "key" or guide to entering the fascinating, disturbing, marvelously rich world of Finnegans Wake. The authors break down Joyce's "unintelligible" book page by page, stripping the text of much of its obscurity and serving up thoughtful interpretations via footnotes and bracketed commentary. A Skeleton Key was Campbell's first book, published five years before he wrote his breakthrough Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
To say that Finnegan's Wake is a difficult read is something of an understatement. At the time of its release in 1939, most contemporary critics and readers were quick to dismiss James Joyce's complex novel for its seeming incomprehensibility. Even Joyce's own brother Stanislaus, a longtime supporter of the author's work, found little to praise in this "rout of drunken words." It was in such a climate, in 1944, that Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Robinson (The Cardinal) first published this annotated, condensed, and simplified version of Joyce's text, which tries to make the brilliance and breadth of Joyce's volume accessible to average readers. Now back in print as part of the "Collected Works of Joseph Campbell" series, this new edition features an introduction, corrections, and editorial additions by Edmund Epstein (English, Queens Coll. & CUNY Graduate Ctr.). Though it has had its detractors over the years, this landmark introduction to understanding the intricacies of Joyce's final work is as valuable today as it was when it was first published more than 60 years ago. Highly recommended for all libraries.-William D. Walsh, Georgia State Univ. Lib., Atlanta Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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New World Library
Publication date:
The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell
Edition description:
Second Edition
Product dimensions:
5.82(w) x 8.76(h) x 1.48(d)

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A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake

By Joseph Campbell Henry Morton Robinson

New World Library

Copyright © 2005 Joseph Campbell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-57731-405-0


Introduction to a Strange Subject

Running riddle and fluid answer, Finnegans Wake is a mighty allegory of the fall and resurrection of mankind. It is a strange book, a compound of fable, symphony, and nightmare-a monstrous enigma beckoning imperiously from the shadowy pits of sleep. Its mechanics resemble those of a dream, a dream which has freed the author from the necessities of common logic and has enabled him to compress all periods of history, all phases of individual and racial development, into a circular design, of which every part is beginning, middle, and end.

In a gigantic wheeling rebus, dim effigies rumble past, disappear into foggy horizons, and are replaced by other images, vague but half-consciously familiar. On this revolving stage, mythological heroes and events of remotest antiquity occupy the same spatial and temporal planes as modern personages and contemporary happenings. All time occurs simultaneously; Tristram and the Duke of Wellington, Father Adam and Humpty Dumpty merge in a single percept. Multiple meanings are present in every line; interlocking allusions to key words and phrases are woven like fugal themes into the pattern of the work. Finnegans Wake is a prodigious, multifaceted monomyth, not only the cauchemar of a Dublin citizen but the dreamlike saga of guilt-stained, evolvinghumanity.

The vast scope and intricate structure of Finnegans Wake give the book a forbidding aspect of impenetrability. It appears to be a dense and baffling jungle, trackless and overgrown with wanton perversities of form and language. Clearly, such a book is not meant to be idly fingered. It tasks the imagination, exacts discipline and tenacity from those who would march with it. Yet some of the difficulties disappear as soon as the well-disposed reader picks up a few compass clues and gets his bearings. Then the enormous map of Finnegans Wake begins slowly to unfold, characters and motifs emerge, themes become recognizable, and Joyce's vocabulary falls more and more familiarly on the accustomed ear. Complete understanding is not to be snatched at greedily at one sitting; indeed, it may never come. Nevertheless the ultimate state of the intelligent reader is certainly not bewilderment. Rather, it is admiration for the unifying insight, economy of means, and more-than-Rabelaisian humor which have miraculously quickened the stupendous mass of material. One acknowledges at last that James Joyce's overwhelming macro-microcosm could not have been fired to life in any sorcerer furnace less black, less heavy, less murky than this, his incredible book. He had to smelt the modern dictionary back to protean plasma and re-enact the "genesis and mutation of language" in order to deliver his message. But the final wonder is that such a message could have been delivered at all!

The first clue to the method and mystery of the book is found in its title, Finnegans Wake. Tim Finnegan of the old vaudeville song is an Irish hod carrier who gets drunk, falls off a ladder, and is apparently killed. His friends hold a deathwatch over his coffin; during the festivities someone splashes him with whisky, at which Finnegan comes to life again and joins in the general dance. On this comedy-song foundation, Joyce bases the title of his work. But there is more, much more, to the story. Finnegan the hod carrier is identifiable first with Finn MacCool, captain for two hundred years of Ireland's warrior-heroes, and most famous of Dublin's early giants. Finn typifies all heroes-Thor, Prometheus, Osiris, Christ, the Buddha-in whose life and through whose inspiration the race lives. It is by Finn's coming again (Finn-again)-in other words, by the reappearance of the hero-that strength and hope are provided for mankind.

By his death and resurrection, hod carrier Finnegan comically refigures the solemn mystery of the hero-god whose flesh and blood furnish the race with spirit-fructifying meat and drink. At the wake of Finnegan, the watchers eat everything that belongs to the dead hero. Not only do they devour all the edibles in the house, but they partake of his very body, as of a eucharist. By its fall, the shell of the Cosmic Egg has been shattered, but the essential egg substance has been gathered and served for the nutriment of the people, "sunny side up with care."

Finnegan's fall from the ladder is hugely symbolic: it is Lucifer's fall, Adam's fall, the setting sun that will rise again, the fall of Rome, a Wall Street crash. It is Humpty Dumpty's fall, and the fall of Newton's apple. It is the irrigating shower of spring rain that falls on seeded fields. And it is every man's daily recurring fall from grace. These various fallings (implying, as they do, corresponding resurrections) cause a liberation of energy that keeps the universe turning like a water wheel, and provide the dynamic which sets in motion the four-part cycle of universal history.

But why a "four-part" cycle? This reference is to a conception of the eighteenth-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, whose La Scienza Nuova provides the philosophic loom on which Joyce weaves his historical allegory. Essentially, Vico's notion is that history passes through four phases: theocratic, aristocratic, democratic, and chaotic. The last phase is characterized (like our own) by individualism and sterility, and represents the nadir of man's fall. It is terminated by a thunderclap, which terrifies and reawakens mankind to the claims of the supernatural, and thus starts the cycle rolling again with a return to primeval theocracy.

In Joyce's composition, the comical Finnegan episode is only the prologue to the major action. It is related to the later episodes as prehistory is related to history; or (to use a Viconian image) as the giants of the dawn-chaos are related to the patriarchs of orderly history. In Finnegans Wake the transition from the earlier to the later hero takes place on pages 24 to 29,2 where the company at the wake forcibly hold Finnegan down and bid him rest in peace. They tell him that a newcomer, his successor, has just sailed into Dublin Bay. This newcomer is HCE, or more specifically, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, who thereafter dominates the work.

As the tale unfolds, we discover that this H. C. Earwicker is a citizen of Dublin, a stuttering tavernkeeper with a bull-like hump on the back of his neck. He emerges as a well-defined and sympathetic character, the sorely harrowed victim of a relentless fate, which is stronger than, yet identical with, himself. Joyce refers to him under various names, such as Here Comes Everybody and Haveth Childers Everywhere-indications of his universality and his role as the great progenitor. The hero has wandered vastly, leaving families (that is, deposits of civilization) at every pause along the way: from Troy in Asia Minor (he is frequently called "the Turk") up through the turbulent lands of the Goths, the Franks, the Norsemen, and overseas to the green isles of Britain and Eire. His chief Germanic manifestations are Woden and Thor; his chief Celtic, Manannán MacLir. Again, he is St. Patrick carrying the new faith; again, Strongbow, leading the Anglo-Norman conquest; again, Cromwell, conquering with a bloody hand. Most specifically, he is our Anglican tavernkeeper, HCE, in the Dublin suburb Chapelizod.

As in Ulysses, the principal action takes place in Dublin and its environs. We are introduced at once to Howth Castle, Phoenix Park, the River Liffey, Wellington Monument, Guinness's Brewery, and other important landmarks, all of which have allegorical significance. Phoenix Park, for example, is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. And the product of Guinness's Brewery is the magic elixir of life, the immortal drink of heroes and gods. Many an allusion is clarified by consulting a detailed map of Dublin. For example, "the knock out in the park" (p. 3) is Castle Knock, in a cemetery near the west gate of Phoenix Park. The neighboring hillocks are figuratively the upturned toes of the giant whose head is the Hill of Howth. This giant, whose belly is the city of Dublin itself, is none other than the prostrate comical hero-god of the wake. Indeed, all the living, loving, fighting, and dying of Dublin is precisely the hurly-burly of Finnegans Wake.

But to return to HCE. He is a man who has won his place in society, a place not of high distinction but of decent repute. He is a candidate in a local election. Gossip, however, undoes his campaign and his reputation as well.

It was in Phoenix Park (that Garden of Eden), near his tavern, that he committed an indecorous impropriety which now dogs him to the end of his life-nightmare. Briefly, he was caught peeping at or exhibiting himself to a couple of girls in Phoenix Park. The indiscretion was witnessed by three drunken soldiers, who could never be quite certain of what they had seen; from them it went out to the world. Earwicker's anxiety to justify himself riddles his every utterance with incriminating slips of the tongue, and contributes to his bulky presence a flavor of slightly rancid butter, exposing him to further gossip on every hand. The rumors grow. He is said to suffer from an obscure disease, suspiciously venereal, a physiological counterpart of his psychological taint.

Unquestionably his predicament is of the nature of Original Sin: he shares the shadowy guilt that Adam experienced after eating the apple. It is akin also to the bewilderment and confusion that paralyze Hamlet, and is cognate with the neurotic misease of modern times. Stephen Dedalus, who suffers from an analogous malady in Ulysses, calls it the "agenbite of inwit," the incessant gnawing of rat-toothed remorse. Earwicker, suffering from this taint, yet aware of his claims to decency, is torn between shame and aggressive self-satisfaction, conscious of himself both as bug and as man (an earwig is a beetlelike insect, popularly supposed to creep into the human ear). Worm before God and giant among men, he is a living, aching arena of cosmic dissonance, tortured by all the cuts and thrusts of guilt and conscience.

A very specific ramification of the Guilt motif crops out constantly in the old-man, young-girl situations sprinkled throughout the book. In the Swift-Vanessa, Mark- and-Iseult episodes, graybeards are passionately fired with a half-incestuous, half-lyrical yearning for young love. Earwicker himself is troubled by a passion, compounded of illicit and aspirational desires, for his own daughter, Isabel, whom he identifies with Tristram's Iseult, and who is the sweet little reincarnation of his wife. Himself he envisions now as gallant Tristram and now as cuckolded King Mark.

Although Earwicker is a citizen of Dublin, he is resented by the populace as an intruder, even a usurper. Why? Because, springing from Germanic rather than Celtic stock, he typifies all the invaders who have overrun Ireland-Danes, Norsemen, Normans, and English. The clash of arms that resounds through the first pages of the book recalls the battles of all Irish history and furnishes a background to the battlefields of the tavern-and the battlefields of Earwicker's own soul.

The rumors about HCE are started by a native Dubliner, smoking a pipe, who encounters Earwicker at midnight in Phoenix Park. This Cad with a pipe asks HCE for the time, and is surprised when the great personage exhibits uneasiness and launches into an elaborate self-defense. The Cad goes home, broods over a bottle, and mumbles what he has heard. His wife, catching the suspicious words, communicates them to her priest, who, in turn, passes them on at the racetrack. Three down-and-outers pick up the tale, exaggerate it comically, and finally turn it into a scurrilous lampoon ("The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly," p. 44).

The rumor runs through the city like a virulent infection. Several pages (51-61) are devoted to round robins of public opinion. The plague of evil gossip that encircles the present Mr. H. C. Earwicker races back through the past-touches and contaminates every likeness of the unforgettable great citizen through all the annals, not only of Ireland, but of man. Thus the inquirer finds it impossible to distinguish between the tumultuous earwigging (gossiping) of the present and that of remoter days. The scandal-stew boils gloriously with ingredients from every moment of human time.

While the man in the street gossips, twelve stately citizens of the jury sit in formal though tipsy session. These twelve are, locally, the twelve constant customers of Mr. Earwicker's tavern. They are also leading mourners at Finnegan's wake. They are also the twelve signs of the zodiac. Their presence betrays itself with sonorous sequences of words terminating in "-ation"; as, for instance, on page 6, "all the hoolivans of the nation, prostrated in their consternation, and their duodisimally profusive plethora of ululation."

In addition, there are four slobberishly senile judges who remember and rehearse the anecdotes of old times. They are identified with the four winds, the Four Master Annalists of Ireland, the Four Evangelists, the four Viconian ages, and so forth. Their principal charge is to care for a Donkey, which, in its better moments, is revealed as an archaic incarnation of the Logos. Pages 383 to 399 are devoted largely to the recollections of the Four. They themselves, in younger days, were protagonists of the great life-roles which they can now only regard and review. Life once stirred in them and shaped them; but it has moved on, so that they now are but cast-off shells. Crotchety, brittle crystallizations out of the past, they have only to await disintegration. Meanwhile, however, they sit in judgment over the living present.

A dim-witted policeman, crony of the Four, arrests HCE for disturbing the peace, and gives testimony against him (pp. 62-63, and 67). But he has many of the traits of the hero himself-as have, indeed, all the male characters of the populace-opposition. For, in the last analysis, the universal judgment against HCE is but a reflection of his own obsessive guilt; and conversely, the sin which others condemn in him is but a conspicuous public example of the general, universally human, original sin, privately effective within themselves. Thus, throughout the work, there is a continual intermelting of the accused and his accusers. All these characters, moving around and against one another, are but facets of some prodigious unity and are at last profoundly identical-each, as it were, a figure in the dream complex of all the others. One is reminded of Schopenhauer's wonderful image of the world in his essay On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual: "It is a vast dream, dreamed by a single being, but in such a way that all the dream characters dream too. Thus everything interlocks and harmonizes with everything else."

Earwicker has a wife, the psyche of the book-bewitching, ever-changing, animating, all-pervading. She appears typically under the name of Anna Livia Plurabelle, abbreviated to ALP. Just as Earwicker is metamorphosed into Adam, Noah, Lord Nelson, mountain, or a tree, so ALP becomes by subtle transposition, Eve, Isis, Iseult, a passing cloud, a flowing stream. She is the eternally fructive and love-bearing principle in the world-a little crone who goes about gathering fragments into a basket; Isis picking up the dismembered body of her brother-husband, Osiris. She is the widow who serves the feast at the wake: "Grampupus is fallen down but grinny sprids the boord" (p. 7). Again, she is a mother hen that scratches out of a dung heap the torn scrap of a gossipacious letter filled with all the secrets of a woman's heart (pp. 110-11), a bewitching letter, which, only partially recovered, tantalizes with its life riddle through every page of Finnegans Wake: the entire book, in fact, is but a dreamlike emanation of this "untitled mamafesta memorialising the Mosthighest" (p. 104), written (time and place unknown) by ALP herself.

But above all, Anna is a river, always changing yet ever the same, the Heraclitean flux which bears all life on its current. Principally, she is the River Liffey, running through Dublin, but she is also all the rivers of the world: the heavenly Ganges, the fruitful Nile, the teeming Irrawaddy, the mysterious Nyanza. She is the circular river of time, flowing past Eve and Adam in the first sentence of the book, bearing in her flood the debris of dead civilizations and the seeds of crops and cultures yet to come.


Excerpted from A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake by Joseph Campbell Henry Morton Robinson Copyright © 2005 by Joseph Campbell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Perhaps most responsible for bringing mythology to a mass audience, Joseph Campbell’s works rank among the classics in mythology and literature: Hero with a Thousand Faces, the four-volume The Masks of God, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, and many others. Among his many awards, Campbell received the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Contribution to Creative Literature and the 1985 Medal of Honor for Literature from the National Arts Club. A past president of the American Society for the Study of Religion, Campbell was professor emeritus at Sarah Lawrence College in New York until his death in 1987.

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