BOOK REVIEW: Danis Rose, Understanding Finnegans Wake.

by C. George SANDULESCU, Monaco.

                      Danis Rose & John O'HANLON, Understanding Finnegans Wake,
                     A Guide to the Narrative of James Joyce's Masterpiece, New York
                     & London, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1982,  XXVI + 342pp.

(This book Review by C. George SANDULESCU (Monaco) was published in Études Irlandaises, December 1985, No. 10 Nouvelle Série, pages 324-326.  Université de Lille III, "Pont de bois", B.P. 149,   F-59653 Villeneuve d'Asq, France.)

0.    Epigraph:       

                                                     The story, John, said Mr Dedalus smiling.
                                                      Let us have the story [ . . . ]
                                                      It will help us to digest.

            Writing about Finnegans Wake is difficult enough. Writing about something written about is is even more so. For Rose & O'Hanlon start with a very ambitious goal in mind: to straightforwardly tell the straightforward story of Finnegans Wake in a book xxv+341 pages (and about 150,000 words) -- with relatively few footnotes and references outside the actual text, and as free from Joycean Wakisms in quotes as is humanly possible.

            The book is in fact a vast précis-work, reducing the Greater Code to about one third of its size -- a "Rock" told us in plain words . . .

            Before passing to a précis of their précis, and before trying to see whether the authors are to any extent successful in their endeavour, one should perhaps ask a couple of central questions, the answers to which might be provided during or after the analysis. First, who are the authors paraphrasing the book for, i. e. what is their intended readership ?  Second, should their readers read the Understanding first, and Finnegans Wake afterwards, or the other way round, or both simultaneously (assuming this last operation were feasible) ? Finally, and by way of digression, what path do the authors adopt in telling the story ? Do they take the shortest cut, removing redundancies and preserving the bare essentials, or do they make the reader follow the more tortuous path of a labyrinthine pattern ?

            For but for the sequelae of anti-Joyce feeling in Ireland, Finnegans Wake should go into the Guinness Book of Records as the greatest man-created word-labyrinth of human civilization. Hence, the usefulness of paraphrasing Northorp Frye and calling it The Greater Code . . . Ever since 1939, many FW enthusiasts, and then the scholars have tried with varying degrees of success to paraphrase this extraordinary maze of language images into a coherent pattern, be it merely semantic, or narrative, or both. There were J. Campbell & H. M. Robinson (1944), A. Glasheen (1956/1963/1977), Benstock (1965), Burgess (1966), Adams (1966), Tindall's Reader's Guide to FW (1969), Hodgart (1978) etc., all giving more accurate or less accurate accounts of the FW story for the benefit of the "ordinary", "average", or "ideal" reader.

            By way of illustration here is how different authors handle the telling-of-the-story-in-plain-words over the years; for reasons of acute space limitation here, illustrations are restricted to FW Part Four only ( Clive Hart's seeming favourite !). Benstock (1965, p. xxiv) divides Part Four into nine subdivisions, whereas Hart (1962, p.17), going by natural segments only, exclusively elaborates in his Table upon existing divisions, and in consequence considers it as one. Burgess (1966), Tindall (1969), Hodgart (1978) only try to tell a story, forcibly moulded into coherence, without bothering much about the actual structuring of the subwhole, which might in the last analysis conflict with the specific way subwholes were connected in the coherent story. It is also very instructive to compare Glasheen's accounts of what is actually happening in Part Four in their variations from one Census to another (The First 1956, The Second 1963, The Third 1977). Eckley (1974) delicately embroiders upon the ancient oriental and exotic themes & models to such an extent that the discussion becomes cryptic and almost enigmatic. Of all the discussions of the Story, it is only Hart (1962, p.17) who consistently abides by the natural segments; his chart, however, is clearly drafted under the strong influence of Gilbert (1930, p.41) and is meant to parallel the one drafted for Ulysses, insomuch as most headings are identical or analogous.

            Benstock's account of what is going on in Part Four is throughout expressed in propositional form: 

                    (1) Dawn of new era awakens the sleeping giant. 

                    (2) Twenty-nine girls celebrate Kevin. 

                    (3) Morning newspaper carries the story of HCE's indiscretion. 

                    (4) St Kevin the hermit meditates in his bathtub-altar. 

                    (5) The park scene of HCE's indiscretion is revisited. 

                    (6) Muta and Juva watch the encounter of St Patrick and the Archdruid. 

                    (7) Morning brings the cycle to its beginning. 

                    (8) The Letter signed by ALP is in the morning mail. 

                    (9) Follows Anna Livia's soliloquy as she goes out to sea.

            Tindall (1969,p.305-331) seems resigned when faced with the disparate character and disconnectedness which is manifest among the various episodes of Part Four -- to him "Chapter XVII" (sic !); he merely decides in favour of an itemized inventory of incidents: "

                     After an intricate introduction, comes a saint's life. A 
                     discursive interlude separates the holiness from the secular debate of 
                     Muta and Juva which, however different in substance and character 
  from that of Mutt and Jute, echoes it more or less. The exchange of 
                     Muta and Juva followed abruptly (sic!) by that of Patrick and the druid.
                     A philosophical interlude prepares us (sic!) for another letter from 
                    ALP that modulates easily into her final monologue. Her last words, 
                     recalling in a way those of Mrs Bloom, replace the address to the dead
                      that concludes Chapter I ."

            Adams (1966, p.187) makes the "interesting" discovery, which acutely posits the issue of point of view, that the final monologue extends over the whole pf Part Four; as it has no beginning, the average reader's best bet is to read Finnegans Wake backwards:

                    backwards is a good way to approach the structure of Finnegans Wake.                          Book IV, the final sololoquy of Anna Liffey, is a single continuous                                sweep of fluid interior monologue in which all (sic !) the previous
                    themes of the book are caught up and resloved in the life-giving flood
                    of  'Penelope' (to know this sort of thing doesn't make any particular
                    passage more lucid, but at least it locates one's confusions within a

            Glasheen (1956, p.xxv) takes Joyce's private correspondence as the basis for her summary of FW Part Four:

                     Joyce says that the sun lights up two panels of a triptych in the village
                    church: one pictures 'the progressive isolation of St Kevin (Shaun); the
                    other pictures the meeting of St Patrick (Shaun) and the Archdruid
                    (Shem). After this we are given the full text of Anna Livia's letter
                    defending HCE. It was always somebody else's fault, she says. Last,
                    we come to Anna Livia's great death speech. She escapes from the
                    man-made world to her sister nymphs and her cold mad father, the sea,
                    but a daughterwife has taken her place. 'Finn, again !' she cries to her

            Of them all it is Burgess (1966, p.20) who appeals the most to the unimaginative simple-minded "ordinary reader", imagining things for him, and putting a minimum of fictional order in the Joycean chaos, à tort ou à raison:

                    In the final section, a single chapter, Sunday morning comes and we
                    turn our eyes to the East, looking for hope in an alien order of wisdom.
                    The innkeeper goes to sleep again, and he dreams of his son Shaun as
                    he may be, an agent of theocracy, a bringer of the word of God. The
                    boy Kevin appears as St Kevin, and we are led back to the one genuine
                    historical year in the whole chronicle -- 432 A.D., the year of the coming
                    of St Patrick. He refutes the messed up idealism of the Archdruid (who
                    is also Bishop Berkeley) and speaks out the Christian message in a main
                    voice. But the last work is neither God's nor man's: it is woman's. We
                    are given at last the full text of ALP's letter, and she herself, all river
                    now, dreams herself on to her death and consummation in her father
                    the sea. Her day is done. She was once the young bride from the hills, a
                    role passed on to her daughter; now, with the filth of man's city on her
                    back, she must seek renewal through annihilation; she will return at
                    length to her source in rain-clouds blown in from the sea. The hope of
                    rebirth, for the world as well as the river, is at once fulfilled. The last
                    sentence of the book is incomplete: to finish it we must turn back to the
                    beginning again. And then we are led on to pursue the great cycle once
                    more, the never ending history of man, sinner and creator.

            Leaving aside the flagrant discrepancies between the above five illustrative mini-Outlines, particularly in point of incident rendition and narrative trend of FW Part Four, the authors of the Understanding under review might well exclaim by way ofobjection: "But this is not it at all: For all these are Synopses, and not the extended Paraphrase we had in mind !"

            Indeed, the differences are substantial, and worth looking into.

            Rose & O'Hanlon devote forty packed pages to their Outline of FW Part Four (pp. 289 - 329) where Benstock (above) devoted barely eighty words ! First, they give an interpretative  to their "Book" Four, and that is "By Dawn" (p.289). Then they explain three language segments -- on of which occurs on the very first page of it -- by means of evidence coming from heraldry, as published by The Weekly Irish Times of 18th July 1936: the clear implication is that author Joyce had closely scanned that particular issue of that particular periodical (obviously some time after that date !) before writing out his three little bits of text (p.290). Then "Part" Four, called "Book" throughout, all of a sudden becomes "Chapter" in the very first line of the discussion, admitting of five divisions, called "Sections". The reader begins to be a little baffled after he had just read that Benstock had established nine such subdivisions in 1965, and Glasheen had hinted at a triptych structure (paradoxically made up of four entities in her account !) as early as 1956 . . .

            But the great-big difference is, as explained by the authors in the introduction, that the Five Sections established by The Understanding have a "genetic" justification: 

                    The sections into which we have divided the chapters, a division we 
                    might add  of paramount importance in elucidating the narrative, were
                    originally composed as separate pieces and revised as individual units
                    prior to incorporation into the continuous text body of the Wake. The
                    subdivision was present at the beginning and we are accordingly 
                    entitled to make much use of it in our researches. (p. ix)

            At which the flippant and slightly Joyce-sceptic average reader might not be able to hold back and would exclaim with all his force: "How lucky we are that Willie Shakespeare had buried all his precious manuscripts long before himself and they are dead and gone for good !  For otherwise God knows with how many more of his Scenes we would have had to put up with ! To say nothing of the Acts . . . ".  Then, after having established the five sections of FW Part Four on an exclusively Manuscript basis (which in a reader-oriented approach may have but little to do with the overall impact of the finished printed text upon first intake), the authors proceed to give fairly detailed paraphrases of all Five Sections, starting from and with the fundamental assumption that in "Book Four allegory and reality are hopelessly confused". There is, of course, the Sanskrit of the Easter dawn, there is tavern with the radio-set on. HCE is dreaming . . .  A cock crows . . .  And suddenly, the radio transmission addresses HCE directly . . .  In the hour of prayer lofty thoughts are on, mainly about transsubstantiation. HCE tries his hardest to awake into some identity, "and seeks to locate himself  with more definition in time and space". After " a recurrence of his stomach trouble", "Humphrey begs to be told the place". After Kevin, Wicklow, the song of the twenty-nine flower-girls, at the end of the Section, "the radio crackles into life again". 

            Section Two is about Saint Kevin on  his island (and in his kitchen) at Glendalough. Section Three (about 2,500 words) is about several things, but mainly about the Muta (CHANGE) and Juta (YOUTH) dialogue, imperceptibly giving way to the altercation between Patrick and the (Arch)druid. "The Section closes in a medley of motifs. HCE is called on to put on his fresh new clothes and 'step into style' ".

            Section Four (614.19 to 619.19) is taken up with the text of the "Revered Letter", but the reader is surprised to notice a sudden increase in the number of hypothetical interpretations, e. g. "in fictional terms the question is whether or not this letter is the same (in whole or in part) as the letter ostensibly originating  in Boston (Mass.)" . . .   "Is it authoritative and who is its author ?".  It is these and other flagrant narrative indeterminacies not only in Part Four, but also throughout FW, that the authors try to solve by referring to the "genetic" fact that one piece or another had been developed by fiction-writer Joyce "through three fair copies and a typescript" (page 306). 

            Section Five is the final section, and it is easy to identify as "ALP's illustrious monologue, generally considered to be the most accessible, least arcane and most lucid and emotive passage in the Wake . . . ". As it is indeed the most accessible (in relative terms only !), there is no need I think for me here to précis the Rose & O'Hanlon paraphrase any further.

            In addition to a twenty-five-page introduction, the book also contains a short Appendix,  followed by an exceedingly interesting Checklist of FW Sources, mentioning books which had an abiding influence on the author of Finnegans Wake, side by side with a few articles (published long after 1941 !) in A Wake Newslitter, devoted for the most part to discussions of such sources. It is a real pity, however, that everything is incomplete, even the Language Lists of pp.338-339.

            First,  the Appendix takes up a statement from the Introduction in such an eloquent and striking way that what was said in the Introduction becomes a  mere "understatement". Here is what is said on page 331 (and I beg the interested reader to compare it with what was said on page x): 

                    There are twin faces to Finnegans Wake: narrative as opposed to (or 
                    allied with) complex of allusions. We further contend that these two 
                    faces do not exist collaterally, like siamese twins joined at the hip, but
                    back to back, like the fierce visages of Janus, attached to one head.

            This is indeed a major statement and should have had the whole book structured according to it as the only valid underlying premise. Why is it then relegated to the Appendix ?  And why is its formulation in the Introduction so pale that it really passes unnoticed ? Why also is the whole book not structured to its very last detail on the basis of this principle if its validity is perceived ?

            Secondly, the Checklist (why call it "preliminary" in its subtitle ? ) of FW Sources  starts with the FW periodical A Wake Newslitter :  but surely the bimonthly A Wake Newslitter was first issued in the early sixties (and stopped publication, according to its Senior Editor Clive Hart, on Centenary Bloomsday), never can in itself be taken as a genuine source for Finnegans Wake ! It certainly cannot be put on a par, and in the same listing, with Le Fanu's House by the Churchyard ! Further, let one compare this Checklist of FW Sources with Jim Atherton's Books at the Wake (1959): not only is Atherton's far, far richer in the range of Sources (perhaps three to four times as many) but, vastly more important, his discussion of them derives directly from the requirements of the narrative rather than from the ever so fragile and so questionable "occurrence in the Notebooks" . . .

            Thirdly, the Language Lists; what can be more incomplete than the following: on BL Add.MS 47488, fol. 180 (reproduced on page 343 in the James Joyce Archive), Joyce himself  jots down exactly forty languages in his own handwriting ! Rose (& O'Hanlon) prefer to put on the VI.B.46 blinkers and list only twenty-seven, at least four of which are absent from Joyce's own listing . . .

            On the strength of these and many other facts & arguments, it is high time to return and give an answer to the three initial questions about (a) intended readership, (b) possible reading procedures, and (c) the shortest cut to understanding the FW labyrinth. I confess that I prefer to give blunt and simple answers to these complex and difficult questions not only because of rigid limitations of space here, but also because I contend that during the past forty years or so, ever since the days of Campbell & Robinson (1944), it is the FW "scholar" who had done far more to put off the "average reader" from enjoying the book than the book itself.

            First, to me it is not at all clear who the book is primarily addressed to; I suspect that it rather arose -- like a rose ! -- from the authors' acute need to clarify to themselves what FW is in great detail really about, and simultaneously to obtain a vehicle for the display of latest findings from the VI.B.46 Holograph so kindly and generously published by A Wake Newslitter Press. For the ordinary reader gets so easily lost among the Manuscripts ... always and invariably. But do Manuscripts matter so much really, when the publication of the definitive text was supervised fairly closely by Author Joyce himself  before his 1939 so symbolic birthday ? 

            My equally blunt answer to the second question -- the one about possible reading procedures -- is that one should know Finnegans Wake pretty well in order to be able to comprehend The Understanding. In other words, one should have read, enjoyed, understood and forgotten FW -- as well as what it stands for in Joyce Studies -- before enjoying The Understanding. No newcomer to FW can ever make head or tail of it; nor anyone who happens to be (a) a FW-sceptic (e. g. "No FW nonsense in my Department !" sort of statement), or (b) a Joyce non-enthusiast, or (c) both.  As I suspect, many a senior professor of (comparative) literature on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific (to be specific !) may choose to fall into one of those three subcategories.

            Finally, my very direct answer to the last question -- which is the shortest cut (in point of method of putting across information)  in order to make the averagely educated man in the street follow the tortuous path of FW with least pain ? In other words, how to "finneganswake" without tears !  Certainly not through constant reference to the more than notorious VI.B.46 -- a way of referring, incidentally, which would be as cryptic to the average reader as it would to James Joyce himself. The unique goal of a Guide entitled Understanding FW should be to stick to the printed 1939 definitive edition of FW, and having it as a sole starting-point & target: the reader is a theatre-goer who is annoyed to be told what exactly goes on backstage: text-genetics should come in either before the printing, or much later on, for The Variorum. In order to more accurately reflect the authors' overstrong "genetic" bias, this 'Guide' should have perhaps better been called something like Understanding FW Through the Great Author's Own Preliminary Jottings-Down . . . 

            Though an excellent piece of scholarship in itself, the  average reader is far better off with his "Shorter Burgess" (faber 1964).


ADAMS, Robert M. 1966. James Joyce: Common Sense and Beyond. New York,
                                            Random House. 232 pp.

ATHERTON, James S. 1959. The Books at the Wake. A Study of Literary Allusions
                                            in Joyce's FW. London, Faber. 308 pp.

BENSTOCK, Bernard. 1965. Joyce-Again's Wake. An Analysis of FW,
                                            Seattle & London. Univ. of Washington Press. 312 pp.

BURGESS, Anthony, ed. 1964. A Shorter FW. London. Faber. 278 pp.

CAMPBELL J. & Robinson, H. M. 1944. A Skeleton Key to FW. New York.
                                            Harcourt, Brace & Co.  365 pp.

ECKLEY, Grace. 1974. "Looking Forward to a Brightening Day" in: BEGNAL & 
                                            Senn, eds., A Conceptual Guide to FW. Penn. State
                                            U. P. pp. 211-236. 

GLASHEEN,Adaline. 1956/1963/1977. A First / Second / Third Census of FW.
                                            London. Faber. 

HART, Clive. 1962. Structure and Motif in FW. Northwestern U.P. 271 pp.

HODGART, Matthew. 1978. James Joyce. A Student's Guide. London. Routledge
                                            & Kegan Paul. 196 pp.

TINDALL, William York. 1969. A Reader's Guide to FW. London, Thames &
                                            Hudson. 339 pp.


FRYE, Northorp. 1982. The Great Code. The Bible and Literature. New York.
                                            Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers. 261 pp.