Monday, September 23, 2013

Summaries and Guides to Finnegans Wake

At a recent Wake group meeting, a participant inquired about summary guides to the text. In particular, she wondered what books are out there that can help give one a sense of what a page or section is about (if FW can be said to have any real plot, that is). There are a few such guides out there and all are pretty different so I'm going to list the ones I'm aware of. This is not an all-encompassing list of books about Finnegans Wake, but a list of books that attempt to summarize or walk one through the text.

A Reader's Guide to Finnegans Wake by William York Tindall
This handy guide is perhaps the most compact of any. Tindall summarizes each chapter succinctly and in a very readable, even entertaining style. At the end of his chapter summaries are notes further expanding on particular words, lines, or paragraphs.

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce's Masterwork by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson
Certainly the most well-known guide, it's the first ever attempt to crack the Wake's code, written just 5 years after Joyce's book was originally published for a baffled and disinterested world. This was my first experience of the Wake (I read it during an unemployed summer in 2008). The most valuable thing about this book is (in my opinion) its introductory section which provides some of the best overall descriptions of the book ever written. The remainder of this hefty tome attempts to turn the prose of Finnegans Wake into a much easier-to-comprehend form of English while inserting frequent commentaries to alert the reader as to what is going on at any particular point. I once talked to Joyce scholar Sheldon Brivic about it and he called this the "Disney version of FW"---it's certainly an adequate introduction but tends to leave out so much important material so as not to overwhelm the new reader. It's also frequently criticized for some of its narrow interpretations which have now become outdated. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Wake and it will always be the book that officially started my own Wake obsession.

A Guide through Finnegans Wake by Edmund Epstein
I've found this to be the weirdest Wake guide thus far. Epstein's interpretations tend to stray away from everyone else's, sometimes to the point of absurdity, yet he also occasionally seems to catch things the other books don't. Similar to Tindall's book, he summarizes each chapter in an accessible manner. I wouldn't recommend this one, though, as it will probably only serve to confuse one further unless reading it alongside other summary guides.

Joyce's Kaleidoscope: An Invitation to Finnegans Wake by Philip Kitcher

One of the newest books on this list, giving one optimism for the future of Wake studies. The author is a philosophy professor at Columbia University and provides a pretty standard, approachable, and (as far as this can possibly apply to a book like the Wake) understandable overall outlook on Joyce's kaleidoscopic masterwork. Interspersing personal reflections and experiences with philosophical and psychological interpretative threads, this provides a solid introduction to the Wake with a chronological summary of each chapter. While I enjoyed this book, I admit that I was hoping for something a bit more shocking and exciting in its originality (because of the great title). Instead, it's a very readable, well-informed and up-to-date summary of Joyce's dense dream book. Certainly serves to entice the new reader to explore things more deeply.

ReJoyce by Anthony Burgess
I wrote a full review of this book a few years back on my other blog. I consider this a very valuable and approachable intro to Joyce and it definitely helped incite my deep interests in the Irish scribe. Burgess (most famous for A Clockwork Orange) lavishes praise on his favorite writer while devoting chapters for each text in the Joycean ouvre including a nice summary of each chapter of Finnegans Wake. Not very thorough at all but certainly worth checking out.

James Joyce A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings
This is a great, daresay essential book for a Joyce student. It covers everything you can possibly be interested in about Joyce, in very good detail. It is essentially a small encyclopedia about Joyce's life and work and included herein are summaries for each chapter of Finnegans Wake as well as more closely detailed discussions of characters and vignettes from the Wake. Great book to thumb through.

Finnegans Wake: A Plot Summary by John Gordon
Narrative Design in Finnegans Wake: The Wake Lock Picked by Harry Burrell

I haven't had the chance to read either of these but they certainly sound like they're perfect for a reader looking for a summary guide. The latter book has come up a few times in our recent Wake reading group meetings and sounds particularly intriguing, from Amazon:
Making bold claims for a new literary interpretation, Harry Burrell presents a forceful analytical model for understanding Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. He argues that Joyce used the genesis story of Adam and Eve as his underlying narrative and interwove it with themes and images from literature and history, thus rewriting the Bible, abolishing the wicked God of the Old Testament, and replacing Him with a gentle, loving female goddess.
Lastly, one of my favorite books about the Wake is Bernard Benstock's Joyce-Again's Wake. It's not along the same lines as the rest of the books listed here because it's more of a collection of essays discussing the book as a whole and what Joyce's unique art form explores. But I bring it up here because at the front of the book, Benstock attempts to give a short one line description for what happens on every single page of the book, so I've always found it worth looking back to. This book is actually available online for free at this link.


  1. Roland McHugh's Annotations to "Finnegans Wake" is mean to be very good. Dont have it myself yet. Tindall is excellent, as is the FW WIKI. Thelater goes into amazing detail, some a little far fetched but nonetheless useful.

  2. The latter, soory about that. Wish you could edit on this.

  3. Didn't mention McHugh only because his is more a reference book for all the puns, languages, riddles, references, and everything else embedded in each word of FW. Certainly essential, though. The FWEET website ( contains McHugh's annotations and I use it for every FW reading group we have.

  4. Thanks for these recommendations... I have a couple of these but you can't have too much help wading through the depths of James Joyce!

  5. The embedded are FW's main feature, whereto McHugh.

  6. I'd like to add that McHugh wrote a VERY short book, sort of on the phenomenology of how he got "into" FW: The Finnegans Wake Experience, which would also be a good name for a band that did all Jimi Hendrix covers, but substituted the lyrics with passages from FW.

    McHugh's book was around 115 pages, and small in size. He took three or four passages (I read it a loooong time ago) and showed how one might get into it. It was McHugh's experience of experiencing FW. His other book on FW seems somewhat more intricate.

    I got a palimpsest in my head
    At first I approached it with dread
    But with help from PQ
    We'll better construe
    Ways in which IT can be read.

  7. Love the limerick, thanks Michael.

  8. This list is missing the following books.

    Adaline Glasheen - Third Census of Finnegans Wake

    Roland McHugh - FW Experience (mentioned in another comment, strongly recommend)

    Clive Hart - Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake

    The Egyptian Book of the Dead

    Sigmund Freud - The Interpretation of Dreams

    The New Science of Giambattista VIco

    Atherton's The Books At the Wake - (strongly recommend)

    How Joyce Wrote Finnegans Wake - Luca Crispi, editor (academic but genetic readings of the Wake are very rewarding)

    Wake Rites: The Ancient Irish Rituals of Finnegans Wake by George Cinclair Gibson (not yet even in 2017 fully acknowledged it seems to me for having so masterfully unlocked a key building block of the book.)

    Don't forget to check Wisconsin's collection.

  9. Thanks for commenting, Sam.

    This list is meant to be for anyone looking for chapter guides and summaries to refer to when going through the book. As I wrote: "This is NOT an all-encompassing list of books about Finnegans Wake, but a list of books that attempt to summarize or walk one through the text." Certainly a whole other humongous list can be made with commentaries and resources like the ones you shared. I plan to try putting together a list like that some time down the road.

    I am also a huge fan of Wake Rites. I just wrote a bit about it in my last post: I think it may be the most important critical text on the Wake that's ever been written. Solves so many of the puzzles.

  10. Fwets of finnegan also has a line by line summary which for me is the only way of actualy kinda understanding the book. Do you thinks it's good to use this kind of summaries or does it detract to much from the actual work?

    1. I find those Fweet paragraph summaries very helpful for the most part.