Finnegans Wake – Book I Chapter 1


Whenever you read a book you make assumptions as you go along.  There is some sort of “narrative contract” between you and the author.  Those contracts are all arbitrary and contingent, even in the most “genre-fiction”-type books you can find.  With Joyce the principal quality of that contract isn’t that it’s not there – it is – but that it’s always changing or evolving.  The start and the end of Ulysses are totally different, with many intermediary steps along the way.  Finnegans Wake is worse.  Instead of an evolution, there’s at best a set of fluctuations.  So the best I can make of the first chapter is as a succession of voices and stories, stitched together with sort of abrupt jump-cuts.

The only sure aspect of the contract is that there are words on a page in an order.  Well, there are linguistic symbols on a page in an order.  There is ink in successive rows.  To say that is, of course, to say very little at all.  But I’ve read this before, and I’ve also read some secondary literature.  This may mean I’ve spoiled whatever naïve approach to the text might have been possible, since as I read, I sort things into categories based on that secondary literature.  Even so, here’s what I came up with regarding the structure of the first chapter.

[References are by page number, a dot and then a line-number i.e. 1.17 = the 17th line on the 1st page.  So far as I know all additions of Finnegans Wake are paginated the same way.  There’s an online version available here – – and is sorted by page and line number]

Discernable Sections of Book I Chapter 1 and My Ideas about Them

I.  An introduction – 3.1-3.3

I also know this is generally thought to be the conclusion of what begins on the last page of the book (628.15-628.16).  I’ll ignore that for now and just look at this first sentence.  I’ll look at this sentence in depth because it relatively readable, and also rich with themes later explored.

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.

Let’s look word by word/phrase by phrase.

“Riverrun” = English “river” (river is related to “rivus” in Latin meaning stream, and also “riva” meaning the shore of a river, whence English gets “rival”) and “run”, and also French “reverain” meaning “riparian” (i.e., of the shore), and I also detect English/French “reverie”, as in, dream.   Then there’s the matter of the lower-case “r”, announcing this is not the start (hence the idea of the last sentence at the end of the book “wrapping around”).  Look how many ideas are contained there!  A river, rivals, shores, dream, return, not to mention their combination bringing us to French, English and Latin.  In fact, at least three of the “characters” are presaged by this word – the “river” = ALP the mother, the two “shores”/rivals = Shem and Shaun.

“Past” = first as an adverb indicating spatial relationship as in “just past that corner…”.  But also as a noun – what has come before (in time).

“Eve and Adam’s” – I believe that’s a church in Dublin – Adam and Eve’s, but inverted, suggesting recurrence.  We usually also say “Adam and Eve” when we’re referring to these two characters, the man and woman at the start of Genesis.  Moving “past Eve and Adam’s” suggests moving in time before them.

“from swerve of shore to bend of bay” – now gets us explicitly to the idea of a shore, i.e., the edge of a river.  There are two parallel alliterations – with s’s and b’s, that create a sense of opposition and movement.  I picture one of those panoramic camera swooshes that comes with a back-from-commercials-to-golf-coverage-in-Scotland-somewhere.

“brings us by” continues the alliteration and sense of movement.  Also easy to overlook here is “us.”  Somehow this sentence’s direct object is “us” (though it’s not at all clear what its subject is). Syntactically, it feels like “riverrun”, but that’s not a noun, or it’s not the sort of noun that usually “brings” things.  But “us” is significant in that it places the reader in the narrative right away.  It also has overtones of a radio or television announcer’s friendly inclusive gesture.

“Commodius vicus of recirculation” – Commodius was a Roman emperor about whom I do not know very much.  Commodius also looks like “commodious,” the English adjective meaning kind or polite.  Then there is “commode,” another word for toilet (properly speaking, a pre-internal-plumbing toilet, I think?).  What do a Roman emperor, kindness and a toilet have to do with each other?  Syntactically, it looks most like the adjective, but it’s spelled like the Roman emperor.  The toilet idea is more of an overtone.  Vicus sounds like Vico, whose book, The New Science is, according to external sources, very important for Finnegans Wake (or at least was very important for Joyce while he wrote it).  But “vicus” looks like Latin, with the –us ending, but as far as I know, that is not an actual Latin word.  So what is a “vicus”?  It’s some sort of abstract noun referring to one of Vico’s ideas I suppose?  And “recirculation” brings you to the idea of returning and flowing, which was already suggested in the initial “riverrun.”  Things re-circulate.  Vico’s idea of the “ricorso” feels close to the idea of recirculation.  “Circulation” also has overtones about the mail, and Shaun, one of the “characters,” is frequently depicted as a postman.

“back to Howth Castle and Environs.”  “Back” continues the idea that here at the start, we’re returning to something inevitable and inescapable.  Like of course, no matter where we went, we’d come back to “Howth Castle and Environs.”  That brings me back to the last chapter of Ulysses, where Molly remembers kissing Bloom on Howth Hill, which is a public park to the northeast of Dublin.  “Castle” implies fortification, and “Environs” means “thereabouts.”

HCE (“Howth Castle and Environs”) is one of the dominant character-codes in the book – so the sentence started with a river (ALP) and ends with a castle (HCE).  In between we had two opposed sides to the river – “swerve of shore” and “Bend of bay”, which point somehow towards Shem and Shaun.  All that is missing from the cast of characters then is Issy, the family’s daughter.

II.  A More Extended Introduction – 3.4-4.16

We are introduced here to the idea of conflict and war – “Sir Tristam… had passencore rearrived… to wielderfight his penisolate war” – Tristam = Tristam Shandy, but also Tristan, as in Tristan and Iseult.  And “to weilderfight his pensiolate war” nicely meshes “wield his penis” with “fight his war” and the meshing implies that the concepts are connected.  Later we learn of the fall – a hundred-lettered word that recurs in different forms throughout the book – here it’s


“The fall” is a rich recurring theme in literature, especially as connected to Adam and Eve.  Here it’s the fall of a “a once wallstrait oldparr… retaled early in bed and later on life down through all Christian minstrelsy.”  And whose fall is it?  Finnegan’s.  Not that we know who Finnegan is.  The rest of the intro talks about him being sent to the west in search of his toes, and then the radio-announcer voice kicks back in, almost sounding like a movie trailer – “what clashes here of wills… what chance cuddleys, what cashels aired and ventilated!” And in this section, we also get introduced to “Iseut.”

We also learn that “so soon either shall the pharse for the nunce come to a setdown secular phoenish” (4.16).  This sounds like one of many lines in this book that are offered as summary of the book itself.  “Pharse” means “farce” but with a Ph, together with “phoenish”, which combines Phoenix (a park in Dublin, and a mythological self-regenerating creature), and “secular” implies both “age” and non-religious-ness.  Phoenix Park will be an important scene of a crime that’s metaphorically attached to “the fall.”  And “phoenish” implies that the end will be the beginning.  It will be a Phoenix-finish, one that returns.

III.  Exposition (such as it is) of the tale of Finnegan – 4.17-8.8

“Bygmaster Finnegan, of the Stuttering Hand…”  Now it’s sort of an ancient historian/radio-announcer/tour-guide voice.  It’s trying to tell us everything about Finnegan at once, obviously in colliding and contradictory narratives.  He’s like the great leader that, having fallen, everyone knows everything about, and the narrative voice is telling us all of that.  We learn that “he is smolten in our mist” (7.17) and also that he’s visible in the “brontoichthyan form outlined aslumbered, even in our own nighttime” (7.20-21).  This implies that the “fall” happened so long ago that now it’s like dinosaur remains, and we can see him sleeping in the earth.  “Aslumbered” conjures up the “wake” of the book’s title by being its opposite.  And we can see him “even in our own nighttime” which implies something about his dreamy presence as it permeates our subconscious.

IV.  The Museyroom – 8.9-10.23

The narrative becomes frenetic and claustrophobic, like that of a tour-guide rushing a coach bus full of foreigners through a cramped space.  There’s those little bits of story that such tour-guides tell that you know are false or oversimplified just as you hear them.  The tour-guide talks a lot about “Wilingdone” (Wellington) and “Lipoleum” (Napoleon).  But the deformation of their names also suggests the struggle of the will against the lips (i.e., language).  And brother-rivalry like Shem and Shaun, and therefore rivals and the river.  All sorts of artefacts are quickly pointed out and then rushed past.  The text lets us out with a well-earned “Phew!” (10.23).

V.  Leaving the Museyroom – 10.24-13.3

The language becomes distinctly more feminine (or referring more towards feminine ideas anyhow).  “We nowhere she lives but you mussna tell annaone…” (10.25).  “Annaone” = anyone, but overloaded with “Anna”, first name of ALP.  The river in Dublin is also traditionally called “Anna Liffey.”  The tourguide voice dissipates as smoother, flowing clauses take over.

VI.  The Invasion of the English (13.3-15.27)

This begins with “So This is Dyoublong?” (Dublin/Do-you-belong).  And HCE makes a bold appearance – “Hush! Caution! Echoland!… How charmingly exquisite!”  The voice shifts into one of proper, recondite British imperial history, as the number 4 makes an appearance- “Four things therefore, saith our herodotary Mannon Lijius in his grand old historiorum.”  We’re brought through a confused narrative involving the years 566AD and 1132 AD (566 x 2 = 1132).  Pseudo-academic abbreviations abound.

VII.  Mutt and Jute – 15.28-18.16

The historical voice fades as the text turns into a hostile dialogue between “Jute” and “Mutt.”  Jute is recognizable as Shaun, Mutt as Shem.  This also feels like the forces of one region invading another, and also one language transforming another.  “You spiggoty anglease?  Nnn.  You phonio saxo?  Nnnn.  Clear all so!  ‘Tis a Jute.  Let us swop hats and excheck a few strong verbs weak oach eacher yapyazzard abast the blotty creeks” (16.6-9).  “Creeks” suggests rivers and rivals again, and the sibling rivalry theme is given is clearest (relatively speaking) exposition yet.  Eventually, Jute’s speech tapers off as he gets more and more angry; Mutt tries his best to provide long speeches that assuage Jute’s anger and satisfy Mutt’s sense of creativity.

All five family members appear in one of Mutt’s speeches:

“Fiatfuit!  Hereinunder leythey.  Llarge by the small an’ everynight life olso th’estrange, bablone the greatgrandhotelled with tit tit tittlehouse, alp on earwig, drunk on ild, likeas equal to anequal in this sound seemetery which iz leebez luv” (17.32-36).  “Alp on earwig” is ALP lying on HCE (earwig is a common last name for HCE).  “Ild” and “iz” is “Iseult”/”Isold”/”Izzy.”  “Sound semmetery” is Shaun and Shem, and also a “sound cemetery” and “sound symmetry.”  I guess Mutt is trying to share his understanding of the local terrain, to prevent Jute from killing him.

VIII.  Another Intrusion by the Tour Guide – 18.17-19.30

Jute and Mutt morph back into someone telling their story, instead of them speaking.

IX.  Pure Storytelling – 19.31-24.14

A calmer, more relaxed recapitulation of the foregoing ensues, with a great line about language: “for that (the rapt one warns) is what papyr is meed of, made of, hides and hints and misses in prints.  Till ye finally (though not yet endlike) meet with the acquaintance of Mister Typus, Mistress Tope and all the little typtopies.  Fillstup” (20.10-14).  Somehow this exemplifies the indeterminacy which this text is performing.  It says to me – “no text is smooth.  They all have confuses and tensions, even if you think you’ve sorted it all out, you haven’t.”

X.  Finnegan Wakes Up – 24.15-end of 29

Anam muck an dhoul!  Did you drink me a doornail?

Now be aisy, good Mr. Finnimore, sir.  And take your laysure like a god on pension and don’t be walking around.

For the rest of the chapter, a concerned and distracted voice (not too much different from the tour-guide, but now far more humble and cautious) keeps trying to reassure Finnegan that nothing’s wrong, that he should just go back to bed, everything here’s fine without him, etc. etc.  The fear comes forth mostly through the repeated second-person formulations directed at Finnegan, who now seems to object of all textual and intra-textual attentions.

Whoever is talking – “us”? tries to wish Finnegan away –

Repose you now! Finn no more!  For, be that samesake sibsubstitute of a hooky salmon, there’s already a big rody ram lad at random on the premises of his haunt of the hungred bordles, as it is told me (28-29).

The idea here – to me anyway, is that Finnegan, this great godlike figure, was thought gone (even though they knew he was sleeping all along, as we saw earlier).  Now he’s been replaced by a “samesake” – HCE.  The father-son theme (“samesake”) is also overloaded with the sibling-rivalry theme (“sibsubstittute”).  Frantically, the speaker wants Finnegan to know they don’t really need him anymore, but he also knows that if Finnegan wishes, he can smash all this to bits.  The Finnegan-HCE tension here feels like that between Cronus and Zeus, or more broadly the Titans and the Olympians.  A new imperial order has been established, and they’re happy with it.  They do not need the chaos of the old ways.

As the chapter ends, they’ve even moved on to a new formulation about the fall.  Instead of Finnegan’s 100-letter tumble, we have a new, HCE version of the scandal –

he who will be ultimendly respunchable for the hubbub caused in Edenborough.

The first chapter functions as an overture to the work as a whole.  Finnegan falls; HCE supplants him; Shem and Shaun fight; ALP comes along intermittently to clean things up; Izzy maintains a confusing presence; Finnegan wakes up to much fear and trembling.

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7 Responses to Finnegans Wake – Book I Chapter 1

  1. Nates says:

    Just throwing this out there: would the name “Finnegan” suggest “fin again” — as in, “finished again”? That would fit with the circulating theme of these passages (and apparently the book). I’m sure this has been noted before, but it just occurred to me.

  2. Nates says:

    Oh, I just realized that the “-egan” / “again” connection is made pretty explicitly in the old nursery-rhyme that Joyce is drawing upon. So: correct, but not original at all.

  3. juan says:

    The Roman emperor’s name is Commodus, no ‘i’, so I’m not sure that was an intended analogy. Maybe it was, because apparently ‘vicus’ is a Latin word, there’s a description of what it means on Wikipedia (yeah, I’m citing Wikipedia as a source, I don’t wanna hear no comments).
    Commodus was the bad guy in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, and what happened to him in the movie was completely historically inaccurate. But Scott probably didn’t give a rat’s ass about historical rigor.

  4. Josh says:

    Juan – that’s funny, as I’ve watched that movie a bunch of times with my Latin 1 class, though I didn’t make the connection. I don’t mind wikipedia as a source; I was trying my best to read without sources until after I’ve given myself a first try at interpretation. Whatever you bring to the table is all part of the fun – the “funferall.” Wikipedia seems especially appropriate given that distortion in knowledge transmission through public mechanisms is one of the big themes of the book.

    So far as Joyce’s “intent” is concerned, I wasn’t planning to constrain myself by it in these posts. Commentators (I haven’t read that many but still) seem to think any and everything might well have been his intent, and also, the manufacturing of suggestive coincidences was definitely part of his plan, meaning anything we come up with may have been something Joyce wanted us to come up with – not that thing specifically, just that he wanted his readers to see things that looked like other things, over and above anything he saw that looked like something else.

    The spelling problem explains the “i” – it makes “Commodus” the Latin name for an emperor almost like “Commodious” the English adjective, but not quite. It also makes it look like it agrees (in Latin anyway) with “vicus.”

    What did it say “vicus” means and how do you think it would fit in?

    Nates – The Fin-again/Finnegan point is really important for the text (even if you’re not the first one who thought of it). Also, to clarify, that limerick I quoted isn’t something I’ve read about Joyce referencing, it’s just a song I remember singing as a kid (I’m guessing it was probably something that existed in a similar version for Joyce somewhere in his past). The fun was to keep singing it over and over again at increasing speeds. Also – fin/fun/fine are all punned upon in the text – “Mr. Funn you’re going to be fined again!”

  5. juan says:

    Wikipedia says ‘vicus’ was a sort of smaller administrative unit in a city, like a neighborhood, which had its own officials.
    How this fits in, I don’t know. The Vico suggestion is probably more apt. Some readers on the net also suggest a connection with ‘vicious circle’, ‘vicus’ being a corruption of ‘vicious’. That’s plausible also.

    This kind of text is really hard to interpret. I mean, with the ‘vicus’ and ‘commodius’ examples, apart from the fact that their pronunciation or spelling suggests a Roman hood or the emperor Commodus, do these phonetic associations actually contribute to the meaning of this sentence? Does the sentence mean something related to Commodus, because of this quasi-random coincidence? How far can one stretch the concept of linguistic meaning?

    Another way of saying this: suppose (and I think you are right about this) that Joyce intended us to freely come up with associations on reading his words, associations he himself sometimes didn’t see coming. And sure enough, we do come up with associations. Same thing happens in surrealistic poetry or in W. Burroughs. The question is this: what is the (linguistic) meaning of the sentences Joyce wrote down? Hard to say.

  6. Josh says:

    So now we have Vico, vicus (Latin road), and vicious (as in “vicious circle”)?

    I’ll add to this also that in Dublin there was a “Vico Road” (referenced in Ulysses, chapter 2 – “Vico road, Dalkey”, a thought Stephen has while teaching his lesson about Pyrrhus. And his student names a joke when asked about Pyrrhus – “Pyrrhus, sir? Pyrrhus, a pier.” Meaning “Vico” is a word around which puns cluster for Joyce.

    “The question is this: what is the (linguistic) meaning of the sentences Joyce wrote down? Hard to say.”

    That’s the understatement of the century for Joyce scholarship 🙂 Not to get too postmodern on you (doesn’t go well on this blog I’ve found) but – maybe one of the questions being posed by Finnegans Wake as a whole is – does that question have meaning?

    What do you mean by “linguistic” meaning?

  7. Tim Ahern says:

    Hi! Great blogs! I also have a mutual interest in the Wake Brothers Karamazov and am writing a paper for an upcoming Joyce conference in Utrecht where I will be comparing structural similarities of the two books. Would you like to read it? I would appreciate some feedback from someone like yourself. I can be reached at

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