Finnegans Wake – Book I Chapter 8

Chapter 8 ends the first book, which is, by general consensus, the book of the Olympian-type Gods – HCE (chapters 1-4) and ALP (chapters 5-8).  That over-simplifies things, given that chapter 1 also told the story of Finnegan (in the older generation of gods), chapter 6 was a “quiz” about all the characters, and chapter 7 was almost entirely about Shem.  I think the idea the commentators have in saying Book I is the book of HCE/ALP is that the story is largely focused on them, with the other bits being digressions, or better, digressive introductions of themes only fully fleshed out in later books.

Chapter 8 brings this thematic grouping to a close, like the last movement of a classical symphony.  Through the first 7 chapters, ALP had presented herself as a character who washed away the controversy and conflict, whether it was centered around Finnegan, HCE, or Shem/Shaun.  Here that “washing away” is the theme of the chapter, and gets rendered as the conversation between two washing-women at the banks of a river.  It’s a breathtaking metaphor if you stop to think about it – all of history, all of language, all of culture as the dirt two washing women scrub out of some linen.

It’s a little harder to break into sections, given that the whole is meant to “flow” from part to part, but we can break things up by what the two washer-women are talking about.

The chapter begins by illustrating the symbol of ALP – the Greek delta – on the page (196).


tell me all about

Anna Livia!  I want to hear all

That delta quickly resolves itself into the gossipy and at times cantankerous back-and-forth of the washerwomen.  Seen another way, ALP (top of triangle – the end of book I) becomes Shem and Shaun (other two points – the start of Book II)

I.  HCE and his Crime

By this point in the narrative, HCE’s crime is ancient history, such ancient history, in fact, that neither washerwoman feels the need even to explain what happened (or maybe, what is the same thing, they don’t even know, or to put it again another way, they know it’s unspeakable, in polite company one doesn’t really say what it is): “when the old cheb went futt and did what you know.  Yes, I know, go on… Or whatever it was they threed to make out he thried to two in the Fiendish park” (196).  Shem and his ink are also in he mix: “He has all my water black on me… to make his private linen public” – so HCE’s crime and Shem’s writing about it are both just so much dirty/ink water that makes the washing take a little bit longer.  Once more, too the Shem/Shaun identity is rendered through either synchysis or chiasmus (not sure which when multiple languages are involved):

Reeve Gootch was right and Reeve Drughad was sinistrous! (197)

Think French, Paris, the Seine, low culture and high society, and their mutual interdependence.

Anyway, the washerwomen swap incoherent rumors about the crime, at one point one accusing the other of being an “antiabecedarian” – the “washing” is removing the order of the alphabet, their washing unstructures, un-languages the world.

II.  HCE and ALP Meet

The meeting is discussed in romantic, chit-chatty terms: “He had been belching for severn years.  And there she was, Anna Livia, she darent catch a winkle of sleep, purling around like a chit of a child” (199).  Note the “severn” –> Severn river (the one that separates England from Wales).  Throughout this chapter, rivers from all over the world are punned upon.

III.  The Letter

Something like the much-rumored letter from earlier chapters shows up here, but of course, all it is is a gossipy light note, one woman writing to another about new clothes she wants: “By earth and the cloudy but I badly want a brandnew bankside” (201), etc.

IV.  Their Children

“Some say she had three figures to fill and confined herself to a hundred eleven.”  A hundred eleven = 111, which is really just 3 from another perspective – and the children – Shem, Shaun, Izzy, begin to multiply in this chapter into all of humanity.  And “she can’t remember half of the cradlenames she smacked on them” 201).

V.  Where They Lived

“Then whereabouts in Ow and Ovoca?” (203).

VI.  The Crime Again – Motives

“And drip me why in the flenders was she frickled” (204).

VII.  When

“Well, after it was put in the Mericy Cordial Mendicants’ Sitterdag-Zindeh-Munaday Wakeshrift” (205) – i.e., after Shem’s incoherent book, i.e. Finnegans Wake, was written.  And at the point where rumors had spread far and wide, and “the mauldrin rabble around him in areopage, fracassing a great bingkam cagnan with their timpan crowders” (206).

Only at this point does the real story of ALP – or the part of the story that’s most distinctly ALP’s contribution, begin: “she said to herself she’s frame a plan to fake a shine, tie mischiefmaker, the like of it you niever heard” (206).

VIII.   Preparations for the Plan 

“What plan?” (206)

She took “a shammy mailsack” (note Shem and Shaun encased in that phrase) and “made herself tidal.”  The big trick of ALP’s sleeve is her ability to bring about a flood whenever/wherever it proves necessary.  The sack will be used to save everyone (or everyone worth saving? – like Noah’s ark?)

But before that plan can fully be hatched, we get a catalog of her beauty preparations “first she let her hair fal and down it flussed to her feet its teviots winding coils… Annushka Lutetiavitch Pufflovah… with her mealiebag slang over her shulder… Anna Livia, oysterface, forth of her bassein came” (207).  I like the idea of “slang” as “slung” but also “informal/improper speech.”  Her slang deconstructs his order.

Around this point, the washerwomen’s arguing becomes more common – the idea seems to be that they’re turning into a stone and a tree, that is, Shaun and Shem, who argue and argue.  “I’ll tell you a test.  But you must sit still.  Will you hold your peace and listen well to what I am going to say now?” (207).

After this, there’s a catalog of her clothing, including “her civvy codroy coat with alpheubett buttons” (208).

IX.  The Plan Begins

She took hold of her whole family – “her arms encircling Isolabella, then running with reconciled Romas and Reims, on like a lech to be off like a dart, then bathing Dirty Hans’ spatters with spittle” (209).  That’s Issy, Shem, Shaun, and HCE in reasonably transparent disguises.  This is the point in the story where her family becomes Humanity writ-large – “a thousand and one of them, and wickerpotluck for each of them.  For evil and ever…” (210).  Now we get another catalog, this time of all the people under all the different guises, who are being saved, and the gifts she gave all of them.  And for virtually the first time in Finnegans Wake, we get actual, (almost) straightforward repetition of names, including “Hosty” (chapter 2), “Armoricus Trisam Amoor” (first page of chapter 1), “including the sword and stamps for Shemus O’Shaun the Post” (now they’re fused into one person with two items), “Festus King”, “so On Izzy, her shamemaid, love shon befond her tears as from Shem, her penmight, life past befoul his prime” (211-212).

X.  The Story Fades

As it grows darker, the story recedes as the washerwomen take center stage: “I told you every telling as a taling and that’s the he and the she of it.  Look, look the dusk is growing” (213).  Also they start to transform – “My branches lofty are taking root” – i.e., one of them turns into a tree, i.e., Shem.

They start to talk more about their laundry, accusing each other of not handling it correctly – “Spread on your bank and I’ll spread mine on mine… I’ll lay a few stones on the hostel sheets” (213).

As the flood rolls in and the night darkens their surroundings, their transformation to “stem and stone” (Shem and Shaun) becomes complete, introducing the main topic of Book II.  Even if you find this book obscurantist and pointless, the beauty of the final paragraphs of this chapter speak for themselves – you can also hear a recording Joyce himself reading these paragraphs here.  It’s one of just a handful of things we have a recording of his reading of.  :

Can’t hear with the waters of.  The chittering waters of.  Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk. talk.  Ho!  Are you not gone a home.  What Thom Malone Cant’s hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of.  Ho, talk save us!  My foos won’t moos.  I feel as old as yonger elm.  A Tale told of Shaun or Shem?  All Livia’s daughter-songs.  Dark hawks hear us.  Night!  Night!  My ho head halls.  I feel as heavy as yonder stone.  Tell me of John or Shaun?  Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of?  Night now!  Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone.  Beside the rivering waters of, the hitherandthithering waters of. Night!

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