Cyclical Themes in Finnegans Wake
In James Joyce’s shockingly complex and difficult novel Finnegans Wake, formulating a statement concerning theme is an oft uncertain business. The difficulty arises as a result of Joyce’s unique use of the “English” language. Despite this initial obstacle, however, the theme of cycles becomes readily apparent, if the text is examined closely. This general theme can be intuited not only from the text itself, but from the way in which the work has been presented in the past. The text is written in such a way that it has no fixed beginning or endpoint. This enabled it to be presented in a ring-binder of sorts, allowing the reader to start at any given point, without sacrificing any of the intended meaning. Another hint as to the cyclical nature of the work is the title, “Finnegans Wake.” “Wake” refers to the traditional Irish celebration of Finnegan’s passing, but it is also a pun, since Finnegan “wakes” after his corpse is splashed with whiskey. With these clues in mind, one can turn to the text with a keen eye toward references to cycles, and emerge with a better understanding of Joyce’s work.
The text seems to focus on a cyclical pattern involving an alternating rise and fall. The third paragraph describes Finnegan’s fall from the ladder, the fall which leads to his death. This paragraph draws a parallel between his fall and two others: that of Humpty-Dumpty and that of Adam and Eve. “The fall…of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all Christian minstrelsy” (p. 3). Through close analysis of this line, and the text that surrounds it, which refers to both Adam and Eve and the character Humpty-Dumpty, a pattern that constitutes a circle within a circle begins to emerge. While one circle is clearly the death and awakening of Finnegan himself, another circle consisting of human history on a larger scale seems to encompass the former. The allusion to Humpty-Dumpty seems to relate to Finnegan’s fall from a ladder on a wall, but the allusion to Adam and Eve refers to the fall of mankind. Other allusions to the larger circle support this notion. References to a “municipal sin” (p. 5), which could mean a sin incorporating all of mankind, would refer to Original Sin, or the sin of Adam and Eve.
Thus, even through brief but careful examination, some important points can be gleaned from the seemingly cryptic text. It seems that when Joyce writes “Phall if you but will, rise you must: and none so soon either shall the pharce for the nunce come to a setdown secular pheonish” (p. 4), he not only refers to the resurrection of Finnegan, but to phoenix-like rise and fall of humanity as well.