Finnegans Wake – A Prescriptive Guide – 14

~ Part 1 ~ Part 2 ~ Part 3 ~ Part 4 ~ Part 5 ~ Part 6 ~
Part 7 ~ Part 8 ~ Part 9 ~ Part 10 ~ Part 11 ~ Part 12 ~ Part 13 ~

Here Comes Everybody

All the World’s a Stage

In this series of articles I have had occasion to quote not once but twice the following remark made by James Joyce to the Danish writer Ole Vinding:


There are, so to say, no individual people in the book—it is as in a dream, the style gliding and unreal as is the way in dreams. If one were to speak of a person in the book, it would have to be of an old man, but even his relationship to reality is doubtful. (Vinding et al 180-181)

On the nocturnal plane of narrative, in which Finnegans Wake depicts a single night in the life of a single individual, this is quite true. But on the other planes of narrative, nothing could be further from the truth. At these deeper levels Finnegans Wake is densely populated with a host of characters drawn from the realms of history, literature, mythology, folklore and Joyce’s own life.

In 1956, one of the pioneers of Wakean studies, Adaline Glasheen, published a Who’s Who of the book, called A Census of Finnegans Wake. A revised and enlarged Second Census followed in 1963, and the definitive Third Census of Finnegans Wake in 1977. This Index of the Characters and Their Roles was described by Thornton Wilder as _indispensable to all students of _Finnegans Wake.

According to Glasheen’s census, the population of Finnegans Wake is in the thousands. What are we to make of this seemingly interminable list of names? More than ten years ago, I wrote the following on the FinnegansWiki website, to which I was an occasional contributor:

The casual reader of Finnegans Wake could be forgiven for believing that the novel has a cast of thousands, with at least as many characters as War and Peace or À la recherche du temps perdu. The definitive guide to the book’s dramatis personae, Adaline Glasheen’s exhaustive Third Census of Finnegans Wake, has indeed entries for thousands of characters. But the truth of the matter is that Joyce’s work is populated by just a handful of distinct characters, who, however, appear and reappear throughout the book in various guises. They are like the members of a small troupe of actors who are forced to “double up” their roles in order to stage a particularly complex play—though Finnegans Wake is so complex that most of our actors are compelled to play hundreds of different parts throughout the course of the work’s 628 pages. The book’s protagonist HCE, for example, is in turn (and sometimes simultaneously) Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, Charles Stewart Parnell, the Duke of Wellington, Julius Caesar, Finn MacCool, King Mark of Cornwall, the Salmon of Knowledge, etc. And this list could be extended ad nauseam if minor characters were included to which only one or two allusions are made throughout the book (eg Old Parr, with whom HCE is briefly identified on page 3).

Finnegans Wake is indeed like a play that has a cast of thousands but which is being performed by a small repertory company with only a handful of actors. Each actor must play several different rôles throughout the performance. To further complicate matters, some rôles are played by two or more actors at different times.

So who are the actors in this drama?

Page 241 of Third Census of Finnegans Wake

Dramatis Personae

Once again it is Joyce himself who points the way:

But I, after all, am trying to tell the story of this Chapelizod family in a new way. Time and the river and the mountain are the real heroes of my book. Yet the elements are exactly what every novelist might use: man and woman, birth, childhood, night, sleep, marriage, prayer, death. (Manly 11-12, Ellmann 554)

On what I am calling the diurnal plane of narrative, Finnegans Wake depicts a single day in the life of a single family who live in the Mullingar House in Chapelizod. There are five members of this family, and they are the principal characters in the book. There are also two elderly servants living in the Mullingar House. In addition to these seven, there is a small number of supporting rôles played by the local citizenry. This situation is complicated, however, by the dreamlike nature of the narrative: some characters overlap with other characters, so that they are not entirely independent of one another.

Let us take a quick look at the leading characters in the drama. I shall use the familiar names or designations by which they are generally known in Wakean circles. Their real names, if they have any, are still a matter of debate.

HCE – Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, the father of the family, the landlord of the Mullingar House, and the male protagonist of Finnegans Wake.

ALP – Anna Livia Plurabelle, the wife of HCE, the mother of the family, and the female protagonist of the book.

Shem & Shaun – The twin sons of HCE and ALP.

Issy – the daughter and youngest child of HCE and ALP.

Joe – HCE’s elderly man servant and the curate—caretaker, barman—of the Mullingar House.

Kate – ALP’s elderly slavey or maid-of-all-work.

The Four Old Men – Four senile old men who spend most of their time drinking and reminiscing in the Mullingar House.

The Twelve – Twelve regular patrons of the Mullingar House.

The Cad – A hostile character who confronts HCE.

The Maggies – Twenty-eight schoolfriends of Issy.


HCE—Here Comes Everybody—is the Everyman of Finnegans Wake. His initials crop up all over the text in various guises and are worth watching out for. He represents the archetypal man who rises in the world but suffers a great fall, one precipitated by his own guilty nature—or so he believes. But in his fall are the seeds of his resurrection.

HCE is a typical middle-class Dublin Protestant. He is often identified with the city itself, which was founded by his Scandinavian ancestors, and with the Hill of Howth, which overlooks the city.

In The Name Of Annah


If HCE is Everyman, then his wife ALP is Everywoman. She is Eve to his Adam. She embodies Goethe’s Ewig-Weibliche, the Eternal Feminine or Ever Womanly.

If HCE is Dublin, ALP is the River Liffey that flows through the city and carries away its filth.

Shem and Shaun

Shem and Shaun are archetypal rivals, like Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel, or Jacob and Esau. Shem is Shaun’s evil twin. They are constantly at odds with one another and frequently come to blows, but they always seem to resolve their differences and achieve a reconciliation of sorts. They epitomize Giordano Bruno’s philosophy of the coincidence of opposites.

Joyce (Brâncuși)

I believe Shaun is the elder, but this is disputed. It is generally agreed that the young James Joyce provides the model for Shem—Séamas is the Irish for James—while there is much of Joyce’s closest brother Stanislaus in Shaun. That would suggest that Shem is the elder. But Joyce was not his parents’ first-born. On 23 November 1880, about fourteen months before Joyce’s birth, another son John Augustine Joyce was born to John and May Joyce, but he died shortly after birth (Bowker 18). James Joyce was the second-born but eldest surviving child. It has been said that the reference to Stephen Dedalus as baby tuckoo—a hypocorism for cuckoo—on the opening page of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man alludes to this situation. The Irish for John is Seán, Anglicized as Shaun. This scenario makes Shem the younger son, who steals his elder brother’s birthright, like the Biblical Jacob. Still, Stanislaus’s full name was John Stanislaus Joyce, so Shaun possibly embodies both of Joyce’s closest brothers, the elder John and the younger John. Perhaps there is even some sense in which John Augustine is reborn as John Stanislaus, having being displaced by James Augustine as the eldest son.

James and Lucia Joyce in 1924


Issy is the sex-symbol of Finnegans Wake. As a repository of both innocence and experience, she owes much of her characterization to Milly Bloom and Gerty MacDowell in Ulysses. Gerty had a physical flaw—her limp—while Issy has a mental flaw. Like Joyce’s daughter Lucia, Issy is schizophrenic. Her two dominant personalities represent the two opposed sides of her nature—one black and one white. These personalities are reflections of each other—Issy is never without her looking glass—and they are forever talking to each other. So Issy too reflects Bruno’s coincidence of opposites: as a schizophrenic, however, she is her own evil twin.

But Issy is not always duple: sometimes she displays multiple personalities.

Issy is closely associated with her father’s sense of his own guilt: in fact, it is no exaggeration to say that she embodies it. In Finnegans Wake this guilt is typically associated with a crime or sin committed by HCE. The exact nature of this sin is never made clear, but it is usually of a sexual nature and it always involves Issy: HCE exposes himself to her, or he spies on her while she is indecent, etc.

But like Bloom’s affair with Gerty in Ulysses, this is all in HCE’s head. His horrible crime is nothing more than an unconscious projection of his own guilty feelings. As a young man HCE fell in love with a young and beautiful ALP. Now, as a middle-aged man, he is no longer attracted to his wife, who is no longer young or beautiful. Their daughter, however, as she grows and matures into womanhood, begins to resemble the young ALP, and HCE finds himself falling in love with this resurrected pattern of his young wife. But Issy is still his daughter: hence the incest-riddled guilt.

But if Issy embodies HCE’s guilt, she also symbolizes his ultimate resurrection. She rejuvenates him. She makes him feel young and alive at a time in his life when he is beginning to feel old and obsolete.

Something similar, I believe, happened to one of Joyce’s heroes, William Shakespeare. Near the end of his life, he grew morose and despondent, and lost his faith in humanity. But this all changed when his granddaughter Elizabeth—Lizzie, grandpa’s lump of love, as Stephen calls her in Ulysses—was born. Shakespeare was transformed into a doting grandfather and recovered his zest for life. Within a short space of time he had penned four romancesPericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline and The Tempest—in which a downcast old man regains his belief in the essential goodness of mankind through the innocence and purity of a young girl. To Marina, Perdita, Innogen and Miranda, one might add Issy.

As a pattern of sexuality—the novel’s Venus or Aphrodite—Issy is the prize over which her brothers Shem and Shaun are constantly squabbling.


Kate is the Wake’s archetypal old woman. In Irish poetry, Ireland was often personified as a Poor Old Woman. This Shan Van Vocht appears in Ulysses as the milkwoman and as Old Gummy Granny.

Kate is also Mother Courage, a camp follower, who scours the battlefield and strips the dead. She is a muckraker, a collector of dung. She probably owes her name to Katherine Strong, a 17th-century toll collector and city scavenger, charged with keeping the streets of Dublin free from shit, a job she performed but sparingly and very seldom (McHugh 79). Kate is thus the compiler of the kitchen midden, or rubbish tip, behind the Mullingar House.

Kate is often regarded as an older version of ALP, just as Issy is a younger version. Her speech is usually recognizable from the constant smacking of her gummy lips, written into the text as Tip (which may also include a nod to her rubbish tip).


Joe typifies the primitive Irish native who has been conquered by a more advanced invader from the east. An Irish Uncle Tom, he willingly assists in his own servitude and in time comes to serve and ape his new overlord. He is HCE’s manservant, barman, bouncer, and keeper of the peace. He polices his fellow Irishmen on behalf of the foreigner. But he never sloughs off his envious contempt for his master.

He is often conferred with Germanic or Norse names—Sigerson, Sackerson, Sacksoun, Saunderson—which might be regarded as his slave names. Sackerson was a famous bear that performed in the Paris Garden in Shakespeare’s day, and perhaps even had a rôle in The Winter’s Tale (which includes the stage direction Exit, pursued by a bear). The Irish name MacMahon means Son of the Bear.

If HCE and ALP are Adam and Eve, then Joe is the serpent. He was the original occupant of the Garden of Eden before Adam arrived and took possession. Or, in the context of Norse mythology, he is Loki, malicious servant of the gods.

And if Kate is an older version of ALP, then Joe is an older version of HCE.


The Four Old Men

The Four Old Men are the historians or annalists of Finnegans Wake. Their immediate inspiration is the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which Joyce conflated into Mamalujo: Matthew Gregory, Mark Lyons, Luke Tarpey and Johnny MacDougal. In an Irish context, however, they are the Four Masters, the quartet of 17th-century scholars who compiled the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland.

As the historians of Finnegans Wake, the Four Old Men carry much of the book’s narration. Their familiar voices can be heard on almost every page. Each of them has his own particular accent and pet phrases.

The Four are judges as well as historians. They are forever carrying out inquests (Inn Quests?), inquiries, interrogations. They sit in judgment on the other characters in Finnegans Wake. They try to get to the bottom of everything.

The Four Old Men also represent space: the four cardinal directions (North, South, East and West), and the four provinces of Ireland (Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht). Matthew Gregory is from Belfast, Mark Lyons from Cork, Luke Tarpey from Dublin, and Johnny MacDougal from Galway.

In the early Middle Ages, there were five provinces in Ireland (the Middle Irish word for province, coiced, means fifth): this fifth province, Meath, is represented by Johnny MacDougal’s donkey or ass, who always accompanies the Four. Like Balaam’s ass in the Bible, Johnny MacDougal’s ass can talk. He is related to the ass that figures in the philosophy of Giordano Bruno. He is also a literary relative of Shakespeare’s Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Apuleius’s Lucius in The Golden Ass, both of whom are transformed into asses.

The Four Old Men embody senility and old age. The immortal struldbrugs of Gulliver’s Travels provided Joyce with the model:

[The struldbrugs] had not only all the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying. They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grandchildren. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions. But those objects against which their envy seems principally directed, are the vices of the younger sort and the deaths of the old. By reflecting on the former, they find themselves cut off from all possibility of pleasure; and whenever they see a funeral, they lament and repine that others have gone to a harbour of rest to which they themselves never can hope to arrive. (Swift )

In Irish mythology there is an antediluvian character called Fintan mac Bóchra, who is saved from the Deluge to be a lasting witness to the history of Ireland and the West. Fintan had three partners, who were charged with recording the histories of the East, the North, and the South (Jubainville).

The Twelve

In many respects, the Twelve are adjuncts of the Four:

  • If the Four are evangelists, the Twelve are apostles
  • If the Four represent space, the Twelve represent time (hours in the day, months in the year)
  • If the Four are the judges, the Twelve are the jury
  • If the Four are the Irish Senate, the Twelve are the Dáil or Irish Parliament.

And like the Four, the Twelve have their own peculiar way of talking: in highfalutin Latinate words ending in -ation. Remember Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination of Work in Progress?

The Twelve sometimes function as a Greek chorus.

The Cad With A Pipe

The Cad

The Cad is the younger Oedipal figure who confronts the older HCE and brings about his fall. In Greek mythology, the man confronted by Oedipus is his father Laius. In Finnegans Wake, the Cad is not so much a real person as a conflation of HCE’s sons Shem and Shaun. If HCE is Humpty Dumpty, the personification of an egg, then his sons are yolk and albumen: each alone is only half the man their father is, but together they are more than a match for him. This is what lies behind the idea that Shem and Shaun represent Giordano Bruno’s identity of opposites: they are perpetually struggling with each other, but their ultimate goal is not to destroy one another but to be reconciled and reunited. Remember that as identical twins, they were once united in the womb.

Throughout Finnegans Wake there are also hints that the Oedipus to HCE’s Laius is actually his old man servant Joe. This tendency of characters to meld together is one of the most frustrating aspects of the book.

The Maggies

Although the Maggies are usually presented as Issy’s classmates from Saint Bride’s Finishing Establishment, they are really just facets of her multiple personality disorder. The Maggies are Issy.

They are the twenty-eight days of February—Joyce’s birth month—while Issy is the leap-day. The first day of February is the feast of St Brigid or Bride, who is both Christian saint and pagan goddess: Issy too is both saint and sinner.

The Maggies often split into four groups of seven, each septet representing a rainbow with its seven colours. In Finnegans Wake, the rainbow is always a Vichian symbol of rejuvenation or renewal, like the Biblical or Noachic rainbow.


  • Gordon Bowker, James Joyce: A Biography, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London (2011)
  • Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, Oxford University Press, Oxford (1982)
  • Mrs A M Fraser, Katherine Strong, Dublin Historical Record, Volume 17, Number 4 (Sep 1962), pp 143-146, Old Dublin Society, Dublin (1962)
  • James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, Faber & Faber Limited, London (1939)
  • Seon Manley (editor), James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism, Vanguard Press, New York (1963)
  • Roland McHugh, Annotations to Finnegans Wake (Third Edition), The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore MD (2006)
  • Danis Rose, John O’Hanlon, The Restored Finnegans Wake, Penguin Classics, London (2012)
  • Ole Vinding (author), Helge Irgens-Moller (translator) and Brookes Spencer (translator), James Joyce in Copenhagen, James Joyce Quarterly, Volume 14, Number 2, Joyce Reminiscences Issue (Winter, 1977), pp 173-184, University of Tulsa, Tulsa OK (1977)

Image Credits

3 columns
2 columns
1 column
Join the conversation now