The first paragraph of Finnegans Wake seems to inject us directly into an ongoing narrative about to be retold. Yet the opening reads differently if we focus on the word us:
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.
Read this way, the passage concerns itself not with the book's characters but with the process through which we as readers are about to see and hear things once more. The next paragraph also moves away from actual narration to list potential or future events that have not yet happened in this cycle. The third paragraph starts to narrate the fall of an "oldparr" but never quite does: instead, it says that the story of the fall, whatever it might be, is perpetually retold and that enquirers must go west to search for its origins.
This pattern recurs: throughout much of Finnegans Wake, what appears to be an attempt to tell a story is often diverted, interrupted, or reshaped into something else, for example a commentary on a narrative with conflicting or unverifiable details. Although most chapters contain discrete narratives like the museyroom tour and the prankquean episode of chapter 1, the bulk of Finnegans Wake is something other than narrative. For example, the letter of chapter 5 might narrate a sequence of events if ever we could get a good look at it, but rather than present that sequence to us directly the text focuses on various titles for the "mamafesta," the envelope and handwriting, ways of interpreting the letter, and the question of its authorship. Here and elsewhere, we find both a desire to narrate and a steady retreat from narrative, or at least a tendency to turn it into a subject for discussion instead of a means of conveying a story.
Despite the frequent disruption and frustration of narration in Finnegans Wake, however, the book has roots in narrative. David Hayman observes that in 1923 Joyce drafted several key "mini-narratives," most of which he withheld from publication until Finnegans Wake appeared sixteen years later (Transit 9). At roughly the same time Joyce entered in the Scribbledehobble notebook a set of notes that demonstrate his keen interest in narrative and narrativity. These notes begin with "Arabian nights, serial stories, tales within tales, to be continued, desperate story telling, one caps another to reproduce a rambling mock-heroic tale (L.G.) Scharazad's feat impossible"; they include narrative formulae ("Once upon a time") and potential plot elements ("the story of the pious haberdasher in heaven"), and they refer directly to two important narratives, "how Buckley shot the Russian General" and "Tristan and Isolde" (Hayman, "Manystorytold" 85-86; Scribbledehobble 25-27). With good reason, Hayman calls these notes "an extended reflection on narrative, oral and written, collected and uncollected" ("Manystorytold" 87).
Joyce's notes on oral narrative, or on written narrative that imitates or reflects qualities of an oral tale, are interesting because the competing claims of speech and print, ear and eye, are fundamental to the Wake. In The Nature of Narrative, Scholes and Kellogg observe that "there is no ironic distance between the author and the teller of a traditional [oral] story," but that "with the development of self-conscious tellers in non-traditional, written narratives, the ironies multiply" (52); likewise, the possibilities of doing many things other than telling a straightforward story increase sharply with the introduction of print, as the example of Tristram Shandy demonstrates. Even so, some chapters of Finnegans Wake are more "oral" than others, and they generally have stronger than usual narrative lines. Take, for example, the Anna Livia chapter, which begins with a specific request: "O tell me all about Anna Livia! I want to hear all about Anna Livia." Throughout the chapter the dialogue of the washerwomen is often sustained by questions or requests for more information to fill out a narrative: "What was it he did a tail at all on Animal Sendai? And how long was he under loch and neagh?" (196.18-20), or "Onon! Onon! tell me more. Tell me every tiny teign. I want to know every single ingul" (201.21-22), or "Never stop! Continuarration! You're not there yet. I amstel waiting. Garonne, garonne!" (205.14-15). The story, like an overflowing river, eventually loses whatever coherence it once possessed, yet the desire for narration remains strong at the end: "Telmetale of stem or stone" (216.3-4). Often diverted into catalogues, descriptive passages, or asides and yet insistently attempting to tell a story, chapter 8 demonstrates the recurrent tension between narrative and non-narrative in the Wake.
In its use of the story-telling formula "Once upon a time," which Joyce entered in his Scribbledehobble notes even though he must have remembered the way he had opened A Portrait of the Artist, Finnegans Wake demonstrates how far Joyce has strayed from oral narrative: rather than having a standard function as in oral narrative, each statement of this motif takes a unique shape from its thematic context in the manner of a sophisticated written work. The first instance gives us a shorthand version of the park incident, expressed in terms of vegetation: "One's upon a thyme and two's behind their lettice leap and three's among the strubbely beds" (20.23-24), with "time" spelled t-h-y-m-e in order to fit in with the references to lettuce leaves and strawberry beds. A later version opens Shaun's recitation of The Mookse and the Gripes: "Eins within a space and a wearywide space it wast ere wohned a Mookse" (152.18-19). The substitution of "space" for "time" indicates how the space-time problem will be approached by an "eminent ... spatialist" (149.18-19) whose arguments travesty those of Wyndham Lewis's Time and Western Man. An association of pubs with tale-telling leads to versions of "once upon a time" in alcoholic contexts: "once upon a spray what a queer and queasy spree it was" (319.14-15), "ones upon a topers" (322.27), and, more directly, "Once upon a drunk and a fairly good drunk it was" (453.20). Another version shaped by context is "Once upon a grass and a hopping high grass it was" (516.1-2), which prefaces a reference to Shem as a grasshopper.
Each instance of the formula differs from all others, and only one actually begins a story, so for the most part the motif echoes a traditional narrative formula without functioning as one. Still, each variation on "Once upon a time" might suggest an attempt at narration or at least an unconscious desire for a story. After all, an individual story should possess coherence, or at least the impression of clarity, a point Hayman makes when he says that one function of narrative is to "illuminate and reassure, providing us with an illusory purchase on the developing text" ("Manystorytold" 113). Even Joyce needed such a purchase, especially in the early stages of composition, before he was able to compose directly in his mature Wake style, and before he fully understood how the book's "active elements" would "begin to fuse of themselves," as he put it in a letter to Miss Weaver (Letters I, 205).
A good example is the long paragraph about St. Kevin on 605-606, which might be compared with earlier versions in Joyce's notebooks and drafts. Apart from the words "Yad" and "Yee," with which it begins and ends, the paragraph consists of a single sentence. Joyce drafted and revised this passage very early and very late: all of his work on it occurred in 1923 and 1938. The earliest version, in notebook VI.B.3, is both clear and simple: it describes how Kevin came to sit, immersed, in a tub, contemplating "the sacrament of baptism or regeneration by water" (VI.B.3.042-045; JJA 63:34-37). This draft does not give us much of an indication of how Joyce would use the passage except that Kevin is surrounded by water several times over: he is in a bath placed in an artificial pool within his hut on an island in a pond on a larger island in a lake in Ireland.
The notebook draft lacks the details that enrich the Finnegans Wake version: thus the original opening, "St Kevin born on the island of Ireland in the Irish ocean goes to lough Glendalough," becomes, in the Wake, "Yad. Procreated on the ultimate ysland of Yreland in the encyclical yrish archipelago, come their feast of precreated holy whiteclad angels, whomamong the christener of his, voluntarily poor Kevin, having been graunted the praviloge of a priest's postcreated portable altare cum balneo, when espousing the one true cross, invented and exalted, in celibate matrimony at matin chime arose and westfrom went and came in alb of cloth of gold to our own midmost Glendalough-le-vert by archangelical guidance" (605.4-12). What I have just quoted is already fairly long and complex, yet it is less than a fifth of the full sentence in Finnegans Wake. We have gotten Kevin to Glendalough; we have yet to see what he will do there, which of course is the main point of the paragraph.
At an early stage Joyce intended the Kevin episode to be more of a story than it ultimately became. In the first post-notebook draft he began a second paragraph that read as follows:
Shortly after his coming into this world Kevineen delighted himself by playing with the sponge on tubbing night. As a growing boy under the influence of holy religion which had been instilled into him across his grandmother's knee he grew more & more pious and abstracted like the time God knows he sat down on the plate of mutton broth. He simply had no time for girls and often used to say to his dearest mother & dear sister that his dearest mother & his dear sisters were good enough for him. At the age of six years & six months he wrote a prize essay on kindness to fishes. (JJA 63:38b; FDV 276; simplified)
Joyce crossed out this entire passage and abandoned it, possibly because it was becoming too much of a narrative. Focusing instead on the paragraph about Kevin's retreat to Glendalough, where he sits surrounded by concentric circles of water, Joyce developed an ornate picture of Kevin in which simple narration and standard English syntax are virtually lost amid the welter of ornamental, but thematically relevant, details: as McHugh's Annotations indicate, scattered through the paragraph are lists of ecclesiastical and angelical hierarchies, liturgical colors, canonical hours, gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the seven sacraments, ending with the one that ought to come first: baptism. Retreating to his bath, Kevin attempts to isolate himself from life: in Joyce's words he forsakes the "messy messy" of life for the "douche douche" of chastity and religious seclusion (605.2; cf. 3.9-10). That he succeeds, at least in his own mind, is indicated by the way the narrator increasingly emphasizes Kevin's holiness: he progresses from just being "holy" to "most holy," "venerable," "most venerable," "blessed," and "most blessed," finally becoming canonized as "Saint Kevin" at the end of the narrative in Finnegans Wake, the same term used at the beginning to describe him in the earliest notebook draft. At the same time he is increasingly infantile, and his fluid environment might also be the womb.
There is a narrative of sorts in the Kevin episode, but so little actually happens that we look elsewhere for its meaning. Originally this was a set piece, written for its own sake, but later Kevin became a figure for Shaun, and the episode parodies his excessive display of chastity much as the Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies does. When he wrote the earliest episodes Joyce had no clear idea of his book's ultimate structure or its complex of thematic associations. Not knowing where he would place these sketches or how they were related to each other and to subsequent sections, Joyce allowed them lives of their own until he could subsume them within a larger design. They have a status as alternative plots: separate narratives that were eventually overwritten or abandoned or reconceived as Joyce moved steadily away from narration and toward description, cataloguing, and other non-narrative modes. Likewise they are written in a simple language that is closer to standard English than to Wakese.
Both in style and in their reliance on narrative, the episodes were necessary stages in Joyce's progress toward his mature vision. Even in the published text of Finnegans Wake a desire to recapture their clarity and simplicity, and to return to narrative, may often be discerned. Somewhat like Kevin's movement toward a state of infantile purity, Finnegans Wake contains traces of a desire to return to its origins in the alternative plots of simpler, discrete narratives that actually tell little stories.
Hayman, David. The "Wake" in Transit. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.
------. "The Manystorytold of the Wake: How Narrative was Made to Inform the Non-Narrativity of the Night." Joyce Studies Annual (1997): 81-114.
Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. New York: Viking Press, 1939; reprinted with corrections, 1967.
------. Finnegans Wake" Book IV: A Facsimile of Drafts, Typescripts, & Proofs, prefaced by David Hayman, arranged by Danis Rose with the assistance of John O'Hanlon. New York: Garland, 1977. [Vol. 63 of the James Joyce Archive, general editor Michael Groden. Cited as JJA 63.]
------. The "Finnegans Wake" Notebooks at Buffalo: Notebook VI.B.3, ed. Vincent Deane, Daniel Ferrer, and Geert Lernout. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001. [Cited by notebook and page numbers.]
------. A First-Draft Version of "Finnegans Wake," ed. David Hayman. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1963. [Cited as FDV.]
------. James Joyce's Scribbledehobble: The Ur-Workbook for "Finnegans Wake," ed. Thomas E. Connolly. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1961.
------. Letters of James Joyce, volume 1, ed. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Viking, 1957, 1966.
McHugh, Roland. Annotations to "Finnegans Wake," revised edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.
Scholes, Robert, and Robert Kellogg. The Nature of Narrative. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.