Thursday, 3 December 2020

The Dream of H.C.Earwicker?

A scene from Passages from Finnegans Wake 

'The Dream of H.C. Earwicker' is the title of Edmund Wilson's review of Finnegans Wake, published in The New Republic on 28 June 1939, and later reprinted in The Wound and the Bow

Wilson was the first critic to argue that the Wake represented Earwicker's dream. He believed that the book had a 'realistic foundation' which he describes at length:

'Let me try to establish some of the most important facts which provide the realistic foundation for this immense poem of sleep.  The hero of Finnegans Wake is a man of Scandinavian blood...Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, who keeps a pub called the Bristol in Dublin.  He is somewhere between fifty and sixty, blond and ruddy, with a walrus moustache, very strong but of late years pretty fat. When embarrassed, he has a tendency to stutter...he is married to a woman named Ann, a former salesgirl, who is more or less illiterate and whose maiden name seems to have begun with Mac. They are both Protestants in a community of Catholics, he an Episcopalian and she a Presbyterian...It is a Saturday night in summer, after a disorderly evening in the pub....Earwicker has been drinking off and on all day and has perhaps gone to bed a little drunk. At any rate, his night is troubled. At first he dreams about the day before....'

Having decided that the book is happening in Earwicker's sleeping mind, Wilson complains that a Dublin publican could not be having a dream like this!

Edmund Wilson
'We are continually being distracted from identifying and following Earwicker, the humble proprietor of a public house, who is to encompass the whole microcosm of the dream, by the intrusion of all sorts of elements – foreign languages, literary allusions, historical information – which could not possibly be in Earwicker's mind....We are in the first place asked to believe that a man like H.C.Earwicker would seize every possible pretext provided by his house and its location to include in a single night's dream a large number of historical and legendary characters. And is it not pretty far-fetched to assume that Earwicker's awareness of the life of Swift or the Crimean War is really to be accurately conveyed in terms of the awareness of Joyce, who has acquired a special knowledge of these subjects? Also, what about the references to the literary life in Paris and to the book itself as Work in Progress, which take us right out of the mind of Earwicker and into the mind of Joyce?'

Where were we 'in the first place asked to believe' any of this?

I read all this as a convincing argument that Finnegans Wake is not the dream of Earwicker.

Much of Wilson's description* of the Earwickers is taken from Bk III chapter 4. This leads to another complaint about Joyce's incompetence as a writer:

'In Finnegans Wake we are not supplied with any objective data until the next to last chapter....It seems to me a serious defect that we do not really understand what is happening till we have almost finished the book.'

*Wilson has taken the name of the pub, the Bristol, from the Prankquean episode: 'And where did she come but to the bar of his bristolry'. 21.33. In fact, the Wake pub is more usually the Mullingar Inn.


The Earwicker dream theory was further developed in 1944 with Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson's A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. They invented a branch tapping on the sleeping Earwicker's window, intruding on his dream. This is first mentioned in a footnote to the word 'Tip' in the Museyroom scene:

'The repetition throughout Finnegans Wake of the word 'tip' finally turns out to be a dream transformation of the sound of a branch knocking against HCE's window as he sleeps beside his wife in the upper room. This branch is the finger of Mother Nature, in her desiccated aspect, bidding for attention.'

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, Viking Press, 1964, p 41

They don't explain how or where Tip 'finally turns out' to be a branch. 

The branch is not mentioned again until they reach Book III Chapter 4, the chapter which gave Wilson his 'objective data'. Here Campbell and Robinson have made Wilson's summer dream a midwinter one.:

'It is the morning after the night of the winter solstice. A dry leaf still clinging to the tree outside the window has been scratching at the panel; and this sound has drawn the inexhaustible dream from the depths of the psyche...'

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, Viking Press, 1964, p 325

I find this baffling, for the 'Tip' motif does not appear anywhere in this chapter (You can read all 39 appearances of this motif in fweet).  The only mention of a leaf is the description of the sleeping Issy as 'like some losthappy leaf' (556.19).


In 1965, Anthony Burgess adopted Wilson's Earwicker dream theory and Campbell and Morton's branch at the window:

'We are primarily in a bed above a bar in Chapelizod, Dublin, on a Saturday night, with a dry branch tapping or tipping at the window, and we must never let ourselves forget it. In the final chapter we are not allowed to forget it. The fact that we we have to look at the near-end of the book to find out where the dreamer is dreaming does not imply that the whole thing is badly made or that Joyce is withholding anything from us. Finnegans Wake is cyclical like a riverrun, and we can enter the river at any point we wish.'

Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader, 1965, Hamlyn Paperback edition, 1982, p219 

Here Burgess is defending Joyce from Wilson's criticism, 'It seems to me a serious defect that we do not really understand what is happening till we have almost finished the book'.

A year after Here Comes Everybody, Burgess published A Shorter Finnegans Wake, in which he now argued that the dreamer's real name was not Earwicker but Porter, a name used in Bk III 4.

'His name is, as far as we can tell, Mr.Porter....Mr. Porter and his family are asleep for the greater part of the book. It has been a hard Saturday evening in the public bar, and sleep prolongs itself some way into the peace of Sunday morning. Mr. Porter dreams hard, and we are permitted to share his dream....Sleeping, he becomes a remarkable mixture of guilty man, beast, and crawling thing, and he even takes on a new and dreamily appropriate name – Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker.'

A Shorter Finnegans Wake,  Faber, 1966, p7

Wilson and Burgess base their arguments on a belief that the penultimate chapter is more 'real' than the rest of the book. This is the book's most visual chapter, with a mass of physical detail missing elsewhere. But that doesn't make it more real.  Here's how the bedroom setting is described on p558-9:

'Scene and property plot. Stagemanager’s prompt. Interior of dwelling on outskirts of city. Groove two. Chamber scene. Boxed. Ordinary bedroom set. Salmonpapered walls. Back, empty Irish grate, Adam’s mantel, with wilting elopement fan, soot and tinsel, condemned. North, wall with window practicable. Argentine in casement. Vamp. Pelmit above. No curtains. Blind drawn. South, party wall. Bed for two with strawberry bedspread, wickerworker clubsessel and caneseated millikinstool. Bookshrine without, facetowel upon. Chair for one. Woman’s garments on chair. Man’s trousers with crossbelt braces, collar on bedknob. Man’s corduroy surcoat with tabrets and taces, seapan nacre buttons on nail. Woman’s gown on ditto. Over mantelpiece picture of Michael, lance, slaying Satan, dragon with smoke. Small table near bed, front. Bed with bedding. Spare. Flagpatch quilt. Yverdown design. Limes. Lighted lamp without globe, scarf, gazette, tumbler, quantity of water, julepot, ticker, side props, eventuals, man’s gummy article, pink.'

This is not a real room but a stage set, with many of the words taken from William George Fay's Short Glossary of Theatrical Terms, 1930 (see the list in fweet).  The casement is fitted with argentine, 'a material used on the stage as imitation of glass for windows' (Fay).

When the action begins, we see HCE and ALP in their most grotesque incarnations. There is also the sense that we are watching a film, with a closeup of the lead players.

'Closeup. Leads.
Man with nightcap, in bed, fore. Woman, with curlpins, hind. 
Discovered. Side point of view.....Male partly masking female. Man looking round, beastly expression, fishy eyes, paralleliped homoplatts, ghazometron pondus, exhibits rage. Business. Ruddy blond, Armenian bole, black patch, beer wig, gross build, episcopalian, any age. Woman, sitting, looks at ceiling, haggish expression, peaky nose, trekant mouth, fithery wight, exhibits fear. Welshrabbit teint, Nubian shine, nasal fossette, turfy tuft, undersized, free kirk, no age. Closeup. Play!' 559.20-30

This is the source of Wilson's 'objective data', and the reason why he says that Earwicker is a blond and ruddy Episcopalian and Anna a Presbyterian. But HCE here is wearing a wig and stage makeupArmenian bole is 'a fine red powder used on the stage to give the appearance of sunburn on the skin' (Fay). So he is playing a blond and ruddy Episcopalian. 

Although this stage publican version of HCE is called Mr Porter, elsewhere in the chapter he is called Albatrus Nyanzer, Honuphrius 'a concupiscent exservicemajor' and Humperfeldt - names just as real or unreal. 


The biggest problem with the Earwicker dream theory is that we never see anything in the book from his point-of-view. Apart from the 'Haveth Childers Everywhere' section (532-554), when we hear his voice in a seance, he is either being investigated by the narrators (the 'we' voice of most of Book One) or discussed by other characters, such as the washerwomen in Anna Livia Plurabelle. 

'And the cut of him! And the strut of him! How he used to hold his head as high as a howeth, the famous eld duke alien, with a hump of grandeur on him like a walking wiesel rat.' 197.01

In the Porter chapter, we see him through the eyes of the four old men, and their first sight as they enter his bedroom is of his bare buttocks as he lies on top of his wife. His backside is also Dublin's Phoenix Park.  See my earlier post, Dublin's Phoenix Park as a Giant Male Arse.  The scene is described by the second old man, Marcus Lyons:

'The straight road down the centre (see relief map) bisexes the park which is said to be the largest of his kind in the world. On the right prominence confronts you the handsome vinesregent’s lodge while, turning to the other supreme piece of cheeks, exactly opposite, you are confounded by the equally handsome chief sacristary’s residence.' 564.10-15

Did you ever have a dream in which you were inspecting your own arse? An arse which was also a park?


If Joyce intended the book to be Earwicker's dream, he would surely have said so, since he discussed his book at length over many years. Apart from conversations, formal interviews and letters providing glosses, he oversaw a book of explanatory essays, the Exagmination and an authorised biography by Gorman with a lengthy account of his aims. See my post Joyce describes Finnegans Wake.

He often talked about his book as representing a dream, without mentioning a dreamer.

'Work in Progress? A nocturnal state, lunar. That is what I wanted to convey: what goes on in a dream, during a dream.'

Jaques Mercanton, 'The Hours of James Joyce', in Portraits of the Artist in Exile (ed Willard Potts), pp 209-221

'One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutandry grammar and goahead plot.'

To Harriet Shaw Weaver, 24 November 1926, Letters Vol 3, p146 (Selected Letters p.318)

'[Finnegans Wake] would have the gigantic dimensions of a Myth and yet it would be contained within the fleeting instants of a dream. It would be a Myth of sleeping life as Ulysses had been a Myth of waking life'

Herbert Gorman, James Joyce, Bodley Head, 1941, p.331

'I want to describe the night itself. Ulysses is related to this book as day is to night....There are, so to say, no individual people in the book – it is as in a dream, the style gliding and unreal as the way it is 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 with reality is doubtful.'

Ole Vinding, 'James Joyce in Copenhagen', in Portraits of the Artist in Exile, pp 149

This last quotation is an explicit rejection of Wilson's claim that Finnegans Wake has a 'realistic foundation.' 


It's a shame Joyce didn't say more about  'an old man'. But it may relate to the only published remark in which he ever mentioned a dreamer, given here by Ellmann:

'Joyce informed a friend later, he conceived of his book as the dream of old Finn, lying in death beside the River Liffey and watching the history of Ireland and the world – past and future – flow through his mind like flotsam on the river of life.'

Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, OUP 1982, p544

Clive Hart gives a slightly different version of this story, as well as its source:

'Mrs Adaline Glasheen reports that Dr O'Brien, a friend of Joyce's, told her in conversation that Joyce had told him 'that Finnegans Wake was 'about' Finn lying dying by the River Liffey with the history of Ireland and the world circling through his mind.''

Clive Hart, Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake, Northwestern University Press, 1962 p81

This comment must date from 1938-9, when Joyce became friends with Dr Daniel P O'Brien of the Rockefeller Foundation. He spent a lot of time with Joyce in La Baule in September 1939, following the outbreak of the war.

Perhaps Vinding's 'old man' is Finn MacCool.

If Joyce saw the book as a dream of old Finn, it would be after November 1926. That was when his patron Harriet Shaw Weaver asked him to write a piece about the Giant's Grave at Penrith, inspiring the opening chapter. Here's Danis Rose's great description of Joyce's reaction to Weaver's commission:

'Joyce was electrified: here exactly was what he needed to give spin to his work in progress: the notion of HCE as a (sleeping) giant interred in the landscape and, beyond that, of a man assumed dead but sleeping....And with MacCool came the ballad-hall Tim Finnegan with his hod....With his fall off the wall came the first Fall, Adam and Eve and all their descendants down to Mr and Mrs Porter shagged out in their bed. In a word, Miss Weaver's fortuitously brilliant idea gave Joyce the notion for a chapter, or prelude, that was destined to become the common picture of Finnegans Wake: a giant dreaming of falls and walls, a babble of tongues, a tale of howes and graves and burrows and biers.'

Danis Rose, The Textual Diaries of James Joyce, Lilliput Press, 1995, p.95

Joyce had already written most of books one and three by this time.  

This Finn idea may even have come to Joyce at the very end of writing the book. In 'Finn MacCool and the Final Weeks of Work in Progress'  (A Wake Newslitter October 1980) Danis Rose and John O'Hanlon showed that Joyce took most of his notes on Finn in 1937-1938. 

Joyce talked a lot about Finn MacCool in the opening months of World War Two:

'For Joyce himself, Finnegans Wake had prophetic significance. Finn MacCool, the Finnish-Norwegian-Irish hero of the tale, seemed to him to be coming alive again after the publication of the book, and in a letter from France I received from him last spring, he said: '...It is strange, however, that after publication of my book, Finland came into the foreground suddenly....the most curious comment I have received on the book is a symbolical one from Helsinki, where, as foretold by the prophet, the Finn again wakes, and volunteer Buckleys are hurrying from all sides to shoot Russian generals....'

Eugene Jolas, 'My Friend James Joyce', 1941 in Sean Givens (ed) James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism, Vanguard Press, 1948, p17

Perhaps Joyce discovered that the giant was his dreamer after he finished writing the book!

In a letter to J.S.Atherton, Weaver rejected the Earwicker dream theory:

'I own that The Skeleton Key, though extremely useful in many ways, has its irritating features – at least it has to me.  The authors seem to me to read unwarranted things into the book. Their ascription of the whole thing to a dream of HCE seems to me nonsensical....My view is that Mr Joyce did not intend the book to be looked upon as the dream of any one character, but that he regarded the dream form with its shiftings and changes and chances as a convenient device, allowing the freest scope to introduce any material he wished - and suited to a night piece.'

quoted in The Books at the Wake, Southern Illinois University Press, 1959 p17

The idea of a mythological giant being the dreamer would also allow him 'the freest scope to introduce any material he wished'.


J.S.Atherton came up with my favourite dreamer theory, in a brilliant lecture, 'The Identity of the Sleeper', which he gave at the very first James Joyce Symposium, at the Gresham Hotel, on Bloomsday in 1967.

'I do not wish to deny any of the theories which have been put forward as to the identity of the dreamer: they are all true up to a point. For, as I see FW it is everyone’s dream, the dream of all the living and the dead. Many puzzling features become clear if this is accepted. Obviously we will hear many foreign languages: Chinese will be prominent if we know Chinese; German if we know German, and so on....It is the universal mind which Joyce assumes as the identity of the dreamer; he, of course, is writing it all down but everyone else contributes.'

I've posted the whole lecture here in 'Who is Dreaming Finnegans Wake?' 

For more on Joyce's belief in a Universal Mind see 'Finnegans Wake as Magical Evocation'.

For an argument that challenges Atherton's universal mind, see John Bishop's 1986 Joyce's Book of the Dark,  the most recent version of the single dreamer theory.  I am more persuaded, and inspired, by Atherton's idea, but I recommend PQ's four part review of Bishop's book in his excellent Finnegans, Wake! blog.

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