Academic journal article Studies in Literature and Language

Backward Glance at James Joyce: Finnegans Wake's Postmodernist Devices

Academic journal article Studies in Literature and Language

Backward Glance at James Joyce: Finnegans Wake's Postmodernist Devices

Article excerpt


James Joyce, more known as a well-known modern fictionist who rightly possesses a unique position in the world canon, seems to be an early postmodernist fictionist too. Taking a diachronic approach to literary history, this article views Finnegans Wake in the context of literary postmodernism, and presents an attempt to both delineate postmodernist fiction techniques as well as trace them in Joyce's last novel. Joyce introduces a whole series of new themes and techniques in his last novel later drawn upon by post-1940s postmodernist fictionists. Finnegans Wake can be considered a postmodernist novel proper.

Key words: Finnegans Wake; Literary history; Postmodernist fiction; Parody; Pastiche; Kitsch; Black humor; Metafiction; James Joyce

It is always worth testing out any literary theory by asking: How would it work with Joyce's Finnegans Wake first? (Eagleton, as cited in Lernout, 2002, p.338)

Poetry does not express, but rather is at war with its age, so it makes no account of history (Joyce, as cited in Richardson, 2000, p.1048)

Finnegans Wake is generally credited with the invention of postmodernism (Norris, as cited in Richardson, 2000, p.1037).

I should like to observe that this idea of chronology is totally modern. It belongs to Christianity, Cartesianism, Jacobianism (Lyotard, 2005).


The political gesture of experimental writers underwent radical changes in 1930s when a generation of modernists, Joyce among them, passed from "the age of innocence" into a new phase with a new historical consciousness that Jennie Wang regards as "postmodern" (1992, p.64). James Joyce is a well-known author who holds a unique position in the world canon. Viewed as a single achievement, Joyce's oeuvre recapitulates at least three generations of literary experiment on which Ihab Hassan and Umberto Eco have explicitly commented. Though their ideas of Dubliners differ-in contrast to Hassan who looks at the work as premodern, Eco considers it even "more modern" (1984, p.66) than A Portrait-both (Eco, 1984, p.66; Hassan & Homepage, 2007) see A Portrait as a modern novel, Ulysses a modern novel on the verge of postmodern, Finnegans Wake as a postmodern novel.

It would be worth mentioning that it is with Ihab Hassan that postmodernism begins to have "a more discernible identity" (Calinescu, 1987, p.280), for, many of the leading figures associated with French postmodernism, including Lyotard and Baudrillard, emerged from "Marxist and Post-Marxist groupings" within France (Spencer, 2001, p.165) and It is through Hassan that some Europeans, Lyotard among them, "discovered" (Calinescu, 1987, p.280) the term "directly" (Anderson, 1998, p.24).

In addition to the aforementioned literary critics, Brian McHale in the last section of his book Postmodernist Fiction (1987), discusses the possible postmodernism of Joyce. McHale's conclusion is that Finnegans Wake is fully postmodern, while the earlier works are not.

All postmodernist theorists, implicitly or explicitly, believe that postmodernism is a mood, a crisis within modernism. To Ihab Hassan postmodernism is "a revenant, the return of the irrepressible" (2001, p.9). Lyotard considers the postmodern condition as one that "occurs again and again throughout history" (Spencer, 2001, p.163). Similarly, Umberto Eco sees postmodernism "not a trend to be chronologically defined," for, as he says "every period has its own postmodernism just as every period would have its own mannerism" (1984, p.66). So, postmodernism is "much less a programme or intellectual frame work" than it is a "mood or stimmung-the zeitgeist, a feeling in the air" (Spencer, 2001, p.161). Then, one cannot label a specific era as postmodern and characterize it by a single worldview.

Similarly, Joyce himself rejects the concept of literary history; in his essay on Mangan he affirms that

Poetry [literature] does not express, but rather is "at war with its age, so it makes no account of history"; in his revision of the essay in 1907, he adds that "Poetry considers many idols of the market place unimportant-the succession of the ages, the spirit of the age, the mission of the race" (as cited in Richardson, 2000, p. …

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