Sylvia Plath on Finnegans Wake

I’d been reading around Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar for years, if not decades, before finally squaring up to it this week. I liked it a lot, though it is a profoundly unhappy book, and impossible to read without regular reference to the author as one follows her narrator Esther Greenwood’s breakdown and its aftermath.

The book is also a pleasure to read, being well styled, intelligent, rebellious, unflinching, and quite often funny. It has a nice passage on Finnegans Wake, which Greenwood was on the verge of reading, or studying, and which I reproduce here:

The thick book made an unpleasant dent in my stomach.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s…

I thought the small letter at the start might mean that nothing ever really began all new, with a capital, but that it just flowed on from what came before. Eve and Adam’s was Adam and Eve, of course, but it probably signified something else as well.

Maybe it was a pub in Dublin.

My eyes sank through an alphabet soup of letters to the long word in the middle of the page.


I counted the letters. There were exactly a hundred of them. I thought this must be important.

Why should there be a hundred letters?

Haltingly, I tried the word aloud.

It sounded like a heavy wooden object falling downstairs, boomp boomp boomp, step after step. Lifting the pages of the book, I let them fan slowly by my eyes. Words, dimly familiar, but twisted all awry, like faces in a funhouse mirror, fled past, leaving no impression on the glassy surface of my brain.

I squinted at the page.

The letters grew barbs and rams’ horns. I watched them separate, each from the other, and jiggle up and down in a silly way. Then they associated themselves in fantastic, untranslatable shapes, like Arabic or Chinese.

I decided to junk my thesis.

Book cover, with 'James Joyce' in large blue text on an off-white background, split by a deep red band across the middle with the book title in white text.James Joyce’s Ulysses, a great and justly famous book, is also a famously unread book, being far more often begun than finished. Finnegans Wake is more daunting still, bewildering the reader from the first page and continuing to do so for several hundred more, unless you’re prepared to read annotations alongside.

But FW has immediate rewards of its own, not least its effect on the ear – which Plath quickly picked up on. It comes to life, if not lucidity, in the reading, and may be enjoyed for the uniquely musical pleasure it offers on top of the relentless obscurity. If you’ve made it through Ulysses and are unsure about tackling its successor, my earlier post on reading Finnegans Wake might help you decide.


7 Responses to Sylvia Plath on Finnegans Wake

  1. marc leavitt says:

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if, like Dr,. Spock, we could mind-meld with Joyce? I salute your determination in reading all of FW. I sometimes think that Talmudic scholars (or twelfth century scholastics) are the only ones who might, just might, be able to understand its transformative complexity. Or simplicity.
    By the way, I was delighted to learn that you’ve “read around” certain books. I’ve been doing that all my life (the Faerie Queene comes to mind), but I never heard, or read that particular locution.

  2. John Cowan says:

    To play glossator, as I so often do, Adam and Eve’s is not a pub but a church in Dublin. Curious that Adam and Eve should be treated on a par with saints! Actually, the name is an informal one, and refers to the fact that in Henery the Eighth’s time, mass was said secretly in the Adam and Eve Tavern nearby. Presumably Joyce reversed the order of names to fit with his female/earth-centric mythology.

  3. Stan says:

    Marc: A mind-meld with Joyce would be fine indeed. Transformative complexity is an apt phrase for FW, I think; simplicity, less so, not even of the deceptive kind. It’s deliberately difficult, designed to resist easy or direct comprehension.
    That may be the first time I’ve written the phrase read around, though I’ve used it occasionally in spoken conversation over the years. I’m glad I stopped circling and got to the centre this time!

    John: Your glossating is very welcome, and your interpretation of the order-reversal makes sense; I’d imagine there were other motivations for it too. Eve and Adam’s, or Adam and Eve’s, does sound more like a pub name than a church name.

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    I hereby give you the award for most captivating blog header of the month.

    I didn’t even “read around” FW. Tossed it far too quickly. And yes, Sylvia I loved.


  5. Stan says:

    WWW: The post title’s appeal, I suppose, is all about the names’ unfamiliar combination. I wouldn’t blame anyone for abandoning FW even after a few lines. You have to be pretty stubborn to get through it.

  6. John Cowan says:

    The advertising company Batten, Barton, Durston, and Osborne (now BBDO International) was said to have name “like the sound of an empty suitcase falling downstairs”.

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