Finnegans Wake is the title of the final novel of James Joyce, published in 1939. The title is taken, with the careful subtraction of an apostrophe, from the title of a traditional Irish ballad, "Finnegan's Wake."
The ballad, Finnegan's Wake
The ballad is about an Irishman, Tim Finnegan. He is taken for dead when he falls on his head, after going to his construction job drunk. He miraculously comes back to life (likely waking from shock or a concussion coma) after the brawling attendants of his wake break a bottle of whisky near him, splashing him in the face, causing him to awaken to consciousness. One can easily interpret the story to have parallels with the resurrection story of Jesus Christ and other personages of legend who return from the dead (as Orpheus from the underworld).
The ballad has much to do with the title, but not necessarily the plot, of this highly experimental work.
Unique characteristics of the work
Like many other things in this work, the title is "dublinned", or doubled, with multiple meanings agglomerating around a few central motifs and acronyms that raise themselves above the deep stream of consciousness portmanteau prose that is the text of the Wake. Among these, the most prominent are Anna Livia Plurabelle, or "ALP," a kind of water- and river-goddess who governs the flow and tide of the narrative, and Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE, also "Here comes everybody", "Haveth childers everywhere", etc.), a sort of archetypal hero and mountain god.
Structure of the book
The narrative is circular. The first line of the book is a sentence fragment: '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.' By design, it starts in the middle of a sentence, with no capitalisation of the first word. This first line follows on from the last words of the work, 'A way a lone a loved a long the' (with no period to complete the sentence).
This has caused some critics of the work to call the world's longest shaggy-dog story whose punchline is "the". (FIXME attribution)