Why is Gravity’s Rainbow considered postmodern, yet Finnegans Wake is not?

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) has been received as a canonical instance of postmodernism.

See Pynchon, postmodernism and quantification: an empirical content analysis of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

The abstract continues:

The novel appears to subvert traditional definitions of plot and characterization, yet the narrative retains a nagging sense of order underneath the represented chaos. Simultaneously evoking and undoing patterns on all levels of its narrative structure, Gravity’s Rainbow surreptitiously evokes the presence of a night journey (Martindale, 1979).

To one who loves both novels, the above sure sounds a lot like Finnegans Wake.

If it helps answer, Finnegans Wake does assert an overarching narrative:

[18.19] It is the same told of all. Many. Miscegenations on miscegenations. Tieckle. They lived und laughed ant loved end left. Forsin. Thy thingdome is given to the Meades and Porsons.

BTW: Joyce must have been aware of the term "post-modern":

But it has been only during the later decades of the modern era — during that time interval that might fairly be called the post-modern era — that this mechanistic conception of things has begun seriously to affect the current system of knowledge and belief; and it has not hitherto seriously taken effect except in technology and in the material sciences. [Thorstein Veblen, "The Vested Interests and the Common Man," 1919] etymology post-modern

So much for the misapplied theory which has helped set the artist's nerves a-quiver and incited him to the extremes of post modern art, literary and other. [Wilson Follett, "Literature and Bad Nerves," Harper's, June 1921] etymology post-modern


2 Answers 2


The premise of your question is unjustified. It is a very widespread view that Finnegans Wake is precisely a postmodernist work. Take a look, for instance, at this answer on here, which states:

Perhaps the earliest great postmodern author was James Joyce. His novel Finnegan's Wake [sic], for example, cannot be read as a typical narrative as it makes little sense. It is, instead, a multi-layered piece of work relying on puns, polyphony and an extreme stream of consciousness technique to create a literary landscape that the reader is free to interpret as they choose. Ulysses is less extreme, but can also be considered postmodern.

A little googling will reveal many similar examples.

Edit (2023-02-07):

Matt Thrower already has a much better answer, which I encourage you to upvote. This answer, however, has received criticism for not using an authoritative reference and for suggesting that “a little googling” might help. My intention was merely to point out that many people do indeed consider Finnegans Wake to be postmodernist, and so the premise of the question is wrong. Since this is a discussion on StackExchange it seemed appropriate to refer to an answer from that forum.

The comments did make me think about who would qualify as being an authoritative source on this. As an author of Postmodernist Fiction (1987), Constructing Postmodernism (1992), Introduction to Postmodernism (2015), and (with others, ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon (2012), I believe Brian McHale fits the bill.

In Postmodernist Fiction, McHale discusses Finnegans Wake at length, contrasting it with Ulysses. At the end of the book he compares the endings of four of Joyce’s prose fictions and writes:

  In “The Dead” and Ulysses, the simulation of death has been passed through the medium of an individual consciousness, “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day”—Gabriel Conroy’s mind, Molly Bloom’s mind. These texts are, in the first place, representations of minds, and only secondarily representations of the onset of sleep and, by extension, of death. The formal technique is, in one case, free indirect discourse (“The Dead”), in the other direct interior monologue (Ulysses). But in both cases, it is through the represented consciousness of the character that the represented world—whether immediately present, remembered, or anticipated—is filtered to us. And this world is stable and reconstructable, forming an ontologically unproblematic backdrop against which the movements of the characters’ minds may be displayed.
  Modernist fiction, in short.
  The end of Finnegans Wake, too, represents an interior discourse, that of Anna Li via Plurabelle. But hers is not a consciousness like Gabriel Conroy’s or Molly Bloom’s, not “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day,” but more like a collective consciousness—“Allgearls is wea”—or even the collective unconscious located in language itself. Molly Bloom’s soliloquy notoriously represents the “stream of consciousness,” but Anna Livia is the thing itself: the personification of the River Liffey, she literalizes the metaphor “stream of consciousness.” Just as her discourse seems to sweep up all language in its stream, so it also sweeps up the projected world of this text: there is no stable world behind this consciousness, but only a flux of discourse in which fragments of different, incompatible realities flicker into existence and out of existence again, overwhelmed by the competing reality of language.
  Postmodernist fiction, in short.

Taken together with McHale’s other arguments, this is perhaps sufficient to show that Joyce’s writing in Finnegans Wake can reasonably be seen as postmodernist, and is indeed considered as such by prominent writers on the subject.

  • 2
    That's my answer, thanks for thinking to quote it. Strictly speaking, Joyce was a modernist but if you look around the literature there are quite a few essayists who find Joyce's later work difficult to categorise now that we also have the postmodernist lens to use. I was probably pushing it too far including Ulysses but I will absolutely defend Finnegan's Wake as fitting the criteria of postmodernism a decade before it became an architectural movement.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 9:00
  • 1
    "A little googling will reveal many similar example" I regret to says that this a very poor argument. You can google all sorts of arguments and points of view, but their existence does not imply that they are correct.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 10:25
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    @fundagain I have edited my answer to better express what I wanted to say.
    – Segorian
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 12:47
  • 3
    @Tsundoku “their existence does not imply that they are correct” I did not mean to imply that they were correct. Instead, I wanted to draw attention to the fact that a host of people at least consider the work to be postmodernist, whether they are right or wrong about that. (In the context of postmodernism, terms like ‘correct’ and ‘wrong’ become suspicious anyway.)
    – Segorian
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 12:54
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    I think this is a fine answer. Mine is not necessarily better and is not, for that matter, referenced (a lot of it is too broad to reference effectively).
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 13:22

The answer to this is very simply one of time frames. Modernism is the name given to a series of linked movements across the arts that spans from the late 19th century to roughly the Second World War. Postmodernism began with a movement in architecture in 1949 but rapidly spread, like its predecessor, across all the arts. So the straightforward answer is that Finnegans Wake is modernist because it was written in the modernist period, while Gravity's Rainbow is postmodern because it was written in the postmodernist period.

There's nothing wrong with this if you're using art movements as historical bookends, as many writers and commentators do. However, art movements are also stylistic and philosophical in nature. Most people know Surrealism when they see it, for example, and there are still Surrealist artists working today. But most of its great works, and most of its influential thinking, took place between 1920-1950. Modern Surrealists may still produce fine paintings but they're no longer evolving the ideas associated with the movement.

In stylistic terms, Finnegans Wake is undoubtedly postmodern. Postmodernism is characterised by a rejection of absolute meaning, preferring instead the concept that different viewpoints are equally valid. This would seem an excellent way to describe a novel which has no clear plot or characters and in which wordplay and rhythm take centre stage. This lack of clarity continues to promote discussion and critical thought today: validating exactly the kind of different but equal viewpoints that postmodernism promotes. The fact that it is frequently compared to the unquestionably postmodern Gravity's Rainbow also offers a strong clue that it is postmodern in style.

Whether Finnegans Wake is postmodern in a philosophical sense is a fascinating and slightly circular question. The ideas underpinning postmodern philosophy and its spread through the arts simply did not exist in the early 20th century when Joyce was writing. They began to bear literary fruit in the 50s with authors such as William Burroughs, Samuel Beckett and John Hawkes. A pivotal moment in bringing postmodernism into literature, however, was Jacques Derrida's 1966 essay Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences. Derrida had read Finnegan's Wake and cited it as a key inspiration in developing his ideas, something he develops further in his 1982 essay Two Words for Joyce. So in that sense, it is certainly a forerunner of postmodernism, even though it didn't develop postmodernist ideas in the strictest sense.

The wider question of whether Finnegans Wake is modernist or postmodernist continues to attract lively debate, as you'll see if you search or read around the subject. My casting of it as postmodern isn't merely a personal opinion. In the 1971 postmodernist manifesto entitled POSTmodernISM, for example, literary theorist Ihab Hassan claimed that:

without a doubt, the crucial text is Finnegans Wake.

And he's hardly a lone voice, merely an early one. But perhaps these discussions are to be expected: as a highly innovative and influential work that sits both historically and stylistically between the two major art movements of the 20th century, it should be difficult to classify. And perhaps that says more about the limits of the human obsession with putting things in boxes than it does about the book itself.

  • Nice answer! Did you note the two references to the term "postmodern" in the OP that Joyce must have been aware of. Particularly, [Wilson Follett, "Literature and Bad Nerves," Harper's, June 1921]
    – fundagain
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 9:55
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    @fundagain yes, but again just because a term exists doesn't mean it's used in context with the conceptual framework it eventually came to mean. The word "modern" existed before modernism and is still in use today. The label "postmodern" wasn't used as a term for a broad art movement until 1939 at the earliest and it took some years for it to gain wider traction.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 10:01
  • I am sorry I accepted the first answer, and will apply a small bounty when time is up.
    – fundagain
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 10:13
  • @fundagain haha don't be sorry. Accept whichever you think is better! The original answer has the virtue of brevity, answering your question just as accurately in a shorter space, just with less background info.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 10:17
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    I'd say it's pre-postmodern. ;)
    – cmw
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 21:09

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