The penultimate chapter of Finnegans Wake sees us back on relatively familiar ground with yet another perspective on the ambiguous events from the tale. We find ourselves in the company of the slumbering Porter family, who appear to be an alternative version of the Earwickers – Here Comes Everybody’s dysfunctional brood. The Porters are portrayed as being the perfect family, although they only care about themselves.
It is nighttime and the three children are asleep upstairs. They are:
Jerry – drinks methylated spirits and wants to grow up to be a bald cardinal. Described as a ‘badbrat’, he is reminiscent of Shem.
Kevin – Shaun has already appeared once before as Kevin and here he apparently grows up to be the ‘commandeering chief of the choirboy’s brigade’.
Isobel – No doubt representing the promiscuous Isa, Isobel is the chaste and beautiful sister of Jerry and Kevin who yearns to be a nun.
The first part of the chapter appears to depict the dream of Jerry and concerns HCE’s court case. We hear again HCE defend his crimes, this time citing some sort of medical problem, but is eventually found guilty by the jury. On leaving the court house, Jerry sees twenty nine young girls (who are never happier than when they are miserable) weeping over the departure of Shaun.
We then find ourselves the bedroom of Mr and Mrs Porter, which is situated above a pub. The description of the bedroom is wonderfully vivid, so I thought I would include the passage here, should you wish to have a peek at it:
Mr and Mrs Porter are getting ready for bed. Mr Porter has a beastly expression and exhibits rage, whilst Mrs Porter’s expression is ‘haggish’, depicting fear. There seems to be various attempts at an amorous advance from Mr Porter, at which point Mrs Porter runs off up a staircase with only one step whilst he passes out. She heads off to the children’s bedrooms.
The Porters have a pet cat called Buttercup:
‘Has your pussy a pessname? Yes, indeed, you will hear it passim in all noveletta and she is named Buttercup.’
Buttercup is described in similarly goddess-like terms to the mighty Biddy, of whom she is a good friend. Buttercup and Biddy pass the time gossiping about the family and customers at their pub.
Anyway, Jerry wakes up and Mrs Porter tells him not to wake Kevin and Isobel. Jerry has had a nightmare where his father was a very bad man – ‘How shagsome all and beastful!’ Mrs Porter reassures him that it was all a dream and that there are no bad men in the house. She then rambles on about a myriad of things – from the church and fish to cycling and farting – before making reference to the late Finnegan and his wake.
Jerry eventually settles down and Mrs Porter returns to her bedroom. Mr and Mrs Porter then engage in a lengthy discussion about HCE, where his crimes are shown in yet another light. In this version, the ladies involved in the escapade in the park were encouraged by four men to spread rumours about him, on the basis that on the night in question he was so drunk that he wouldn’t be able to remember what had happened. The ladies are presented in most unflattering terms and appear to have had many assignations with people they shouldn’t. The particular bush where HCE lost his good name is in fact the bush of choice for local young lovers, which is interesting to know.
Talk then moves on to the court case, which was a confused affair where the judge and jury all disagreed about almost every aspect of the case. One of the witnesses requested musical accompaniment to her testimony, but was sadly refused by the Judge. They also muse upon Hosty’s ballad and the fight in the pub when HCE’s customers turned against him. Mr and Mrs Porter seem sympathetic towards HCE and blame all his problems on the fact he can’t stand up to women. After a comical lecture about living a respectable life and the evils of sex, Mr and Mrs Porter copulate quietly so as not to wake the children. The chapter ends as coitus resolves when the cock crows and dawn breaks:
‘O yes! O yes! Withdraw your member. Closure.’
Which is quite possibly the most underwhelming climax in literature.
Quite frankly, at this stage in proceedings I am just delighted that there is only one more chapter to go. This chapter is very much a return to form of Book 1, focusing on the crime in the park and the ambiguity of what really happened. For a while, I thought that the entire book was simply a dream conjured by young Jerry and I am still in two minds as to whether that is the implication. The Porters are a version of the Earwicker family, but who are seemingly untroubled by alcoholism and sexual deviancy. Perhaps a reminder not to judge others too harshly, as we are all human and prone to being at the mercy of our weaknesses. There are some wonderful passages laden with pathos and humour and this is one of the more straight forward sections of the book.
On to the final chapter! Will we finally discover the truth behind HCE and his bush-related endeavours? I’m not holding my breath…
‘…every muckle must make its mickle,’
You can’t expect someone else to take responsibility for your mickle.
‘So you be either man or mouse and you be neither fish nor flesh.’
I wonder what would happen if I said this to someone in real life.
‘…he being personally unpreoccupied to the extent of a flea’s gizzard anent eructation, if he was still extremely offensive to a score and four nostrils’ dilation,’
I’m not sure but I think this means that someone smells bad. Maybe.
“The time has come for the katana,” whispers the Professor, reaching within the folds of his nun’s habit.
“No!” I hiss back. “Let’s trying being nuns first. If that fails, we’ll move on to the swords.”
Not a phrase I use often.
“Rats and a Heifer! If you insist, I suppose. Still, I’m quite in the mood to be done nunning. I’d much prefer a sword fight, the sudden.”
The fast approaching footsteps echo sharply on the stone floor, sending little gasps of sound bouncing all the way up to the elegantly arched ceilings. Professor Duke and I adopt the very best nun poses we can muster and await our new friend, benign smiles masking a fair amount of uncertainty.
The door to the vestry creeps open and a bowler hatted head pokes itself cautiously through the gap. It can only be a Porter.
“Goodness, he’s uglier than he has a right to be,” remarks the Professor.
“Hmm! His face looks like a ferret licking a wasp.” Time to channel my inner nun. I turn to face the Porter and smile my sweetest smile. “Good morning to you, child. We are Sisters from the Sisters Of The Nighttime Order. You might not have heard of us as we are quite secret – but I can assure you that we are well known to people of certain standing within the University.”
The Porter seems to relax just slightly and comes through the door to join us. He looks us up and down and it is clear he is still wary. I can’t say I blame him.
“Yes… I am sure I have heard of you, in fact,” the Porter replies, nodding adamantly. “I have the ear of many of the higher ranking persons of the collegiate, you know. But the thing is, we have had a report of a nun waving about a Samurai sword in Great Court. You two ladies wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
The Professor shoots a crafty wink in my direction. It appears that he has this covered.
“Oh, it couldn’t be us, we’re too weak for that sort of thing. I’m sure it was an epic nun warrior. A beast, even.”
Not quite the eloquent explanation guaranteed to ensure our escape I was expecting, but still. The Porter doesn’t seem entirely convinced, either. He tilts his head and scratches his chin, narrowing his eyes as rusty gears in his brain creak into life.
“Now then… I don’t think you two are nuns,” he says slowly but with surprising authority. “In fact, you aren’t even women, are you?”
“I don’t know what your game is, fellas, but you can explain it all to the police…”
The Porter fumbles in his pocket for his phone and I turn to the Professor. I don’t mind admitting I am feeling somewhat concerned about current events.
“Professor, I think we should just knock him out and make a run for it.” Another phrase I don’t use often, but admittedly probably more frequently than the previous one.
“Oh goody,” he replies, nodding. “Let me fetch him out!”
I have no say in the matter as Professor Duke launches himself at the unsuspecting Porter, landing an impressive fist on his cheek. The Porter looks perplexed for the briefest of moments, before tumbling awkwardly to the floor. There is a mournful groan from the resulting pile upon the ground and he reaches a tentative hand to his face.
“Must go now!” exclaims the Professor. “Run and double-run!”
Leaping over the prone Porter, we hitch up our habits and make a dash for it, out of the vestry, through the chapel and out the huge wooden doors. I stop briefly to lock them behind us – I have no idea way, it seems unusually cruel, don’t you think? – before discarding the chapel keys into a conveniently placed bush.
We exit the grounds of Hawkins College through the little side gate that leads out onto Prince’s Street and sprint along the elderly cobbles towards our very own Old College. We have completed the marvellous plan with quite some aplomb but I rather regret the vicious assault on the Porter. Of course, returning to Old College presents problems of its own. No doubt The Dean, Headmistress and The Master’s Wife will be soon recovering from their unexpected slumbers and wanting explanations.
Except The Dean. He will probably be wanting some form of retribution. And likely blood.