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A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce's Masterwork

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  608 ratings  ·  51 reviews
Though it had its early champions when published in 1939, Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s final novel, was (and is) more often met with puzzlement and even exasperation. Not so with Joseph Campbell, who’d been immersing himself in the mythical and literary allusions Joyce used. In 1944, when Campbell was a young professor, he and poet and novelist Henry Morton Robinson, produced ...more
Paperback, 432 pages
Published March 5th 2013 by New World Library (first published 1944)
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Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
Brief addendum addend’d.

Joseph Campbell’s A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake was the first book-length critical study published on Joyce’s Meisterstück. It was also one of Campbell’s first books, which alone ought to earn him a great deal of respect.

But aside from the importance of this book in the reception history of Finnegans Wake, is it still current, still useful for the novice Wake Reader? Yes it is. But it is no longer the indispensable guide it once was. That honor goes to Roland McHugh’s
Michael Finocchiaro
Sort of interesting introduction (less so than that in the Oxford Press edition of FW) and a bit confusing to follow while reading FW in parallel
Jan 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
Being Campbell, this heavily emphasizes the role the abundance of occurrence of myth plays in Joyce's masterpiece. And it is a large, if not the largest, role. And this skeleton key does a great job pointing the way through key aspects of the "plot" of Finnegans Wake. That being said, one should not rely fully on Campbell's interpretation. One should use McHugh thoroughly and learn to read the Wake oneself. It makes its own meanings. Campbell's work is best used throughout a first reading of ...more
Jul 10, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: dnf
This was offputting to me. I read about a hundred pages before I put it down. To me, it is like "translations" of William Shakespeare into contemporary English. Shakespeare stole most of his stories, so the idea that the beauty of his writing is in his stories, and that his language is an obstacle to that beauty, seems dubious to me.

It should be understood that my distaste for The Skeleton Key is more a reflection of my own biases about art and aesthetics than of Robinson and Campbell's work.
Jan 05, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the first and still indispensable books for working through Finnegan's Wake. The authors present their sense of the text beneath the text beneath the text beneath the text, along with some commentary and thoughts about what is going on.

Campbell went on to become an icon in the field of mythology, symbolism, and world religions. His knowledge and intellectual powers are at full play here in what was one of his earliest texts.
Adam Floridia
I doubt that even 400 pages of cliff notes will be enough.

So far, incredibly helpful. In addition to pointing out major themes and structural points in the beginning, this is basically a paragraph by paragraph “translation” of Wake. Read a paragraph of Wake, read the corresponding paragraph in this, then re-read the paragraph in Wake. That’s how I plan to get through the book with at least some basic, elementary level of comprehension.
not sure how much insight was provided, but it did give some structure to my own reading. much of campbell's later proto-myth bs is thrown throughout, although in joyce's case he might have been right about what the attempt was. who knows. preferred anthony burgess' essay (, although any interpretation is really hard to separate from the interpreter.

mostly joyce loved puns, but not the funny kind.

in the beginning of the ALP section that ends the book you
Mike Moore
Jan 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you're going to read Finnegans Wake (and let me make it clear that I'm not saying you should), this companion is incredibly valuable. The one knock against it is that the authors ascribe such lofty powers and all encompassing intent to Joyce that they are more acolytes than critics. On the one hand, you would need to be so obsessed in order to spend the time to write this commentary. On the other, they come perilously close to the kind of lickspittle academicians that Joyce is satirizing in ...more
Apr 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
finnished! finnel thawts:
The parts that announced the themes were very useful but I couldn't see the point of paraphrasing entire chapters - I chose to read Joyce's original instead.
James C
May 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Mankind should be grateful for Campbell's 1st elucidation of FINNEGANS WAKE (FW) - or someone else may have "translated" the text, but not as expertly. Sadly many readers start with "A Skeleton Key..." or read it without first spending more time with FW, correctly most criticisms center on Campbell's "personal commentaries" which are "extremely limited", confined to his personal knowledge at the time of his writing - absolutely inadequate to tackle Joyce's two decades (lifetime) of work.

Nov 09, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: expository
I was just reminded, after reading an upbeat review of Finnegan's Wake, how my reading years ago would have been impossible had it not been for this book. While I am not entirely sure it was exhaustive, it was more than enough food for thought.
Finnegan's Wake was frustrating in a way I cannot define, more so than any book before or since. I cannot get beyond the issue of the writer's continuously writing jokes to himself which, when deciphered, appeared anti-climactic in a way in which Ulysses
Very helpful for getting started in understanding Finnegans Wake.
I wished the book had covered the entire Wake.
There are plenty of aids available now for making sense
of books, allusions, names, religions, geographies, sigla, figures,
and all sorts of things appearing and reappearing in the Wake.
Nonetheless, while now superseded, it was one of a kind when I got my first copy.
If you are reading Finnegans Wake for the first time,
you will find the first pages of the Key helpful.
Mar 10, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
So far, a great commentary to read along with The Wake. The line-by-line translations are silly, but the footnotes are great. I'm sure they do not match Joyce's intentions exactly - they are obviously defenses of Campbell's own idea of the unity of mythology - but they point out many allusions I would read over, and I'm interested in Campbell's interpretation because his fascination with myths mirrors my own.
Mar 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Joseph Campbell understood more about storytelling than just about any other person I can think of. This book, which he cowrote with Henry Morton Robinson, helps to illuminate one of the most difficult - but most rewarding - books ever written.
Tammy Marie Jacintho
O' the labyrinthine ways of it... and what a guide!
May 31, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I heard this was the hardest book to read...I'm not even going to start reading this, Can't even understand the title...
Jul 01, 2007 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
someday I hope to have the time to study this novel long enough to understand it.
So far, this is the most helpful companion text to Finnegans Wake that I've used. I've been reading it to help me along. It of course is alone not enough -- I've used a set of glosses and audio recordings, both found online -- but this is the primary companion that has allowed me to move forward.
I also appreciate the introductions, which supply snippets from well-written negative critiques of the Wake. before launching into its defense.
Julia Gordon-Bramer
I am currently reading the books that greatly influenced Sylvia Plath. Finnegans Wake, and A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (to understand it) were heavy-weights for her, as Plath first attempted to write her undergraduate thesis at Smith College on Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. In other reviews I mention Literary Alchemy, and the conscious effort that some poets and writers have made throughout history to interweave mysticism into their art in order to make it into something larger than ...more
Brigham Barnes
Dec 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Was a great help. The first guide to Finnegans Wake, written relatively soon after its publication, I understand some scholars consider some of its insights and interpretations outdated, but it helped me stay on track when making my way through Wake reading #2. I'll take an outdated (partial) understanding over none.
Barnaby Thieme
Jan 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In this work, Campbell and Robinson (i.e., Campbell) provide a running synopsis to Finnegans Wake, establishing what they take to be the essential line of its polysemic plot and presenting it in concise, articulate terms.

Along with McHugh's "Annotations to Finnegans Wake," this book has been my constant companion for the last five months, and as with McHugh's book, I can't even imagine trying to read the Wake with out its assistance. Part of the Wake's effect is to allow scenes to gradually
Josh Brown
I used this book the way you might use a travel guide when visiting an unfamiliar city. At first it seems an indispensable text against which to compare my perceptions with its reality. But as I went further into Finnegans Wake itself, I realized that there was no one "reality" for me as a reader to "figure out." The trouble with the Skeleton Key is that it presupposes such a reality. Again, like with a travel guide- sometimes they get annoying, as you find that you disagree with their ...more
Oct 02, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
For those merely curious about an intended meaning behind the Wake, reading this study may suffice; but for readers of Joyce’s “Night Tome” looking for more, the Key is a better compliment than guide. It’s opening and closing chapters do present a laudable insight into Joyce’s technique; but in demonstrating the possibility of a linear narrative, the Key invites the danger of experiencing more difficulty in reading Finnegans Wake than is typically assumed, as readers may attempt to fit a ...more
David Melbie
Dec 06, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: you anjer lil cutlet-sized consort. . .
Recommended to David by: Joseph Campbell
It all started in 1995. I had been a fan of Joe since I first read The Power of Myth, the companion book of the PBS series of interviews with Bill Moyers, in 1989. I had not seen the six episodes when they aired in 1988. I was pretty busy in those days, living in California, working in cable TV, playing (working!) in The Thread, a cover band (some originals) and probably doing a lot of speed. . .

. . . I did see a lecture once on PBS, and I was immediately fascinated by his ability -- talent,
John Addiego
Sep 29, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
It was helpful, but Finnegan is basically beyond me. I've picked it up various times and set it down with a headache. Ulysses and Dubliners are possibly my favorite books, so I will occasionally make a stab at Joyce's last and least accessible. I was doing research of sorts for something I'm writing. Campbell was ecstatic but not really illuminating. I think he advocated letting your eyes play across the page and find one word and just let its meaning resonate. I love Campbell, too, but it ...more
Mar 30, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this book in conjunction with Finnegans Wake. it provided a helpful guide, and in his commentary, Joseph Campbell is himself a beautiful writer. The title "A Skeleton Key" is an apt one. it is skeleton key, not in the sense that it opens every lock and every door. Rather it provides a useful to to find one way into the book, and it provides a skeletal frame on which to hang those initial insights that one struggles with on reading FW for the first time. Campbell offers a means of finding ...more
Ephrem Arcement
Oct 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Joseph Campbell's book was my lifeline through Finnegans Wake. There's no way I would have survived without it. The basic approach of A Skeleton Key was to translate Joyce's enigmatic language into English and provide sporadic commentary to help the reader along. I wish he would have provided more commentary! His introduction and conclusion are masterful expressions and explications of what Finnegans Wake seeks to express.
Dec 07, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I mean it's really good and necessarily they have to ignore a lot of stuff but they don't really emphasise enough that this is just a single, individual reading, like hm maybe a cultural anthropologist is gonna find a lot of cultural anthropology to talk about in a famously opaque and multifaceted book, when all you have is a hammer u kno
James Kayorie
May 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Essential for the first time you wade through the Wake.
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Joseph Campbell was an American author and teacher best known for his work in the field of comparative mythology. He was born in New York City in 1904, and from early childhood he became interested in mythology. He loved to read books about American Indian cultures, and frequently visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he was fascinated by the museum's collection of ...more