The language of Finnegans Wake is confounding; consider, for example:
The language is like that of a dream, not quite conscious or formed, shimmering with layers of possible meaning. Yet this is a return to possibility, shaped by the experiences of the world we have fallen (into sleep) from. One of the many sources Joyce drew from is the Ancient Egyptian story of Osiris, who was torn apart by his brother or son Set, the pieces gathered and reassembled by his sister or wife, Isis, with the help of their sister or daughter Nephthys; their other brother or son, Horus, emerges to slay Set and rise as the new day's sun, as Osiris himself. So in Finnegans Wake we have fragments and allusions and confusing messages that the reader must, like Isis, put together into a recognizable form as the book progresses towards dawn.
The book begins with the fall of Finnegan, a hod carrier, from a scaffold. At his wake, in keeping with the American vaudeville song, "Finnegan's Wake," a fight breaks out, whiskey splashes on Finnegan's corpse, and he rises up again alive. Note how the simple removal of the song's apostrophe emphasizes and universalizes the theme of awakening: At Finnegan's wake, Finnegans wake.
But Joyce has Finnegan put back down again ("Now be aisy, good Mr Finnimore, sir. And take your laysure like a god on pension and don't be walking abroad"). Someone else is sailing in to take over the story: Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, whose initials HCE ("Here Comes Everybody") lend themselves to phrase after phrase throughout the book.
HCE is a foreigner who has taken a native Irish wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle (whose initials ALP as well are found in phrase after phrase), and they settle down to run a public house in Chapelizod[?], a suburb of Dublin named for the Irish princess Isolde. HCE personifies the city of Dublin (which was founded by Vikings), and ALP personifies the river Liffey, on whose banks the city was built. In the popular eighth chapter, hundreds of names of rivers are woven into the tale of ALP's life. Joyce universalizes his tale by making ALP and HCE stand as well for every city-river pair in the world. And they are, like Eve and Adam, the primeval parents of all the Irish and all humanity.
ALP and HCE have a daughter, Issy, whose person is often split, and two sons, Shem and Shaun, eternal rivals for replacing their father and for Issy's affection (among other things). Shem and Shaun are akin to Set and Horus of the Osiris story, as well as the biblical pairs Jacob & Esau and Cain & Abel, as well as Romulus & Remus and St. Michael & the Devil. They often are seen with a third fellow in whom their two halves may join against HCE or in winning Issy. This third son-character is likened, for example, to Napoleon Bonaparte against HCE's Duke_of_Wellington and to Tristan in the triangle with Iseult (Issy) and King Mark (HCE). This is just a small hint of the many roles that each of the main characters finds him- and herself playing, often several at the same time.
Scandal concerning an incident in Phoenix Park (across the river from Chapelizod) threatens HCE's reputation, perhaps his life. In a midden heap, a hen named Biddy (the diminutive form of Brighid, the goddess on whose new-year feast day Joyce was born) finds a letter that ALP has dictated to Shem and which Shaun is charged with carrying to the ruling power of the time, which may be HCE himself. It is a letter that is hoped will redeem his past, just as Finnegans Wake is a vast "comedy" that seeks to redeem human history.
The progress of the book, however, is far from simple as it draws in mythologies, theologies, mysteries, philosophies, histories, sociologies, astrologies, other fictions, alchemy, music, color, nature, sexuality, human development, and dozens of languages to create the world drama in whose cycles we live.