Alternate Author Name(s)

Barbara Jo DiBernard

Document Type


Date of Award



Alchemy in literature, James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, Knowledge and learning

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

First Advisor

Zack Bowen

Second Advisor

William B. Stein

Third Advisor

Robert Kroetsch


Finnegans Wake is the result of a modern alchemical process; it is the literary lapis, the artistic equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone. The book contains references to alchemical techniques, processes, ingredients, and equipment, as well as to various alchemists and alchemical theories. Like everything else in Joyce, they form a pattern, the explication of which gives new insight into the meaning of the work. The alchemical references serve as a metaphor for change in Finnegans Wake, and ultimately serve as a metaphor for the artistic process. Several important sections of the Wake which deal with writing and the artistic process are permeated with alchemical references. The alchemical terms and alchemists which appear throughout the book serve as a leitmotif. Each time they appear they expand meaning, bringing to bear all the ramifications and implications of alchemy as a process and a reference pattern.

Finnegans Wake is a very particular Philosopher's Stone, however, one which undermines the conventional, common notion of alchemy prevalent in the nineteenth century. Part of Joyce’s intent in the Wake was to explode our set, preconceived, categorized ways of looking at things and force us to see them in a new light. Finnegans Wake is not a timeless, spaceless, transcendent realm removed from reality, which is what the Symbolists, Yeats, and others sought in alchemy and the occult; nor is it life transmuted into gold, the ordinary perception of the aim of alchemy. Finnegans Wake is, instead, a book which takes the elements of life and turns them into art, but never renounces its origins. The Wake originates in and returns to the blood and mire of the world.


All of these allusions, whether to the specific aspects of the alchemical work itself or to its philosophical basis, are used thematically, stylistically, and structurally in Finnegans Wake. Thematically, the alchemical allusions strengthen and add another layer to the basic motifs of Finnegans Wake. Stylistically, they provide Joyce with a literary technique through which he can express the simultaneity of existence, the coincidence of contraries, and the relationship of the macrocosm and microcosm. Structurally, they both suggest and mirror the cyclical structure of the Wake.


This study, then, is intended to show the abundance of alchemical allusions in Finnegans Wake as well as to explicate both individual passages and the entire book in their light.