Thanum an Dhul, do you thunk I'm dead?
You know a book is going to take a while when even the title takes a good deal of unpacking. While Joyce was writing the book over seventeen years, he thought the title so good that he needed to keep it secret, and called the book “Work in Progress.” His idea of a fun evening was to invite people over to dinner and have them guess what the title really was.
What’s the big deal? The title itself is the same as that of an old Irish ballad about the late Tom Finnegan who so loved whiskey that when he gets doused with it at his own wake, he rises from the dead. “Lots of fun at Finnegan’s Wake” indeed. But the title is more than the reference, it’s also punning by the two words containing opposite meanings. Finnegan is made up of Fin(ish )+again and a wake is both for those on their way to their graves, and those about to rise from their beds. Finnegan wakes at Finnegan’s wake. And as a last added meaning, the apostrophe is left off so that the “s” becomes a plural: (many) Finnegans wake (up).
It is a brilliant title. In two words he sets out the comic and punning style of the book, its major theme of the cycles of death and rebirth, the fluid identities (Finnegan will have many different incarnations, hence the plural "s"), and roots the book in salt of the earth Irish culture. Joyce references Tristan and Isolde a bunch in the book and could have figured out a way of naming the book for those title characters of Europe’s highest of High Operas. But I feel Joyce is signaling us that while it's about to get pretty high falutin, it's supposed to be good fun too. Wagner built a church for his holy operas, but Joyce wants to sing a rowdy song and have a drink. And probably touch you for a quid.