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James Joyce
Terence Killeen
LIFE, DEATH, AND THE WASHERWOMEN

“O tell me all about Anna Livia. I want to hear all about Anna Livia.” These opening words of the “Anna Livia” chapter of Finnegans Wake plunge us into the living stream of the Liffey’s course to the sea.   The focus of this essay is the two figures who are the “tellers“ of that course, the “washerwomen” who share the story between them. The structure of the chapter (Part 1 Chapter 8) is well known: it is outlined by Joyce in one pithy sentence in a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver of March 3rd, 1924: “It is a chattering dialogue across the river by two washerwomen who as night falls become a tree and a stone.” The dialogic nature of the chapter is very evident: although not formally structured as such, the voices unmistakably call and respond to each other throughout. It is possible (it has been done in stage adaptations) to assign “parts” to the two speakers throughout the text, one asking about Anna Livia and other matters, the other narrating in response. They also exchange comments and occasional insults as they go on.
    Neither in terms of tone, nor phraseology, is it actually possible to distinguish between the two women. Both speak the same way, both do the same job, both are of the same social category and class. In Joyce’s own reading of the end of this chapter, again, he gives them the same voices, the same tone, the voices and tones being those, broadly, of two Irish country women -- not, it should be mentioned, Dublin women. The accents are in fact impossible to pin down to a particular region. They are certainly rural Irish, possibly with a Galway inflection, but further than that it is not possible to go. The evidence for their non-Dublin provenance is not just down to Joyce’s oral delivery: it can also be proved negatively, through the absence of any specifically Dublin terms or phrases in their discourse. An example is the Dublin word “chiseller”, for infant or child; this is a term one might expect to see in a chapter which is much concerned with children, but it is not used. 
    Even in a book in which the concept of character is, to put it mildly, fluid, these washerwomen  hardly count as characters at all. They do not have names; they do not appear among the sigla, the little marks that Joyce devised for the principal personae or elements of the Wake; their function seems to be almost exclusively as tale-bearers,  narrators rather than agents.
   Nonetheless, they are massively differentiated, and it is this paradox that I wish to explore here. The differentiation is indicated in Joyce’s statement that the two become a tree and a stone as night falls. One can see this happening at the end of the chapter: “My branches lofty are taking root” (clearly the tree. Her arms are plunged in the water and she sees them turn into tree roots in their reflection under the water -- hence the beautiful inversion of high and low, “lofty” and “root” in this sentence).  “And my cold cher’s gone ashley.” (This is of course the French “chair”, flesh, turning grey, the colour of ash and stone.) What does such a differentiation -- into tree and stone -- entail? Well, for one thing it entails a close relationship between the two women and the rival twins Shem and Shaun, who also are of course a tree and a stone. Other differentiations between the two also occur at this point, towards the end of the chapter:  one says to the other: “I sow home slowly now by own way, moyvalley way. Towy I too, rathmine.” This would indicate that one is descending, to a valley, while the other is ascending, to a “rath” (Irish for fort). Again, one says to the other:  “the spot I’ll seek if the hour you’ll find”. This would imply a space/time dichotomy, which is of course also a feature of the relationship between Shem and Shaun.
   And in fact, the two are rivals as much as companions. They frequently interrupt and challenge -- and occasionally abuse each other: “Were you lifting your elbow, tell us, glazy cheeks, in Conway’s Carrigacurra canteen? Was I what, hobbledyhips? Flop! Your rere gait’s creakorhuman bitts your butts disagrees.” As the river widens, the two banks on which they are washing take on different characteristics: “Reeve Gootch was right and Reeve Drughad was sinistrous!”
   And as the chapter nears its end, the two somehow become more “realistic”, more like novelistic characters. Darker shades appear: “you won your limpopo limp from the husky hussars”: a suggestion that one of the women has contracted a venereal disease. Admittedly this is just a claim made by her rival, but it still isn’t funny. Even more striking is “Amn’t I up since the damp dawn, marthared mary allacook[. . .] for to deck my tennis champion son, the laundryman with the lavandier flannels?”
     This suggests a woman sacrificing herself for her son, a scenario which would not be out of place as a story in Dubliners. Margot Norris makes a rather similar point in her essay on Finnegans Wake in The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, (ed Derek Attridge, 2nd edition, Cambridge, 2006) where she points out that this is not the first time Joyce has written about washerwomen;  they also appear in the Dubliners story “Clay”, where they are seen from the outside, through Maria’s eyes. Here, we get, as it were,  the inside story about them and their lives.    
  That the two washerwomen are in some sense aspects or “emanations” of Shem and Shaun is also shown by their appearance in two other passages in the work, outside the Anna Livia chapter, which is not quite their only manifestation. (In fact they are referred to several times throughout the book, usually in passages where the rhythm of the prose briefly takes on the characteristics of the Anna Livia chapter again.) However, their principal manifestations occur in the two following contexts. The first passage is at the end of the “Mookse and the Gripes” fable in Chapter Six, where the battle between the Mookse and the Gripes (Shaun and Shem) is at an end. Two women (one “a woman of no appearance”, the other “a woman to all important” -- which certainly sounds like a differentiation) gather what’s left of the two contenders up from the field of battle and carry them off. The Mookse looks just like a “boshop’s apron”, one of the items of clothing mentioned in Chapter 8, while the Gripes resembles a “hawker’s hank”, another item which figures in the washerwomen’s catalogue.
     The washerwomen’s second appearance outside the Anna Livia chapter is even more significant. It occurs towards the end of the book, in Anna’s closing monologue: she is referring to her two sons, Shem and Shaun, and she mentions “those two old crony aunts held them out to the water front. Queer Mrs Quickenough and odd Miss Doddpebble. And when them two has a good few there isn’t much more dirty clothes to publish. From the Laundersdale Minssions.” These clearly are the two washerwomen again, and this time they are specifically linked to life and death (which of course again are aspects of the Shem/Shaun dichotomy): “Quickenough” and “Doddpebble” clearly incorporate the quick and the dead, reinforced by the “pebble”. “Holding out to the water front” would also involve “holding out to the water font”, so the two women are the godmothers of Shem and Shaun. And of course “Mrs” and “Miss” imply fertility and its reverse.
   What is striking, as I have mentioned, is how little differentiation there is between two figures who are linked to the two most differentiated characters in the book. Yes, the washerwomen become a tree and a stone, but this distinction is not reflected in their voices, their personalities or even their names -- they have none. Grace Eckley, in her essay, “Odd Miss Doddpebble and Queer Mrs Quickenough”, (in Narrator and Character in Finnegans Wake, ed Michael Begnal and Grace Eckley, Bucknell University Press, 1975) suggests that those are in fact their names, given at the book’s end, but I am not sure that there is a great deal of warrant for thinking this, in a work where naming is such a fluid and provisional process.
    In the book’s official programme, as it were, this splitting-up occurs but at a more basic level nothing changes as the chapter goes on. It is as if they function as some kind of primary unity before divisions into such categories as tree and stone, time and space, and even life and death. As we know, Chapter 8 is actually about Anna Livia, not about Shem and Shaun, who are mentioned only at the end; so the washerwomen perhaps provide a transition between the oneness of the boys’ mother, Anna Livia, and the definite dichotomy of the warring twins. The first part of Finnegans Wake is the book of the gods, of figures who are mighty in their unity and who encompass multitudes; it is the book of sources and origins: “gammer and gaffer we’re all their gangsters”, as one of the washerwomen says. The differentiation that gradually develops as the washerwomen’s dialogue goes on -- a differentiation that operates not on the level of character or even voice, but purely in an imagistic and abstract dimension (tree/stone, life/death) -- reflects the breaking up of the unitary sources that had dominated the book up to this point. John Bishop, for instance, (in Joyce’s Book of the Dark, University of Wisconsin Press, 1986) suggests that the voice of the questioning washerwoman represents a dead time in contrast to the “live” voice of the respondent.
   Eckley shows how dominant the tree/stone dichotomy and symbolism are throughout the book; it is a remarkable fact that the name “Tristan”, one of the founding mythical  figures of the work, incorporates phonetically tree/stone. And the power and efficacy of the contrast cannot be denied.
  But I do think that an important dimension of the work is conveyed by the fact that the two washerwomen, whose voices are among the book’s most distinctive and memorable, even if only available in one chapter, are not in fact differentiated on the fundamental levels of character or tone or attitude. Finnegans Wake may in fact be suggesting that the difference between life and death is not perhaps all it is cracked up to be.