Irish author James Joyce surely wasn’t surfing the Web when he wrote the noto­ri­ously dense novel Finnegans Wake, pub­lished in 1939. But much of the book’s struc­ture is intrigu­ingly com­pa­rable to the memes that drive today’s online cul­ture, according to senior Eng­lish major Tom Murphy.

Murphy points out that the novel’s sprawling cast of char­ac­ters takes after the con­stantly evolving stream of photos and text that pop­u­late users’ Face­book walls and Twitter feeds today. But com­paring Joyce’s novel to the seem­ingly self-​​replicating meme culture—and specif­i­cally how ideas within it evolve and spread—can pro­vide a macro-​​level look at a work that’s con­founded readers and scholars alike for more than 70 years.

You’re talking about a book that’s 800 or 900 pages long,” Murphy said. “It’s dif­fi­cult to trudge through. The novel incor­po­rates many dif­ferent lan­guages, and almost half of it is written in puns. To look at my idea—that the char­ac­ters in Finnegans Wake existed very much like the way memes do today—in a tra­di­tional way would be a much harder task. But looking at it from this macro level, in an aggre­gate sense, makes looking at the book as a whole a much easier task.”

Murphy started taking this wide-​​lens approach to Finnegans Wake last fall when he took “Tech­nolo­gies of Text,” a dig­ital human­i­ties course taught by Ryan Cordell, an assis­tant pro­fessor of Eng­lish. Cordell’s research has explored how sto­ries and ideas went viral in the days long before the Internet, spreading across great dis­tances through news­pa­pers and peri­od­i­cals rather than a series of online networks.

I started tracking the char­ac­ters in Finnegans Wake, and they reminded me more like memes than of the kind of char­ac­ters you’d see in any other book,” said Murphy, who used dig­ital tools intro­duced to him in the dig­ital human­i­ties class to ana­lyze the text and con­firm whether his obser­va­tion proved accurate.

Murphy’s research shows that memes may not nec­es­sarily be unique to the Internet but instead rep­re­sent a deeper way people tell and struc­ture sto­ries, relying on repeated imagery and text that evolves to meet the needs of new uses. Just as an online joke may change to meet the latest news item or pop cul­ture hap­pening, the appear­ances of Joyce’s char­ac­ters evolve throughout Finnegans Wake to meet the novel’s sto­ry­telling needs.

The cast of char­ac­ters in Finnegans Wake tends to behave in unusual ways, Murphy noted, with some fre­quently appearing in the com­pany of others or in very spe­cific con­texts. Their appear­ance itself served as an oppor­tu­nity for Joyce to com­ment upon plot or char­ac­ters in a way beyond the tra­di­tional means of storytelling.

Murphy’s project relied in part on pre­vious schol­arly work that charts the cir­cum­stances and inter­ac­tions of Joyce’s char­ac­ters. But using new dig­ital tools allowed the North­eastern stu­dent to inves­ti­gate those con­nec­tions more closely. For instance, Murphy uti­lized a pro­gram called Voyant for “dis­tant reading,” a prac­tice that looks at char­acter appear­ances and inter­ac­tions in any number of cir­cum­stances or com­bi­na­tions. He explained that dis­tant reading inher­ently focuses more on struc­ture than inter­pre­ta­tion, an ideal tool for looking at the basic mechanics of a book like Finnegans Wake.

Murphy added that these pow­erful pro­grams can do much more than gather data on one single book; they can allow scholars to look at vast topics like race or social mobility within a cer­tain time period and rapidly con­duct analyses that might oth­er­wise take a life­time of reading and research.

Upon com­pleting the “Tech­nolo­gies in Text” course, Cordell encour­aged Murphy to press fur­ther with his work. That led Murphy to present his research, “Memes, Dis­tant Reading, and Finnegans Wake,” ear­lier this month at Re:Humanities, an under­grad­uate sym­po­sium exploring new media spon­sored and orga­nized by stu­dents at Swarth­more, Haver­ford, and Bryn Mawr colleges.

I had never used these dig­ital human­i­ties tools before this fall, and they’ve com­pletely changed the direc­tion of what I’m able to accom­plish in this field,” Murphy said. “It opens up new ways of looking at text that I never even thought was possible.”