Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest Literary Elements


Literary Fiction, Post-Modern Fiction, Speculative Fiction

Setting and Context

The Organization of North American Nations, Near Future

Narrator and Point of View

The book alternates between infrequent first-person perspectives and an omniscient third-person narrator. Some first-person sections are narrated by Hal Incandenza, some by his father, James O. Incandenza, and some by unnamed minor characters.

Tone and Mood

The book has a wide range of tones and mood; at times the tone is sincere and tender, but it can also take on a hint of irony, especially in transcription sections portraying the U.S. Office of Unspecified Services. The mood ranges from joyful to sorrowful.

Protagonist and Antagonist

The main protagonist is Hal Incandenza, the deuteragonist is Donald Gately, and the antagonist is arguably M. Fortier, leader of the Quebecois separatist group, the A.F.R.

Major Conflict

The O.N.A.N.ite government enters into a race with Quebecois separatists to recover the master copy of a lost film cartridge entitled "Infinite Jest," directed by Hal's father James O. Incandenza. The film is believed to have lethal qualities, hypnotizing its viewers to the point that they lose all ability to function.


The climax may arguably take place beyond the margins of the novel. To speak to a peak along a traditional parabolic plot structure, to which this novel does not conform, one would have to look beyond the text to an implied climax. Hal alludes to a point during the Year of Glad when he and Don Gately dig up J.O.I.'s head in the Great Concavity and find that the master copy of "Infinite Jest" has already been removed. This seals the fate of O.N.A.N. and suggests that the A.F.R. likely have obtained the master copy.


The novel foreshadows Hal's drug problem, and it foreshadows that the A.F.R. will take Orin as a hostage in his relations with Helen Steeply.


The novel understates the state of the dystopia in which the novel is set, because it presents a lot of startling elements in a calm and matter-of-fact way.


The novel alludes to a number of canonical works including "Hamlet" and "Henry IV Parts I and II" by William Shakespeare, "Endzone" by Don Delillo, and "The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoevsky, among other texts. The implied scene of Hal digging up his father's skull refers to the Poor Yorick scene from Hamlet and his name alludes to Henry V, in which includes a character named Prince Hal. The Eschaton scene borrows heavily from a depiction of a football game in Don Delillo's novel, and the family dynamics particularly between Hal, Mario, Orin, and C.T. borrow heavily from those of "The Brothers Karamazov."


Wallace's imagery is rich with sweeping descriptions of the sky and an astute ear for weather, which some critics attribute to Wallace's midwestern upbringing under wide open skies and among vast, flat landscapes. Wallace specializes in hyper-detailed scenes, and though most of that detail adorns the interior monologues of his characters, some of its obsessive vision is used to create lushly-described exteriors.


A major paradox presents in the conversation between Marathe and Steeply, where Steeply advocates for a typically American freedom of choice, and Marathe suggests that the freedom to choose does not necessarily equate to a broader sense of freedom, the freedom to live. In other words, where Steeply suggests that people should be able to choose to engage with media in any way they see fit, Marathe points out that in their choosing, they become enslaved by a pleasure so great that it precludes them from making any further choices. So the paradox is that the freedom to choose in some cases actually leads to a loss of agency.


The tennis players accept pain stoically to change their physical bodies in the way members of the A.F.R. lie across train tracks to show their status as members of the group. This inversion of result shows how irrevocable the physical change of the tennis players is, especially because Wallace shows how people who used to play tennis keep their developed mutations such as one extremely large arm and leg.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

The word "map" is used to refer to one's face and more broadly one's self or selfhood throughout the text. This is an example of metonymy. Synechdoche is present throughout the novel in how the term E.T.A. and AA is used, because they refers to phenomena, individuals, and structures within the novel instead of only representing the literal organizations.


Addiction and alcoholism are personified extensively throughout the novel, particularly in the sense that the Sergeant at Arms of AA that Wallace refers to throughout the book is personified as the invisible enforcer of the tenets of AA, constantly lurking, waiting for addicts to slip and prove the truth of the long list of adages repeated at meetings.