Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Cars as Personality Signifiers (Symbols)

For a handful of characters, Wallace expands their characterization by providing a detailed description of their vehicles. Pat Montesian drives a black '64 Ford Aventura, what Wallace calls "an antique variant of the Mustang, the sort of car you usually only see waxed and static in car shows with somebody in a bikini pointing at it" (461). Wallace explains how Pat came to possess such a prized vehicle—her South Shore hundred-millionaire husband "being big into cars" (461). Part of Pat's character is that she has twice married into the position of being a socialite, but she, herself, is totally down to earth and one would never guess that she occupies the stratosphere of Boston's social scene when she leaves her cramped office with her skin-diseased dogs at Ennet House. The Ford Aventura as a make and model of car doesn't actually exist in the real world, which may indicate a resistance on the part of Wallace's to use real brands and products to contribute to his characters, or perhaps the mythical quality of the car aligns well with the mythical quality of Pat Montesian and her sobriety story.

Another example of a vehicle supplementing a character is with Doony Glynn's "specialty-disembowelled old dusty-black VW Bug parked with the other cars on the now-illicit street-side, its rear-mount engine’s guts on full glittered display under the little street’s lights" (606). The reason Glynn can't move his car is because he's doubled over in bed with a severe case of diverticulitis, a disease of the gut. When Don tells Glynn he needs his keys to move his car, Glynn says, "My Black Bug. My baby. The Roachmobile. The Doonulater’s wheels. His mobility. His exposed baby. His slice of the American Pie. Simonize my baby when I’m gone, Don Doon" (607). There's a direct link here between the VW's exposed "guts" and Doony's guts as having an obvious, unconcealable effect on his behavior and mobility. Doony says to "Simonize" him when he's gone, which is a commercial process of waxing a vehicle.

Avril's pale-yellow Volvo speaks to her overabundance of caution and growing fear of leaving the Academy grounds (Volvos are known for their top safety rating and utility), and the E.T.A. boys, Hal's friends, all have shares in a tow truck that they can take around the Boston area and use for whatever errands they need to run. A collectively-owned tow truck among E.T.A.ers speaks to Lyle's favorite aphorism about never trying to pull a weight that exceeds one's own weight.

Erdedy's Bug (Symbol)

The second chapter of Infinite Jest focuses a long scene on Ken Erdedy as he waits for a large quantity of marijuana. While he waits, Ken spots an insect crawling around one of his shelves in and out of sight. Wallace writes, "The insect kept going in and out of one of the holes on the girders that the shelves fit into. The insect was dark and had a shiny case. He kept looking over at it. Once or twice he started to get up to go over closer to look at it, but he was afraid that if he came closer and saw it closer he would kill it, and he was afraid to kill it" (17). The scene occurs almost entirely inside of a close-third perspective of Ken Erdedy's frantic inner monologue as he assures himself that this will be his last binge with marijuana and that after this time he'll truly be done for good. The voice communicates that Erdedy is trying to convince himself that he is in control when clearly he isn't, and he knows he isn't.

The insect symbolizes Erdedy's addiction. The way it flits in and out of sight parallels the way Erdedy sometimes feels like the addiction isn't there at all. But the insect reappears at the end of the scene, and Wallace writes, "The insect might never actually have retreated all the way back into the hole in the shelf’s girder. What looked like its reemergence might just have been a change in his attention or the two windows’ light or the visual context of his surroundings" (23). Erdedy's fear of confronting the insect and fear of killing it apply also to his addiction. He's afraid to admit that he has a problem. Wallace writes, "The insect sat inside its dark shiny case with an immobility that seemed like the gathering of a force" (24). This line speaks to the notion that the longer Erdedy fails to confront his addiction, the more power it accrues over him.

Joelle's Veil (Symbol)

Joelle's veil signals, like a uniform, that she is a member of the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed (U.H.I.D.). The veil symbolizes not shame of the deformity, but a second-order shame—shame of the shame. The mask symbolizes the desire not to be seen. Joelle says to Don:

...what people don’t get about being hideously or improbably deformed is that the urge to hide is offset by a gigantic sense of shame about your urge to hide. You’re at a graduate wine-tasting party and improbably deformed and you’re the object of stares that the people try to conceal because they’re ashamed of wanting to stare, and you want nothing more than to hide from the covert stares, to erase your difference, to crawl under the tablecloth or put your face under your arm, or you pray for a power failure and for this kind of utter liberating equalizing darkness to descend so you can be reduced to nothing but a voice among other voices, invisible, equal, no different, hidden. (534)

Whether Joelle hides her face because she is too improbably beautiful to function in society, or whether she really is deformed by an acid splash to the face, her thesis applies. She has always been the object of stares. The irony of the veil is that it still makes her the object of stares, but it is the mystery of what the veil conceals that captures people's imaginations.

Gately's Meatloaf (Symbol)

Wallace writes that "Gately is an unlikely choice for Ennet House chef, having fed for most of the last twelve years on sub-shop subs and corporate snack foods consumed amid some sort of motion" (469). Gately's role as caretaker demonstrates his radical change of life brought about through sobriety. Wallace describes his meatloaf as dense, damp, and "with little pieces of American cheese and half a box of cornflakes on top, for texture" (469). The meatloaf sounds rather unappetizing, but it's clear that Gately is making an effort. When he's in the hospital, intubated and fighting a deadly fever, "Gately feels a sudden rush of anxiety over the issue of who’s cooking the House supper in his absence, like will they know to put corn flakes in the meat loaf, for texture" (826). The meatloaf symbolizes Gately's devotion to the program and to his fellow addicts, one of the many small ways he gives himself over to them. The way Randy Lenz repurposes the meatloaf as a way to lure dogs over to him before he stabs them demonstrates how members of the program can choose to take the help offered or squander it and with it feed their addictive tendencies.

S. Johnson and the Spotless Doggie Dish (Symbol)

When Orin is still a student at E.T.A., he and his friend Marlon Bain take Avril's Volvo down to the liquor store in the middle of the day to prolong their buzz. What they don't realize until they reach the bottom of the hill is that Avril's beloved dog S. Johnson was leashed to the rear fender as he often was in the afternoons. After six blocks of being dragged down the hill, the poor dog is reduced to a "nubbin" (1049). Bain describes the whole scene in a letter to Hugh Steeply. But what Bain finds even stranger than Orin's instinct to lie about what happened to his weeping mother is Avril's willingness to pretend to believe Orin's obvious, egregious lie and—though she is in mourning for S. Johnson, keeping his spotless bowl in the kitchen in perpetuity—her continued special treatment of Orin. Avril doesn't punish; she does quite the opposite. She's extra doting and cooks his favorite meals and makes an even bigger fuss over him than usual. This scenario symbolizes what Hal and Orin interpret to be Avril's passive form of manipulation. They feel that she blamelessly wields a tyrannical control of their family by withholding her true feelings about things in the service of her own status as a "perfect mother," but Orin believes her facade of radical trust is much more for herself than it is for anyone else.

Maps (Motif)

The idea of "maps" and mapping is central to Infinite Jest. "Map" is slang for someone's face, but it also signifies someone's "self" so when a person commits suicide, for example, the characters in the book will refer to it as "eliminating their personal map" (196, 220, 231, 286, 348, 374, 407, 408, 446, 532, 558, 712). Maps are, importantly, representations of a place rather than the place itself; this distinction may symbolize a separation of body and soul, as in the face and body are maps of one's essence, but fail to ever perfectly represent the essence that they contain. This distinction between map and territory comes up in the pre-I-Day Eschaton fiasco when Pemulis argues that the conditions on the map have no bearing on the theoretical conditions of the territory. When a player suggests that the snowfall should influence the conditions of the game, Pemulis shouts, "It’s snowing on the goddamn map, not the territory, you dick!" (333). Wallace uses maps as a motif to evoke a sense of selfhood throughout the text.

Mario's Camera (Symbol)

Mario is regarded by his brother Hal and by the community surrounding E.T.A. as something of a saint-like figure. He's welcomed into the homes of strangers, businesses, Pat Montesian's office; something about his condition and demeanor disarm people. When J.O.I. dies, he leaves a camera to Mario in recognition of Mario's desire to make films. The camera is helmet-mounted and looks like an old-fashioned scuba-diving helmet. The Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed have tried recruiting Mario several times, but each time one of his loved ones is around to shoo them away. Mario is never depicted as feeling shame about his deformities. The scuba helmet serves as a counter-point to the U.H.I.D. veils that members wear to hide their faces. Mario's face is still visible through his head-mounted camera, and his helmet absorbs the impressions and countenance's of the people he meets rather than reflects their own imaginations and preconceptions back at them.

Evel Knievel (Allegory)

When Joelle describes her addiction to Don as he's laying in the hospital bed, she describes the times when she's tried to "white knuckle" herself sober and quit crack cold-turkey without the support of any peers or Programs:

I was proud of each day I stayed off. Each day seemed evidence of something, and I counted them. I’d add them up. Line them up end to end. You know? ... And soon it would get… improbable. As if each day was a car Knievel had to clear. One car, two cars. By the time I’d get up to say like maybe about 14 cars, it would begin to seem like this staggering number. Jumping over 14 cars. And the rest of the year, looking ahead, hundreds and hundreds of cars, me in the air trying to clear them. ... Who could do it? How did I ever think anyone could do it that way? (859)

Joelle's allegory emphasizes the overwhelming power of addiction and attributes to it a force equal to that of gravity. The allegory demonstrates the potential of programs like AA to transfer power from the addiction back to the addict.

Stice's Stuck Forehead (Allegory)

Another allegory for addiction in the vein of the insect flying in and out of Ken Erdedy's shelf is the situation of Ortho Stice's forehead skin freezing to the subdorm window. By the time Hal discovers him in the hallway, he's been stuck to the window for upwards of four hours. Hal asks him why on earth he let it go on that long without asking for help, and Ortho replies, "Well shit I was embarrassed. And it never got quite bad enough to yell out. I kept thinking if it gets a little worse I’ll go on and yell out. And then along about 03 I quit feeling the forehead altogether" (869). Ortho falls into a pattern of denial, and by the time he realizes that he has a real problem on his hands, the problem has ballooned from what, at the start, may have been a much easier problem to address.