Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest Themes


Addiction, in Infinite Jest, takes many forms, and the novel explores the porous boundaries between addiction, devotion, and fanaticism. The three main objects of addiction/devotion/fanaticism in Infinite Jest are tennis, AA, and substances. Tennis is represented in the portions of the novel taking place at Enfield Tennis Academy, AA is explored primarily through Don Gately and Ennet House residents, and substances and substance abuse appear in both spheres. As the novel progresses, we see how the two spheres overlap. Hal seeks a sobriety group. Ennet House residents work at E.T.A. Don Gately excels in junior athletics before drugs destroy his ability to train.

Early in the novel, Wallace emphasizes the role of drugs at E.T.A. and the vast variety of drugs and their most common utility for a student under an abundance of pressure to perform both academically and athletically. He writes, "some E.T.A.s—not just Hal Incandenza by any means—are involved with recreational substances, is the point. Like who isn’t, at some life-stage, in the U.S.A. and Interdependent regions, in these troubled times, for the most part" (53). Here, Wallace downplays the students' "involvement" in substances, seeming to say that the circumstances, the "postmodern" or "post-postmodern" condition of Subsidized Time in the Organization of North American Nations, almost requires a person to take drugs just to tolerate living. He continues: "a decent percentage of E.T.A. students aren’t at all. I.e. involved. Some persons can give themselves away to an ambitious pursuit and have that be all the giving-themselves-away-to-something they need to do. Though sometimes this changes as the players get older and the pursuit more stress-fraught. American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually unlimited in their need to give themselves away, on various levels" (53). Here, Wallace equates drug use and devotional training by positioning them under the same umbrella of 'giving oneself away' to something.

One of the unifying attributes of the main characters in Infinite Jest is that they're addicted to substances or that their lives have been touched by someone else's addiction. Hal realizes that he's addicted to marijuana after an O.N.A.N.T.A. representative basically forces a thirty-day detox on him, Pemulis, and Trevor Axford. Wallace depicts Joelle's "rock-bottom" moment when she tries to kill herself in Molly Notkin's bathroom with a massive overdose of crack. Don Gately's whole reason for being at Ennet House as a live-in staff member is because he is addicted to painkillers, and Wallace depicts his rock bottom towards the end of the novel in a series of scenes that show him and Fackelmann scaling "Mt. Dilaudid." James Incandenza is an alcoholic; his father was an alcoholic, too. And besides the main cast of characters, Wallace takes great pains to represent the lives and journeys of other residents of Ennet House. One of the earliest isolated scenes in the novel depicts Ken Erdedy's mental ping-pong as he waits by the phone for an update on a massive quantity of pot he's been promised by an acquaintance. There's Randy Lenz, Tiny Ewell, Geoff Day, Kate Gompert, Pat Montesian, Poor Tony Krause, Doony Glynn, Bruce Green, to name a few, all of whom are represented in Wallace's mosaic of addiction or lives impeded by addiction.


One of the major thematic aspects of Infinite Jest is the thin line between devotion and addiction, devotion being represented as a broader category in which the latter could be included. Addiction, in other words, is a form of devotion: an engagement with freedom of choice that, as Marathe argues to Steeply, precludes future freedom of choice by enslaving the will of the addict. This doesn't just apply to drugs; in Wallace's world, television can be just as addictive as a substance, as demonstrated by Steeply's story of his father's addiction to M*A*S*H.

One of the last remarks Hal makes is about how he's starting to lose his understanding of how anyone could possibly devote their lives to a cause or a game or a substance. He seems exhausted by the notion of continuing. He says:

It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately—the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. (900)

Contrast Hal's statement here with Marathe's to Steeply; Marathe, after making the case that all people are fanatics in some sense, says, "choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice" (107). Marathe seems to answer Hal's implied question as to why people devote themselves utterly to a game or an ideal—because without this devotion, without this love of something beyond themselves, they're afraid of being nothing, of living a life devoid of purpose. Perhaps Hal is exhausted by life's demands to devote oneself to something.

Wallace represents through the character of Schtitt the idea that junior athletics is a way of preparing children for a life of devotion, especially for the majority of junior athletes who will not advance to the major leagues. He writes:

Schtitt was educated in pre-Unification Gymnasium under the rather Kanto-Hegelian idea that jr. athletics was basically just training for citizenship, that jr. athletics was about learning to sacrifice the hot narrow imperatives of the Self—the needs, the desires, the fears, the multiform cravings of the individual appetitive will—to the larger imperatives of a team (OK, the State) and a set of delimiting rules (OK, the Law). (82-83)

Schtitt's upbringing clashes with what Wallace considers to be a uniquely American emphasis on individualism, "a sort of sloppy intersection of desires and fears, where the only public consensus a boy must surrender to is the acknowledged primacy of ... personal happiness" (83).


Wallace speculates on the future of communication technologies and the distribution of digital entertainment, and in many ways, his speculations are uncanny in their precision. It's also important to analyze how his predictions diverge from the actual developments in communication technology and digital entertainment. The novel takes its title from the title of one of James Incandanza's entertainment cartridges, also entitled Infinite Jest. The cartridge takes its name from a line in Shakespeare's Hamlet, when Yorick is referred to as a man of "infinite jest," so the novel takes its name from a lineage of entertainments. Wallace seems to predict the possibility of "streaming" entertainment. He writes:

What if—according to InterLace—what if a viewer could more or less 100% choose what’s on at any given time? Choose and rent, over PC and modem and fiber-optic line, from tens of thousands of second-run films, documentaries, the occasional sport, old beloved non–‘Happy Days’ programs, wholly new programs, cultural stuff, and c., all prepared by the time-tested, newly lean Big Four’s mammoth vaults and production facilities and packaged and disseminated by InterLace TelEnt. in convenient fiber-optic pulses that fit directly on the new palm-sized 4.8-mb PC-diskettes InterLace was marketing as ‘cartridges’? (416)

Wallace's prediction parallels Marathe and Steeply's argument about freedom of choice. Steeply maintains that the freedom to choose and consume at will is a fundamental quality of America that makes America, by his estimation, great. Marathe believes that this level of choice and ease is paralyzing, leaving the consumer with no choice but to constantly consume. Wallace's description of InterLace's hypothetical proposal is exactly what streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and other services offer their subscribers. What Wallace either didn't include for practicality's sake or simply couldn't imagine at the time is analog technologies like video cartridges, tapes, DVDs, etc. becoming obsolete. All of the shows and films and various other forms of digital entertainment exist now on servers and in the "cloud" and require no players or insertables. They're intangible.

Wallace also predicted the rise of what he calls "videophoning" technology, what we know today as video chatting. In Wallace's world, video chatting ultimately fails because the users are too insecure to show their faces on the screen or they are averse to the scrutiny of their conversational partner (in the sense that on a voice call, one can be distracted or engaged with another task without seeming rude). Again, Wallace imagines analog solutions where totally digital, codical equivalents exist today. In the place of Snapchat and Instagram filters, Wallace imagines masks and cardboard cut-outs that video-phone users wear or place in front of their camera to represent themselves in a more favorable light.

Regardless of the accuracy of Wallace's predictions, he attributes the dissolution of community to the proliferation of passive entertainment and technologies like videophoning that "connect" people without truly connecting them. Wallace represents cartridges as an absorbing, individual entertainment that alienates the user from others. Whether it's Steeply's dad watching M*A*S*H or Erdedy bingeing marijuana and watching a marathon of video cartridges, Wallace depicts passive entertainments as something that inhibits interpersonal connection.


Wallace's obsession with language and syntax is most clearly represented in the character of Avril Incandenza, who is a grammarian and co-founder of the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts. Hal's relationship with language—he spends much of his childhood memorizing the Oxford English Dictionary—is central to the novel and to his relationship with his mother, Avril, whom he seems to be trying to impress with his obsession. When Hal eats the mold as a child, he loses his ability to feel complex emotions, but he retains the ability to express himself linguistically at an extremely high level. Wallace writes that Hal "hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarified equations, and he can manipulate them well enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there" (694). When Hal loses language, as demonstrated in the first scene of the novel in The Year of Glad, a symptom perhaps of the DMZ tablets that went missing from Pemulis's stash towards the end of the novel, Hal's ability to communicate linguistically is swapped out with his ability to intensely feely interior emotions.

Hal and Avril's obsessions with language and syntax are bolstered by Wallace's obsessions. It's worth noting that Wallace's mother, Sally Foster Wallace, is a grammarian and the author of a grammar textbook entitled Practically Painless English. Tom Bissell, in his introduction to the twentieth-anniversary edition of Infinite Jest, writes that "Infinite Jest is a genuinely groundbreaking novel of language" and notes that Wallace uses "made-up words, hot-wired words, words found only in the footnotes of medical dictionaries, words usable only within the context of classical rhetoric, home-chemistry words, mathematician words, philosopher words" and that "Wallace spelunked the OED and fearlessly neologized, nouning verbs, verbing nouns, creating less a novel of language than a brand-new lexicographical reality" (2). Bissell credits Wallace with revitalizing the linguistic richness of contemporary American literature and quotes novelist John Jeremiah Sullivan as claiming that Wallace's death impoverished the English language. Wallace's sentences are winding labyrinths of clauses and punctuation, but he prides himself on their grammatical stability.


The concepts of annulation and circularity are central to Infinite Jest both in terms of its thematic concerns and in the actual structure of the novel. James Incandenza studies annulation as a physicist, an interest that first arises in his childhood, when he watches a brass doorknob rotate on the floor after falling off of a table. Annular fusion is an important environmental process that takes place in the Great Concavity after years of catapulting toxic waste into its boundaries. Pemulis explains the process as a cascade of fusion reactions which result in a cycle of toxicity and "overinhabitability" in the Great Concavity, which has led to a unique ecosystem and mutated species within its boundaries. The idea of annularity in Infinite Jest relates to Wallace's hopeful, anti-apocalyptic perspective. Replaying and annulation perhaps have the possibility to be healing and genuinely "good". For example, in the world of Infinite Jest, annulation is the cure for cancer. Pemulis says, "the whole idea of treating cancer by giving the cancer cells themselves cancer was anathematic just a couple decades back" (572).

The structure of Infinite Jest rewards a circular reading. When the first-time reader completes the novel, they must go back to the first chapter in order to connect the end of the novel to its last point in chronological time, i.e. the textual beginning of the novel. In this way, Infinite Jest the novel mirrors Infinite Jest the entertainment cartridge because, upon completion, the book compels the reader to start the book over again—albeit in a far less forceful, dangerous manner than the entertainment cartridge. In fact, the difference between how the novel compels its reader to go back to the beginning and how the cartridge compels its viewer to rewind is also at the center of the novel's thesis on the dangers of passive forms of entertainment. Consumers must be discerning about what forms of media they choose to spend their time rereading or rewinding.


In his essay E Unibus Pluram, Wallace lays the theoretical foundations for his novel, Infinite Jest. Among the arguments Wallace makes in that essay is the argument that irony cannot be the sole diagnostic tool of contemporary writers in assessing and critiquing society. In fact, when it comes to critiquing television culture, especially commercials, ironic literature is rendered impotent by the fact that commercials have successfully co-opted strategies of postmodern literature like self-reference and breaching the fourth wall. Wallace writes about commercials that placate their viewer by directly addressing the unproductive nature of watching television and the feeling of being a part of a consumer herd, while still managing to appeal to the individual viewer's sense of superiority or difference. You're part of the herd, but you have a critical consciousness about your role that others lack. Wallace argues that commercial T.V. runs the court when it comes to deflecting ironic criticism of its medium.

Wallace proposes that perhaps sincerity and sentimentalism, being earnest—considered great sins of contemporary literature—might actually provide a way out of this ouroboros of self-consuming criticism. Wallace uses Alcoholics Anonymous as a metaphor for the utility of sincerity. Don Gately in particular constantly extols the virtues of the slogans and truisms repeated in AA. Wallace writes, "The desperate, newly sober White Flaggers are always encouraged to invoke and pay empty lip-service to slogans they don’t yet understand or believe—e.g. ‘Easy Does It!’ and ‘Turn It Over!’ and ‘One Day At a Time!’ It’s called ‘Fake It Till You Make It,’ itself an oft-invoked slogan" (369). Wallace writes that with enough time in the Program, "it starts to turn out that the vapider the AA cliché, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers" (446). He reinforces throughout the novel that, in practice, there is actually major depth to the clichés. As Gately listens to Geoff Day complain about the vapidity of AA slogans to a new member, Gately thinks, "I Didn’t Know That I Didn’t Know’ is another of the slogans that looks so shallow for a while and then all of a sudden drops off and deepens like the lobster-waters off the North Shore" (271).

This theme of sincerity relates back to Marathe's thesis about fanaticism, as well as the themes of devotion and "giving oneself away" to a set of beliefs. Faith requires sincerity and rejects cynicism. One of the foundational requirements of AA is to put faith in a higher power: God, or whatever form a person understands that transcendent power to exist. There is no corporeal Sergeant at Arms that keeps AA members sober. There are no enforcers lurking around bars making sure members don't drink. So there has to be an element of prayer, of giving oneself up to the unseen. When Kate Gompert ends up in the hospital after her latest suicide attempt, she's sarcastic with the doctor, and Wallace writes, "jokes and sarcasm were here usually too pregnant and fertile with clinical significance not to be taken seriously: sarcasm and jokes were often the bottle in which clinical depressives sent out their most plangent screams for someone to care and help them" (71). Wallace believed that irony was the "sound of a bird who has come to love its cage," and it stands to reason that sincerity, he thinks, might provide a way out of the cage.


Wallace speculates on the possibility of a third-party candidate winning the presidency, and while his depiction of Johnny Gentle and the C.U.S.P. party's absurd policies, which result in capitalist nightmares like Subsidized Time and the Great Concavity, may seem cynical, it could actually be argued that Wallace's speculation that a third-party candidate could potentially, in the near future, usurp the dominating two-party system is actually a breath of optimism. In his introduction, Tom Bissell compares Donald Trump to Johnny Gentle, and while Gentle seems to predict the celebrity-politician future of the executive branch, this wasn't a totally novel concept even at the time DFW is writing Infinite Jest. Ronald Reagan was an actor in Westerns before he became a politican. Clint Eastwood served as Mayor of Carmel. Arnold Schwarzenegger would serve as governor of California from 2003 to 2011. There was already precedence for a figure like Gentle to rise to the executive branch in the U.S.

Wallace also predicts the trend toward nationalist, populist politics that attempt to reach across the aisle on certain social and environmental issues. Donald Trump's background as a reality-T.V. star and regular guest spot on The Howard Stern Show eschews the typical "family values" G.O.P. candidate profile. The key difference between Trump and Gentle is that Gentle bypasses both the Republican and Democratic parties. Wallace writes, "The C.U.S.P. suddenly swept to quadrennial victory in an angry reactionary voter-spasm that made the U.W.S.A. and LaRouchers and Libertarians chew their hands in envy as the Dems and G.O.P.s stood on either side watching dumbly, like doubles partners who each think the other’s surely got it, the two established mainstream parties split open along tired philosophical lines" (382). The cynicism here is the idea that when it comes to maintaining a tight hold on the governance of the U.S., the Republicans and Democrats are "doubles partners" in the effort to gatekeep third-party candidates from participating in the legislative process.

There is also a non-political emphasis on democracy in Infinite Jest, which is the democracy of choice regarding consumerism and the dissemination of digital entertainment. The way Wallace imagines the future of streaming is quite democratic in the sense that every consumer has a say in "what's on"—but of course, as Marathe points out, this degree of freedom-of-choice can actually be inhibiting.