Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace was the child of two professors who grew up in Illinois. Like several of the characters in Infinite Jest, he was a competitive junior tennis player. He was a joint major in English and philosophy at Amherst College, and his senior honors thesis for English became his first novel, The Broom in the System, which was published in 1987, the same year he graduated from the MFA program in creative writing from the University of Arizona. That year he enrolled in the philosophy PhD program at Harvard, but soon dropped out. It was also around this time that Wallace began writing Infinite Jest. In 1989 he spent four months going through drug and alcohol detox at a psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. He taught English and creative writing at Emerson College, Illinois State University, and Pomona College. In the early 1990s he became obsessed with the writer Mary Karr, stalking her and threatening to kill her husband. During the on/off relationship that ensued, he was physically violent. Wallace published Infinite Jest in 1996 and was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship the following year. Throughout his career Wallace published short stories and nonfiction, including the now famous essays “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” and “Consider the Lobster.” In addition to substance abuse issues, Wallace suffered from depression for almost all of his adult life, and in 2008 he killed himself. His final novel, The Pale King, was published posthumously in 2011.
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Historical Context of Infinite Jest

Because it is set in an imagined near future, many of the historical events to which Infinite Jest alludes are not real, although in some cases similar events have actually transpired since the book was published. One of the most significant examples of Wallace “predicting” a future event is the development of video-calling, which is called “videophony” in the book. However, while in Infinite Jest videophony eventually loses popularity and is replaced by voice-calling due to the way it exacerbates people’s physical self-consciousness, this has obviously not happened in reality. One could argue that Infinite Jest’s depiction of “Teleputers” and a cultural obsession with entertainment accurately foreshadowed today’s Netflix era. At times, the novel makes reference to “historical” events involving real people that are not actually true; for example, it is very briefly mentioned that in the world of the novel Rush Limbaugh has been assassinated, which has not occurred in reality.

Other Books Related to Infinite Jest

The novel to which Infinite Jest is most frequently compared is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), which as well as being long and encyclopedic with a circular plot structure and multiple internal narratives, also explores similar themes of technology, high and low culture, free will, sex, and drugs. An earlier predecessor of both Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest is James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), which set a precedent for very long, difficult, and experimental fiction at the beginning of the 20th century. Another earlier work that shares Infinite Jest’s suspicion of how drugs and entertainment sedate a population is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), although Huxley arguably has a more clear, didactic position on these issues than Wallace, who is more ambivalent. Countless contemporary writers have been influenced by Infinite Jest, including Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Dave Eggers, and Ben Lerner. The title of Infinite Jest refers to a line from Hamlet, in which Hamlet describes a now-dead former court jester as having been a man of "infinite jest."
Key Facts about Infinite Jest
  • Full Title: Infinite Jest
  • When Written: Mid 1980s-1995
  • Where Written: Arizona; Massachusetts; Illinois
  • When Published: 1996
  • Literary Period: Postmodernism, Hysterical Realism
  • Genre: Encyclopedic Novel
  • Setting: The novel’s main settings are the fictional town of Enfield, Massachusetts, Boston, Massachusetts, and Arizona, which are all part of the North American super-state O.N.A.N., comprised of the US, Canada, and Mexico. The story is set over a nine-year period in an unspecified near future; some critics suggest this may be the 2000s.
  • Climax: Because the novel has dozens of different plots, there is no single climactic moment
  • Antagonist: Several antagonists in different plotlines; the overarching antagonist is arguably corporate culture and its intersection with government power
  • Point of View: Mostly third person, with occasional passages narrated from the first person

Extra Credit for Infinite Jest

The infinite novel. Although the published version of Infinite Jest is 1100 pages long (including the lengthy endnote section), the manuscript Wallace originally submitted was 250 pages longer.

Not exactly child’s play. An English professor named Kevin Griffith and his son Sebastian have created a Lego version of Infinite Jest, viewable at wwww.brickjest.com.