Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest

by

David Foster Wallace

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Infinite Jest: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Year of Glad. Hal Incandenza, who is narrating, is in the admissions office of the University of Arizona along with his Uncle Charles. He is seated across from the Dean of Admissions, the Dean of Academic Affairs, the Dean of Athletic Affairs, the University’s Director of Composition, the varsity tennis coach, and an Enfield Tennis Academy prorector called Aubrey deLint. Hal is trying to seem “neutral.” His uncle is the headmaster of E.T.A., the boarding school in Enfield, Massachusetts that Hal has attended since the age of seven. Now 18, he is a “continentally ranked junior tennis player” with substantial promise.
The enormous group of people assembled to judge Hal’s suitability for admission to the University of Arizona introduces the importance of talent and precociousness in the novel (as Hal is so young but clearly so brilliant), as well as the (rather excessive) measures for evaluating talent. The pressure that this puts on Hal is shown by his struggle to look “neutral” amidst all the attention focused on him. This struggle also suggests that something is wrong with him, and he is unable to communicate how he really feels or what he really wants to say.
Themes
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Various men in the room chime in to discuss Hal’s talent and achievements. Hal says nothing, and the Dean of Athletic Affairs asks Charles if Hal is all right, because it looks like he just grimaced. The varsity tennis coach replies that it’s best to let the applicant speak for himself. The Dean of Admissions then remarks that Hal’s test scores are “subnormal,” strangely low considering that he receives grades of “A++” at E.T.A. This is suspicious, especially considering that both his uncle and mother are administrators at his school. At the same time, Hal wrote nine admissions essays, some book-length, which were “stellar.”
The question the deans are asking is if Hal is a “real” prodigy or has simply been made to appear that way by the efforts of his uncle and mother. Perhaps the answer is a bit of both. Whatever natural talent and intelligence Hal possesses has surely been boosted by the fact that he attends a competitive tennis academy run by members of his family. After all, precociousness and success always depend on a mix of nature and nurture.
Themes
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
The deans are concerned that Hal may not have written the admissions essays himself. Hal starts to panic, feeling that he is being misunderstood. In reality, he did write the essays. Meanwhile, the deans ask Uncle Charles to step outside in order to let Hal speak for himself. Eventually, Hal slowly states: “I am not just a jock.” He explains that his most recent grades may have been altered because he has been having a difficult time, but that everything before the past year has been his own work. He then says: “I cannot make myself understood, now,” blaming it on something he ate.
This passage introduces a key aspect of Hal’s character—his difficulty in expressing his emotions and communicating with others. While this issue appears to be related to the pressure Hal faces as a smart and talented junior tennis player studying at an academy run by his family, the problem also seems to go deeper, and is perhaps rooted in mental health problems. Because this scene takes place after most of the events of the novel, Hal’s difficulty communicating here is very significant.
Themes
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Hal’s first home was in a suburb called Weston. He recounts a story his older brother Orin told him from their childhood. Orin was helping their mother Avril, who they nickname “the Moms,” to mow the lawn. Hal came out of the house crying and clutching a patch of mold. Hal told Avril “I ate this,” at which point she started screaming: “Help! My son ate this!” and running around.
This surreal memory at first seems to bear no connection to Hal’s interview at the University of Arizona. However, recall that Hal blames his inability to communicate on something he ate: perhaps the mold. Later, it is hinted that the mold could have led to Hal synthesizing a severely intense psychoactive substance called DMZ.
Themes
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
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Back at the Admissions Office, Hal repeats that he is not just a tennis player, but a complex person and an avid reader. The deans suddenly begin to act horrified; the Director of Composition pins Hal’s arms behind him and forces him to the ground. One dean demands: “What in God’s name are those… those sounds?” Hal tries to reassure them that everything is fine. He tells them, “I am not what you see and hear,” and then hears sirens approaching while the door opens to reveal other people looking shocked and frightened.
There appears to be a significant mismatch between Hal’s understanding of his surroundings and that of the deans. While Hal believes he is speaking normally, the deans hear only strange and terrifying sounds. This surreal scene emphasizes Hal’s isolation and difficulty connecting with others, and indicates that he may have trouble processing reality at this point. The question, then, is what has led him to this state.
Themes
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Hal is dragged out of the Admissions Office by the Director of Composition, who seems to think Hal was either having a seizure, choking, or having a psychotic episode. Hal lies on the floor of a bathroom while Uncle Charles tries to explain that he is fine. The deans reply that Hal was making “subanimalistic noises and sounds” in the office and claim that he was moving his arms in a strange way. They say he needs “care.” Someone mentions that Hal is a “genius” on the tennis court, where he has never displayed any strange behavior. The men continue to argue while Hal lies still, saying nothing.
The deans appear to be potentially willing to ignore Hal’s disturbing behavior if they are assured that he is a talented enough tennis player. They don’t really care about Hal or his wellbeing; rather, they want to use him to their own advantage. This is shown by the fact that they continue to argue over Hal’s body while he lies motionless on the floor.
Themes
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Hal is taken to the hospital in an ambulance. He observes details about the emergency room, and thinks about his family, friends, and other people he knows. He is confident that Uncle Charles will ensure he is out of the hospital in time to play in the semi-final match the next day. He thinks about John Wayne, who certainly “would have” won the WhataBurger tournament. Hal also thinks about Wayne standing guard when Hal dug up his father’s head with Don Gately.  Because Wayne is not playing, Hal is sure that he himself will win, and that he will play either Stice or Polep in the final on Sunday. There is a rumor that Venus Williams might attend the match.
This passage contains many clues about the novel’s (chronological) ending, clues that can only be properly understood once one has read the whole novel. As we will later learn, John Wayne is likely planted at E.T.A. by the Quebecois terrorist organization A.F.R.  By helping Hal and Gately dig up James’s head (believed to contain an implanted film cartridge), he possibly betrayed A.F.R. Hal’s note that he “would have won” WhataBurger shows that he was not able to play, likely because A.F.R. did something to him—including possibly killing him. It’s also suggested that Ortho Stice has a mystical connection to Hal’s dead father, James, and so Hal looking forward to playing Stice could mean that he is looking forward to finally communicating to his father in some way.
Themes
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon