Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest

by

David Foster Wallace

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Infinite Jest: Chapter 71 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
17 November Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. Don Gately is on medical leave from Ennet House. Someone knocks on the door, and Johnette opens it to find an “upscale kid” requesting a private conversation with anyone in a position of authority. The kid—presumably Hal—speaks with the “oversalivated quality” of someone who has just stopped smoking weed. He explains that he has considered going to a meeting for addicts but that he doesn’t know where any are; he only knows about Ennet House.
The “oversalivated quality” of Hal’s speech links back to the scenes at the beginning of the novel in which Hal was a child and already spoke with dry-mouth sounds. Indeed, this suggests that Hal had some kind of need for marijuana even before he started smoking it, which we can interpret as a metaphor for how substances fill existing holes in a person’s life.
Themes
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Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
(An endnote describes the boys’ locker room at E.T.A. on the same day, 17 November. Possalthwaite is having a breakdown over being unable to trust his family and Pemulis assures him that everything will be okay.) Back in the main narrative, Molly Notkin is being interrogated by O.U.S. operatives about the Entertainment. Molly says that the Entertainment—whose title, “Infinite Jest (V) or (VI)”, is mentioned for the first time here—stars Madame Psychosis as a maternal version of Death. Her face is obscured, and she is naked and pregnant. She delivers a monologue about “death-cosmology” to the audience.
“Infinite Jest” is a phrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a play upon which the novel is loosely based. (Hal is Prince Hamlet, James is Hamlet’s dead father who appears as a ghost, and Avril is Hamlet’s treacherous mother Gertrude. Charles is King Claudius, who in the play is the deceased King Hamlet’s brother but in the novel is Avril’s stepbrother, adding a more explicitly incestuous dynamic to the story.) This important endnote thus brings together many of the threads of the story.
Themes
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Entertainment Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Molly also says that Madame Psychosis’s real mother killed herself using a garbage disposal on Thanksgiving. The Entertainment was made using a Bolex H32 with a peculiar lens. Molly explains that Madame Psychosis only had a sexual relationship with Orin, not James, and that she hadn’t attended James’s funeral. Madame Psychosis has never seen the Entertainment and struggles to believe that it is “lethally entertaining.” Molly asks why the O.U.S. never went to Avril directly to ask about the master copy, and there is no response.
While the A.F.R. have tortured the WYYY engineer to try and find the location of the master copy of the Entertainment, the O.U.S. have been interrogating Molly. In this way, both organizations are closing in on the master copy, yet neither have actually secured it. Moreover, although these interrogations provide useful contextual information about the film, they do not necessarily point to where the master copy actually is.
Themes
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Entertainment Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Molly says that Madame Psychosis was able to get James to stop drinking, and that he’d been sober for months by the time of his suicide. She believes that Madame Psychosis’s Substance abuse problems stem from her guilt over James’s suicide, which itself has nothing to do with the Entertainment. She also thinks that Avril planted the bottle of Wild Turkey whisky near James’s dead body because she resented that she herself had never been able to make him stop drinking, but Madame Psychosis had.
This passage provides a crucial twist in the story, which paints Avril in an even more unflattering light. If James was sober at the time of his suicide, then his decision to kill himself was not a rash, drunken decision nor perhaps even a response to his addiction at all. Avril’s supposed planting of the whisky bottle indicates that she did not really care about James, only about herself.
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Entertainment Theme Icon
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Molly explains that Madame Psychosis had always been very close to her own father, a chemist from Kentucky. When Madame Psychosis was a teenager, her father seemed to develop a strange sort of denial that she was growing up and treated her more and more like a child. Once in college, she realized how creepy this was. It reached a horrible climax when she brought Orin home for Thanksgiving and her father started mashing up her turkey into puree. She confronted her father, and he replied by confessing that he was in love with her. He claimed that it had been easy to repress his desire for her when she was a child but that it was more difficult now, and that this is why he continued to treat her like an infant.
This highly disturbing twist in Joelle’s backstory reveals that she, like Orin, has also been traumatized by the inappropriate behavior of one of her parents—though in this case it is much more severe than anything Orin endured. Depending on one’s perspective, the amount of incest, abuse, and sexual neurosis in Infinite Jest might seem exaggerated and grotesque—or perhaps it is just a grim portrayal of reality.
Themes
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Madame Psychosis’s mother suddenly freaked out, announcing that she and her husband had not once had sex since their daughter reached puberty, although she’d never known why. She then confessed that she and her sister had been molested by their own father. She then ran down to her husband’s chemical lab to throw acid on herself. Madame Psychosis, her father, and Orin all ran after her, though not before the mother had drastically disfigured herself with the acid. Molly adds that Madame Psychosis’s real name is Lucille Duquette. After disfiguring herself, Lucille’s mother hurled the flask of acid at her husband, who ducked, allowing the flask to hit and disfigure Lucille instead.
According to Molly, Joelle/Madam Psychosis/Lucille has not only had at least three separate names but two physical appearances (before and after her disfigurement in the acid attack). In a sense, these constant reinventions suggest that she is (at least) three different people. At the same time, this story is second-hand and might not be true. It's possible Joelle invented it to give herself an excuse to wear a veil, because her beauty is so extreme that it actually has a negative impact on her life. The novel never resolves this ambiguity.
Themes
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(An endnote describes Pemulis, deLint, Nwangi, and Watson sitting in deLint’s office. DeLint asks Pemulis to explain what happened with Wayne, and Pemulis begins speaking, but soon realizes that the truth has basically already come out. Wayne had taken amphetamines and started going berserk, terrorizing Lateral Alice. Troeltsch then encouraged Wayne to use the intercom system in Alice’s office to issue “public castigations of his various peers and instructors.” DeLint reads out some of the (rather humorous) insults Wayne issued. This includes the statement that Hal is “addicted to everything that is not tied down, cannot outrun him, and is fittable in the mouth.”)
In literature and film set in high schools, there exists a trope wherein a certain character breaks down and reveals all the secrets and lies that have been circulating within the community. (Think of the moment in “Mean Girls” when the slanderous “Burn Book” is photocopied and distributed across the school.) This revelation is chaotic, but also creates a moment of catharsis, as the community is finally forced to confront the issues that it was previously brushing under the carpet.
Themes
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Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
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(In the same endnote, Pemulis asks how this will affect his chances of attending WhataBurger, and adds that he has something important he needs to speak about with Avril. DeLint tells Pemulis that E.T.A. believes he dosed Wayne with stimulants against his knowledge. Pemulis will be allowed to finish the term for credit if he wants, but after that point he will be expelled and will not receive any good references. To the shock of everyone present, Pemulis again asks how this will affect his chances of attending WhataBurger.)
As Hal predicted, Pemulis is being made to serve as a scapegoat; all the blame for the substance abuse problem at E.T.A. is being placed on his shoulders. Pemulis’s calm demeanor in this passage is likely because he can use his knowledge about Avril and John Wayne’s affair in order to blackmail Avril into not expelling him.
Themes
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Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
After class, Hal travels to an NA meeting all the way out in Natick. He feels silly for going. He thinks about the etymology of the word “anonymous” and practices introducing himself as Mike. The meeting has already started when Hal walks in. The group leader, who is addressing the meeting, uses the phrase “inner child” while another man in the audience named Kevin weeps. To his astonishment, Hal sees that some of the men are holding teddy bears. Kevin cries even more and the leader, Harv, encourages the group to express support for Kevin. The men tell Kevin that they love him, and Hal feels uncomfortable.
Here is yet another example of a character using multiple identities. Hal’s insistence on calling himself Mike shows just how anxious he is about people discovering his addiction issues. After all, it is highly unlikely that anyone at this far-away meeting will know who he is, and the whole point of NA and other anonymous recovery programs is precisely their anonymity. Yet Hal remains deeply paranoid.
Themes
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Harv asks Kevin to share why he is crying, and Kevin explains that his inner infant is experiencing abandonment. He gives details of his life story, and at this point Hal suddenly realizes that he is Kevin Bain, Marlon Bain’s older brother. Hal had heard that after getting his M.B.A., Kevin made a lot of money in the “pre-Subsidized-Time Simulated Reality craze.” Hal could never have imagined Kevin having the slightest interest in recreational substances. He has never seen someone cry as much as Kevin is crying right now. The men in the group are chanting in support of him. Kevin ends up crawling across the floor as a way of reaching out for love himself.
Hal’s disbelief that Kevin Bain would be the kind of person to use recreational substances shows that, despite being a drug user himself, he subscribes to stereotypical ideas about what substance abuse looks like. Indeed, perhaps Hal’s belief in these stereotypes is part of what has stopped him from admitting to his addiction and seeking help before now.
Themes
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Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Entertainment Theme Icon
Reality as Corporate Dystopia Theme Icon
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Gately is lying in the Trauma Wing of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Tiny Ewell is there with him, talking about his personal life, explaining how he first developed a taste for “embezzlement” as a child. He goes on and on, despite the fact that Gately is making no kind of response. Suddenly Gately remembers that he had been offered Demerol by doctors who didn’t read the note in his file reading that he has a history of narcotics dependency and thus shouldn’t be given any. During the emergency surgery he’d had the night before, he was given Toradol-IM, a non-narcotic that does not help much against the pain.
In his semi-comatose state, Gately becomes the perfect “therapist” for the Ennet House residents who come to visit him. Like Kate—who was too depressed to walk away or respond to people talking at her—Gately is forced by his physical condition to lie still and listen to whatever Tiny Ewell says. This suggests that when people want someone to talk to, they do not require much interaction and perhaps even prefer non-responsiveness.
Themes
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Reality as Corporate Dystopia Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
After surgery Gately remembers hearing his doctor telling someone, possibly Pat, that he has a severe infection. Ewell keeps talking, saying that he feels dissatisfied and dismayed by the life he has ended up with and doesn’t know what to do. Gately wants to tell Ewell that he identifies with him but isn’t able to make himself speak. Instead, Gately falls into half-sleep and dreams that he is on the beach in Beverly, MA, while a storm rages and his mother gets beaten up by a man. He ends up in deep water and tries to call to his mother to come to him. When he wakes up, Ewell is gone.
Even in his rather desperate condition, Gately remains committed to the practice of recovery, as shown by the fact that he wants to tell Tiny Ewell that he identifies with his story. As mentioned above, Ewell does not even seem to be seeking such affirmation. Rather, he is simply happy to talk at Gately, despite the fact that Gately is incapable of showing that he is even listening.
Themes
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Someone, possibly Joelle, is sponging Gately’s face with a cold washcloth. Later Pat comes in and assures him that everything in the house is all right. Gately is surprised the police haven’t come already. Pat expresses admiration for Gately’s total refusal of narcotic medication. Strangely, at the end of their conversation she bursts into tears. Gately has more dreams and then sees Joelle for real. He tries to “ask his heart” if accepting codeine would count as a relapse, but gets no answer.
The struggle Gately faces in this part of the novel is a very real one. If injured, narcotics addicts face an impossible choice between attempting to endure unbearable pain or risking possible relapse. The fact that Gately is considering taking codeine shows how impossible this dilemma is, considering his total commitment to sobriety.
Themes
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Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Calvin Thrust is in the hospital room now, providing more information on what happened in the aftermath of the fight. Calvin had told Lenz that he would need to submit a urine test on the spot or else voluntarily check himself out of Ennet House for good. It turned out that Pat took Gately to the hospital herself, and that she and Calvin have spoken to the police about the incident. Gately feels annoyed that Calvin turned Lenz out into the night, leaving Gately squarely to blame for whatever injuries or even deaths the Canadians suffered.
Another dilemma: while Lenz’s breach of the no-substance policy means that he should categorically be kicked out of Ennet House, this means he could simply escape blame for the fight and leave Gately to be targeted by the police. This is even more cruel and irresponsible considering that Gately intervened in the fight to save Lenz in the first place.
Themes
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Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Charlotte Treat is embroidering a get-well message for Gately. Calvin says the biggest problem they’re facing is that the gun Gately was shot with is missing. Green says he seized it from one of the Canadians and then dropped it on the lawn. Calvin believes finding the gun will determine whether or not Gately is ruled to have acted in self-defense. Again Gately asks if he killed anyone, and again he receives no answer. When Gately next wakes up Day is there, also giving a lengthy monologue about himself.
Ennet House members express their sympathy and care for Gately in different ways, most of which are self-serving to some extent. Charlotte’s get-well message is sweet but perhaps just an excuse to spend more time with her needles, whereas Ewell and Day’s monologues are rather self-indulgent. Yet these expressions of support manage to be moving nonetheless.
Themes
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Gately keeps having a recurring nightmare about an acne-scarred “Oriental” woman. In another dream, Gately is visited by a “wraith” who explains that it comes from a different dimension. Words appear in Gately’s mind that he does not know or understand, from “alembic” to “chiaroscuro” to “chronaxie” to “de sica neo-real crane dolly.” Gately wonders if the wraith represents his personal understanding of God, or else if it is a manifestation of his addiction. Gately thinks about the TV shows he used to watch in childhood. The wraith says that when it was “animate” it had made film cartridges itself. The wraith speaks with an incredibly complex vocabulary.
Infinite Jest is less a fantastic novel than a surreal one, although there are supernatural and even spiritual elements (such as when Lucien Antitoi’s soul is described as flying home to Quebec after his death). The unfamiliar vocabulary that enters Gately’s mind is made up of technical terms related to filmmaking. This is an indication that the wraith is the spirit of James Incandenza.
Themes
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Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Entertainment Theme Icon
The wraith talks about its son, and then mentions its addiction to Wild Turkey. At this point it is clear that the wraith is James Incandenza. The wraith explains that it had always wanted to get through to its youngest son (Hal), and that it had been traumatized by Hal’s muteness. It had also begun to worry that Hal was using Substances. In desperation, the wraith committed itself to sobriety and spent the last 90 days of its life making a film (the Entertainment) that it hoped would be a way to communicate with Hal.
Considering that the Entertainment has now become a weapon of mass destruction on the brink of use by terrorists, it is surprising that it was originally developed as a (rather bizarre) gesture of familial love and care. James may have been mentally ill, but his love for Hal was desperately sincere.
Themes
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Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Entertainment Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
The wraith/James hoped that the Entertainment would be so compelling that it would force Hal out of his anhedonia, like a “magically entertaining toy.” The wraith hoped that the Entertainment would be a way of saying “I’M SORRY” to Hal. Gately thinks of his grim relationship with his own father, but the wraith dramatically interrupts to insist that any communication between a father and son is better than none. Gately wonders why the wraith is there, paying so much attention to someone it doesn’t know. He thinks it’s possible that the wraith doesn’t exist at all, and that its appearance is a manifestation of his addiction.
The wraith/James’s hope that the Entertainment would free Hal from his muteness and depression seems counterintuitive. The Entertainment inspires total passivity in viewers, which seems like an odd method of trying to inspire life and feeling in a person. On the other hand, if we believe that the wraith is responsible for giving Hal DMZ to counteract the mold he ate as a child, then this also works via a similarly counterintuitive logic. Perhaps the Entertainment kills everyone except for Hal, who is its true intended viewer—just like the DMZ could leave Hal incomprehensible to everyone but his father’s spirit.
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Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Entertainment Theme Icon
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Gately is still deeply traumatized by the memories of his mother being beaten up by her boyfriend. Three men from White Flag who Gately doesn’t even know that well come to visit; they try to cheer him up by telling dark jokes, making fun of Al-Anon. Gately feels a surge of blinding pain.
Al-Anon is a support group for the loved ones of alcoholics. The fact that the White Flag members make fun of it reinforces the impression of AA as cliquey, with an “us v. them” mentality.
Themes
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Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
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