Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest

by

David Foster Wallace

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Infinite Jest can help.
Substances Symbol Icon

One of Infinite Jest’s main themes is addiction, and the novel explores this in an expansive sense. The novel’s use of the term “Substance” for drugs, alcohol, and other addictive entities shows that it has an expansive view of addiction. Many of the characters are addicted to drugs and alcohol, but some are addicted to more surprising or abstract things, such as food, sex, or entertainment. The word Substance symbolizes that all addictions are united in some way, regardless of what the object of attachment actually is. This is shown through the novel’s reflections on addiction, which discuss how people become enslaved to a Substance (rather than any particular drug or group of drugs). The novel suggests that all experiences of addiction have more or less the same structure. In the beginning, a person loves their Substance of choice; it makes them feel exhilarated, fulfilled, or functional. They then develop a dependence on the Substance, and over time the Substance becomes less enjoyable. Following the ideology of Alcoholics Anonymous, the novel suggests that most addicts need to reach “rock bottom” before they are able to entertain the possibility of quitting their Substance. However, there is a paradox here, because at that point the addict’s whole life has become totally consumed by this Substance, to the point that they likely won’t see any point in living without it. Substances are powerful not only because of the psychological and biological effects they have on people, but also because they give people a much-needed sense of meaning and purpose.

Substances Quotes in Infinite Jest

The Infinite Jest quotes below all refer to the symbol of Substances. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Back Bay Books edition of Infinite Jest published in 1996.
Chapter 3 Quotes

“I'm ten for Pete's sake. I think maybe your appointment calendar's squares got juggled. I'm the potentially gifted ten-year-old tennis and lexical prodigy whose mom's a continental mover and shaker in the prescriptive grammar academic world and whose dad's a towering figure in optical and avant-garde film circles and single-handedly founded the Enfield Tennis Academy but drinks Wild Turkey at like 5:00 a.m. and pitches over sideways during dawn drills, on the courts, some days, and some days presents with delusions about people's mouths moving but nothing coming out. I'm not even up to J yet, in the condensed O.E.D., much less Québec or malevolent Lurias.

Related Symbols: Substances
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

A more than averagely devout follower of the North American sufism promulgated in his childhood by Pir Valayat, the medical attaché partakes of neither kif nor distilled spirits, and must unwind without chemical aid… The medical attaché sits and watches and eats and watches, unwinding by visible degrees, until the angles of his body in the chair and his head on his neck indicate that he has passed into sleep, at which point his special electronic recliner can be made automatically to recline to full horizontal, and luxuriant silk-analog bedding emerges flowingly from long slots in the appliance's sides.

Related Characters: Medical Attaché
Related Symbols: Substances
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

Hal likes to get high in secret, but a bigger secret is that he's as attached to the secrecy as he is to getting high.

Related Characters: Hal Incandenza
Related Symbols: Substances
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

Recreational drugs are more or less traditional at any U.S. secondary school, maybe because of the unprecedented tensions: post-latency and puberty and angst and impending adulthood, etc. To help manage the intrapsychic storms, etc… But so 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.

Related Characters: Hal Incandenza
Related Symbols: Substances
Page Number: 52-53
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 31 Quotes

So what is this? You're ordering me to pray? Because I allegedly have a disease? I dismantle my life and career and enter nine months of low-income treatment for a disease, and I'm prescribed prayer?

Related Characters: Pat Montesian
Related Symbols: Substances
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 33 Quotes

That a little-mentioned paradox of Substance addiction is: that once you are sufficiently enslaved by a Substance to need to quit the Substance in order to save your life, the enslaving Substance has become so deeply important to you that you will all but lose your mind when it is taken away from you. Or that sometime after your Substance of choice has just been taken away from you in order to save your life, as you hunker down for required a.m. and p.m. prayers, you will find yourself beginning to pray to be allowed literally to lose your mind, to be able to wrap your mind in an old newspaper or something and leave it in an alley to shift for itself, without you.

Related Symbols: Substances
Page Number: 201
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 43 Quotes

Sobriety in Boston is regarded as less a gift than a sort of cosmic loan. You can't pay the loan back, but you can pay it forward, by spreading the message that despite all appearances AA works, spreading this message to the next new guy who's tottered in to a meeting and is sitting in the back row unable to hold his cup of coffee. The only way to hang onto sobriety is to give it away, and even just 24 hours of sobriety is worth doing anything for, a sober day being nothing short of a daily miracle if you've got the Disease…

Related Symbols: Substances
Page Number: 344
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 51 Quotes

I couldn't even stand to be in the same room, see him like that. Begging for just even a few seconds - a trailer, a snatch of soundtrack, anything. His eyes wobbling around like some drug-addicted newborn.

Related Characters: Hugh / Helen Steeply (speaker), Rémy Marathe
Related Symbols: The Entertainment, Substances
Page Number: 507
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 69 Quotes

After so long not caring, and then now the caring crashes back in and turns so easily into obsessive worry, in sobriety. A few days before the debacle in which Don Gately got hurt, Joelle had begun to worry obsessively about her teeth. Smoking 'base cocaine eats teeth, corrodes teeth, attacks the enamel directly.

Related Symbols: Substances
Page Number: 723
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Infinite Jest LitChart as a printable PDF.
Infinite Jest PDF

Substances Symbol Timeline in Infinite Jest

The timeline below shows where the symbol Substances appears in Infinite Jest. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 33
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
...House will reveal a host of new information, such as the fact that quitting a “Substance” often triggers outbreaks of acne, that even industrial-strength earplugs cannot block out some snores, and... (full context)
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Entertainment Theme Icon
Reality as Corporate Dystopia Theme Icon
...cartridge-viewing can all be forms of “abusable escape.” Many American adults can’t read. Craving a Substance can feel so intense that it is as if you will die if you don’t... (full context)
Chapter 36
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Entertainment Theme Icon
...because of the urine tests he had to undergo for football, and James because his Substance of choice was alcohol. (full context)
Chapter 38
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
...that the clichés are easy to believe but “hard to actually do.” Gately has been “Substance-free” for 421 days. One resident, Burt F. Smith, is attempting sobriety for about the 50th... (full context)
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
...is now exceptionally “prim.” Gately himself is 29; before he became an AA devotee, his Substance of choice was oral narcotics. Today Pat is interviewing three potential new residents. Time passes... (full context)
Chapter 43
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Entertainment Theme Icon
...and although it doesn’t even get them high any more, they can’t stop taking their Substance. (full context)
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
If a new member “slips” and consumes a Substance, they are not supposed to be judged but rather welcomed back to meetings. Even those... (full context)
Chapter 47
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
...fail to mention the enormous amount of pain these things involve. The urge to take Substances usually disappears after about six months of sobriety, but it is also at this point... (full context)
Chapter 58
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
...but encouraging anyone who has even the smallest hint that a resident might be taking Substances to come forward. (full context)
Chapter 59
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
...up in 29 days and has stopped smoking weed or taking any other kind of Substance. He is “a whole new Hal,” one who no longer has any secrets. Everyone suddenly... (full context)
Chapter 70
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
...Pemulis’s urine-selling business, and says that no one suspects he or Axford having been taking Substances. Rather, they are sure to blame Pemulis and expel him from E.T.A. by the end... (full context)
Chapter 71
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Entertainment Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Entertainment Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
...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... (full context)