Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

What Happens at the End of Infinite Jest? (or, the Infinite Jest ending explained)

Herb: Is there no “ending” to “Infinite Book” because there couldn’t be? Or did you just get tired of writing it?

DFW: There is an ending as far as I’m concerned. Certain kind of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an “end” can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occurred to you, then the book’s failed for you.

(Live Online with David Foster Wallace, May 17, 1996)

WARNING: This whole thing is one gigantic spoiler. Only read it if you’ve already tried to figure it out for yourself first.

Gately, having relived his bottom, begins to recover from his infection.

But at the same time, Hal’s condition deepens. Ever since Hal ate the mold as a child, he’s been a brilliant communicator but unable to feel. (694: “Hal himself hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny … in fact he’s far more robotic than John Wayne.”) JOI was the only one who could see it. In life, everyone thought JOI was just being crazy but in death (as a wraith) he can actually read Hal’s thoughts and thus confirm his view.

In life he created the Entertainment to draw Hal out (Hal moves outwardly but doesn’t feel inside; victims of the Entertainment feel—something—inside but don’t move outwardly). After all, as he tells Gately, he was willing to resort to desperate measures: “No! No! Any conversation or interchange [between father and son] is better than none at all.” (839)

JOI’s wraith is responsible for the strange disturbances around ETA — tripods in the forest, moving Ortho’s bed, ceiling tiles on the floor. He knocks the ceiling tiles down in an attempt to find the DMZ. Pemulis is too distracted with getting expelled to have Hal take it, so JOI needs to get it to Hal some other way.

JOI also created DMZ as part of an attempt to undo the effects of Hal’s eating mold as a child (recall: DMZ is a mold that grows on a mold). He left it along with the Entertainment (recall: ETA kids find JOI’s personal effects (670: “a bulky old doorless microwave…a load of old TP cartridges…mostly unlabelled”); the tapes and the DMZ are delivered together to the FLQ) which is about this goal (it stars a woman named Madame Psychosis (a street name for DMZ) explaining that the thing that killed you in your last life will give birth to you in the next). The DMZ and the Entertainment were meant to go together for Hal. Now that the Entertainment has escaped, he needs to get Hal the DMZ.

Hal never leaves leaves his toothbrush unattended (870), but that’s no problem for a wraith. He places the DMZ on Hal’s brush and Hal brushes his teeth (860) and immediately begins experiencing symptoms: Ortho thinks Hal’s crying when Hal thinks he’s speaking in a neutral tone (862).

Hal’s symptoms indeed begin to reverse: he is now unable to properly communicate feelings (people see him as either laughing hysterically or terribly sad) but beginning to actually feel (like Gately, he spends a lot of time lying on the floor thinking about the past — the hero of nonaction from his essay (142)). While before, everyone could hear him except JOI; now only JOI can hear him (since, as with Gately, he can hear Hal’s thoughts).

By the time of the match, his symptoms are so bad he’s taken by ambulance to the hospital (16: “the only other emergency room I have ever been in [was] almost exactly one year back”), safely escaping the A.F.R.’s assault. Like fellow student Otis P. Lord, he gets the bed next to Gately. Joelle (who is at the hospital for a meeting) visits Gately on her way out and recognizes Hal. She tells them both about the hunt for the lethal Entertainment and the resulting Continental Emergency and they all go to dig up JOI’s grave. They persuade John Wayne, a spy for the A.F.R., to become a double agent and help sneak them into JOI’s Quebec burial site. Wayne presumably tells the A.F.R. he is actually a triple agent — that he will steal the tape as soon as Hal digs it up. But, as with Marathe, his loyalties are ultimately even-numbered (n40). The A.F.R. finds out and brutally murders him, which is why he can’t win the WhataBurger (16f).

As Gately forsees:

he’s with a very sad kid and they’re in a graveyard digging some dead guy’s head up and it’s really important, like Continental-Emergency important, and Gately’s the best digger but he’s wicked hungry, like irresistibly hungry, and he’s eating with both hands out of huge economy-size bags of corporate snacks so he can’t really dig, while it gets later and later and the sad kid is trying to scream at Gately that the important thing was buried in the guy’s head and to divert the Continental Emergency to start digging the guy’s head up before it’s too late, but the kid moves his mouth but nothing comes out, and Joelle van D. appears … while the sad kid holds something terrible up by the hair and makes the face of somebody shouting in panic: Too Late. (934)

It’s too late because someone got there first and took the anti-Entertainment cartridge (126) embedded in JOI’s head (31). Whoever took it is presumably the person who’s made and mailed the extant copies. It couldn’t be the A.F.R. or O.U.S. or they wouldn’t still be searching for it. It probably wasn’t the F.L.Q. because they didn’t know how to read master cartridges—they just thought they were blank tapes in their displays were blank. (483n205) It couldn’t be Avril acting alone; she has problems but she’s not that kind of cold-blooded killer. It had to have been Orin.1

Orin (who never attended his father’s funeral) went to the gravesite and dug up his father, releasing the wraith in the process. (244: “After a burial, rural Papineau-region Québecers purportedly drill a small hole down from ground level all the way down through the lid of the coffin, to let out the soul, if it wants out.”) Orin, who is such a partisan of his father that he feels the need to repeatedly ruin the lives of people like his mother, has been mailing the tapes to his father’s enemies in revenge: disapproving film critics in Berkeley and the medical attaché (whose affair with his mother drove Himself especially wild) in Boston. It’s possible he’s being influenced by the wraith in these actions.

After the A.F.R. releases roaches into his giant glass tumbler, Orin cuts a deal with the A.F.R. and gives them the tape in return for letting him live. (He’s apparently still alive on p. 14.) The A.F.R. uses the tape to set off some sort of intracontinental conflagaration (16: “some sort of ultra-mach fighter too high overhead to hear slices the sky from south to north”) which apparently topples the Gentle administration (n114: “[Y.G. is] the very last year of Subsidized Time”).

As seen in Chapter 1, Hal’s condition deepens until he literally can’t communicate at all, but no longer feels like a robot anymore. (12: “I’m not a machine. I feel and believe.”) The only thing he has left is tennis and he looks forward to playing Ortho Stice in the final match of the WhataBurger. But Stice is possessed by his father (in the manuscript, Stice is called “the Wraithster”), so the novel ends as Hal finally gets to really interface with his father — in the only way he has left.

Thanks to Jeff Halley and Joe Giacona for help with the part about the DMZ.

  1. Recall that “the padded mailer [received by the attaché] is postmarked suburban Phoenix area in Arizona U.S.A.” (36) Also, Orin mentions being “in line in the post office” even though, as Hal points out, “You hate snail-mail. And you quit mailing the Moms the pseudo-form-replies two years ago.” (244) Orin doesn’t reply to that.

    And: “There was reason to think M. DuPlessis had received his original copies from this relative, an athlete. … [He] may have borne responsibility for the razzles and dazzles of Berkeley and Boston, U.S.A.” (723) The other appearances of the Entertainment are New Iberia LA (Orin played football in New Orleans LA) and Tempe AZ (Orin lives in Phoenix AZ). (Thanks to Greg Carlisle, p. 477, for catching these.) 

You should follow me on twitter here.

September 16, 2009


Well said and eminently plausible. Someone else pointed out that Stice’s connection to objects moving strangely includes his match with Hal, but I’ve never considered that Ortho could be somehow a conduit or connection to Himself.

One small correction - Orin is not “drafted” by the NFL after YDAU. He has already been in the NFL for at least two seasons, in New Orleans and Phoenix. The mention of Orin on p.14 just confirms that he survives into the Year of Glad.

posted by jackd on September 17, 2009 #

Alas, Hal is in Arizona and Gately in Massachusetts at the time of their hospitalizations, so the meet-up around which this theory pivots doesn’t happen. It’s still plausible that Gately and Hal meet up after the Whataburger, of course, but you’ll need to shift your timeline a little.

posted by Daryl on September 17, 2009 #

Argh, I was off by a year with that last comment.

posted by Daryl on September 17, 2009 #

Daryl, what makes you think Hal’s first hospitalization was in AZ? He narrates: “At the only other emergency room I have ever been in, almost exactly one year back, the psychiatric stretcher was wheeled in and then parked beside the waiting-room chairs.”

Nothing about it being in AZ, and in fact he implies that it was not the same emergency room.

posted by crazymonk on September 17, 2009 #


posted by crazymonk on September 17, 2009 #

BTW, one thread that’s building near the end of the book that you don’t mention involves law enforcement. Namely, the ADA who has staked out Gately’s hospital room, and the “Middlesex County Sheriff’s car” seen in front of Ennet House in Joelle’s very last scene in the book. Perhaps this doesn’t interfere much with your projected ending, but I do wonder if Wallace had them in mind playing a larger role.

posted by crazymonk on September 17, 2009 #

So interesting and well thought out!!! One question, how did Orin know the Entertainment cartridge was buried with JOI? Thanks so much for sharing your thinking!!!

posted by Colette on September 17, 2009 #

I am into IJ as an oblique prophecy and thinking about Orin at the post office just seems reminiscent of the mailing of anthrax letters post 911.

posted by jef wallace on September 17, 2009 #

also, linking the IJ victims up to Himself’s enemies was genius. i had been thinking it was Avril !!!

posted by jef wallace on September 17, 2009 #

I’m interested in the evidence for the idea that John Wayne was murdered… why murdered as opposed to just defecting to Quebec?

Love this theory.

posted by mo pie on September 19, 2009 #

I also like the theory that Hal somehow synthesized DMZ within himself, since it’s a mold that grows on another mold: http://dfan.org/jest.txt

posted by Karen on September 22, 2009 #

Thank you.

posted by mike on September 23, 2009 #

Someone must have noted somewhere that Luria is more or less an anagram of Avril (u and v being one and the same in Latin).

posted by Zach Soldenstern on December 9, 2009 #

Yeah but Hal gets put in the room with Gately who then does what, rises from his deathbed with one arm and goes into the concavity kicking ass and taking names? Clearly Gately dies of an infection at the end so it could be his ghost who is accompanying Hal to dig up the master.

posted by mrchris on December 20, 2009 #

i have a few questions. hopefully this is still being viewed/updated.

  1. does Gately die? Does he survive the infection or is it his ghost that helps dig up Himself with Hal? I feel that he ends up taking the meds and may or may not become addicted again “Gately’s the best digger but he’s wicked hungry, like irresistibly hungry” (934). Briefly after in the novel he talks about his addiction to the pain meds earlier in his life and talks about how hungry for sweets he and his fellow addicts are.

  2. who’s the figure on 867 sitting in the bleachers getting buried by snow?

posted by todd on January 28, 2010 #

1) Gately recovers. See: From the Year of Glad: “I think of John N.R. Wayne, who would have won this year’s WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father’s head.” (16-17)

Also, my little contribution about Lyle: “…B. Loach, even w/o an official B.A., being given an Asst. Trainer’s job at E.T.A., a job he was promoted from just months later when the then-Head Trainer suffered the terrible accident that resulted in all locks being taken off E.T.A. saunas’ doors and the saunas’ maximum temperature being hard-wired down to no more than 50°C.” (971)

Lyle is the ex-Head Trainer who died horribly in the sauna and now haunts the ETA grounds, helping anyone who is willing to give him a taste of their sweat (envision a parched man at sea)

posted by Warf on April 21, 2011 #

I think this reading gets really close but I think there is more going on with the DMZ/Entertainment relationship.

I don’t know how to lay this out in a straightforward way so I’ll just put the whole jumble out there.

  1. The kids find a bag of cartridges next to a doorless microwave while on a tunnel clean up.

  2. Ennet House staff are known to rummage through the trash at ETA.

  3. The FLQ shop buys the cartridges and DMZ pills together as part of the same package from some raggedy character.

These three facts together imply that the DMZ and master copies of the entertainment were trashed together with several doses of DMZ at ETA maybe along with other personal effects of JOI.

ok next thing to consider:

  1. The entertainment’s them was how the woman who murdered you in your last life will give birth to you in your next life.

  2. The mother in the entertainment was played by Madame Pyschosis.

  3. DMZ’s street name is also madame psychosis.

  4. DMZ was synthesized by chemically altering the mold that Hal ate as a child.

  5. Something similar to DMZ thus murdered a part hal.

This fact supports Warf’s hypothesis that the entertainment was intended to counteract the effects of the mold.

  1. Since JOI must have viewed the film in order to edit it, make copies etc. he must have had some means of making himself immune to the film’s effects.

  2. JOI had in possession copies of the film and several doses of DMZ.

When taken together these two facts suggest that DMZ might counteract the effects of the film.

Alternatively, JOI may have simulated Hal’s condition by taking DMZ then determining how effective his entertainments were at reversing the effects of the drug.

  1. DMZ is synthesized from a mold that grows on mold not an extract from the mold.

  2. LSD is synthesized from a chemical in the fungus ergot.

  3. The chemical modifications of the natural ergot chemical makes the chemical much more potent and psychoactive.

  4. DMZ is likely much more psychoactive than the chemicals in the mold.

Thus DMZ is likely to have more profound side effects than the natural mold. Hal ate the natural mold so his side effects would be less severe than a DMZ user.

  1. JOI made the entertainment strong enough to counteract the effects of DMZ.

  2. DMZ’s effects are much stronger than the mold that hal ate.

Thus JOI probably realized that the entertainment would be overkill as a treatment for Hal’s mold related side effects.

Joi probably realized that the entertainment would drive Hal insane, and this is why JOI never showed Hal the entertainment.

JOI’s constant use of mild altering substances and entertainments could have precipitated his suicide (Although I wonder if JOI’s death was suicide given all of the rampant Hamlet allusions and the relationship between CT and AI).

With this view of the DMZ/Entertainment relationship in mind consider the following scenario of what may have prompted Hal’s breakdown.

JOI’s wraith help Ortho improve his game. This leads to Ortho almost beating Hal. This puts Hal in an extremely stressful state. Maybe JOI hopes this will get Hal to feel something.

Even after his near defeat by Ortho, Hal still doesn’t seem to change. He just chalks his near failure up to Marijuana withdrawl. He even strongly considers taking Pemulis’ DMZ.

Since this is the exact opposite of what JOI wants he steals the DMZ and invents a new entertainment that is weaker than the IJ cartridge but still strong enough to make Hal have an interior life.

We know that the wraithe can stick things to walls. I think he sticks Ortho’s face to the glass so that Hal can find him. Hal’s unconscious and uncontrollable grin that is noticed by the janitors shows that he finds his father’s new entertainment very, though not fatally, amusing.

I think it is likely that the effects of Stice’s stretching face account for Hal’s symptoms in the first section of the book. When Hal is lying on the floor and looking at his cup he has a hard time remembering the word to describe the opening in the cup looking smaller from his point of view. I think it could be the case that this just got worse and worse for a while.

For what it’s worth I also think that there is evidence that JOI created posthumous entertainments. In the description of his funeral Hal talks about how a bird poops on CT and then a fly enters his mouth.

posted by Jeff Halley on August 30, 2011 #

Perfect. Exactly what I concluded. Plus a few things I hadn’t thought of but sound exactly right.

Joelle is of course the link between Hal and Gately. I have been reading and reading trying to find someone else who thought that.

Which is nice because she is one of the few remotely real and likable female characters, Pat M. and Kate Gompert being the other two.


posted by Terrapin on September 1, 2011 #

By far the most carefully considered and thorough accounts I’ve come across—thanks! But I’m hoping somebody can help flesh out the connection made here between the anti-Entertainment (126) and whatever it is JOI has put into his head (31) … the description of the latter seems to connect more obviously with JOI’s erection anxiety (mentioned elsewhere a few times), and if the “priapistic entertainment cartridge” and “mis-en-scene appropriation card,” etc., don’t suggest pornography specifically, they otherwise and at least sound sort of like gibberish. And if anything, wouldn’t it be the master that JOI puts in his head to begin with?

posted by MK on November 8, 2011 #

I am stuck on the fact that JOI blew up his head in a microwave and yet Hal remembers digging up his father’s head. Keeping in mind that many recollections by many characters throughout the book are intentionally or unintentionally dubious, I am not sure how to treat this statement by Hal (the only two references to this event are during the opening scene in which Hal is apparently on the verge of some kind of total mental breakdown, and during one of Don’s fever dreams which are obviously a mix of real and imagined/subconscious-slipscreen stuff, as well a mix of past, present and future stuff). In short: what business does JOI’s head have showing up after his suicide at all?

posted by on April 10, 2012 #

They’re digging up his skull — it’s a Hamlet reference.

posted by Aaron Swaryz on April 25, 2012 #

I just finished IJ and cast about on the teleputer looking for some answers. I thank everyone who’s posted here.

No one has mentioned that Madame Psychosis is a pun on metempsychosis, which is the Greek concept of the transmigration of the soul. In Ulysses Molly Bloom asks Leopold what it means and pronounces it “met him pike hoses”.

posted by Peregrine Beckman on June 22, 2012 #

To some of the above questions regarding who is at the stadium that night Ortho is stuck to the window (867), I was thinking it might be Lenz. When we last see lenz, he is in a bright jacket, and sombrero (maybe?), and Hal says regarding the figure on court as “wearing what seemed puffy and bright enough to be a coat”. I also wonder if it could have been Poor Tony, who as mentioned once before, had been used in a Quebecois scheme earlier where he gained his bright coat.

This makes sense Lenz and Poor Tony’s characters both exited relatively early, 100s of pages before the end, and are not mentioned again.

It does however refer to how the person was sitting, “leaning back with its elbows on one level and and feet on the next stretched out below. While a longshot, this reminds me of the girl sitting beside Steeply at the Hal - Stice match. Poutrincourt. Who is described as wearing a “violetish ski cap”…”she wore white sneakers and a Donnay Warmup of deep glowing neutron blue”. (p. 674). It describes her sitting as “long arms akimbo…

My next issue is that Poutrincourt is described as a woman having mannish qualities in the interview with Steeply (~674). Could Thierry have been a disguise? Can anyone weigh in on this? Obviously “she” has Quebecois heritage. Steeply is intrigued repeatedly by Poutrincourt’s jawline, a translucent mole on it.

Now this is really far out, but don’t quote me on this. I haven’t researched this at all. What is the possibility that Avril IS Poutrincourt? It would explain why Avril rarely left the school grounds. THere is the Quebecois connection, her Quebecois life Avril would never really discuss with Orin or Hal. An observation made by another person on another forum : “Random other detail that is neither here nor there, but interesting: Orin’s impression of Avril, note 269, page 1052, sounds awfully reminiscent of the Cult of the Endless Kiss.” Maybe Avril is more involved than originally suggested?

Another question I have is at the end when Orin is captured, in the gian t tumbler, he says “do it to her! do it to her!” (972) referencing someone outside the tumbler. Another far out thought: could Avril be Mlle Luria P? Why else would Orin say this?

And I find it hard to believe the ghost/ spectre idea in terms of JOI. I feel like, when reading it, that the concept of there being a ghost is supposed to be questioned. Perhaps, I mean let’s just entertain the notion, that JOI isn’t dead… I know it’s hard but it explains the things being moved at ETA, how Don Gately saw JOI, and it reduces this kind of fairy-taleish ghost story to something more PHYSICALLY possible, albeit JOI as a sort of Iago/ manipulative genius / mastermind of sorts. JOI, having somehow mastered the creation of hallucination via entertainment, could have induced some of Gately’s hallucinations. Gatelys’ having words placed into his brain, however, contradicts this.

IS it possible that the Entertainment was actually designed to save Avril, who was entertwined with the Quebecois movement of her past, and provide a sort of weapon to insure her safety?

Those bizarre accusations made aside, I have more straightforward questions:

Who is it that warned Joelle that she was in Danger at the end of the book? They are referenced as having a large head (934). THis leads me to believe it was a CT relative, or perhaps CT’s mother who married Avril’s father. However, CT’s mother was short, as referneced (???), which is negated by the woman being called “huge” (934). Gately also has a huge head, which means it could possibly be Gately’s mother? I dunno. These are wild, unbacked, claims.

What was the police car doing at Enfield when Joelle arrived back (958)? Could it be that someone finally opened the Entertainment donated from ETA and played at the Enfield House?

posted by Chris on July 2, 2012 #

I’m pretty sure the wraith tells Gately that wraiths can’t directly interact with physical objects, so it can’t be J.O.I.’s ghost directly moving objects and causing disturbances at E.T.A. However, it’s said that Lyle can lift an object he’s sitting on, so I think it most be J.O.I.’s ghost telling his old friend Lyle to telekinetically move the objects.

posted by Bill on August 28, 2012 #

John Wayne would be Fils de Montcalme or FLQ, not AFR since they admit to having no one in position in ETA (hence the need to infiltrate via the Quebec Jr. team) and the description of Wayne’s complete control over his body (autonomic as well as voluntary nervous systems, note 382) is in line with the Eternal Kiss tradition rather than the Prochaine Train.

posted by M on September 3, 2012 #

Any significance of JOI’s nickname in relation to Ted “The Mad Stork” Hendricks who was a lanky (6’7” 220lbs) raging alcoholic athlete back in the 70’s. curious too that “The Stork” was a feared punt blocker…hmmmm

posted by dhsIII on November 28, 2012 #

You can also send comments by email.

Email (only used for direct replies)
Comments may be edited for length and content.

Powered by theinfo.org.