Some “Infinite Jest” Theories (Spoiler Alert)

I finally finished David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest last weekend. An excellent book, although that’s no secret. DFW did an excellent job threading exposition into narrative, giving endless hints but rarely declaring anything explicitly. I’ve found as much joy having heated debates over the “true” events of the book as I did reading it.

As with most people who’ve finished the millenial tome, I have some ideas about what really happened. Most of them are echoed elsewhere (here, here, here –  Hal’s communication, the wraith, etc), and likely more rigorously, so I’ll leave you to them. There are only three interpretations of mine that I think may be, if not unique, then less talked about. These are the ones I’ll present.

So, without further ado, the theories (Spoiler Alert):

1. For reasons ambiguous, Dr. Incandenza surgically implanted the sole master copy of Infinite Jest VI in his head. His felo de se was an attempt to destroy the disk via microwave radiation, preventing anyone from copying it and using it as a weapon of mass seduction. This is the reason that the AFR’s scheme ultimately failed, despite having pressed Hal and Gately into their service to recover the disk (by digging up J.O.I’s head).

I’m drawing on a couple of sources for this interpretation:

  • The unusual method of Dr. Incandenza’s suicide. While interpretable as another one of the character’s many quirks, the presence of the lethal disk in his skull allows for an interpretation that doesn’t rely on ineffability.
  • Hal’s memory and Gately’s fantasy of digging up a skull.
  • The opening scene, set in the Year of Glad, makes no mention of any massive crises brought on by millions of people losing all functionality. Were the AFR to have succeeded, it would have certainly been alluded to in some form.

2. Dr. Incandenza’s inability to communicate with Hal (and Orin) is the result of Avril’s manipulative mothering style. By presenting herself as an unwavering (but ultimately and discernibly false) source of comfort and understanding, she developed exaggerated emotional relationships with her sons that precluded them from forming healthy, normal, and unmediated emotional relationships with their father.


  • Primarily the Thanksgiving scene with Joelle, in which she described the entire conversation as tilting towards (and being mediated by) Avril. This image of Avril as a hyperattentive central communications hub implies that the other family members rarely interface with each other directly and thus fail to develop independent dyadic relationships.

3. Hal is Hamlet. Kind of.


  • Many Hamlet references: book’s title, name of one of J.O.I’s production companies (“Poor Yorick”)
  • The parallels in the relationships of Hal, J.O.I., Avril, and CT vs. Hamlet, the Ghost, Gertrude, and Claudius
  • Hal digging up the skull.

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