Department or Program



In David Foster Wallace’s fiction, the salient topic is the cultivation of moral personhood. Personhood and human individuality are represented through descriptive categories like “citizenship,” “wholeness,” “authenticity,” or “spirituality,” all nominations that bristle against the “postmodern” genre in which his fiction is critically located—and all partially inadequate in capturing Wallace’s spirit comprehensively. In Wallace’s fiction personhood is constantly frustrated by philosophical and psychological obstacles: addiction, trauma, self-consciousness, or simple failures of imagination. Wallace’s political and social concerns, in turn, reiterate these “private” topics; they are complicated by his desire to discuss “traditional human verities” through the dizzying techniques of literary postmodernism.

Wallace acknowledges the category of the individual person as tenuous, always implicated in language, contingent and historical, but no less necessary for these reasons. For him personhood is not found or discovered, instead it is posited and risked continuously. He admired Stanley Cavell’s description that individuality consists not in the fulfillment of our desires, but in their continuous transformation.

Though Wallace’s scene is late American life, wherein he locates a crisis of “seeming” and “being,” I argue that the typical critical rubric of “sincerity” and “irony” generally descriptive of his fiction is inadequate. Instead, in a genealogical approach, I investigate Wallace with philosophical, critical, and literary progenitors like Cavell, Richard Rorty, and most importantly, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Like Wittgenstein, Wallace leads readers away from unhelpful chimeras, toward pursuits more difficult, gratifying, and strange. He enacts something like Wittgenstein’s “therapies,” the dissolution of apparent problems in place of their solution.

Level of Access

Restricted: Campus/Bates Community Only Access

Date of Graduation

Spring 5-2012

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

Number of Pages


Components of Thesis

1. Pdf file.


Available to Bates community via local IP address or Bates login.