Ever since we began reading the novel, I was curious/anxious to try to “figure out” the significance of Wallace’s title. Though I haven’t finished the book yet (and realize that there will probably be more to add to this discussion once I do so), it is possible to piece together some indication of the importance of the title from what we’ve read so far.
Lenore’s father, Mr. Beadsman, is the first person to introduce the broom. He explains that when he was a child, Gramma Lenore would ask him, “which part of the broom was more elemental, more fundamental…the bristles or the handle” (149). When he answered the bristles, Gramma Lenore responds, “Aha, that because you want to sweep with the broom…if what we wanted a broom for was to break windows, then the handle was clearly the fundamental essence of the broom” (150). As illustrated in the story, Gramma Lenore’s message to her grandson (and to us) is that “something’s meaning is nothing more or less and its function” (149).
In applying this philosophy to young Lenore Beadsman’s life, it is possible to see why Lenore has such fears of a lack of identity and lack of control in her life. Lenore’s function in her life is not her own. She feels as though her life is being told for her, and she is rightly justified in that claim. Lenore’s father, Gramma Lenore, and Rick all assign Lenore a different function specific to their needs. For her father, Lenore is “the family” and also the “‘Company'” (249). She is the only one left of the family for her father to rely on and control, and so he does. Gramma Lenore also assigns Lenore her very own function: one of a disciple–someone to whom she can pass on her (somewhat debilitating) view of the world. Several times throughout the novel, Gramma Lenore is described as “indoctrinating” Lenore. But Rick is the one who needs and uses Lenore the most. For Rick, Lenore is used as a way to try to bring the absolute Other inside of his personal Self. Though he continually fails at this objective, Lenore continues to serve as a counterpoint to his Self.
In her relationship with all three characters, Lenore’s function clearly resides outside of her Self. She has produced no function self-consciously, so she allows others to ascribe her function for her. If “meaning is use” then Lenore’s meaning comes from outside of herself, as well. Just as Gramma Lenore in the nursing home “perceived loss of identity without function” (151), Lenore is subject to the same fate in her everyday life. Though a question does arise about whether Lenore has no identity, or if her identity is solely defined by others. Does one’s identity have to be self-defined?
In finally returning to the question of the title of the novel, Mr. Bloemker is helpful in introducing the idea of the system:
How to begin to come to some understanding of one’s place in a system, when one is a part of an area that exists in such a troubling relation to the rest of the world, a world that is itself stripped of any static, understandable character by the fact that it changes, radically, all the time? (143)
The changeability of the system is the key here. With Gramma Lenore’s broom, the broom was constantly given different meanings based on the constantly changing idea of its function. At any given point, the function of the broom could be different based on what one wanted to do with it. Lenore is the broom of the system. She is not able to understand her place in the system (in the world) because her function changes radically all the time. All of the Others in her life ascribe her different functions which change depending on which Other she is with. So, just as you give meaning to a broom based on whether you want to sweep with it or if you want to break a window with it, every person in Lenore’s life, in the system, gives Lenore a meaning based on what they want to do with her. She is, indeed, left with no self-control nor with any personal meaning.