Beauty/Disfigurement in Infinite Jest
In Infinite Jest, Wallace clearly diagnoses the epidemic of narcissism that defines the behavior and the preferences of most young Americans through the character Joelle van Dyne. Joelle is a member of the UHID (Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed) (533), so she wears a veil over her face whenever she is in public. One may assume that Joelle’s choice to wear the veil is a noble attempt on her part to evade the issues caused by both extreme beauty and extreme disfigurement; by hiding her face she is removing herself from the part of the American culture that is so obsessed with looks. However, Joelle reveals her choice to wear the veil to be much more complicated. She explains the motivation behind the U.H.I.D. to Don Gately as, “What you do is you hide your deep need to hide, and you do this out of the need to appear to other people as if you have the strength not to care how you appear to others” (535). The repeated emphasis of the word appear clarifies the fact that Joelle is still completely consumed by her appearance.
There are two conflicting views as to why Joelle wears the veil; she may be so beautiful as to be deformed, or she may have suffered an accident that disfigured parts of her face. When she dates Orin Incandenza he often refers to her as the P.G.O.A.T. (Prettiest Girl of All Time). And earlier, when Joelle was in college she was “almost universally shunned” because she was such a “hideously attractive girl” (290). The use of the word hideous to describe Joelle’s beauty may be used intentionally to allow the reader to associate her beauty with the U.H.I.D. In addition, Joelle also tells Don Gately one night in Ennet House, “I’m perfect. I’m so beautiful I drive anybody with a nervous system out of their fucking mind… I am so beautiful I am deformed” (538). This explanation seems credible because it is coming from Joelle herself, and also because Gately notices that Joelle’s chin’s skin is not deformed, but rather perfect.
But, there is also evidence in the novel to suggest that Joelle is physically deformed. Her friend Molly Notkin, while being questioned by Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, explains that Joelle became disfigured when her mother attempted to throw a flask of acid at her father, but the acid accidentally hit Joelle instead (787-95). Notkin even states that Joelle’s “irreparable facial trauma… was no kind of metaphor or ruse” (791). However, it may be a mistake to trust Notkin’s story; there is no textual evidence to prove that she has ever actually seen Joelle’s face, so this may just be a story she has fabricated to protect Joelle, or a story that Joelle told Notkin to protect herself. But, to make the debate even more complicated, Hal mentions Joelle earlier on and pretty obviously believes that Joelle did get disfigured: “This was after the girl Orin had been wildly in love with and Himself had compulsively used in films had been disfigured” (634).
So why does Joelle really wear the veil? Is she physically, hideously deformed, or is the veil a representation of her desire to hide the “hideous internal self” (695) that other characters attempt to hide throughout the novel? Either way, beauty and disfigurement are both deep-rooted issues that pervade Infinite Jest and affect many more characters than just the veiled Joelle.