Difference between revisions of "The Broom of the System"

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Revision as of 20:48, 4 May 2009

Back to Works List or David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace's first novel, his senior English thesis at Amherst College, The Broom of the System, was published 1987.

The novel won the Whiting Writer's Award in 1987.


Of this novel, Wallace said in an interview with Larry McCaffery:

"Think of The Broom of the System as the sensitive tale of a sensitive young WASP who's just had this mid-life crisis that's moved him coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction and Austin-Wittgenstein-Derridean literary theory, which also shifted his existential dread from a fear that he was just a 98.6° calculating machine to a fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct. This WASP's written a lot of straight humor, and loves gags, so he decides to write a coded autobio that's also a funny little post-structural gag: so you get Lenore, a character in a story who's terribly afraid that she's really nothing more than a character in a story. And, sufficiently hidden under the sex-change and the gags and theoretical allusions, I got to write my sensitive little self-obsessed bildingsroman. The biggest cackle I got when the book came out was the way all the reviews, whether they stomped up and down on the overall book or not, all praised the fact that at least here was a first novel that wasn't yet another sensitive little self-obsessed bildungsroman."

In The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace uses the eponymous broom to illustrate Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion that words do not have meaning in and of themselves. Wittgentstein’s former student Lenore Beadsman asks her granddaughter Lenore Beadsman Jr. “which part of the broom [is] more elemental, more fundamental, in my opinion, the bristles or the handle” (149). When Lenore Jr. chooses the bristles, Beadsman sagely exclaims: “’Aha, that’s because you want to sweep with the broom… And that if what we wanted a broom for was to break windows, then the handle was clearly the fundamental essence of the broom… Meaning as fundamentalness. Fundamentalness as use. Meaning as Use. Meaning as use” (150). The meaning of the broom depends entirely upon what its function is in a given context.


Beadsman Family



Meaning of Language/Words


In Wallace's freshman novel, he introduces what will later become one of his most recurring themes: communication. More specifically, Wallace addresses the difficult line people walk between trying to express who they are in words while simultaneously trying to reconcile with the rest of themselves that cannot be put into words. In Lenore Beadsman, Wallace created a character who is so aware of the problem of communication that she is unable to separate who she is from what she says and what is said about her. On her feeling about language and communication:

"Well see, it seems like it's not really like a life that's told not lived; it's just that the living is the telling, that there's nothing
going on with me that isn't either told or tellable, and if so, what's the difference, why live at all?" (The Broom of the System 119).

The context of this quote is when Lenore is expressing her fear to Dr. Jay that if she is nothing more than what is said about her, then what makes her different than the people in the stories told to her by Rick? In other words, if she is only the product of words, then in a sense, she is no longer in control of who exactly she is. This concept is one that is revisited by Wallace in stories and essays, most notable Good Old Neon, where the impossibility of communicated fully what is inside a person draws great conflict. With Lenore, this problem is especially problematic as the reader knows that in reality, Lenore is a product of one man's creation.

Lenore's fear of the power of language also draws out another common theme in Wallace's writing, and that is the feeling of being alone. Due to Lenore's inability to surrender herself to language, she is left living a life where she can't tell people important things, because she fears those words will own her. In the case where she won't tell Rick Vigorous that she loves him (pps 286-287) it becomes clear that Lenore lives in a world alone because she is unable or unwilling to express herself in words.

Another instance where the reader can see Wallace's use of the failure to communicate theme can be seen in the overarching events of the novel where the phone lines are all crossed. This example is far less abstract, and it is clear exactly how this relates to the theme.

The difficulties in cross-gender communication are briefly touched on when the boys invade the Mt. Holyoke dorm. Clarice snaps, saying “just because you’re bigger, physically just take up more space, you think—do you think?—think you can rule everything, make women do whatever stupid rotten disgusting stuff you say” (18). Biff who, we remember, “got real screwed up, at school” (410), responds with a description of the hoops they jump through to meet girls who “look at us like we’re rapists” (19). Clarice thinks that men abuse the power provided by their strength, and Biff believes she’s being too hard on him/them. The men invade, but only in search of some non-Nixon lookalikes.

Self and Other (Yin and Yang)

In The Broom of the System, Wallace investigated very thoroughly the theme of Self and Other. He touched on the issue with the very obvious words and actions of Norman Bombardini, but also in a more serious and subtle way regarding Lenore Beadsman and her struggle to identify and define herself. Throughout the novel, Lenore is concerned that she is being defined by the words and actions of others, and that she needs to determine where Other stops and Self begins.

We see different characters work in different fashions to reconcile Self and Other in TBOTS. Rick Vigorous, for instance, consistently and openly attempts to possess Lenore. It is never enough for them to be together. Rather he needs her (Other) to be his and needs to control her. His strategy appears to be one in which the Other is contained within the Self.

Perhaps the most obvious example is that of Norman Bombardini. He intended to eliminate all of Other (with the possible exception of Lenore herself) and simply have the world contained in one monstrous Self by “grow(ing) to infinite size” (91). This is just a destruction of Other altogether.

In the end, Wallace utilizes the relationship between Lenore and Andy "Wang-Dang" Lang to perhaps suggest that the proper way to reconcile Self and Other is not through consumption or destruction, but rather through an elimination of the barriers between the two entities. The quote, "Now I didn’t mean to make you sad…. That’s my sad, it’s not your sad” (417) seems to suggest that Lenore, and perhaps Lang also, has transcended, at least momentarily the wall dividing the Self and Other through love. In loving Andy, if only for that moment, the Self and Other may have become one and the same, solving the Self and Other puzzle.




Marshell Boswell contends that Wallace is able to create "an open system of communication… a communal approach to communication… one that operates… between two equal and interactive participants, a dynamic carried over onto the novel’s relationship with its own reader” (22)" “via… allusions to the great Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein” (23).