The Broom of the System

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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

  • Lenore Beadsman
  • Gramma Beadsman
  • Stonecipher Beadsman
  • Stonecipher Beadsman II
  • Clarice Spaniard nee Beadsman


  • Rick Vigorous
  • Andrew "Wang-Dang" Lang
  • Mindy Metalman
  • Candy Mandible
  • Norman Bombardini
  • Vlad The Impaler
  • Sue Shaw


  • Meaning of language/words
  • Communication




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).