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
  • Dr. Jay


  • Meaning of language/words
  • Communication
  • Self and Other (Yin and Yang)

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.




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).