Eschaton and The Meaning of the Character

“Pemulis howls that Lord in his vacillation appeasing Ingersoll in Ingersoll’s effort to fatally fuck with the very breath and bread of Eschaton.130  Players themselves can’t be valid targets. Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game. They’re part of the map. It’s snowing on the players but not on the territory. They’re part of the map, not the clusterfucking territory. You can only launch against the territory. Not against the map. It’s like the one ground-rule boundary that keeps Eschaton from degenerating into chaos. Eschaton gentlemen is about logic and axiom and mathematical probity and discipline and verity and order. You do not get points for hitting anybody real. Only the gear that maps what’s real.” –Infinite Jest, page 338

130. Pemulis doesn’t actually literally say ‘breath and bread.’ –Infinite Jest, page 1025


This passage appears in the heart of a long section that details ETA’s annual tradition of playing Eschaton, a made-up game that incorporates tennis, mathematics, and world war. I believe that the description of the game, and this passage in particular, reveals Wallace’s interest in embodiment and his views on the function of characters within literature.

This passage is in conversation with the emphasis on characters’ bodies in the beginning of the novel and in other places throughout the narrative. It’s interesting that Wallace is usually very concerned with the placement of characters in space and in relation to other characters, but in this passage, he is claiming through Pemulis that the bodies of the characters don’t matter. While the movements and positions of the characters in the first scene are painstakingly detailed, this passage insists that the bodies of the characters are less important than the greater environment that they are engaged in. Comparing the characters in this section to the “map” that is referenced in the text subtly asks the reader to focus on the territory of the novel, the greater themes, rather than the characters alone.

Though Pemulis is presumably the one speaking, he demonstrably lacks agency in this scene. His lack of agency is subtly shown through the lack of quote marks around the passage even though the emphasis (shown through italics) and informal style (Eschaton gentlemen is; note lack of commas) would normally indicate that a character is actually speaking. Wallace makes it especially clear that Pemulis lacks power in this scene through the endnote that is referred to in the passage. ‘Breath and bread’ is used in the narrative, but the endnote makes it clear that Pemulis is not the final influence on the telling of the narrative—there is an outside force that is filtering the story before it reaches the reader.

Obviously, this is true of all fictional characters in all forms of media. However, it is in this passage that Wallace chooses to remind the reader of this fact. I believe that this dissonance regarding the narrative leads to the next part of Pemulis’s supposed monologue, which explains the difference between the players of the game and the territory or environment of the game. He emphasizes that the players themselves are not part of the territory of the game, they are merely a part of the map, comparable to an actual map as compared to the world itself.

The juxtaposition of these ideas being represented in the text with the footnote reminding the reader of the outside influence on the narrative relates the characters in the book to the players in the game. Like the players are part of the “apparatus of the game,” Pemulis and the other characters are not a part of the territory of the book, they are merely part of its apparatus. The characters are the map of the novel, but the territory is much greater—addiction, growing up, family, athletics, and more. The territory of the book is concepts that exist in reality and the characters are only present in order to help the reader understand the greater concepts that Wallace is addressing. As demonstrated by this passage, Eschaton is a metaphor for Wallace’s conception of the novel itself. ​

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8 Responses to Eschaton and The Meaning of the Character

  1. Steph Roman says:

    Also, your post definitely alludes to the question of the narrator, because as your post demonstrates we get a “filter” and a weirdly stylized scene where Pemulis is (presumably) speaking, but we don’t actually get direct quotes. The metaphor of simply EVERYTHING being a game (or generally apparatuses of it) can’t be ignored at this point. Wallace is addressing issues in a more hospitable and comfortable way than writing a crude essay about addiction and why it’s “bad”—he uses characters and fiction in order to spread these points.


    • epiratequeen says:

      The footnote (130) is really intriguing to me in terms of the narrator. Though many of the shorter endnotes simply state facts, the unnecessary diction of “actually literally” stands out. It makes me really curious as to whether I should be interpreting the endnotes as Hal speaking or as Wallace speaking through Hal.


  2. pmc9122 says:

    I had not thought of Eschaton as a metaphor for the novel, but I love it. I think in even a broader sense, Eschaton is an imposition of order on something that is chaotic. The players of the game are engaged in the same thing that Wallace is, namely, putting form to something that is by its nature chaotic. The players engage by trying to order the end of the world, to hold some structure while the situation deteriorates around them. Wallace is attempting to fit a narrative to the chaos of time. It is also interesting to note that while there is a winner of Eschaton, it is really just the person who was the lost the least, who was able to structure the chaos just a bit better than their opponent. I think this is important because there is no way to write a perfect novel, to impose perfect structure in the chaos of time, but you can be not the worst at it.


    • epiratequeen says:

      Those are some very good points. Your description of Eschaton as the imposition of order on something chaotic made me think of the ETA on a large scale. Wallace takes great care to describe the order that the staff at ETA and the students themselves impose on the students’ lives. I’m wondering if this line of thinking could lead to something that Wallace is trying to say about adolescence, something that is typically depicted as extremely chaotic but in Infinite Jest is nearly always associated with the imposition of order.


  3. lightsabretoothtiger says:

    Your post brings up a lot of good points. It has me thinking, though, if we, as readers, are not also part of the territory of the text.

    You state that the characters exist to help us understand the territory of the novel in real life. The territory you mention, such as addiction, family, etc., are all concepts that we experience as humans. In many cases, we might not experience all the concepts Wallace has included in the novel, but that is why the characters are there to enlighten us. As the characters help us understand these concepts, they also help us understand ourselves and may open the window to seeing the events of our own lives more clearly.

    By experiencing the concepts Wallace brings up in the novel, we are part of the novel. We are able to interact with it and the characters and, by doing so, are able to expand the territory of the text into the real world.


    • epiratequeen says:

      There’s definitely a lot of levels that this passage can be read from. I think that Wallace has an intimate understanding of the potential of fictional characters to inform actual humans about parts of the human experience. The odd structure of this passage really makes one think about the place of the characters, the “territory” of the novel, the novel as a material object, the author as an educator, and our own place as readers.


  4. leficorn93 says:

    Your post reminds me of a line on the very first page of the novel, when Hal thinks, “I am in here.” In class, someone mentioned (after prefacing that this might be reading too much into it, which it definitely was not!) that this line might actually be in reference to the fact that Hal is in the book. If Wallace is indeed using this passage, to remind the reader that the book is an apparatus constructed by an author, who is puppeteering characters to convey complex concepts and meaning, perhaps the opening scene is the first scene in which he makes this point. This novel has so many unanswered questions, and the endless answers, which readers can come up with, is one of the aspects that makes the viewers part of the book’s apparatus, as well.


    • epiratequeen says:

      I was actually thinking of that line when I mentioned embodiment in the post! It’s a really fascinating section, especially because it appears so close to the beginning of the novel. I think you’re right, this passage (during Eschaton) is meant to stand out and to make the reader think about not only the content of the novel, but the novel as a material object and the reader’s place in its existence.


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