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Cultural Themes in David Foster Wallace’s “Good People”
The cultural theme of David Foster Wallace’s “Good People” is most prevalently one of religion. Wallace himself had religious affiliations, though not as strongly as those held by the characters in his story (Brick 65). In just a few thousand words, Wallace is able to expand the topic of religion to touch down on the areas of love, family, and even coming of age, all experienced through the eyes of a young Christian man in an undisclosed time period.
Religion is a ubiquitous phenomenon, presented across all cultures, and as such, it colors those cultures differently and creates subcultures with modified values from the general population. The young couple in the story seem to be average westerners, most likely living in the United States, but their religious beliefs are pervasive in their lives and affect many major decisions. This cultural divide between the religious and the nonreligious can often manifest itself within a single individual when he is forced into a situation in which his religious values oppose his secular wisdom. Such is the case for two young people attempting to make the decision of whether or not to have an abortion.
Wallace must have been a fan of Ernest Hemingway or at least been familiar with his short story, “Hills Like White Elephants.” The set up is similar, with a couple debating whether or not to keep a pregnancy while distracting themselves with scenery and never overtly addressing the issue at hand. “Good People” reads similar to Hemingway’s story but with a religious spin. Rather than the character debating what it is they want for themselves, they are focused on the disconnect between what they want and what God may want, and in the case of the male, whether he even truly believes in God. This is presented as a religious thing; a culture of disconnect that people in the religious world experience and to which they can relate.
Love is a primary tenet of religion as well as the major drive of romance, and given the nature of this story being between a religious couple, is a primary theme. It is a commonly held belief that people feel different types of love, but this belief is emphasized in certain sects of Christianity who teach of brotherly love, romantic love, and unconditional love. The story briefly touches down on this issue, though it is too vast to delve into in detail. This is evident in Lane’s contention that he does love and care about the girl, but that he does not truly love her in a romantic sense. By the end, however, he questions this logic, asking himself “Why is one kind of love any different?” This is another example of the cultural lens of religion altering the character’s view on something that all people experience.
Due to the moral implications, as well as the fears of having a baby, love is presented as almost a means to an end. The characters treat each other as if they are trying to save face. Lane will not admit to her that he does not love her, even when he believes it is the truth, and his girlfriend is going to say she knows he does not love her as a bluff to try to change his mind about the issue (or so it is implied in Lane’s premonition of her future actions). This approach to love as something that can be used to manipulate may be a western thing, a religious thing, or even something that is pervasive of the whole human race, but it is most certainly an example of culture for these two characters.
It would be foolish not to address the topic of family, as the very conflict of the story is centered around the decision of whether or not these two should start a family. It is a background theme of “Good People,” really only used to set the stage for other concepts to be explored, but it is still there. Lane seems to respect his girlfriend partly because of how his mother has endorsed her, which demonstrates the strong family values of many Christians and respect for parental approval. The girlfriend is afraid of facing her family with news of her pregnancy due to the shame that may be involved, which is again a common situation in Christian households when someone becomes pregnant out of wedlock.
Finally, family can be seen in the girlfriend’s desire not to want to have the child alone, which inherently implies starting a family. Once again, religion’s prevalence throughout this story appears in the form of a woman compelled to start a family despite her personal desires. This is a distinctly different cultural aspect from a lay person. Though many people may feel apprehension and even moral qualms about getting an abortion, these objections are enhanced under religious values. A family may be formed under these circumstances, not by choice or even by accident, but by moral obligation.
The final marker of culture to be discussed in this paper is that of coming of age. As mentioned, family is the backdrop theme for this story, but really, Lane is presented as too immature to even really breach that idea. Though it is understood that the implications of being tied down to a family are frightening for him, he does not seem to make a conscious note of this. Rather, the story acts as a right of passage for him. Being nineteen and having a decidedly adult matter thrust upon him seems to bring about a crystallizing moment of clarity for the character and thus, maturity.
By the end of the story, Lane has changed not in his outward decisions, but in his inner commitment to be of one mind and to know himself. At the beginning, it is clear that Lane does have some ill-defined love for his girlfriend, and yet he simply doesn’t seem to know what he wants. Lane describes his indecision as a “frozenness” and likens it to being in Hell. He is not referring to a Biblical Hell, but rather the agony of competing ideas within one person, standing frozen and creating the inner turmoil he experiences. While his analogy of Hell uses religious imagery, this is one aspect of his culture which does not seem to derive from his religion. Rather, it is something he is experiencing purely as a scared and immature young man, and it is given a religious tint and analogy so that he can understand it better. Ultimately, the right of passage is the fact that he is faced with such a difficult choice, with so many variables and competing desires, and yet he is able to find a sense of comfort in ideas like love and trusting his heart. This reflects an individualistic cultural aspect that is more likely due to his western upbringing than his religious beliefs.
The story follows several threads of culture, which are woven together to create an overall presentation of the average, western, Christian couple in their youth and faced with pregnancy, and all of the inner conflict that goes along with that. The prevalence of religion coupled with the lesser themes of love, family, and rights of passage paint a thorough picture for any reader interested in learning about this particular subculture.
Brick, M. "A Postmodernist's Progress: Thoughts on Spirituality across the David Foster Wallace Canon." Christianity & Literature 64.1 (2014): 65-81. Web.
Charters, Ann, Ed. The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. 6th Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003 475-478. Print.
Wallace, David Foster. "Good People - The New Yorker." The New Yorker. 5 Feb. 2007. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.