Cultural and religious themes in Good People by David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace’s short story Good People is heavily focused on culture, namely — its religious aspect. While it is safe to assume that the author himself is a religious person, his characters stand alone in their perception of Christianity and its values. Through a young Christian man’s perspective, Wallace touches on many subjects, including love, family values, and coming of age — all through the prism of Christianity.
While religion, to a certain degree, is present among all cultures and nations, one cannot see faith in general and Christianity, in particular, as something universal. Each culture and generation adds its own touches to its seemingly ubiquitous values. Even though Wallace does not specify an exact timeframe or location, we can guess that the main characters are westerners, most likely Americans. Set by the lake, a dialogue between a couple seems like a confrontation of religious and non-religious attitudes to life and its decisions. Since this young couple is talking about the possibility of abortion, the topic touches on many sensitive matters and seems important regardless of one’s religious affiliation.
The form of the story, as well as its tone, reminds of Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants. Set as dialogues, both short stories deal with a controversial topic of abortion. Still, it’s impossible to state that Wallace’s Good People is inspired by Hemingway. Even though the narration form is similar, the main theme, as well as the setting is different. While Hemingway sets his short story on a railway station, emphasizing the necessity of making a choice, Wallace sets his narration by the lake and focuses on religious aspects rather than practical matters.
Besides, love plays a major part in Wallace’s short story. It is, however, once again shown through the lens of Christianity — namely, some of its religious sects that preach unconditional love, without bothering to subdivide such complex notion into at least some variations like romantic love, friendly love, brotherly love, etc. Lane, the story’s main character, is torn in this conflict. When talking to a pregnant girl, he stresses that he loves her, but not in the ‘romantic’ sense. By the end of Wallace’s short story, he seems to resolve this particular conflict, asking why any kind of love should be different from another. However, the same question may be seen as denial and wanting to accept a simpler concept for granted, rather than thinking and taking responsibility for one’s actions.
A concept of responsibility is, too, present in the narration. Once again, it is directly related to love. However, Wallace also implies that our decision-making process is heavily affected by fears and other people’s manipulations. It seems like Lane is afraid to tell his girlfriend that he does not love her, so he winds the conversation to philosophical and religious matters, like types of love. The girl, in turn, seems to be afraid of losing her face, so she tells Lane directly that she knows he does not love her. Once again, the readers are left with a question of whether our decision-making process, alongside with taking responsibility for our actions, would not have been simpler if we weren’t affected by social and religious prejudice.
Another important issue is, of course, family values. Our main female character is not ready to start a family, even though religion implies she has no other choice in these circumstances. Besides, Wallace emphasizes the fact that abortion and a decision not to start a family is a challenging one, even if we consider social traditions alone. When we add religion to this mix, the pressure becomes even more vivid. More than that, religion once again comes into conflict with ethical concerns. On the one hand, pregnancy is a reason to start a family. On the other one, a decision as serious as starting a family should not be taken under any kind of pressure, and it definitely should not be taken by accident.
The final and, perhaps, the most important issue raised in this story is the concept of independence and coming of age. Lane is nineteen, and he does not feel ready to start a family. Yet, once again, the problem is seen through a religious perspective. Instead of admitting that he is scared to make a decision on such adult matters, Lane is looking for other, religiously acceptable excuses. One may even suggest that religious upbringing, with all of its dogmas, stands in the way of one’s personal maturity, offering a safe haven of excuses not to take personal responsibility for one’s actions.
Still, by the end of Wallace’s short story, we can see some ground for improvement. Even though Lane’s education and upbringing still affect his decision making, it at least seems that the young man is ready to admit that’s he’s lost and scared. He sees that there are no definite, by-the-book answers in life and compares this state to being in hell. At the same time, it does not seem that Lane’s allegory is a purely Biblical one. If it were, he would have to understand what he’s being punished for. And, since the decision about abortion, not to mention the act itself, is not made, speaking of punishment would be premature. So, we can only assume that by hell Lane implies this state of ambiguity and indecisiveness, which is an essential component of moving into adulthood.
So, it’s possible to say that throughout Wallace’s Good People, we can see several stages of coming of age. First, the main character is overwhelmed by the news and is trying to find the right decision. His first move is to make this decision based on what church and society have taught him. However, he immediately comes into conflict with his personal reasons and aspirations. The first reaction is denial, which, in turn, leads to escapism. Later, Lane realizes that this problem will not just miraculously go away and has the courage to admit that he’s lost. Even though Lane’s decision-making process is not finished, we come to a point where the main character is forced to re-evaluate his ideas about ethics and morality.
As a result, we see that some of the moral and ethical issues raised by David Foster Wallace in his short story Good People go deeper than it seems at first. While this short story does pay a lot of attention to culture, love, and religion, the main issue, clearly underlined in Good People is coming of age. Through the prism of culture and religion, Wallace shows how important it is to make one’s own decisions, no matter how difficult or ethically ambiguous they may be.