What does it mean to be a good person? How can one respect oneself without hurting others? Are we able to judge whether a decision is wrong or right? Do we really know what love is? … Questions like these have always existed, but what happens when an author tries to comprehend the complexity of being ‘good people’? Is it possible to write about an issue like this? In David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good People” from 2007 we experience an attempt to do so. In the short story ”Good People” Wallace manages to reflect upon the complex discussion of what ‘good people’ are, as this is the main theme of the text.
To discuss this the story revolves around supporting themes of religious, existentialistic and ethical character. The religious theme is expressed in the discussion of abortion, in which the main character Lane at one point admits that “he did not know what to do”1 about this dilemma.
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The existentialistic theme is conveyed in Lane’s realization that he had not “once said it, avowed that he did love her”2. The ethical theme we meet in the dilemma of Lane discussing whether he is dishonest and respectful.
Admitting that “he could not say he did: it was not true3” that he loved her, Wallace creates a starting point for a discussion on ethics about honesty, respect and self-respect. The plot of the story consists of one long reflection in the mind of our main character, plot-wise known as an internal conflict. He reflects on the difficult situation, that he and his fiancee find themselves in, by creating imaginary conflicts between the two of them, while also circling around the supporting themes with relevance to the main theme.
The internal conflict of the main character, created as the basis of the plot, results in a plot driven by a non-chronological structure. Instead of unfolding the subject of the story linearly, the story moves forward in circles. Along with this it describes a development in the main character’s cognitive understanding of the issue. The plot on one side consists of a sporadic, incoherent and associating reflection on the main theme, and on the other side it deals with an on-going cognitive development.
One of the most remarkable proofs of this is expressed in the following quotation, where several different topics jump to Lane’s mind: “Two days before, he had awakened very early and tried to pray but could not. He was freezing … but he had not thought of his father … which had once filled him with such pity … Lane Dean, Jr. , felt sun on one arm as he pictured in his mind an image of himself on a train, waving mechanically to something that got smaller and smaller as the train pulled away. Sheri’s hair was colored … They’d sat here long enough that only their right side was shaded now.
He could look at her head, but not at her. Different parts of him felt unconnected to each other”4. In the above quotation we see how Lane’s thoughts sporadically differ between four different things in only eight lines. Together with this the quotation illustrates that the associations stresses this common feature of the plot of revolving on the main theme in this rather incoherent way. The statement saying “Different parts of him felt unconnected to each other” explicitly shows an actual realization in the cognitive development..
This two-sided aspect of the plot is reflected in the rest of the story in different ways; in the narrative technique and in the characters and their relations. Through the narrative technique we comprehend how Wallace elegantly portrays the main theme. Wallace uses a 3’rd person restricted narrator with the point of view placed on Lane, creating a subjective perspective on how the story unfolds. The strongly placed point of view creates a characteristic voice in the story.
The voice ultimately reminds one of a ‘stream of consciousness’-technique, which influences the story in general. The element of changing appellations stresses how the two kinds of processes are going on in the story; the associating way of reflecting along with the developing state of mind. The different use of how the main character titles himself from “Lane A. Dean, Jr. … Lane Dean, Jr. … Lane Dean … Lane”5 shows how he is mentally changing back and forth, emphasizing this circularly and non-linear reflection.
On the other hand the naming of Lane’s girlfriend, Sheri, shows a linear development from “his girlfriend … the girl … she … Sheri … Sheri Fisher”6. The way in which the girlfriend is named gives an impression of how the main character is developing his view of the girlfriend throughout the story. From an anonymous approach, ‘the girl’, to actually addressing her by her full name “Sheri Fisher”, This use of the narrative technique creates a stream of consciousness and creates an associating but yet authentic feeling – a feeling that enlightens the complex main theme of the story.
The construction of the characters and their relation is also important to the perception of the story. Given the fact that the story is told from the perspective of Lane, it is interesting that Sheri’s character is described in a flat and static way. The author makes a construction where we only understand Sheri through Lane’s view on her, and Lane ascribes her some specific but changing values through the story. In fact Sheri’s function is to be a mirror to the way Lane feels at a specific moment through the story.
Lane’s character on the other hand is dynamic and round as his internal conflict about defining what ‘good people’ are evolves through the story. What seems to be a conflict between the two characters in the plot is actually Lane’s internal conflict of being split. This appears when he gets a “vision or moment of grace”7 in which he suddenly feels the capability to see “into Sheri’s heart”8 although they “through all this frozen silence”9 had not shared a word with each other.
He verbalizes an imaginary reaction in the example that could possibly create a conflict, but really this conflict is an expression of Lane’s own internal conflict projected onto Sheri’s character.. Conclusively David Wallace has written a short story that in its form and content emphasizes the difficulties of understanding the complex problem of defining ‘good people’. Wallace creates an authentic, reliable and identifiable story through the characters and the narrative technique with its stream of consciousness,.
He creates a form, which with its associating feeling, comes close to resembling a complex dilemma from real life. Ultimately Wallace enlightens that neither the religious, existentialistic nor ethical aspect of the dilemma can stand alone when defining ‘good people’. In fact it is still extremely difficult to answer the question when considering all the aspects. In the end it stands clear that Wallace wants us to understand is that the answer to such a complex question lies in ourselves – every person has their own conclusion on issues like these.