The Pale King: Analyzing “Good People”

The first excerpt of The Pale King appeared in the February 5, dosage 2007 issue of the New Yorker under the title “Good People.” At the time, more about there was no indication that this was a novel excerpt and Wallace had not published anything in the New Yorker in a long time (since 1995, health I believe, when a couple of Infinite Jest excerpts appeared). And it seemed a little odd. As a story it had a lot of things going on in terms of character, diction, and themes, but, to me at least, it seemed like a slightly new trajectory for Wallace after Oblivion.

You can read the story here.

When the story came out, it generated a lot of discussion on our listserv. The following analysis was written by a former list member and I’m republishing it here (with permission) to spark new discussion about this four-year-old story and to start thinking about some of the themes and ideas in The Pale King. I’m sincerely interested in what people have to say about this story, so you if you have something to add, please leave a comment.


1. The story is full of references to division and dichotomy.  The two main characters, the “two great and terrible armies within himself”, “Two-hearted”, “their shadow a two-headed thing in the grass before them”; the downed tree being “half hidden” and “all half in the water”; Lane’s and Sheri’s praying over the phone “in a kind of half code”.  The sounds of chainsaws dividing up the past week’s storm’s downed trees.  The two opposite sides of the lake.  The binary either/or nature of the issues Lane and Sheri must weigh — abort or carry, love or not love, truth or lie, goodness or sin.

Even the title, “Good People”, is a plural word used as a description of a single person (“she was good people”, “he was desperate to be good people”), suggesting the divisions within ourselves.

(I note there are four uses in the story of the word “individual” as a noun—its Latin meaning being “not divisible”.)

And yet the whole backbone of the story is not division but union: the union of Lane and Sheri, and the product of that union: the baby.  (One could even say that the pregnant Sheri is herself two people in one body.)

2. Lane’s references to the Biblical burning lake of fire are contrasted with the constant references to freezing and being frozen and wanting Sheri to unfreeze him.  (And possibly echoed by the fact that Sheri is a hostess at “the Embers.”)  And the lake of fire image is echoed by the lake they’re sitting next to.

3. Religious imagery?  The men fishing in the lake may be references to Christ (symbolized by the fish, the ichthus), the first apostles (who were fishermen), and to the evangelical metaphor of being “fishers of men.” Note also Sheri Fisher’s last name.

4. References to blackness and darkness: “The whole last black week had been this way and it was wrong.” Plus the darkness and blackness of the water of the shallows, which notably is caused by the angle of the sun’s light.

Plus Lane’s reference to the “blacks” fishing on the opposite side of the lake—”mostly only your blacks from the East Side”—a somewhat prejudiced phrasing, dismissive, conscious of them as others.

Possibly in the same vein as the references to blankness and hiddenness. “She was blank and hidden.”  Story’s opening line ends with: “half hidden by the bank.”

5. The old man looking out over the lake is identified as having a gray hat, not to mention being elderly himself (“gray”), and seems to make contact with the men on the opposite site of the lake.  No mention is made of his race, but since Lane’s prejudice leads him to specifically identify the fishing men as being “blacks”, we can assume that the old man in the hat is white.  The old man and the fishermen do seem to make contact across the lake’s wide gulf—one of the fishermen raises his arm in ostensible greeting.  (“raises his arm in what may be greeting, or waving off a bee”—Lane’s not a discerning enough observer of things outside him?)

The old man and the fisherman’s moment of contact and “grayness” (black in accord with white, plus the old man’s double grayness) as a contrast to Lane’s and Sheri’s frozen black-and-white view of things.

Note that the old man is also compared to Lane’s grandfather “as a young insurance man”.  Why insurance?  Safety, peace of mind?  Profiting from fear of misfortune?

Lane thinks the old man “looked more like a picture than a man” … “looked also out of place in a suit coat or jacket” … Lane’s dismissiveness of the old man suggesting Lane’s resistance to the old man’s moment of contact? Emphasizing Lane’s youth? Perhaps the old man’s evocation of an older generation echoes Lane’s thought of “He felt like he knew now why it was a true sin and not just a leftover rule from past society”.

6. The fallen tree — while it may be an illustration equating “fallen” with “sin” (what Lane calls “inborn fallen nature”), or perhaps echoing the twice-used description of Sheri as being “down to earth” — seems to be described with abortion/miscarriage/infant imagery:

a. “Looking at the torn-up hole in the ground there where the tree had gone over”
b. “The shallows lapped from different directions at the tree as if almost teething on it”
c. “and the downed elm shed cells into the water”

Further birth references in the detail about his father’s and grandfather’s birthdays.  Also the word “born” in “inborn fallen nature” and “last-ditch gamble born out of the desperation in Sheri Fisher’s soul”.

7. “the angle of the sun made the water of the shallows look dark” — a suggestion of false depth? (i.e. of their fath?)  Or of hidden stuff under the surface? (i.e. of the story, of their outward appearances)

Later: “you could see into the shallows and see that all the water was moving but gently, this way and that” — awareness of what’s under the surface.

Also: “the downed tree’s branches seemed to all bend so sharply just under the shallows’ surface” … refraction of light, subjectivity of perception

8. What to make of Lane’s train image?
“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”
Fantasies of abandoning Sheri?  Of being carried away by forces beyond his control?

9. “That Lane should please please sweetie let her finish” — they’re both trying to cut each other off, in the sense of interrupting each other. Parallel with being cut off from each other, and Lane’s inner armies being cut off from each other?  (And the neighborhood trees being cut up by chainsaws, and the reference near the end to the lawnmowers cutting grass?)

10. Lane’s constant fear of being a hypocrite, of thinking hypocrisy a sin: the word “hypocrisy” comes from “hypokrisis”, the Greek word for oration and theatrical acting.  Perhaps he considers it a sin to communicate, to take action, to play a role?  The Greek word also has its roots in “hupo” (= under) + “krinein” (= decide, judge).

11. Possible wordplay: Besides the many references to the “downed” tree, Sheri’s twice described as “down to earth”, and having “downy” arms, is “looking down” … versus Lane’s job at UPS (i.e. “up”).  Opposites? They’re going in different directions?  Salvation vs. shame?  Heaven vs. hell?

12. The two Scripture quotes:

12a. Timothy 1, “disputeth over words”
full quote: “he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions”
seems to dismiss or negate language, communication; can’t communicate in ways other than evangelical language, platitudes, prayer (in “half code”)

12b. Galatians 4:16, “Have I then become your enemy”
full quote: “So then am I become your enemy, by telling you the truth?”
the black/white view of morality, of being either “with me” or “against me”; making a contention out of telling the truth

13. “She continued to sit as if thinking, in the pose of thinking, like that one statue.” – Resembling thinking.  But not actually thinking.

14. The name “Lane A. Dean, Jr.”  Initials = LAD, a boy.  Suffix “Jr.”, suggesting junior status, named for one’s father, living in his shadow? (“the blank frozenness of his father”)  Plus note the connection with his mother’s father, being born on the same day, both being Cancers (literal cancers? malignant influences?).  What of the gray hat man, compared to Lane’s grandfather (paternal or maternal?).  References to family lineage emphasize the issue of birth.

15. The beautifully-written “two armies” passage, perhaps the crux of the story:

“But sitting here beside this girl as unknown to him now as outer space, waiting for whatever she might say to unfreeze him, now he felt like he could see the edge or outline of what a real vision of Hell might be. It was of two great and terrible armies within himself, opposed and facing each other, silent. There would be battle but no victor. Or never a battle — the armies would stay like that, motionless, looking across at each other, and seeing therein something so different and alien from themselves that they could not understand, could not hear each other’s speech as even words or read anything from what their face looked like, frozen like that, opposed and uncomprehending, for all human time. Two-hearted, a hypocrite to yourself either way.”

It reminds me, in a way, of Sartre’s famous line “Hell is other people” … only Lane’s case, Hell is the others within oneself.  Those parts of our inner selves that remain forever *other* from each other, so cut off that they’re unable to even bring themselves to the point of conflict. Interesting combination of two common Wallacean themes: the struggle to communicate with others, and the struggle to overcome self-consciousness. Instead of the self-consciousness cripple the communication, but in this case the lack of communication within oneself is what cripples the self.

Also, why the idea of Hell being two armies facing each other, rather than two people facing each other, a good angel and a bad angel, two sides of oneself?  Why the military conceit?  Something about religious views of good vs. evil, Heaven vs. Hell, always a “versus”, a contention — the idea of a battle, of life and the world as a war against something, of Hell being a place of violence and physical pain — being supplanted by another idea of Hell as being a place not of violence but of incommunication.  Not of violence but silence.  (The writer’s version of Hell? loss of language?)

What’s worse?  Conflict, or the inability to even manifest that conflict?

16. The story is yet another instance of that scenario Wallace revisits again and again: The idea of a terror so terrifying that the object of the terror comes true.  Lane is so terrified of being a hypocrite — to him it’s a worse sin than even the abortion, which would place it above Commandment #1—that of course his actions, or lack of them, handily make him one: a person who believes one thing but does another thing—or does nothing—and wants nothing more than for someone else to make the decision for him.

They are hamstrung by the black-and-white code their piety equips them with.  Faced with a complex moral situation that seems to demand a more nuanced outlook — something other than good vs. evil, righteousness vs. sin, “with me” vs. “against me” — they have no idea what to do, and cannot reconcile their own inner opposing thoughts, if they have them (“the pose of thinking”), and are so petrified of being hypocrites, so they remain frozen and silent and cannot communicate with each other or anyone else.

Yet they both seem to be struggling against what their beliefs and values are telling them is right, though they can’t identify or name what it is inside them that’s struggling.  Very vague language.  “He felt a terrible inner resistance but could not feel what it was that it resisted.” “Something in him, though, some terrible weakness or lack of values, could not tell her. It felt like a muscle he did not have. He didn’t know why; he just could not do it, or even pray to do it.”

17. Third sentence from the end: “What would even Jesus do?” — Is this meant to be taken seriously?  It’s such a cliche now, a platitude; my first reaction when I hit the line was that now DFW was just being mean, having Lane think this in such a serious situation, resorting to such a t-shirt slogan.  But maybe it’s meant to be taken straight; perhaps the variation, the word “even”, suggests that it’s meant to be asked as a real question and removed from its cliche context.

18. “Sometimes they had prayed together over the phone, in a kind of half code in case anybody accidentally picked up the extension.”  Is this supposed to be funny?  Seems so poignant and sad and desperate despite its absurdity … praying in code, obscuring words that already probably obscure what they truly feel, what they truly want or need to communicate to one another.  Suggestion that prayer already is a kind of coded language, intended to be spoken but not comprehended?

Wow…we’ve got our work cut out for us

I wrote about this story last year on my Letters to DFW blog:
But reading the above analysis peels back so many more layers of the text. It is probably one of my favorite of his stories, and I’ll certainly be going back to read it again soon.

17 Feb 2011, 8:28am
by Tom Ruprecht


Really wonderful, Matt. I look forward to more of your thoughts on the novel!

Another small thing that hit me was the language DFW uses “balanced on a knife or wire” also carries with it abortion imagery both surgical and back alley.

Hi Matt.

Re: “What to make of Lane’s train image?”

I’d say that’s one of several direct allusions to Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” The image also functions independently, illustrating Lane’s tendency toward linear thinking (the ordered baseball diamond, religion) and the sense of inevitability or irrevocability we are to associate with pregnancy, consequences of life choices, etc. The nuances of the image really deepen when considered in light of how “Hills” deals with these themes.

[…] in his thoughts stuck out to me as a significant theme of some sort. I read an analysis here that I found really interesting. Would I read this story again? Probably not. To me, it’s one […]


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