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What about Ophelia?

About a month ago, when we were in the mid-400 page range, I wrote about how there was a lot of water imagery associated with Don Gately. I’ve kept kind of half an eye out for this ever since. We see a lot more of it in this week’s milestone (and, though not covered here, beyond):

  • “Gately’s outsized crib had been in the beach house’s little living room” (809)
  • “It seemed to him more like he kept coming up for air and then being pushed below the surface of something.” (809)
  • “Some things seem better left submerged. No?” (815, spoken by Tiny Ewell, however)
  • “He ran through the crazed breakers to deep warm water and submerged himself and stayed under until he ran out of breath… He kept coming up briefly for a great sucking breath and then going back under where it was warm and still.” (816)

On page 814, there’s sort of a hidden reference to water, as the confessional Tiny Ewell mentions Gately’s “reluctant se offendendo,” which phrase has a note that reads as follows:

Latin blunder for self-defense’s se defendendo is sic, either a befogged muddling of a professional legal term, or a post-Freudian slip, or (least likely) a very oblique and subtle jab at Gately from a Ewell intimate with the graveyard scene from Hamlet — namely V.i. 9.

Whether Ewell is making a jab here or not, Wallace is inviting us to take a look at the famous graveyard scene from which he borrows a phrase for the book’s title. I don’t know about you, but I always tend to focus on Hamlet himself during the graveyard scene. What occurred to me this time around, as I had water on the brain, is that the funeral procession that follows Hamlet’s graveyard pontification is for Ophelia (also the referent of the aforementioned se offendendo), a character who went mad and drowned — the hidden water reference I mentioned. The “se offendendo” here would be Ophelia’s self-offense (or suicide) or possibly Gately’s having gotten himself (through no fault of his own and for entirely noble reasons) into a rather self-offending position.

Beyond that link, I don’t know that there’s much kinship between Gately and Ophelia. Ophelia goes mad and incoherent after her father’s death and so does have a sort of kinship with Hal, though it’s never the kinship that springs to mind when reading the book (are we that afraid of crossing gender lines? Wallace sure isn’t). But kinship with Gately? With the water imagery and the pointer back to Ophelia in this Gately/Ewell interface, I can’t help thinking something’s going on here. I just haven’t figured out yet what it is. Thoughts?

  1. andthenyoufall
    September 9, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    This is very interesting, because I’ve been thinking that Hal is associated with being-underwater. (I think what follows is spoiler-safe, but I don’t really know. Is everyone else done yet?)

    The fulcrum of the water references is Lucien’s first attempt to speak on 488 (almost at the exact center of the novel). “…small natal cries escaping around the brown-glazed shaft, the strangled impeded sounds of absolute aphonia, the landed-fish gasps that accompany speechlessness in a dream…” And so on.

    This sounds a bit like Hal, of course, who is metaphorically unable to communicate throughout his life, but then by the Year of Glad is literally unable to communicate. But it’s not just coincidence. Roll the tape on n. 321, p. 1063, Hal’s nightmare:

    “It was the Leavenworth convict. The one you said had left the planet. The one belting out Ethel Merman.” …”A Rusk-level dream, Inc. A standard nobody-understands-me dream. The DMZ and the Mermanization were incidental.” …”It’s obvious everything’s pointing toward getting you in a cell belting out Mermanalia. Inc, I think your hinges are starting to squeak.”

    “Mermanization” – presumably, the process of becoming a M/merman – stands in at once for being unable to communicate, like the Leavenworth convict, and experience the dream aphonia of a drowning fish, of a beached merman. This is also what happens to the Little Mermaid, in both the classic fairytale and in the Disney version that came out right when Wallace started writing Infinite Jest.

    But I hadn’t associated water with Gately, nor had I connected drowning with Ophelia. Very interesting, worth thinking over more.

  2. September 9, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    There are certainly some similarities (later in the book, at least) between Hal and Gately. I didn’t pick up on the water associations with Hal, but they may very well be there. (He’s described as otter-like at some point in the book, for example.) The Merman equivocation is an interesting angle, though one I have a knee-jerk reaction against (not sure why). Oooh, I’ll temper my own knee-jerk reaction by proposing something that’s actually way more preposterous: The name “Ethel” is an anagram of “Lethe,” which is a Hadean river of oblivion also known as the river of unmindfulness. Try to tie that into the various Zen/koan(ish) type things in the book and you’ve got a theory worth knee-jerking over. 😉

    I think the Ethel Merman thing, seriously, is actually a (slightly) broader cultural reference. There’s the scene from Airplane, of course. I believe there’s also a similar thing (though not drug-induced) in The Fisher King (more water there, I guess). Maybe there are other instances as well.

    I think there’s definitely Gately-water stuff going on, and I could believe that there’s more Hal-water stuff going on than you report here. How the two intersect and whether the Ophelia reference (if it’s even an Ophelia reference) amounts to anything I’m still very far from knowing.

    Thanks for a neat comment.

  3. andthenyoufall
    September 9, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Ah. That’s so funny about Airplane! I was too young to understand when I saw it, I guess. That’s also echoed in the schizophrenic who believes he’s going to be used for scientific experiments, then.

    Also, from the beginning… “Sounded most of all like drowning goat. A goat, drowning in something viscous.” “This stangled series of bleats and -” … “His face. As if he was strangling. …” “He has some trouble communicating…” And then a bit later: “We witnessed something only marginally mammalian…”

    But really what does it for me is the Lucien Antitoi fish reference combined with using “Merman” as a verb…

  4. September 14, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    I don’t think it’s coincidence that JOI feeds Gately the word “LAERTES.” I think there’s a lot more textual evidence to support Gately as much more of the hotheaded, impetuous defender/protector type (Laertes) than the raving, obsessive melancholy type (Ophelia).

    The problem with doling out strict assignations of character analogues between Infinite Jest and Hamlet is that none of them really work in a neat and tidy way. I’m not sure they were supposed to map on to one another like that, although I haven’t been tracking it religiously.

    For example, take Avril, who you might naturally assume is meant to stand in for Queen Gertrude, but then reconcile this with the fact that there’s actually a Gertrude (spelled Gertraude, Marathe’s wife) in the story.

  5. September 14, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Oh, I agree completely. I’m glad you point out the Laertes reference, which I now remember seeing but had missed when thinking about this stuff. I also hadn’t associated Gertraude with Gertrude and don’t know how I missed it.

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