David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good People” uses the themes of division, isolation, and loneliness to suggest how communication can overcomes these psychological problems. These themes, prominent in the story of a young couple struggling with how to react to an unwanted pregnancy, are present in many of Wallace’s stories, and come from his own struggles and literary influences.
The nature of division versus unity in the story is manifested in many basic as well as complex ways. The central tension of the story comes from the position of the unborn child that Sheri Fisher is carrying. The tension comes from the fact that Lane Dean and Fisher must decide whether Fisher and the child should remain physically united or be permanently divided; to have the child would represent a permanent unity of family at least between Fisher and the child, while an abortion would be a permanent division.
The two main characters are also deeply divided based on their perspective. Lane Dean, the male character, “was trying to say things that would get her to open up and say enough back that he could see her and read her heart and know what to say to get her to go through with it” (Wallace). Dean is at once divided from Fisher, his girlfriend, because his perspective is apparently different from hers. He is sure that he wants her to get the abortion, while she appears unsure. They are further divided because to Dean, his girlfriend is “blank and hidden” (Wallace), meaning that Dean does not know what Fisher is thinking or feeling. The two characters, therefore, can be considered isolated from each other.
Division is present in imagery as well. Their shadows become “a two-headed thing in the grass before them”. A downed tree in the shallows of the lake is “half hidden” and later it is a “cloud of branches all half in the water “The narration also presents the image of a downed tree being divided and divided into pieces as after a recent storm Dean had heard “the sound of chainsaws all up and down his parent’s street.” Dean also fantasizes about “an image of himself on a train, waving mechanically to something that got smaller and smaller as the train pulled away”. This image clearly shows Dean becoming separated from something he wishes to leave; the “mechanic” waving implies a lack of enthusiasm, in turn implying that the journey away from the thing on the platform is a separation that Dean desires.
Dean is also very seriously divided within himself. He feels himself to be “two-hearted, a hypocrite”. He is divided as well between his belief in “a living God of compassion and love and the possibility of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and the dark side of the Christian God that relates to the possibility of eternal damnation to Hell, as he starts to envision “the edge or outline of what a real vision of Hell might be”. Further, the vision he has of Hell is one of great personal internal division. The vision was:
“…of two great and terrible armies within himself, opposed and facing each other, silent… 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… frozen like that, opposed and uncomprehending, for all human time.”
This passage presents the theme of division, but also the motifs of frozenness and stillness, which relate to isolation. Dean “hated himself for sitting so frozen” and being unable to help the situation with Fisher. He knows “something was required of him that was not this terrible frozen care and caution”. This shows the relationship between frozenness and an inability to fluidly or fluently express oneself. Dean wants to communicate clearly with Fisher, but, as illustrated above, they are isolated from each other. Frozenness is also a trait that Dean associates with “the blank frozenness of his father, even in church, which had once filled him with such pity”. Frozenness and isolation was something that Dean once pitied, and is something that is especially pitiful in church, which to Dean was a place that, again, had to do with his benevolent, loving God and a personal, communicative and therefore not-frozen relationship with Jesus.
Wallace further associates frozenness with uncommunicativeness or division and isolation through Dean’s relationship with God. Dean immediately feels something similar to frozenness or division from others, a “terrible kind of blankness,” when he first finds out about the pregnancy, which is related to his true feelings about the pregnancy: that he wants Fisher to have the abortion. “He knew this without admitting to himself that this was what he wanted, for it would make him a hypocrite and liar”. This desire within himself here divides him from himself, and then divides him from God, which is where the idea of being a hypocrite comes from; “he kept thinking also of 1 Timothy and the hypocrite therein”. Elsewhere Wallace writes that Dean “had awakened early and tried to pray but could not. He was freezing more and more solid”.
The story ends with a big change: the isolation and frozenness of individuals begins to thaw through communication, which helps to bring about a rapprochement between divided parts of a whole. As the story comes to a close, Dean is suddenly “answered,” or communicated with, with a “vision of moment of grace”. This communication allows him to break the frozen distance and separation between him and Fisher, suddenly allowing him to see, “into Sheri’s heart”. Fisher would hold his hands and “make him look at her” “to unfreeze him,” in other words using communication to break the frozenness of isolation. She is suddenly no longer divided within herself; “with her gaze clear and steady” she decides to have the baby.
As this happens, another divide in the setting changes its nature. The other side of the lake represents the duality of the lake’s two sides. Further, Dean characterizes the people on the other side according to their differentness as “blacks”. After Fisher and Dean begin to communicate, closing divides and thawing frozen isolation, “one of the opposite side’s blacks raises his arm in what may be greeting”. The duality of the sides of the lake is also being overcome through communication.
Meanwhile, between the time that Dean hears Fisher’s conclusion and decides how to react, he is “neither frozen nor yet moving,” implying that the communication has unfrozen him and that to begin the journey to the opposite of frozenness and isolation he must “move” and communicate back to Fisher. He is ultimately “moved by pity”, which shows that emotional communication breaks the spell of frozenness and isolation. The story ends with unity and division overcome, at least temporarily. Dean finds a single truth: that he just needs to have “simple courage” to unify himself with Fisher and decide that he can live with her and perhaps love her. He finds union with his values as his prayer for courage reflects his thoughts on “what would Jesus even do?” The last phrase of the story is pure unity and therefore relief for Dean: “to meet both her eyes as she says it and trust his heart”. Dean and Fisher are unified in their gaze and Dean has overcome his internal divisions to “trust his heart.”
The story revolves around the tension of isolation and internal division and its resolution through communication. The themes in this short story that allowed Wallace to do this were heavily influenced by Wallace’s relationship with another author, R. D. Laing. Laing investigated “the divided self” and how the divided self can be overcome by achieving a “real, whole, alive personal identity” (Brick 71). Laing’s divided person “experiences a rent in his relation with the world” (Brick 71). Wallace was substantially influenced by Liang in the theme of “the resistance to genuine interaction with other individuals, and specifically that this comes about as a result of anxious self-consciousness” (Brick 71). In “Good People,” Dean’s character, as described above, becomes “frozen” and isolated as soon as he hears about the pregnancy because he knows he wants the abortion but does not want to admit this to himself as this violates his principles. He fears being a hypocrite, and this gives him the “anxious self-consciousness” that results in his inability to genuinely communicate with Fisher and even with God through prayer.
Indeed, Wallace was obsessed with the relationship between communication and loneliness or isolation throughout his career (Phillips 680). He wrote that communication is often a “charade” and that language isolates people because “what goes on inside is just too fast and huge… for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines” (Phillips 680). Wallace’s struggles with depression and loneliness, Phillips says, lent these themes to his work, and his vocation as a writer led him to meditate on how communication relates to these themes (Phillips 681-2).
“Good People” is about how communication, isolation, loneliness, and division are all interconnected. Dean begins divided from his values and his girlfriend, frozen into non-communication. He ends the story united with her, after communication helps him thaw and overcome his divisions. This reflects broader themes that reappear throughout Wallace’s work, and that come from Wallace’s literary influences and his personal experience with depression, loneliness, and communication.