David Foster Wallace on Dostoevsky’s characters

“[…] Dostoevsky wrote fiction about the stuff that’s really important. He wrote fiction about identity, moral value, death, will, sexual vs. spiritual love, greed, freedom, obsession, reason, faith, suicide. And he did it without ever reducing his characters to mouthpieces or his books to tracts. His concern was always what it is to be a human being—that is, how to be an actual person someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal.”

— David Foster Wallace, ‘Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky’


  1. It hit me harder, than I would have thought it could, when he ended himself; I’m not ashamed to say I teared up, a little, off and on for most of that day. I always felt DFW was torn-in-two, by cardinally mutually-exclusive directions; he was problematized by his class and the era. On the one hand, he was a mercilessly brainy, über-competitive jock… on the other, he tried to play the Sensitive/ Inclusive/ Patient/ Humble/ non-judgmental guide. I knew both types in college but never a character being both! The heart of his Art was judgmental-as-fuck, I felt… and stronger for it… you can’t make good soup with lukewarm water… but then he’d speak, on camera, in yoga-instructor tones. I wish he’d lived to be the chuckling, brilliant, truth-telling curmudgeon he could have been! If only his chemicals had allowed that!


    • Yes, it was such a sad loss.

      It’s funny you mention his on camera persona, since it’s something I was thinking about this week. I was watching his appearance on Charlie Rose, and was struck by his vocal delivery. I wasn’t aware of his class status, but I’m glad you brought it up: it’s something I’ll definitely be thinking about in future.

      I always liked the way he championed popular writers like Stephen King, alongside the more established “Serious Novelists” like DeLillo or Kafka or, wouldn’t-you-know-it, Dostoevsky. It’s a shame that there aren’t more writers and cultural critics out there who can promote such a broad range without condescending to their audience.

      Thanks for your comment.



      • I *love* that Rose interview… I love how Franzen trembles like a mouse at a cat’s table with DFW holding forth. You can see more of the killer jock in DFW there… but have you seen that extremely long interview with the German student he gave? Very different, almost stutteringly deferential DFW (I’ll have to try to find that again). He wasn’t plutocrat class but he was raised upper-middle enough to have that noblesse oblige thing going. One more thing: has anyone ever mentioned DFW’s debt to (drum roll) Monty Python? Watch the marriage-counselor sketch (“Arthur Pewty”) and the detail-manic, neurotically over-qualifying literary style of Pewty’s delivery. I thought of it because Python was hugely influential, from the ’70s on, among “brainy” and nerdy (verbose) high school and college types; there’s a sort of cultural continuity there that any literate nerd who went to college in the ’80s or ’90s would recognize


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