Allard den Dulk
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‘What all she’d so painfully learned said about her’
A comparative reading of David Foster Wallace’s ‘The Depressed Person’ and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground
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This chapter argues that David Foster Wallace’s ‘The Depressed Person’ (1998/1999) and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864) offer a comparable cultural critique and approach to casting critical-philosophical ideas into fiction. Dostoevsky is an important example for Wallace that some philosophical problems are best approached through literature; in both authors’ works, philosophy and literature are partly overlapping activities. However, despite these affinities, the connections between their fiction have so far remained under-researched. Furthermore, most critics have interpreted ‘The Depressed Person’ as expressing a supposedly inevitable failure of language and communication. This chapter argues against such interpretations, through a comparative close reading with Dostoevsky’s novella, tracing shared themes, motifs, and formal traits. Both texts portray their protagonists as a type, as an embodiment of the tendencies of their respective cultural formations. These tendencies foster hyperconsciousness, scepticism and spite, which lead to both protagonists’ distrust of communication, of successfully explaining themselves, that scholars have mistakenly interpreted as the view expressed by Wallace’s story as a whole. While the protagonists of ‘The Depressed Person’ and Notes from Underground fail to realize communication and empathy, the fictions of which they are part do achieve this and serve to make readers aware of their role in the realization thereof.

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