Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Degree Name

English (Literature)

Department or School/College

Department of English

Committee Chair

Brady Harrison

Commitee Members

Paul Dietrich, Robert Baker


Postmodern, Post-Postmodern, contemporary, The Pale King, David Foster Wallace, mysticism, religion, religion and literature, ethics, postsecular, spiritual practices, practices


University of Montana


Since its publication in 2011, critics have written about David Foster Wallace’s final, unfinished novel, The Pale King, by looking for resonances with his career-long interests of irony, alienation, and the text’s relation to the reader, but few have written of his final fiction as exhibiting a new approach to these topics. To further such criticism, I argue that in The Pale King Wallace uses new means – religious, and specifically mystic, vocabularies of experience – to seek ethical practices for living in a period heavily influenced by Postmodern irony. In the process, Wallace’s characters end up advocating a mystical both/and style of living-through both irony and sincerity, boredom and attention, loneliness and relation. In investigating Wallace’s work, I draw on the fields of Mystics, narrative ethics, Postsecularism, and (Post)Postmodern literary studies to show the valences of cultural interest at play in Wallace’s fictional world. Throughout my main chapter, I discuss how Wallace premises his characters’ routinized lives as IRS employees on the concept of boredom and its relationships with capitalism and mysticism. While many characters have become accustomed to boredom’s ubiquitous presence, some characters respond to pervasive alienation by seeking practices tinged with mystical overtones to center their living around, such as the practice of personal relationship, experiences of grace, or self-made ascetic rituals. Throughout my explication of these themes, I show how Wallace importantly mirrors his treatments of boredom with his formal choices as well. In my final section, I write toward a speculative explanation of these formal oddities: the reader’s metafictional involvement in both boredom-filled living and spiritual practices, an endeavor linked to the connection between life and literature that Wallace emphasized throughout his career. In my conclusion, I write of my hesitation to identify as a postsecular critic: namely, Postsecularism’s lack of interest in collective spiritual practices, a perspective shared by Wallace. As a result, I point to some contemporary writers who share Wallace’s interests in finding the ethical link between life and literature through reimagining spiritual practices, whose work may develop Wallace’s focus on individual experiences toward a collective vision.



© Copyright 2014 Jeremy Reed