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Trauma in the Syntax: Trauma Writing in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

posted on 27.07.2021, 01:30 by Alyssa Caroline FernandezAlyssa Caroline Fernandez

This project presents a case study of postmodern trauma, working at the boundaries of the humanities and computer science to produce an in-depth examination of trauma writing in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. The goal of this project is to examine the intricacies of syntax and language in postmodern trauma writing through an iterative process I refer to as broken reading, which combines traditional humanities methodologies (close reading) and distant, computational methodologies (Natural Language Processing). Broken reading begins with close reading, then ventures into the distant reading processes of sentiment analysis and entity analysis, and then returns again to close reading when the data must be analyzed and the broken computational elements must be corrected. While examining the syntactical structure of traumatic and non-traumatic passages through this broken reading methodology, I found that Wallace represents trauma as gendered. The male characters in the novel, when recollecting past traumata or undergoing traumatic events, maintain their subject status, recognize those around them as subjects, and are able to engage actively with the world around them. On the other hand, the female characters in the novel are depicted as lacking the same capacities for subjectivity and action. Through computational text analysis, it becomes clear that Wallace writes female trauma in a way that reflects their lack of agency and subjectivity while he writes male trauma in a way that maintains their agency and subjectivity. Through close reading, I was able to discover qualitative differences in Wallace’s representations of trauma and form initial observations about syntactical and linguistic patterns; through distant reading, I was able to quantify the differences I uncovered through close reading by conducting part of speech tagging, entity analysis, semantic analysis, and sentiment analysis. Distant reading led me to discover elements of the text that I had not noticed previously, despite the occasional flaw in computation. The analyses I produced through this broken reading process grew richer because of failure—when I failed as an interpreter, and when computational analysis failed, these failures gave me further insight into the trauma writing within the novel. Ultimately, there are marked syntactical and linguistic differences between the way that Wallace represents male and female trauma, which points toward the larger question of whether other white male postmodern authors gender trauma in their writings, too. This study has generated a prototype model for the broken reading methodology, which can be used to further examine postmodern trauma writing.


Degree Type

Master of Arts



Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Kristina Bross

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee co-chair

Matthew Hannah

Additional Committee Member 2

Dino Felluga