Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way

“Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” is a short story that acts as a Rosetta stone for interpreting David Foster Wallace. It encapsulates much of what he tried to do in his writing.

This is mostly meant to be a direct continuation of the last post on preparing to read Infinite Jest.

But there is so much to say about the importance of this short story that I needed a full post to do it. I will try to stick to this thesis, but I get so excited about unraveling all the complexities and parallels in this story that I may wander off at times.

This story may, in fact, be more complicated and difficult to read than Infinite Jest, so be warned.


Basic Concept

girl with curious hair

Let’s start with the basics. The main character is a writer that wants to write a new type of fiction. He claims that it will use the old metafictional devices, but also move past it and stab the reader in the heart.

We already saw this idea in the other short stories, but this story is a way for DFW to tell us how he intends to do it. In other words, it serves as a reader’s guide to Infinite Jest.

That’s why this story is so important for prep material (if you choose to do such a thing).

What is going on takes a moment to digest. Here goes.

Plot Summary

“Westward” is a criticism of the shortcomings of metafiction. But it is a metafictional story using those very devices to do the criticism.

The main critique is of Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.” To do this, Barth is literally a character in the story as Professor Ambrose who wrote the aforementioned story (LitF from now on, because that is getting annoying to type), but this time it is an autobiographical nonfiction work instead of Barth’s fiction (recall that the main character of LitF is Ambrose).

Summary: Prof Ambrose wrote LitF in DFW’s story and is leading a writing workshop.

Ambrose (despite being a “real” character already) from LitF is fictionalized as Mark, the main character in “Westward …” through a retelling of LitF.

LitF is a story about Ambrose travelling to Ocean City and getting lost in a funhouse at the amusement park. DFW uses wordplay in the retelling and has Mark travelling to a McDonald’s commercial actors reunion where there will (of course!) be a Ronald McDonald “funhouse.”

I’m going to cut myself off there.

I trust that if you’ve read LitF, and you take some time to meditate on the above two paragraphs until it stops being so confusing, then you can continue to unravel this ridiculously convoluted metaphor and story within a story that is a retelling of that story (which is already in the story …).

Stop. I must stop.

But it is just so much fun to unravel (for example, the funhouse in LitF is being franchised which is an insult that post-modernism has become commercial).

So what is DFW trying to tell us?

Finding Meaning in All This

Well, Barth uses his story to tell us how he sees metafiction.

His metaphor is the funhouse of mirrors. In LitF he writes:

In a funhouse mirror-room you can’t see yourself go on forever, because no matter how you stand your head gets in the way.

This is the exact type of critical theory conundrum that DFW faces. He wants to affect the reader. But words and texts and people’s thoughts (i.e. “heads”) are always in the way. You can’t ever truly get to the person.

DFW’s metaphor is a bow and arrow, because Mark, the main character, is a professional archer.

He has a beautiful description in “Westward …” of how an archer must take into account that the arrow doesn’t fly true. So to hit the bullseye, the archer actually makes adjustments ahead of time, aims off-center, and ends up hitting the center.

He’s saying that Barth can’t hit the reader, because he’s aiming at the wrong place: the head. Writers that strike at the reader’s heart also fall short, because they aim at it too directly.

This new type of fiction will take this into account and aim in between. The result will be a piercing of the reader’s heart in a new and more serious way.

westward the course of empire takes its way

More Layers

Mark’s girlfriend is post-modernist writer in Ambrose’s workshop. Without going too far into it, the thing to pay attention to with her is that she is the epitome of the type of metafiction that DFW wants to do away with.

Remember, DFW wants to keep some metafiction and throw out other parts to invent a new type of fiction. This character is a guide to the parts he wants thrown out.

This is a long story, and so I can’t help you through every detail.

Another general principle to keep in mind while interpreting this is that the arrow is meant to be a stand-in for the pen. So when the arrow “kills” things/people, you should figure out what those things/people are representing.

The symbols

For example, Mark writes a story about a person named Dave (oh no, Mark who is Ambrose is a stand-in for DFW writes a work of “new fiction” with Dave as its main character …).

Dave has a lover named L– (presumably meant to be “literature”). But L– commits suicide (as the post-modernists brought the death of literature) with the arrow.

Dave is innocent, but feels guilty and hence admits that (after translation out of the metaphor) his writing helped bring about the death of literature. Of course, Mark makes an appearance in this story that he wrote causing yet another story within the story with a character as the person that wrote the story, but also a stand-in for someone else (which sets up a weird endless loop that DFW is Mark, Mark is Dave, and Dave is DFW …).

I seem to be losing my way again, so I’ll end this line of thought.

Hopefully you have a bit of a feel for what “Westward …” is doing. I’ll end this post by going through my thoroughly well-worn copy of the story and pulling the quotes that I think are the most important to focus on for understanding how and why DFW wrote Infinite Jest.

Closing Thoughts

…they want to build a Funhouse for lovers out of a story that does not love. J.D. himself had said the story doesn’t love, no? Yes. However, Mark postulates that Steelritter is only half-right. The story does not love, but this is precisely because it is not cruel…. The way to make a story a Funhouse is to put the story itself in one. For a lover. Make the reader a lover, who wants to be inside.

Please don’t tell anybody, but Mark Nechtr desires, some distant hard-earned day, to write something that stabs you in the heart. That pierces you, makes you think you’re going to die…. The stuff would probably use metafiction as a bright smiling disguise, a harmless floppy-shoed costume, because metafiction is safe to read, familiar as syndication; and no victim is as delicious as the one who smiles in relief at your familiar approach.

Barth’s LitF famously opens with, “For whom is the funhouse fun? Perhaps for lovers. For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion.”

DFW turns it around and beautifully sums up what he is doing with his closing lines:

For whom?
You are loved.

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