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Visuality, Reflection and Love in “Little Expressionless Animals”

by Deanna Duxbury

Julie and Faye’s relationship, in David Foster Wallace’s “Little Expressionless Animals,” is surrounded by images of glass, mirrors, and reflection. David Foster Wallace delves into themes of visuality and desire through Julie and Faye, as he describes these two radically different individuals, both of whom experience freedom, visuality, and love in different ways. Faye resides in a glass apartment, and uses this space as a sanctuary from her job, family, and feelings of social inadequacy because of her sexuality. Julie, on the other hand, craves expression and reflection, and deeply desires to fill the blankness she feels due to her traumatic past. She participates on the game show, Jeopardy!, where Faye works, and only comes alive when she is in front of the camera. By exploring the way reflection and visuality operate differently for these two lovers, one can discover the complexities and contrasts within their relationship. Ultimately, the symbolic representations of glass, reflective surfaces, and overall opposing interpretations of visuality between these two characters reveal how incompatible the lovers are to each other, despite their desperate desire to be close.

Glass is a liberating material. A glass apartment represents what Julie claims she loves so much about Faye: “the obvious” (Wallace 13). The glass apartment Faye owns allows her to see clearly without prejudice. Furthermore, a glass surface blends the interior and exterior in a way that is entirely unique. The glass walls reflect and reveal images from the inside and outside simultaneously, allowing one to witness their own reflection and the outside world on the surface of the glass. In Faye’s perspective glass is both a substance that allows one to see clearly and to connect with what is outside, and it also operates as a barrier from what is outside. Mirrors, on the other hand, merely provide a reflection and representation of the viewer. Wallace circles the character of Julie with distorted imagery (of mirrors, televisions, cameras and masks) that differs starkly from Faye’s character.

Julie has difficulty facing her own reflection; she demands so much from those she sees as a way of searching for a sense of self. Faye seeks a place of solace and safety — one less obscure and abstract than within her familial relationships — with a dependable partner who adds meaning to her life. She admits to Julie that she feels her workspace is a “tiny and sordid and claustrophobic little community” (Wallace 38). Conversely, the glass apartment becomes a space of independence and freedom, away from the toxic environment of her work. The first mention of the glass apartment establishes Faye’s home as a lovers’ getaway, in which she and Julie share superficial information and make love. David Foster Wallace writes this first glimpse into Julie and Faye’s relationship as if the reader is part of an audience looking in on the two lovers with detached interest. Wallace informs the reader that their interaction is, in fact, “incredibly romantic,” giving the reader more clarification on the state of their early relationship and confirming their happiness in the beginning of the story (Wallace 4). It is an unreal scene encapsulated and separated from time and reality.

The second instance where the glass apartment is invoked is when the producers of the show threaten Faye to keep her romantic relationship with Julie a secret: the “shiny man” tells Faye, “Let’s keep our dirty linen a private matter…So I say you keep your lovely glass apartment that I hear so much about” (Wallace 28). The producer targets Faye and threatens her home before threatening her livelihood or any other possession. This affirms the glass apartment Faye owns as being an incredibly valuable space that Faye is willing to protect. Here, the reader is not within or about the glass house — it’s simply an idea of a space put in jeopardy (a reference to the way Faye is trapped within the game show that she works for). Ultimately, Faye finds comfort in the glass walls that separate her from the outside world without truly caging her in.

The ideas of reflection, obviousness, seeing, and being seen are constantly surrounding Faye and Julie. Aside from the glass apartment, reflection and various kinds of visuality throughout the short story remain relevant to the lovers’ developing relationship. Faye and Julie share two seperate moment of intimacy away from the Jeopardy! television show. In both instances, as the lovers are trading stories and trying to become closer, the places they “visit” are described as “glassy.” They walk along the beach as Faye watches the “glassy tidal pool” (Wallace 12), and later, in the second instance, the sky “shines in its own sun, glassy as aftershave” (Wallace 33).  These instances, wherein the lovers share stories and appear to be growing close, only ever touch the surface of the issues they face. The repetition of glass imagery allows the reader to question how well one can actually get a glimpse into the characters. More importantly, it makes the reader question just how well the characters of Faye and Julie truly get a glimpse into each other.

Though Julie loves “obviousness”, she is incredibly cold and evasive. She is described as being “loose and expressionless” with “trouble reacting to stimuli” when first appearing on the game show (Wallace 17). It is only when the camera turns to her that “the girl who stares with no expression…is gone” and that “every concavity…looks to have come convex” (Wallace 17). This is a reference within itself, as Wallace turns to Ashbery’s third stanza of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.”  The poem mirrors the way Wallace describes Julie’s ideas of reflection and self-image as Wallace writes about how she is manipulated by the media and camera work on Jeopardy!. Ashbery writes that “in a convex mirror…the reflection is the portrait once removed / The glass chose to reflect only what he saw / Which was enough for his purpose: his image / Glazed, embalmed, projected at a 180-degree angle” (12-21). This magnification and distortion relates directly to Julie’s experience in front of the camera as she becomes someone entirely new and extraordinary. She comes alive for the TV audience. Julie’s connection to the poem is referenced at a distance by Wallace when Faye and Julie discuss the meaning of poetry itself: Faye comments, “I’ve just never liked [poetry]. It beats around bushes. Even when I like it it’s nothing more than a really oblique way of saying the obvious.” Julie responds by informing Faye, “Very few of us have the equipment to deal with the obvious” (Wallace 13).

Faye and Julie discuss their homosexuality lightly at first, incorporating humour by imagining different conversations they could have and stories they could tell to “justify” their sexual preference to others. This conversation breaks out into anecdotes that Faye calls “mask theories” (Wallace 33). These stories become increasingly more vulnerable and painful, revealing distinct differences between how Julie and Faye interpret love, fear, and self-identity.  Admittedly, this early “stage” of light sharing is one they never leave. While they continue to date, they never allow their relationship to become deeper than this initial, introductory behaviour. Though this is a game between them, their fictional stories reveal their fears and that the way they find image and visuality can be deceiving and cruel. This whole exchange starts with Julie’s comment on love: “Say the whole point of love is to try to get your fingers through the holes of your lovers mask, and who cares how you do it” (Wallace 32). Except, Julie is the one hiding. She’s evasive and maintains a “cold” smile whilst Faye is desperately trying to reach out to her for comfort (Wallace 33).

When Faye takes over Julie’s “makeup” and they force themselves to only see each other through the “mirror bordered with bulbs,” it becomes clear why Julie needs “expression” and dislikes men and animals (41). She tries to explain to Faye that oceans are “obvious”, and that they are only oceans “when they move”, just like female “expression” (Wallace 41). This is another reference, from Wallace, to the Ashbery poem. Ashbery writes that the reflection is “lively and intact in a recurring wave” from which “the soul establishes itself” (Ashbery). The abandonment and neglect Julie experienced as a child directly relates to how, in her adult life, Julie craves the attention of others. When her mother left her on the side of the road, looking into the eyes of the cows as they grazed, Julie became obsessed with how she could find no compassion or empathy from the creatures looking back at her (Wallace 3, 41). She found them “blank and silent”, just like the men her mother would sleep with when she was younger (Wallace 10). Julie sees women differently, as creatures that are “obvious” (Wallace 41). Faye is “obvious” to Julie because her face moves like a “poem” or an “ocean”; it gives up its “shape in a gesture that expresses that shape” (Wallace 42). Julie’s greatest fear is looking into someone or something else and finding nothing because she has a deep set, personal fear of internal emptiness.

In Julie’s perspective, women can more readily provide her with the emotional affirmation she needs. Julie needed the mask of makeup, the mirrors, and the cameras to be able to express memories and feelings of her own. The story has a tragic ending because the reader feels the emptiness of the relationship in Julie and Faye’s final interaction. Julie is “looking” at Faye and asking her to “see”, but Faye can only reply, “You don’t like my face at rest?” (Wallace 42). Wallace ends the story with the inevitably of Julie’s defeat in Jeopardy! as well as with the break-up between Julie and Faye. Their relationship cannot complement the emotional emptiness Julie experiences, and it becomes obvious that no partner will ever be able to complete Julie. Wallace closes the short story with an image of longing as Julie looks out into the crowd and searches for approval, connection, and an affirmation of self: “Julie and the audience look at each other” (Wallace 42). In many ways, Faye could not satisfy Julie’s desire for a mirror, for Julie desperately needed something or someone that she could look into and see a whole image of herself.

Faye’s and Julie’s polarizing understandings of love through visuality create a barrier between them that prohibits them from reaching any further closeness or understanding. They are romantically superficial, but desperately attempt to reach out through anecdotes, light humour, and outlandish declarations on what they each expect from romance. By the end of the story, they reach the deepest part of their relationship, but this ends up being the end, rather than the peak, of closeness. Wallace categorizes this level of a relationship as when “each observes the relation between what the other says she believes and what she in fact does,” (Wallace 10). The themes of reflection and visuality in Faye and Julie’s relationship reveal that their desires clash and that they cannot reach a level of clarity and communication that sustains a healthy relationship. Moreso, this relationship acts as a device to contrast and compare the experiences of these two characters; it exposes their desires, the modes of visuality at play within the story, and the way they each see and are seen.  

Work Cited

Wallace, David Foster. “Little Expressionless Animals.” Girl With Curious Hair. Abacus, 1997. Print. 

Ashbery, John. “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: Poems. Penguin Books, 2009. Print.

Photo: “Residential street in downtown Savannah Georgia” by Paul Giamou.