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Sentence Dissection: ‘The Pale King’ by David Foster Wallace

Updated: Jan 2

The following is a passage (hence more than one sentence, so sue me for a misleading title if you must) from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King:

‘What he’d do, he’d never go out to the length of the chain. He’d never even get out to where the chain got tight. Even if the mailman pulled up, or a salesman. Out of dignity, this dog pretended like he chose this one area to stay in that just happened to be inside the length of the chain. Nothing outside of that area right there interested him. He just had zero interest. So he never noticed the chain. He didn’t hate it. The chain. He just up and made it not relevant. Maybe he wasn’t pretending – maybe he really up and chose that little circle for his own world. He had a power to him. All of his life on that chain.’

It's a harrowing passage packed full of an inspiring spirit. Here’s a dog, his life restricted by a chain, and yet he asserts control over his situation, striving to become the dictator of his fate as opposed to allowing the chain to hold that power.

Of course, the chain’s might is unavoidable.

The dog’s mental struggle against his oppressor is felt in every fiber of the passage. Us feeling that struggle relies predominantly on two strategies: Foster Wallace’s use of short sentences, and what a teacher of mine once termed perhapsing.

Short Sentences

By short sentences, what I really mean is that the passage is brilliantly paced, but I label this section ‘Short Sentences’ because a series of quick, definitive lines in the passage’s second half take ultimate and full advantage of the pacing while assertively driving home the passage’s main point.

None of the passage’s initial sentences are particularly long, but neither are they conspicuously short. The first sentence has two clauses, the second sentence one, and the following three lines could be regarded as either short, medium, or long sentences, depending on your perspective.

It’s no hidden trick that writers modulate sentence length for various effects, but here that modulation runs deeper. Our passage’s main character, a dog, is chained up. Is that chain long? Short? Medium length? We can’t be certain. By varying the sentence lengths, Foster Wallace is asking us to consider the length of the chain, although ultimately the exact length doesn’t matter. A chain is a chain. A restraint is a restraint. Even if you never care to go farther than your chain allows, it’s demoralizing to be controlled like that, to never even have the option to venture beyond what someone or something else permits to be possible.

Which means that, physical length aside, the chain is too short. Any length of chain would be too short. The power of the chain resides not in the distance the dog is able to travel, with a long chain being a kinder oppressor than a short chain. The power of the chain, of any chain of any length, is that it imposes restriction.

But this is no weak dog. Mentally, this dog fights back.

After those initial sentences, Foster Wallace hits us with five consecutive short lines:

‘He just had zero interest. So he never noticed the chain. He didn’t hate it. The chain. He just up and made it not relevant.’

It is within these five lines that we assume the dog’s situation, with the short sentences acting as our chain. This invitation to empathy allows us to feel the dog’s true power. We experience the dog choosing to ignore the chain, deciding that what constrains his outer life will not dictate his inner life.

The passage’s earlier use of the word ‘dignity’ looms large, as does ‘pretended’.

After these five consecutive short sentences, we get a long sentence before Foster Wallace launches us right back into two short sentences to finish things off:

‘He had a power to him. All of his life on that chain.’

Again the sentences stop us short. We are held back by the writer’s chain, as these back-to-back lines remind us that this dog is strong, and powerful, but life – while it may seem to be at times, and while the dog strives for it to be – is never truly lived on his own terms. The chain’s ultimate power, and the power of these sentences, comes from being short.


Breaking up the passage’s seven short sentences in its second half is a longer line, where an instance of perhapsing occurs:

‘Maybe he wasn’t pretending – maybe he really up and chose that little circle for his own world.’

Up until this point, every sentence has been grounded in reality. Each statement has been declarative and has asserted trustworthy truths about this dog, his poor situation, and the positive strength of his mind.

Then this perhapsing comes along, cued by the use of ‘maybe’, and with it doubt. If this dog is so sure of himself, so proud of his territory, then maybe the chain isn’t a big deal. Maybe he really did choose this place and to have only a little circle of world. Maybe all our feelings of the dog’s contrived happiness being a lie were false and this dog really is happy.

Thanks to this doubt, we experience a brief moment of happiness. We are granted relief from the dog’s existential pain and are invited to believe that instead of being oppressed he lives a good life. In fact, he chose this life. He wants a small world. He doesn’t want to run out to greet the mailman or to put fun scares into door-to-door salesmen. No, this dog prefers to know his place, for that place to be small, and to stick to it.

Sounds like every dog you’ve ever met, right?

We know that happiness is not the true foundation of this dog’s life, but in perhapsing we can imagine the dog’s world to be the way we’d like it to be. That’s a world in which the dog is happy and not cruelly held back by forces outside of his control. We know this ideal world is not the reality, but for a moment we’re glad that it’s what we’re allowing ourselves to believe, if only because this moment of optimism on the dog’s behalf allows us to go on, whether in life or simply on to the passage’s next line. There is mercy in Foster Wallace offering us this perhapsing. There is also the dog’s true power.

The true power of this dog is in his pretending that his situation is better than it is. Thanks to the perhapsing, we enter the dog’s mind – as we are now, just like the dog, pretending – a place from which we can more fully believe that a dog on a chain can believe to have chosen a way of life that a chain has so clearly chosen for him.

It’s not a happy power, or even entirely true or absolute, but it does speak to the dog’s character, and to the difficult ability to conjure strength in the face of insurmountable oppression.

The dog’s power is in retaining a glimmer of hope amidst an impossible situation.

That’s why I love this passage. While I want the dog to be wild and happy and free, his struggle is an important representation of something greater. Slaves from Africa. Jews in the Holocaust. Uighurs right now in China. Since time immemorial, there has been suppression, chains, the wrongful holding back of lives that not only want, but deserve to be free.

And yet, since time immemorial, there have always been people just like our dog on that chain. Despite the cruelness of their lives, in their minds these people discovered ways to be happy, or to at least make sense of their worlds, to cultivate as much power and dignity as possible. By no means did their mental heroics make their situations technically better, nor should their mental heroics have rendered their oppression easier for anyone to condone, but these mindsets allowed these people to do more than just survive. These mindsets allowed these people to be strong in the face of oppression, to be conquerors of their chains, and thus to live with some modicum of dignity.

These mindsets allowed them to do more than merely suffer. They allowed them to live, even if that living should have been so much better.

Perhaps DNA does not pass along traits such as strength of mind or the inner fight necessary to overcome life’s greatest challenges, but I like to believe that it does. That may be pretending on my part, but is it so bad to pretend that generations of people who found ways to be strong despite their chains have allowed so many of us to be strong now? Because of them, we can better notice chains, especially the ones that hide all too easily in plain sight. Because of them, we stand a much better chance of setting trapped hearts free.

Click here to purchase The Pale King by David Foster Wallace.

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