A Vulgar Reality: Dave Eggers' Use of Profanity to Develop a Character

In the following essay, C.K. describes how author Dave Eggers puts to use the element of profanity to convey a well-developed main character in his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Every human being suffers. It is an inevitable fact that is acknowledged by even the most optimistic of people. In the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers communicates his experience with suffering to the reader. While the characters in this memoir are not fictitious, Eggers does develop them in a way that is true to his writing style, and more honest than a reserved description of those he has encountered throughout his experiences. The memoir is generally an account of two deaths that Eggers faces, those two deaths being the deaths of both of his parents. While coping with both losses, Eggers also must endure parenthood in an odd form. His younger brother, Christopher, who is more often than not referred to as “Toph,” is put under his care, and Eggers must deal with his own depression while furthermore fulfilling the needs of a seven-year-old boy devoid of parents. To illustrate the most honest depiction of himself and to better demonstrate the effects of certain events on his being, Eggers does not refrain from using profanity in his work. While the profanity may be slightly excessive at times, it is used to exemplify the true, raw feelings that he experiences.

When Eggers recalls the times when his mother was ill and nearing her time of death, the profanity used reveals his fears of what is to come, and the anger that he has towards no one in particular because of his mothers illness.

“But six months later she began to have pain again—Was it indigestion? It could just be indigestion, of course, the burping and the pain, the leaning over the kitchen table at dinner; people have indigestion; people take Tums; Hey Mom, should I get some Tums?—but when she went in again, and they had “opened her up”—a phrase they used—and had looked inside, it was staring out at them, at the doctors, like a thousand writhing worms under a rock, swarming, shimmering, wet and oily—Good God!—or maybe not like worms but like a million little podules, each a tiny city of cancer, each with an unruly, sprawling, environmentally careless citizenry with no zoning laws whatsoever. When the doctor opened her up, and there was suddenly light thrown upon the world of cancer-podules, they were annoyed by the disturbance, and defiant. Turn off. The f---ing. Light. They glared at the doctor, each podule, though a city unto itself, having one single eye, one blind evil eye in the middle, which stared imperiously, as only a blind eye can do, out at the doctor. Go. The. F---. Away“(Eggers 4).

Although partly used for humor, the words “Good God!” express fear. The joking manner is used mostly to convey the fright Eggers experienced when his mother’s cancer was diagnosed. It also makes his anger towards the doctors more evident. He jokingly mimics their reaction to the discovery, as if to say they should’ve seen it coming. “Turn off. The f---ing. Light,” and “Go. The. F---. Away,” both express anger. This anger portrays the cancer as the evil that he feels it is, while also providing another look into the anger that Eggers himself feels towards the doctors. Profanity is often used in expressing anger because of the frustration one often feels when angry, and the simplicity profanity allows in conveying anger. Eggers’ swearing when speaking in regards to his mother’s cancer is a subtle way of showing his deeply rooted anger.

An additional aspect of Eggers character that is shown through his profanity is his self-consciousness. He is at an awkward point in his life where he should be working, dating, and having fun being single and unbound from obligations such as a house, unemployment, and kids. However, in his situation he is forced to take care of a young child, struggle to make money, and rarely go on a date where his depression doesn’t cause him to worry and analyze every detail of the night. Generally, his thoughts are quite vulgar and somewhat disturbing when the reader considers his influence on Toph, but his thoughts are portrayed in this way to reveal his inner hatred of himself and of his failure to socialize with normal people. He is very pessimistic, and the reader can assume that this is because of his depression. Eggers shows moments of high emotion, but never true happiness. He is obsessed with sex and his sexual feelings towards women because he feels it is the only way he can feel anymore. He mentions frequently that he has been brought up in a Catholic household and as a child only knew the Catholic knowledge of anatomy, as in nothing.

“But soon it will be okay. When we begin publishing, and put in the six months or so until world domination, these things will be addressed, redressed. We look at portfolios. As I sit down with a comely photographer named Debra, I see not only a possible dating possibility, but also an image that immediately screams the theme song of our message. In her book is a picture of a stark naked man streaking across a beach, blurry with speed.
‘This is the cover!’ I say.
‘Okay!’ she says, and I wonder if this will help my chances with her.

The streaker on the cover spawns another idea: We, too, will be naked! Yes, on the cover will be Debra’s streaking boyfriend (alive-in, alas) and on the inside will be hundreds of streaking young people!” (Eggers 176-177).

He rambles on about how the photo shoot takes place, describing an explicit pain he feels running while naked. This section of the book is quite extensive and Eggers seems to obsess over the comparison between bodies of his co-workers. These explicit portions of the book help the reader to understand Eggers’ mindset and convey his obsession with sexual feelings to offset his lack of happiness.

Eggers’ honest writing and use of profanity in his work makes what is already a real story seem even more real. Although it is sometimes a tad bit disturbing, the vulgarity brings about sympathy from the reader for Eggers because of the obvious signs of his depression.


(CK 2010)