Darkenfloxx Dreaming

In a world where prisoners are guinea pigs and love quite literally is a drug, George Saunders explores the daunting realities of life, death, and the ultimate sacrifice.

As Saunder’s story concludes, we are met with a bittersweet end to Jeff’s life, that reveals much more than his mortality. When Jeff decides to release the Darkenfloxx, a deadly, mind-altering drug into his system, his intentions are actually driven by life, not death. Jeff realizes the systematic manipulation and corruption he has fallen into at the hands of “scientist” and “family man” Abnesti. He now understands that the only way to save fellow inmate Rachel, and others from a deadly fate, is by sacrificing his life. We see Jeff’s immediate regret as his, “arm was about a miles down the heat vent,” where he hurled the remote that activated the Darkenfloxx. Jeff indeed had a will to live, but his will to protect others was ultimately stronger.

Deserved Punishment or Criminal Behavior?

In the short story Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders, Jeff, a convicted criminal, is forced to take drugs and engage in sexual activity as a test subject in a research facility. He must do these things as punishment for his criminal background, however as the story progresses it becomes more and more clear that the people in charge of running the facility are acting in similar ways as the “bad guys”.

In the story, the people in charge gave a test subject Darkenfloxx, a drug which makes you want to kill yourself. She had killed people in her past which had wound her up in the facility, however it begs the question of why they would risk her life just because of her past. Yes she had killed people, however testing this drug on her when it was unnecessary (and against her will) and killing her only makes the administrators murderer too. Punishment should be put in place for violent crime however the severity of the punishment dehumanizes the criminal. Jeff was dehumanized to a point where only in death did he finally experience true human emotion, stating: “no. This is all me now” (80). In the real world, the criminal justice system is very much like this. Of course in different cases different forms of punishment must be put in place, but by dehumanizing these people it is making them believe that they can be nothing more than what they were in their past.

Escaping Life with Birds

In the magnificent short story written by George Saunders the main character, Jeff, ultimately decides to kill himself. “My MobiPak™ whirred. The Darkenfloxx™ flowed. Then came the horror: worse than I’d ever imagined” (page 78). Later on in the story as Jeff is dying of intoxication, he is describing an actual escape. I believe George Saunders did this to appeal to the reader and not share the gory details of the pain Jeff is feeling. The reason why I find this so interesting is because Saunders has been extremely descriptive leading up to the main characters death. Saunders also included the description of birds as a way for the reader to believe Jeff had redeemed himself in the end by choosing to sacrifice himself instead of allowing Rachel to die. “From across the woods, as if by common accord, birds left their trees and darted upward. I joined them, flew among them, they did not recognize me as something apart from them, and I was happy so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed and never would” (page 81).

Did Jeff’s Actions Actually Change Anything?

In the end of the story Jeff gets his escape by killing himself because he believes it is the only way to save Rachel. He then is freed and he floats up out of Spiderhead. At first glance this seems like a selfless act to make sure another human does not die. What will happen to the prisoners after this? It seems likely that this act had almost no effect on the people imprisoned in Spiderhead. Nobody will get in trouble for Jeff’s death as when Heather dies nobody cares and they move on to the next person. Jeff was only even there because he had the best descriptions so they will just bring in Rogan or Keith and get one slightly less descriptive observer. In a short time Jeff will be replaced as it is clear that many people want to become part of the experiment instead of staying in prison.

Overall, this intense ending will likely mean nothing for the rest of the people in the story. As the only person Jeff even knows is Abnesti, who does not care about Jeff at all and only uses their “friendship” to guilt Jeff into doing things he does not want to. This is shown when he says “Am I a monster… Do I remember birthdays around here? When a certain individual got athlete’s foot on his groin on Sunday, did a certain other individual drive over to Rexall and pick up the cream, paying for it with his own personal money?” (68). He only reminds him of what he has done for his when he wants Jeff to let him give Darkenfloxx to Heather. Abnesti also makes it obvious that he does not see these people as human as he uses their crimes as reason to experiment on them and let them die. This is shown when he uses someone’s confidential case file to convince Jeff that it is okay to give her Darkenfloxx. So, while it was significant to Jeff that he took his own life in an act of mutual recognition to save Rachel and did help him escape from this awful scenario. This will not end up helping the other people forced to be in this experiment. In fact Jeff might have taken away their only hope at someone who could try to do something to get them out of there as he showed he was willing to go to great lengths to make sure people were not treated this way.

Killer Intent

The short story Escape From Spiderhead by George Saunders ends on a rather ambiguous note with the words “I had not killed, and never would.” The beauty of this line lies in the fact that it can be interpreted many ways. For example, one could assume Jeff is referring to his successful avoidance of having to watch Rachel be Darkenfloxxed and his consequent feelings of responsibility and guilt following her likely death. Conversely, one could argue that these words are wishful thinking – a falsity – seeing as Jeff did in fact kill himself to escape ‘killing’ Rachel. Thus begs the question: Is Jeff’s act of Darkenfloxxing himself considered a heroic self-sacrifice or suicide? On the one hand, Jeff reasons, “If I wasn’t here to describe it, they wouldn’t do it.” In this case, the only reason Jeff committed his act was because there was no other way – he couldn’t run or hide, so he needed to die. On the other hand, Jeff responds to the voice asking if he wanted to live by saying, “No thanks, I’ve had enough.” These are words of a dying man giving up. Given this, it can be argued that at this point, his intent to save Rachel transformed into an intent to die. Therefore, even if he didn’t kill Rachel, he did kill himself, and his words were a lie.