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The Main Lesson in David Foster Wallace’s This is Water

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The author of “This Is Water” uses the unique creation of persona through default setting, repetition of keywords, and ethos to get his message of the personal obligation our society needs in order to face “our lives, bodies, and minds.” David Foster Wallace was an American writer and a university professor in the disciplines of English and creative writing, and is now renowned all over the world for his highly acclaimed essays, novels and short stories. He starts off his commencement speech to the 2005 Liberal Arts graduating class of Kenyon College by telling a story about two young fish who encounter an older fish that asks them “How’s the water?” The parable demonstrates that usually the most direct actualities in the real world are often the hardest to observe.

According to the author, his main lesson concerns “default setting,” referring to the idea of daily tasks most of the audience happen to commit without acquiring the thought of if it’s the right thing to do or not. Wallace demonstrates how in mainstream society, people often forget about what they’re most passionate about. By acting unconsciously, they lack paying enough attention to their experiences which lead them to becoming ignorant of certain surroundings. For example, based on the reader’s thoughts, a variety of people often cherish jobs and money more rather than more valuable things such as how their bodies function and what they can do to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Of course, some of these aspects of worthiness are what Wallace strives to introduce to each of them.

Wallace utilizes repetition throughout his graduation speech hoping to persuade the class to view the world as a whole instead of individually by stating, “If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life then you will never have enough. Worship your own body and you will always feel ugly. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid. Lastly if you worship your intellect as a consequence you will begin to feel stupid”. His point in repeating “worship” and the parallelism of his sentences mirror the daily routine that most people tend to live. Wallace says, “Since my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are truly all about me. Referring to my anxiousness, fatigue, and desire to get home it begins to semblance for all the world as if everyone is in his way”. He elaborates on the subject of people always feeling the need to interpret situations from the natural instinctive view that majority of others, including himself, frequently catch themselves doing. To further the emotional appeal, he provides the audience with an alternative viewpoint when he mentions “Maybe she’s not usually like this, the possibility could be that she has been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who is dying of bone cancer.” Various times throughout his speech, the repetition of ideas and words that come to mind are mentioned with multiple parallels.

He begins to establish his credibility through his use of ethos to make it clear that he does not want to preach or oversee the reader and their expectations. Wallace is simply trying to prevent the reader from thinking they’re listening to someone who holds a higher authority than the average person. In the beginning of his essay, after he mentions the story of the two young fish who are clueless when it comes to knowing what water is, he states “if at this very moment, you’re worried that I plan to present myself as the wise old fish distinguishing to you younger fish the characteristics water contains, please don’t be.”

Wallace also depicts multiple hypothetical parables. The former parables about the fish is one example, then he continues the use of “didactic little parable like stories” when he talks about an Atheist and a religious man. The parable classifies the problem with blind certainty among both the religious guy and the atheist. Both men are totally certain, arrogant about their beliefs, and do not acknowledge the other person’s side. Wallace reinforces this idea to the audience with logical reasoning when he says “Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. The reader has learned this the hard way, as they predict the graduates will, too.”

Throughout all of these aspects of Wallace appealing to his audience, he successfully presents his argument within the speech “This is Water.” He made it clear that his goal was to open everyone’s eyes which would lead to view the world with others’ needs included, not just the individual’s needs. It should not only be observed centered around an individual. It is often overlooked but is something that should not be at all. The way he persuades the reader is specifically used through the use of pathos in personal situations. Genuinely strong emotions are worn to influence the reader to do so. His speech effectively impacts both the judgment and optimism of the reader. It completely targets them to look further and assess the judgment of someone based off of their life rather than judging a person off of a quick glance, just as people always say “never judge a book by its cover.” Furthermore, this speech also helps the observer to look at situations through a positive point of view no matter how high the risks may seem instead of dwelling on negativity within every single situation that happens to occur. The choice that Wallace gives the audience was often overlooked due to the reason of people automatically deciding to make choices on the sport or as others say “within the heat of the moment” rather than looking for a deeper meaning.

In conclusion, Wallace focuses on showing empathy along with compassion towards other people. Regardless of the situation, one should have the opportunity to witness life and everything around from different angles. You have the power to not become stressed or anxious about anything. Being consciously aware, should have an outcome of a more positive and uplifting state of mind. It is essential to obtain perspectives like these, thinking of people being in even worse situations than you could ever imagine. The analysis of “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace helped to discover its main lesson with many effective apprehensions.

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The Main Lesson in David Foster Wallace’s This is Water. (2020, September 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 27, 2022, from
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The Main Lesson in David Foster Wallace’s This is Water. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 Jun. 2022].
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