This is Water - Analysis

This is Water, by David Foster Wallace

When students struggle to articulate their thoughts about discovery or find discovery themes within texts, a useful antidote is to try and isolate the ‘tense’ of discovery. Are we in the past, present or future tense of discovery? Does this text, or do my ideas, concern what happens before discovery leading up to it? Are they about discovery itself and what it is? Or are they about the consequences and impacts of discovery, what happens afterwards?

This is a good way to approach Wallace’s ess

ay and subdivide it in your own head. He oscillates between talking about discoveries he has made (“I have come gradually to understand…”), how his audience can make their own (“The only thing that’s capital-T true is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it”) and what the consequences are (“That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness”). If you keep in mind the ‘tense’ of discovery you’ll find it easier not only to grasp Wallace’s own discovery themes but maybe consolidate your own, too.


The major contextual point of this essay is that it is adapted from a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College. His audience and purpose is suited to college-age students who are at a particular crossroads in their life filled with decision anxiety and existential questions (“what am I doing with my life? Oh my God everyone has jobs and plans and direction and I’m sitting in my underwear browsing” – don’t worry, you’ll find out soon).

The second point is that Wallace struggled with depression his entire adult life and eventually committed suicide three years after giving this speech. Of course the suicide is so far disconnected from this speech (and is owing to other factors like a change in his medication) so as to not need mentioning in any English essay, but his depression does give an important insight why Wallace is so concerned in this speech about the way we think and the mentality we approach life with.

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