Wallace, Water and the Fish

Source: Wallace, David Foster. This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion about Living a Compassionate Life. Little, Brown, 2009.


Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or else you just flat-out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line – maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband, who’s dying of bone cancer, or many this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicles department who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. 

Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible – it just depends what you want to consider. 

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important – if you want to operate on your default setting – then you, like me, probably will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying (88-91).


Only through the first sentence, this passage already impresses readers with its highly sophisticated additive writing style. With a mixture of polysyndeton (“or that”) and asyndeton, “it’s hard, it takes…), Wallace presents an interesting unbalanced rhythm and, since the passage is in fact part of his speech, when read out loud, the first sentence sounds more naturally conversational, shortening the distance between Wallace and the readers (or the listeners of the speech). In addition, his uses of punctuation reveals him as a person who tends to have a lot of afterthoughts: he pays very close attention to the details. This characteristic empowers his point significantly, especially when he hypothesizes back stories of the “over-made-up lady” (89) or when he constantly uses metadiscourses like “Again, please don’t think that…” (88) or “it just depends on what you want to consider” (90); this makes his voice sounds more caring. Undoubtedly, feeling such a tone in this passage, readers, touched by such sensitivity, will sympathize more with Wallace, and as a result, his speech – particularly this passage – will become more persuasive. It is interesting to see how such a casual-sounding passage is composed by such complicated techniques and sentence structure.

Gentle, thoughtful and respectful, Wallace gradually convinces his audience to look from his point of view: even the most annoying person we have ever met has his or her own sad and pitiful story. To me, the best thing he has done in this passage is that he doesn’t force readers into agreeing with him. Instead, he offers a way to think about bad things differently, and I believe he succeeds making readers rethink about how self-centered they can be and how their lives might not be the most miserable. In short, Wallace keeps his promise of not “giving you [readers] moral advice” (88); in his own composed way, he shows his experienced view of life, making readers feel like they are the petty ones who want to throw a tantrum. Because of this, readers feel like they can, and want to, learn more from him.

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