“This is Water” [Rai]

David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon college, addresses the typical rhetoric of a commencement speech and rejects the genre at the same time. He realizes that following the conventions of genre is not essential to creating an effective commencement speech. In his first sentences, Wallace immediately claims, “I am not the wise old fish.” This refers to his opening allegory, about two fish who meet an older, wiser fish. This allegory not only has the purpose of introducing his message, but also tells his audience that this commencement speech will not follow the typical stereotypes of the genre; those the older fish would tell the younger fish.

Wallace breaks the stereotype in multiple places in his commencement speech, often with an informal break in his dialogue, such as, ” Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, …and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to.” Wallace, in breaking out of this stereotype, also redefines the genre of commencement speech to everyone listening. He knows that his audience has an idea of what a commencement speech is supposed to be, and in rejecting it, not only has he gained freedom to make his point outside of the restricting genre, but he also has captivated his audience. His audience can’t predict that his message will be ‘Your future is bright’ or ‘This is how to be successful’ like other commencement speeches. Therefore, his audience needs to listen to what he is saying to get his message; he does not summarize his message with one sentence at the end.

With “This is Water”, David Foster Wallace has broken out of the genre conventions of a commencement speech. In doing so, he proves that it is not essential to follow genre if you are trying to write an effective commencement speech. He creates a stronger message by being able to articulate his message clearly, and also by intriguing his audience with a commencement speech that defies convention.

One thought on ““This is Water” [Rai]

  1. Good overall, especially where you point out passages in which Wallace intentionally breaks the rules of the genre, but you should try to incorporate Dirk’s understanding of genre into your analysis.

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