Deep Waters | Summary And Analysis

Analysis of Deep Waters William Douglas


Deep Waters, a short story published in 1950, describes how one can overcome fear through determination, and willpower. It is a passage from William Douglas’ autobiography “Of Men and Mountains”. Fear is an emotion that can paralyze someone’s mind and body, yet this can be overcome by consistent hard work and confidence. A human’s natural response is “Fight or Flight”, and the author encourages one to fight the fear and not avoid it.

Deep Waters | Summary

The story begins with the author introducing the reader to the situation he was about to speak about. He wanted to learn to swim, and so he went to the Y.M.C.A. He already had a fear of water, reinforced by his mother’s constant warnings about the Yakima River. Still, he decided to learn how to swim.

Even as a child, he had a fear of water because of a terrible experience he had of being covered in a wave at a beach when he was a toddler. His father laughed when this happened as it didn’t seem too serious, but it affected the boy to a great extent. Now, even at the Y.M.C.A. pool, those memories came back to his mind. He swallowed the fear and began trying to teach himself to swim, and all was well for a few days as he progressed bit by bit.

One day, he was alone near the pool, and a teenage boy threw him into the water against his will. He was afraid but level-headed enough to come up with a plan to get himself out of the predicament he was thrown into. He decided to launch himself off the floor tiles of the pool and get back to the surface. Unfortunately, this didn’t work, and he moved slowly through the water, his lungs feeling like they were about to burst. He tried a second time and was still stuck in the water. This is when the panic set in, and almost paralyzed him. When he sunk for the third time, he gave up, and almost died.

He was pulled out and he survived, but he was terrified of the water for years because of this experience. When he finally began traveling and seeing water bodies and participating in water-related activities, he decided he could no longer allow the fear to handicap his enjoyment of the water. He hired an instructor, and slowly but surely, learnt to swim. This was not enough, as he wanted to prove to himself that he could swim anywhere. He hurried to Warm Lake and swam across and back triumphantly. This was the proof that the fear of water no longer held him. He felt the peace of knowing that he could partake in any activity without suddenly seizing up with fear, and he was free.


Deep Waters | Analysis

The title ‘Deep Waters’ is descriptive of the story, as being in ‘deep water’ means to be in a difficult situation, and in this case, the author is literally and figuratively in deep water. He is stuck in water that he almost drowns in, and this leaves him in a difficult situation for much of his life.

The story deals with the triumph of one man over a fear that plagued him for the better part of his life. From the age of three, he had a fear of water, and this was worsened by a terrible experience at age ten. He lived with this pit of fear until adulthood and spent ages getting over it. He was trapped by his past, but he overcame it and freed himself from the prison his mind had forced him into.

His mother warns him that the Yakima River is treacherous and discourages him from facing the dangers of that river. On the contrary, a swimming pool was seen as safe. However, this perceived haven for development and growth is the place that ended up being dangerous to him. He may not have ended up dying, but the experience shackled him for years on end. What was assumed to be safe ended up being ruinous to his life and mental health.

The two terrible experiences he had around water share similar characteristics. As a child at the beach, he felt buried in water, which implies that he felt that he was near death and would sink to a watery grave. He survived but was subject to overwhelming terror. Similarly, at the Y.M.C.A. pool, he almost drowned and accepted his death. He crossed to oblivion (he fainted) and almost died. Again, he survived, and the terror increased one hundredfold. Another similarity is that at the beach, he was filled with fear, but his father laughed it off and didn’t take him seriously at all. In the same way, the bruiser who threw him in the water commented that he was just fooling around, and the terror faced by the author was not recognized again and was brushed away.

He faced a sort of PTSD from almost drowning, and fear seized him whenever he was near water. However, it did not take away his desire to enjoy the water. The aftermath of the two experiences is also similar and shows his strong character and willpower. In the first instance, though he already faced the terrible terror of almost drowning at the age of three, he still pushed himself to learn how to swim, trying to overcome his fear. In the couple of days that he was able to enjoy the water, his confidence grew, before being shattered by almost drowning. In the second instance, though being near water made him freeze, he was determined to move on from it. He never fully accepted the hold that fear had over him, as both a child and an adult. In this case, thankfully, he was able to take his time and train himself to swim and enjoy being in the water.

He became a master of his fear but was not content until he could prove that it would never overcome him again. He swam in a lake and faced his fear directly by dunking his head underwater and taunting it. The fear left him, and he swam on. As his final test, he went up to Warm Lake, Yakima, and swam across it and back, just as one of his friends used to do. His determination and willpower shine through this excerpt, and his triumph over fear is an inspiration for every person who feels rooted by fear in their life.

As Roosevelt said, “All we have to fear is fear itself”. The author experienced the acceptance of death, as well as the terror in the anticipation of death. He overcame this in order to never have to feel that petrifying emotion again. When one fears death, they bring terror to their own lives. A person should overcome any situation that makes them fear death, and instead should be determined to fear only the fear of death. The author’s will to live was boosted by his close shave, and this made him a free man.


Deep Waters | About the Author

William O. Douglas was born on 16 October 1898, in Maine. He was a politician who served as one of the youngest justices ever appointed to the Supreme Court. He was a civil libertarian, and served for 35 years, one of the longest tenures for a Justice in the Supreme Court of The United States.

In his childhood, he had a close connection with nature and was an environmentalist in his later life. The Douglas Falls in North Carolina are assumed to be named after him, and he was elected to the Ecology Hall of Fame as well. He traveled quite a bit and wrote about it. Some of his works are “Exploring the Himalayas”. “Strange Lands and Friendly People”, and “My Wilderness, East to Katahdin”.

He died on January 19 1890, in Maryland.








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