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The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion

Chapter 22

Chapters 19–21

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

The chapter opens with an excerpt from Didion’s early 1980s novel Democracy, which describes how landscapes change because of geological shifts. Didion looks up the passage after a massive tsunami wipes out many of the coasts along the Indian Ocean. She repetitively imagines the tragic event, though she visualizes the tectonic plates shifting deep under the ocean, not the carnage on the surface.

On Christmas Eve, nearly a year after John’s death, Didion has people over for dinner. Though she worried that afternoon that she can’t handle it, the evening progresses naturally. A friend sends leis from Hawaii, and other friends come over to eat, drowning out the sounds of a piano CD John had played the night he died. On Christmas morning, Didion goes to St. John the Divine, which is filled with Japanese tourists, as it had been during both Quintana’s wedding and John’s funeral. Didion hangs one of the leis in the vault that holds both John’s ashes and her mother’s ashes. While walking out, she keeps her eyes focused on the big stained glass window, which had featured prominently in the script she and John had been working on in Hawaii in December 1990. She waits for the moment when the light hits the window and fills her entire field of vision with blue.

As she writes, Didion realizes she doesn’t want to finish her account. The craziness recedes, but no clarity or resolution takes its place. As time passes, Didion knows that her memories of John will become remote and “mudgy,” and already she has trouble remembering the days leading up to his death. For the first time, she realizes that her memories of the night of John’s death don’t actually involve John. There is a point, she realizes, when we must let go of the dead.

She thinks about leaving a lei at St. John the Divine. She recalls how travelers on the Matson Line boats leaving Hawaii would drop leis in the water as a promise to return. The leis would be destroyed in the wake of the boat, just as the gardenias clogging the pool filter in their Brentwood home were destroyed. She tries to imagine the layout of the Brentwood house, but later in the day realizes she had forgotten one of the rooms. The leis in the cathedral would go brown, she imagines, just as tectonic plates shift, islands vanish, and rooms are forgotten. Didion remembers swimming with John at Portuguese Bend in California and waiting for the swell that would pull them into the caves. Though she had always been afraid of missing the swell, John never was. “You had to go with the change,” he said.

Analysis

Didion uses the final chapter to wrap up the imagery she has used throughout the book, pulling together the narrative threads and weaving them into a unified piece. The images, all related to memory and elegy, capture her mental state at the end of her year of magical thinking, which finds her free from her temporary insanity and hopeful for the future, if deeply shaken and tentative about how to move forward. The leis, symbolic of the welcoming spirit of Hawaii, are destroyed in the wake of departing boats, reminding the travelers of the fleetingness of their stay and of life itself. In hanging the leis in the tomb, she marries her happy associations of time spent in Hawaii with John and Quintana with flowers’ symbolism, suggesting that she accepts that her life with her family was fleeting, and that their joy was temporary. The tectonic plates, reminders of the fundamental shifts that control the earth, return as a symbol of the powerlessness of humanity. The house in Brentwood, the symbol of the domestic life that Didion did not necessarily expect but loved nonetheless, begins to fade, reminding her that even the most powerful memories of our own happiness inevitably disappear as we age. The images, which have appeared at various points throughout the book, coalesce here to underscore the themes of memory, loss, and change.

Didion avoids the conventional memoir conclusion, which provides readers with a sense of closure and catharsis. While of the final pages suggest a new feeling of hope for the future, she also suggests that The Year of Magical Thinking has merely documented one phase of the grief process, and that while her confusion has subsided, no clarity has taken its place. In our culture, most stories about grief have a familiar shape. Confessional programs like Oprah Winfrey’s talk show create a particular kind of narrative, in which lessons are learned and redemption is achieved after a period of great trial. However, as the title of her book illustrates, Didion has limited to her discussion to a specific, bounded period: just a single year of temporary insanity. While it’s important to recognize just how far Didion has come in this year, it’s just as important to note that she has yet to experience full emotional resolution. The grief process that she has begun documenting is ongoing, and by emphasizing this she shows just how simplistic traditional hardship stories, with their neat and tidy endings, really are.

Didion begins this chapter with an image that suggests how individuals can be controlled by powerful external forces (a tsunami), but she closes the chapter with an image of working within those natural forces (swimming with the flow of sea swells). Didion indicates that while we are inevitably subject to conditions and forces outside of our control, with patience and effort we can begin to exert some agency even when it seems as though we have none. She has come to understand that no matter what she did or what she might have done before John died, her husband’s death was inevitable. In acknowledging this lack of control, she is better able to understand the effect the grief has had on her, and in doing so learn how to “go with the swell” and move forward.

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