John’s death and Quintana’s illness cause Didion to challenge her basic assumptions about the grieving process. While she originally believed that grief was merely an intensification of recognizable emotions, she comes to see grief as a state of temporary insanity and mental illness. To illustrate this point, Didion describes her own irrational behavior, presents documentation by writers and psychologists about the deranging effects of grief, and provides informal examples of how grief functions like mental illness. Didion rejects the idea that grief is simply intense sadness by demonstrating how grief leads to extreme denial, delusional wishful thinking, the belief in individual ability to control outcomes, reduced functioning, and a shaken sense of self. Didion documents how she engaged in these patterns (particularly through her magical thinking and experiences of the vortex effect), but she also shows us how she concealed her insanity behind an apparently rational, functional surface.
Didion argues that, in American society, grief is seen as a form of self-indulgence, self-pity, and wallowing—each an act of weakness and self-involvement that goes against the American ideals of independence, self-reliance, and stoicism. Soon after John dies, Didion writes down the following words: “The question of self-pity.” She goes on to analyze the behavior expected from a person dealing with a great personal loss, examining the social conventions that dictate behavior in hospitals, at funerals, and in other social settings relevant to dying. Didion describes how perceptions of grief have changed over the course of the twentieth century, showing how death moved from a private experience that was a reality of home life to an institutionalized experience that occurs more frequently in hospitals. She also analyzes her own behavior, examining how grief caused her to conceal her temporary state of mental illness under a controlled surface, even though her heightened vulnerability made social interaction incredibly difficult. Didion’s contradictory behavior fits in perfectly with the current social norms of dealing with grief: putting on a brave face and appearing to “handle it” well. By detailing her own behavior, Didion exposes the unrealistic social expectations that fail to account for grief as a type of mental illness.
After John’s death, Didion must confront the ways in which her sense of self was tied to her relationships with John and Quintana and how her new circumstances have forced her to reevaluate her identity. Shared experience creates a unique bond between husband and wife, just as it does between mother and child. John’s death causes Didion to confront not only the loss of her husband but also the loss of their shared history and experience. After his death, she is often frustrated by her inability to tell John about an idea, recall a shared memory, or recount an experience, leading her to internalize her thoughts and try to imagine his responses. Didion misses her former outlet for ideas and emotions, but she also laments the loss of a person who had been a constant presence in her life for almost forty years. Didion grieves not only John but also the loss of a crucial part of her identity.
Magical thinking, the central motif of the memoir, reinforces Didion’s assertion that grief is a state of mental illness during which rational thought is replaced by an extreme version of corrective thinking. Magical thinking is the childlike belief that we are able to control outcomes and change the world around us through the intensity of our wishes and desires. For Didion, magical thinking takes several forms. First, she believes that she can somehow sift through her memory and change the outcomes of events, and by doing so be able to prevent John from dying. Second, she believes that if she controls certain aspects of her circumstances, she will bring John back, as illustrated by her need to hold onto his shoes for his return. Finally, she applies this kind of corrective thinking toward Quintana’s illness, believing that if she does enough research or makes the right phone calls, she’ll be able to help her daughter recover. Magical thinking takes multiple forms throughout the memoir, representing the varied states of delusion and denial that occur throughout the grief process and reinforcing the theme of grief as a state of mental illness.
Didion begins to experience the vortex effect—in which she is paralyzed by memories triggered by seemingly mundane circumstances—as she begins to come to terms with John’s death and Quintana’s illness. Though painful and disorienting, the vortex effect is an essential part of the process Didion must undergo to fully accept the tragedies. Didion first experiences the vortex effect when she visits Quintana in the hospital in New York. A flood of memories overwhelms her, temporarily taking her out her surroundings. The vortex effect eventually becomes a deeply upsetting experience, and when Didion returns to Los Angeles, she desperately avoids places and situations that remind her of life with John and Quintana. However, she soon discovers that even seemingly benign triggers, such as commercials or calendar dates, are capable of setting off the effect. Only after Didion has rebuilt the emotional resilience to face her memories does the vortex effect begin to subside. The vortex effect is consistent with the idea that grief is a state of temporary mental illness.
Didion notes how tragedy can strike suddenly, during an ordinary moment, and life-changing events often give no notice of their arrival. In The Year of Magical Thinking, she traces this motif through both personal and large-scale events. In her own family, John dies suddenly while sitting down to dinner, and Quintana collapses while walking through an airport. Didion compares these events to the Pearl Harbor and World Trade Center attacks. Didion describes how accounts of both events tend to emphasize how routine and ordinary the days had seemed prior to the catastrophes, which only served to throw the astonishment that spectators felt into higher relief. Didion illustrates how, when it comes to life-changing events, people irrationally expect that they’ll be given an opportunity to brace themselves to make the outcome easier to bear. And yet, this is rarely the case, and often the grieving and mourning process is intensified by the shock of the event.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, waves symbolize both the ebb and flow of the emotions associated with grief as well as the state of constant change that forces us to constantly adapt and improvise in our lives and relationships. Didion analyzes the psychological phenomenon of waves of grief, in which a rapidly shifting experience of intense emotion and detached denial causes a grieving person to experience their feelings in unpredictable, intense bursts. Didion also draws on the image of waves in the final moment of the memoir, in which she and John must ride waves to escape to the secluded comfort of a cave. In this instance, waves symbolize the necessity of working within given circumstances to make the most out of unsatisfactory or challenging situations.
Flowers are a common literary symbol, representative of both the brevity of life and the fleeting nature of beauty. Didion draws on this established tradition, and in the memoir, leis (garlands of plumeria flowers) symbolize life as well as death. Both Quintana and Didion wore leis at their weddings, the beginnings of their new lives with their husbands. But Didion also places leis on the tomb of her husband and her mother. The image of flowers being crushed and destroyed in water also appears several times throughout the book. Didion clogs her pool filter in Brentwood with gardenias and later recalls the tradition in which visitors departing from Hawaii toss flowers into water as a promise that they will return, and how her flowers were destroyed in the wake of a boat. In both examples, she attempts to use flowers for a reverent ritual, only to end up destroying their desired symbolic value.
For Didion, John’s eyes represent both his vitality and his soul, and in the immediate aftermath of his death she fixates on images of eyes. When she first sees his dead body, she remembers the line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which a character is told that the eyes of his father, drowned at sea, have turned into pearls. When the hospital calls to request for organ donation, Didion realizes that, because John was not on life support, only his eyes would be viable for donation, and she becomes upset that the hospital would take them away. The thought of his eyes summons up the memory of a poem by E. E. Cummings about “Mr. Death” and a “blue-eyed boy,” sending Didion on an unsuccessful search for the poem in her home library. As Didion tries to cope with the loss of her husband’s physical presence, she fixates on his eyes as a symbol of his continued vitality.