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Didion tries to reconstruct the night of John’s death
and the weeks that preceded it. On December 22,
after several days of severe flu symptoms, their daughter Quintana
went to the emergency room with a fever and was diagnosed with the
flu. The fever persisted, so she returned to the hospital on Christmas
morning where she was diagnosed with pneumonia and checked into
the ICU. Her condition then worsened, causing her to go into septic
shock. She was given experimental drugs, and Didion soon faced the
fact that her daughter, recently a new bride, was now fighting to
survive. The doctor was vague about her chances, but Didion had
to believe that things would improve. Only three months later, at
John’s funeral at St. John the Divine, Quintana quotes a line from
a movie, Robin and Marian—“I love you more than
one more day”—that her father had whispered to her while she lay
in the ICU. Thoughts of the cathedral set off memories of Quintana’s
wedding there, as well as memories of Didion’s own wedding at San
Juan Bautista in 1964.
In the weeks after John’s death, Didion avoids looking
at the photographs of the early years of her marriage that hang
in the hallway leading to her room. The pictures set off a series
of memories about a period in the early 1970s
when Didion had a close group of friends that frequently shared
dinners together. By the time of John’s death, several of those
friends are dead. Didion notes that people who have recently lost
someone have a certain look of vulnerability on their face. For
a while she feels invisible and incorporeal, wanting John back.
Several years before John died, Didion was walking down West Fifty-seventh
Street in New York when she saw a strange burst of sunlight; at
the time, she thought it must have been an apprehension of death.
In a dream some years before, she had seen an ice island, and in
the dream she knew the island symbolized death. Both images gave
her a sense of transcendence, rather than dread. Didion wonders
why she continues to see John’s death as something that has happened
to her, rather than to him. She
realizes that she is experiencing self-pity.
John had told Didion that he believed he was dying. He
had been experiencing a crisis of confidence about his book, which
was stuck in a limbo between delivery and publication. He had been
dealing with health issues related to his heart and had had a pacemaker implanted
over the summer. The success of the pacemaker and Quintana’s wedding
had buoyed his spirits, but in the fall his mood dropped again.
She recalls a fight over a proposed trip to Paris, during which
he claimed that, if they did not go to Paris that November, he would
never see Paris again. They went, even though this declaration felt
like blackmail at the time. Shortly before John died, he claimed
that everything he had done was worthless, a sentiment Didion quickly
dismissed. The night of his death, John told her, “You were right
about Hawaii.” She wasn’t sure if he was referring to her suggestion
from earlier that morning, about renting a house in Hawaii where
Quintana could recuperate, or if he was making reference to a discussion
they had had about buying a home in Honolulu nearly thirty years
before. She preferred to believe the former, but his tone implied
In these chapters, Didion analyzes the shock she experienced
as she watched the normalcy of her life suddenly erupt into crisis.
She recreates that experience for us by contrasting the familiarity
of recent memories and the unfamiliarity of her present circumstances.
Didion highlights the rapid and sudden changes that occur over a
relatively short period of time by juxtaposing memories of John
and Quintana in good health with the more recent memories of John’s death
and Quintana’s illness. She cuts quickly between these moments to
recreate the sudden shock of dramatic and overwhelming change, after
which it is difficult to maintain a steady focus. Especially when
examined in hindsight, Didion’s tragedies seem all the more inexplicable
when she compares them to the familiar ordinariness that preceded
Didion examines apparent clues from John, which seemed
to indicate that he knew he was going to die, but she has trouble
recognizing where her thoughts end and his begin. Didion begins
chapter 6 by describing two memories in which
she herself anticipated dying. Though she has no problem understanding
those experiences, she has trouble making sense of the process of
self-evaluation John went through in anticipation of his own death.
Didion recognizes that John was going through something highly personal,
but she doesn’t understand why she can’t relate to his apprehensions
of death. Her inability or refusal to separate and understand her
own thoughts and feelings shows not only how intertwined their lives were
but also how hard she finds it to express her own feelings and reactions
in any logical way while she grieves.
As the person who tells the story of John’s death and
Quintana’s illness, Didion participates in a literary tradition
in which women serve as suffering witnesses to the hardships of
husband and children. From biblical narratives to Shakespeare to
contemporary literature, these women are depicted as wise observers
and passive subjects to their own grief. They empower themselves
by giving testimony and publicly naming their griefs and, by doing
so, gain control of their situations. Taken as a whole, The
Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s way of giving testimony,
a method that empowers her to move beyond the role of solitary observer
to her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness. The book is not
only a way to memorialize her experience and her memories, but also
to correct what Didion views as the flawed association between grief and
self-pity. Didion sees this paradigm as an unfair cultural standard
that has resulted in a lack of thoughtful, complex literature about
grief. By refusing to accept what she considers the unhelpful obviousness
of self-help or inspirational literature, Didion instead creates
a testament to her own experiences that not only aids her recovery,
but also creates a model for grief literature that honors the complexity
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Year of Magical Thinking!