Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.


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.