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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Year of Magical Thinking!