The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Chapter 12 | Summary

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Summary

As Quintana healed, Didion understood her daughter would soon need to be independent again. Didion recognizes she had not taken time to grieve because she had been so focused on helping Quintana. During this time she grew curious about parts of Dunne's life he didn't often discuss, such as his college years. She even did research on an old song he used to sing. Didion wonders if Dunne knew he would die soon. She ponders the division of life and death, trying to classify things as definitively "before he died" or "after he died."

Didion reread Alcestis, a Greek play about a young king doomed to die. In the play the king asks for someone to take his place and his wife volunteers. She read it many years ago. When she revisits it, she finds she had imagined a totally different ending for the play. In the actual ending the young king takes no responsibility for his wife's death, and his wife does not complain. In Didion's imagined ending the dead wife reappears and criticizes her husband for his behavior. Didion knows she could not have saved her husband's life, but she still feels some responsibility. She wonders: If he came back, would he blame her?

As she reread Dunne's books, Didion found he described himself as a candidate for a "catastrophic cardiac event"—something she had pushed out of her mind. She wonders what other signs she missed. She recalls when he had his first heart procedure in 1987. She saw it as a "problem solved" but he saw it as "a death sentence, temporarily suspended." She realizes "his was the more realistic view."

Analysis

Evidently Alcestis made an impression on Didion. There is also a passing reference to it in one of her essays published in Slouching towards Bethlehem. Alcestis, a play by the famous Greek dramatist Euripides, is a problematic story at best. Alcestis is a Greek queen. Her husband, Admetus, is doomed to die unless he can convince someone else to take his place. No one will do it until his wife volunteers. He accepts and she dies, but Heracles (Hercules) fights Death and brings her back. In the play she is not permitted to speak after she returns from the dead.

Didion does not explicitly state why the play speaks to her, but there are many interesting possibilities. Admetus is due to die. Dunne saw himself as destined to die soon. Alcestis volunteers to take her husband's place rather than be left behind without him. Would Didion have chosen the same thing, if she could? Or would she be like the other characters in the play, who refused to change places with Admetus? Would she blame herself for not volunteering? In Didion's remembered version of the play, Alcestis upbraids her husband. Notice the value Didion places on being able to talk to one's spouse—something she and Dunne did often, something she clearly misses. Does she see herself as Alcestis? Or is Dunne Alcestis, and Didion the unfeeling Admetus? She seems to see herself more as Admetus. "The clear light of day" informs her she is not responsible for Dunne's death, "but do I believe that? Does he?"

Didion's capacity for denial is breathtaking in this chapter, as she describes the heart procedures and warnings Dunne heard 15 years before his death. In one of his books, Dunne recounts telling Didion about the warnings from his doctor, even saying he "started to cry" about it. Didion has no memory of it: "Either I had not remembered this or I had determinedly chosen not to remember this." She notes his first procedure happened in 1987. In the previous chapter she casually mentioned how Dunne began talking about moving back to New York in 1987. She does not connect the two details. Did Dunne want to get back to New York because of his new awareness of his own mortality? Was Didion aware of this on a subconscious level, since their neighbor's sudden death inspired her to say yes to moving back to New York? Didion does not explore this, but it is interesting ground for speculation.

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