The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Chapter 2 | Summary



Didion describes Dunne's death in more detail. They had come home from seeing their daughter Quintana at the hospital. Dunne's heart attack came as he sat at the table, waiting for her to cook dinner. Didion called 911, but Dunne was dead before he got to the hospital. Didion went back home and began letting people know: her brother-in-law, Nick Dunne, and her daughter's husband, Gerry (her daughter was unconscious). Her agent, Lynn Nesbit, came over to help. She dreaded telling her daughter, but couldn't stop thinking about her, reflecting on lines from Shakespeare: "Full fathom five thy father lies / Those are pearls that were his eyes."

She thinks about conversations she had with Dunne in the months before he died, wondering if he knew what was coming. Didion contrasts the grief she felt when her parents died with the overwhelming loss of her husband. She describes grief coming in "waves." She relates her literary agent, who was also Dunne's, arriving and beginning to arrange obituary notices. Didion felt it was happening too quickly. She wondered if, since they were in New York, somehow Dunne was not yet dead in Pacific time. Didion had an intense desire to be alone on the first night: "I needed to be alone so that he could come back." This, she says, began her "year of magical thinking."


Didion seems determined to provide plain, precise facts for the reader. Stylistically, she uses short phrases—either short sentences or long sentences broken into short phrases of four or five words. As a writer, Didion thrives on detail. She tells the reader which day of the week Dunne dies (Tuesday) and which floor of the hospital Quintana is on (sixth-floor ICU). Her style shifts when the paramedics arrive. Now there are conjunctions joining longer phrases together: events are moving faster than Didion can manage.

This chapter explains the title of the book. "Magical thinking" is the psychological term for irrational beliefs people hold. These can be childhood ideas, like monsters under the bed, or superstitions, like wearing lucky socks so your team wins the game. In times of severe stress, magical thinking is more common, as Didion experiences. Notice how many times she questions whether things have really happened. Also note she wants to be alone in the house so Dunne can come back. She has not totally lost touch with reality: she authorizes an autopsy, and she begins notifying family members. However, there are moments when she clearly hopes things will magically sort themselves out.

The idea of magic and "magical thinking" is reemphasized by the Shakespearean lines Didion remembers: "Full fathom five thy father lies / Those are pearls that were his eyes." They come from The Tempest, a play full of magic. Ariel, a magical spirit, sings a song to Ferdinand, a young nobleman. Ferdinand interprets the song as a magical warning of his father's death. His father, however, is actually alive—a detail Didion knows well. No doubt she wishes Dunne might secretly turn up alive.

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