The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

Didion says she "seemed rational," though she was not. She describes Dunne's funeral, held a few months later when Quintana was sufficiently recovered to attend. Didion sees the funeral as a ritual that must be completed, but it did not bring him back. Didion continues to cite readings about grief, everything from psychological research to memoirs to poetry. Medical research indicates a higher risk of death for people suffering after the death of a spouse. She learns "pathological bereavement" may occur if "the survivor and the deceased had been unusually dependent on one another." She thinks about her time with Dunne. "Were we unusually dependent on each other," she wonders, "or were we unusually lucky?"

Near the end of the chapter, she describes the advice given about grieving in an Emily Post book. Emily Post was an early 20th-century journalist who became well known for her advice on behavior and etiquette. The book Didion mentions is almost 100 years old, but she finds the advice more useful than the more recent, psychologically complex recommendations. Post accepts grief, while the psychologists want to "treat" it. Modern society appreciates "the bereaved who hide their grief so fully ... no one would guess anything had happened."

Analysis

The first few paragraphs of this chapter describe Dunne's funeral, which took place almost three months after his death. Stylistically, Didion reverts to the same short phrases and simpler sentence structures she used to describe his death. Like the night of his death, the funeral was something to get through. Many sentences in this section follow an identical structure of subject (often "I"), verb, detail: "I had authorized the autopsy. I had arranged for cremation." In the first few paragraphs, 11 sentences use "I had" or "we had," often as the first two words of the sentence.

In her research she discovers her behavior might qualify as "pathological bereavement." Didion wonders: "Unusual dependency (is that a way of saying 'marriage'? 'husband and wife'? 'mother and child'?" She acknowledges she and Dunne were together almost constantly, but she saw it as a benefit, not a problematic dependency.

Didion's attitude toward the grieving process is understandably complex. She resents modern psychological efforts to fix grieving people, but she tries hard to control herself. The first sentence of this chapter emphasizes how she "seemed rational." In earlier chapters she is described as a "cool customer": she calmly managed everything. Didion bought into society's expectations about how she should act, but she resents having done so all the same.

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