The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Chapter 6 | Summary



Didion describes two times in her life when she had "an apprehension of death." Both visions were "transcendent, more beautiful than I could say," and not frightening, yet she still struggled to accept Dunne's death. She realizes she may have been more upset by her own pain than fear of what happened to Dunne. She recounts attempting to answer a crossword puzzle clue ("Sometimes you feel like ...") with the phrase "a motherless child"—a revealing response.

Didion says Dunne anticipated his death: "He believed he was dying. He told me so, repeatedly. I dismissed this." His ongoing heart problems were becoming more severe. He was depressed and questioned the value of his own work. They went to Paris about a month before he died because he insisted it might be his last chance to go. She tries to remember when he made certain comments. She thinks it was "either three hours before he died or twenty-seven hours before he died," but she cannot remember precisely.


Didion contrasts two beautiful images with her deep unhappiness. If she saw death as "beautiful" and "transcendent," shouldn't she be able to accept Dunne's loss? Her grief is more for herself—what she has lost, what she is experiencing—than for Dunne. We think of grieving for the dead, but the living ones are who suffer, feeling the gap in their lives because the deceased person is no longer there. Didion perceives it as self-pity, and it bothers her.

Didion is not a self-pitying sort of writer, although she often has written about difficult moments. She writes with clarity, a detached quality. In the 1960s she famously wrote, "We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce," in an essay later published in The White Album. It is a single comment in a longer essay about tsunamis and life in a Hawaiian hotel. A person who casually states such a thing is not comfortable with self-pity.

In a later chapter Didion tells the reader Dunne edited the essay in which she mentioned their potential divorce. He was not one for self-pity, either. His repeated statements about his own death should have been worthy of attention. Instead, Didion says, she dismissed it. She offers a meticulous recounting of the increasingly serious heart problems Dunne had in the months before he died. Why did Didion dismiss his fears? Why was she so surprised by his death? Didion was in the first stage of grief: denial. Denial is a coping mechanism. Didion did not want to think about Dunne's potential death, so she ignored it. Then after he died, she felt guilty. She wondered: Did he really know he was dying? Does that explain his choices in the weeks and months before his death? Should she have done something differently? At this point Didion has not let go of her magical thinking. Listening to him would not have kept him alive.

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