The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "The Year of Magical Thinking Study Guide." Course Hero. 18 Jan. 2018. Web. 10 Aug. 2020. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2018, January 18). The Year of Magical Thinking Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved August 10, 2020, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2018)



Course Hero. "The Year of Magical Thinking Study Guide." January 18, 2018. Accessed August 10, 2020.


Course Hero, "The Year of Magical Thinking Study Guide," January 18, 2018, accessed August 10, 2020,

The Year of Magical Thinking | Quotes


You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

Joan Didion, Chapter 1

This statement is a literal description of what happened: Didion and Dunne sat down to dinner and he died. "Sit down to dinner" also works figuratively, as an example of how death can interrupt a mundane and ordinary moment without warning.


The way I write is who I am, or have become.

Joan Didion, Chapter 1

Didion defines herself as a writer, saying she has been interested in how words work from a very early age. This helps explain how she uses The Year of Magical Thinking to learn about her own grieving process. Writing is also central to her marriage with Dunne, who was also a writer.


I needed to discuss this with John. There was nothing I did not discuss with John.

Joan Didion, Chapter 2

The loss of a spouse is always traumatic, but for Didion it was exceptionally difficult because of her unusual closeness with Dunne. They were both writers and were together most of the time. Didion experiences an almost insurmountable sense of loss when her husband is no longer there to talk to.


Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes.

Joan Didion, Chapter 2

Didion uses the imagery of waves to express the overwhelming way grief sometimes takes over every part of her life. Although she may feel OK for a period of time, the grief may suddenly swamp her, leaving her unable to move forward for a time. She suggests this feels like a large wave unexpectedly splashing her on the beach, knocking her down.


I recognized ... there had been occasions on which I was incapable of thinking rationally.

Joan Didion, Chapter 3

Didion masterfully uses understatement here, saying she was incapable of thinking clearly on "occasions." In fact, as the title of the book suggests, Didion frequently slips into irrational or "magical" thought processes throughout the first year after her husband's death.


I love you more than even one more day.

Joan Didion, Chapter 5

This line comes from a 1970s movie Didion, Dunne, and Quintana had all seen. They adopted the line as a family saying to indicate how much they loved each other. Dunne said it to an unconscious Quintana the last time he saw her. Quintana repeated it to Dunne when she spoke at his funeral.


Why did I keep stressing what was and was not normal, when nothing ... was?

Joan Didion, Chapter 7

Didion recognizes her expectations for "normal" behavior make no sense in these circumstances, not only because of Dunne's death but because of Quintana's hospitalization. Everything in Didion's life is traumatic right now, so things certainly won't seem "normal."


The way you got sideswiped was by going back.

Joan Didion, Chapter 10

Didion describes the "vortex effect," the moment when memories of Dunne or Quintana pull her down into depression. She makes an effort to avoid the vortex by thinking of "safe" memories, but even those do not stay safe for long. She gets "sideswiped" by thinking of the past. The word sideswiped suggests a car accident. Like a vortex, a car accident may be something out of your control. It is something that happens to you and changes your life forever—much the way Didion's life was forever changed by Dunne's death and Quintana's illness.


Why do you always have to be right.

Joan Didion, Chapter 11

Didion remembers Dunne saying this to her during a fight. She reflects on how she "never" thinks she is right. Instead, she is fearful and desirous of control, so she focuses on details. At the end of this chapter she struggles to edit Dunne's last book, reluctant to change anything he wrote. She lets go of the need to be right and leaves a potential mistake intact because Dunne might have wanted it that way.


Survivors look back and see omens, messages they missed.

Joan Didion, Chapter 12

Didion describes how everything feels symbolic, fraught with meaning. She is constantly looking for signs, messages from Dunne, clues she previously missed. She knows this is part of grieving, which is why she writes of "survivors," connecting herself to everyone who has suffered a loss.


Either I had not remembered this or I had determinedly chosen not to remember this.

Joan Didion, Chapter 12

Didion rereads some of Dunne's books, including one where he recounts learning of his heart disease. In the book he describes telling Didion about his heart problems. He says he "started to cry" when he told her. Didion has no memory of the moment. She queries whether she simply forgot or whether she unconsciously, but deliberately, chose to forget, out of fear of losing him.


Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.

Joan Didion, Chapter 17

Didion says Dunne often talked to her about what she might do after his death. His ideas were wrong, she says, but her ideas were wrong, too. The grief of losing a spouse is unimaginable until it is experienced.


The grieving have urgent reasons, even an urgent need, to feel sorry for themselves.

Joan Didion, Chapter 17

Didion struggles with the idea of "self-pity," but concludes grieving people should feel sorry for themselves. No one really experiences the loss of Dunne the way Didion does, so feeling aware of this loss and being gentle with herself because of it is actually a form of self-care.


We try to keep the dead alive ... to keep them with us.

Joan Didion, Chapter 22

Didion expresses regret about the book ending. She fears she will lose some of her connection to Dunne as time passes. Didion believes the desire to celebrate the dead, to continue talking about them and thinking about them, comes from this fear of forgetting them, of losing connection with them.


You had to go with the change. He told me that.

Joan Didion, Chapter 22

Didion ends the book with this statement. She is referring to Dunne's advice for how to ride the waves that went into a sea cave near their California beach home. The advice reflects Didion's acceptance of how her life will be now. She will ride the waves of emotion connected to Dunne and Quintana and accept those changes without trying to fight them.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about The Year of Magical Thinking? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!

Stuck? We have tutors online 24/7 who can help you get unstuck.
A+ icon
Ask Expert Tutors You can ask You can ask You can ask (will expire )
Answers in as fast as 15 minutes