The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Symbols


Waves and Water

Water imagery appears throughout the book. In part this is because Joan Didion and Dunne often lived in places near the water, such as Hawaii and the Southern California beaches. More importantly, waves and water become a symbol of emotion, particularly Didion's overwhelming grief.

"Grief comes in waves," she writes, "paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes." The image of a wave that suddenly knocks you down expresses how blindsided Didion sometimes feels when her grief overtakes her. Later in the book she refers to "the vortex," her way of describing how memories can suck her down into a level of depression in which she stops functioning and just grieves. Whirlpools, which can appear in the ocean, are often referred to as "vortexes." In the final chapter she references the 2004 tsunami, which may lead the reader to remember the anticipated tsunami in her essay in The White Album. The tsunamis function as another symbol of overwhelming power and emotion, events that move your life in a new direction or end it entirely. Finally, she uses the image of riding the waves outside their California home as a more peaceful symbol at the end of the book. Dunne had told her to "go with the change" to ride the waves. At the end of the book Didion suggests she may be learning to "ride" the waves of overwhelming emotions and "go with the change."


Flowers are a symbol of new life and hope. Didion and Dunne live in New York City, a place where they do not see a lot of flowers growing naturally, and the book begins in wintertime, when flowers do not bloom. Nevertheless, Didion mentions flowers repeatedly throughout the book, usually in happy settings. The first mention is in Chapter 2, when Didion thinks back to the garden they had at one of their Southern California homes. She describes how Dunne saw the garden, with its roses and herbs, as "an almost mystical gift." This garden is associated with happy memories, a good summer she and Dunne shared years earlier, a summer he referred to often in the year before he died.

Flowers, particularly leis, are associated with Quintana. A lei is a necklace of fragrant flowers often given in Hawaii for special occasions. Quintana had leis at her wedding because they reminded her of her childhood time in Hawaii. A friend sends leis from Hawaii for Christmas 2004, the first Christmas without Dunne. Leis are beautiful and smell heavenly, but they are also very delicate. Near the end of the book, Didion describes going into the church where Dunne's ashes are kept and leaving her lei near the engraved plaque with his name. As she describes her effort to go on without him, she notes: "The lei I left at St. John the Divine would have gone brown by now." The sense of hope and renewal in spring is gone for Didion, but she continues to move on as best she can.

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