The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Themes


Marriage as Lifetime Partnership

In spite of their marriage's tentative beginning, Dunne and Joan Didion forged a lifetime partnership, which is Didion's greatest loss. Shortly after his death, Didion writes, "I needed to discuss this with John. There was nothing I did not discuss with John." Their particular marriage, built on constantly working near each other and with each other, is unique. Dunne was Didion's sounding board for new ideas, her editor—he even edited a piece in which she referenced their potential divorce—and her biggest supporter. In the early days of their marriage, she worried she was the wrong kind of wife for him. Clearly she was not. Dunne was not known for his restraint. If he had felt she was the wrong wife for him, he would have said so—and left.

Didion brings her writer's detachment to the marriage. "I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right," she says in Chapter 2, "but we were each the person the other trusted." For their marriage to last a lifetime, they had to be honest about each other's faults and mistakes. Didion dwells far more on her own mistakes in this book, regretting them now Dunne is gone, but surely they both made plenty of errors. One way in which they were both wrong, she says, is in imagining life after his death. Dunne advised her on what to do "when something happens" to him. He told her to remarry, but she says now he is actually gone she knows it would be a mistake. Didion says, "Marriage is memory, marriage is time." This figurative language works powerfully, making it clear marriage is about the long term. In Slouching towards Bethlehem, Didion wrote an essay called "Marrying Absurd," which describes wedding chapels on the Las Vegas Strip that would marry couples at any hour of the day or night, supporting the view that "marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot." Her own marriage was the antithesis of this. They may have started out unsure and eager to flee, but somehow, Didion and Dunne's improvisation turned into a lasting monument to the importance of marriage.


Didion's self-portrait in this book suggests she is, for lack of a better term, a control freak. In Chapter 8 she writes, "Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control." This is specifically about Quintana's rehospitalization in Los Angeles, but she has a similar reaction to Quintana's earlier hospitalization and even to Dunne's death. In Didion's case control is a way to respond to fear, a way to keep the terror at bay. When she follows the ambulance with Dunne's body to the hospital, she already suspects he is dead. At the hospital, however, she focuses on what she is told to do: stand in line for admitting paperwork, which she calls "the constructive thing to do." She feels better: "Waiting in the line said that there was still time to deal with this." There is very little she can do for Dunne, though. He had already died.

In Quintana's situation, the desire for information is rational—to a point. She wants to know how this happened to her child. Before his death Dunne kept asking doctors and nurses, "How does 'flu' morph into whole-body infection?" It's a good question. Didion reads medical textbooks. She hints to doctors about symptoms she observes. While this behavior may seem a bit intrusive, many ill people need a family member to advocate for them. After Dunne's death, however, and particularly after Quintana's brain surgery, Didion's need for control crosses a boundary. She insists on specific medical tests, tries to stop procedures she thinks are unnecessary, offers to call specialists, and even shows up at the hospital in scrubs. "If you want to manage this case I'm signing off," one member of the hospital staff told her. Didion's intentions are good, but she is not fully rational, as she herself admits. She resists a certain procedure because of "the same fund of superstition from which I had been drawing since John died." Her fear is understandable. It drives her need for control, but it is not healthy to base decisions on it.

The Search for Meaning

Didion wants to make sense of what has happened because she needs these tragedies to mean something. Her search for meaning is another theme in the book.

Didion begins by searching literature, quoting Shakespeare and poets on death, hoping their words will help. These writers do not give her what she needs. At the end of the first chapter she says, "This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning." She turns to nonfiction, to research. She researches her husband's life and her daughter's illness, hoping cardiology and neuroscience will help her find meaning.

Meaning also becomes a theme in her interactions with people and the interactions she observes in others. She finds herself thinking about things Dunne said years earlier, wondering what he meant. Didion also describes the "gilded boy" story, which neurologists use to evaluate brain function in patients. While the neurologists seem to use the story principally to test a patient's ability to recall disparate or potentially confusing details. Didion, on the other hand, wants to know what the story means: What is the theme or the central idea?

Finally, Didion talks about life after Dunne's funeral. She says while most people anticipate the difficulty of the funeral, what is much harder is the emptiness, the meaninglessness of life after the funeral is over. Again, Didion wants meaning in her life and cannot find it.


Didion seems to be the poster child for denial. When she sees Dunne slumped over, her first thought is he is making a joke. She has ambulance numbers posted near the phone "in case someone in the building needed an ambulance. Someone else." Her "magical thinking" is also a form of denial: she cannot bring herself to give away his shoes or clothes because "he would need shoes if he was to return." This denial is the first stage of the grieving process and entirely understandable.

Didion and Dunne both experience denial about Quintana's health problems. Just before Dunne's death, Didion and Dunne speak to an ICU doctor about Quintana. The doctor says they are "not sure which way this is going." Didion's internal response: "The way this is going is up ... because it has to go up." She describes how she and Dunne talk about taking Quintana to Hawaii to recover. When Quintana is in brain surgery, Didion and her nephew Tony talk about "contingencies" because they cannot bring themselves to say "if Quintana dies." This denial comes from fear more than grief. Again, it is understandable.

Didion cites multiple examples of denial during the life she shared with Dunne. She insists he does not know how he will die, even though he has diagnosed heart trouble. She describes believing the heart procedure he had in 1987 "fixed" things, and it did—but it didn't fix them permanently. She dislikes it when Dunne starts conversations with "when something happens to me." In an early chapter she describes needing to change the subject when Dunne and Quintana discuss organ donation because she cannot handle hearing the two of them discuss their deaths. This denial borders on the phobic, an intense, psychologically unhealthy level of fear. From a factual standpoint, it is unclear whether Didion's denial of Dunne's heart condition had any effect on his health. Had she been more aware of it, she might have been able to help him take care of himself differently. However, Dunne was not the sort of person who would want to be fussed over, so he might have rejected any help she offered. Did Didion's denial create a certain emotional barrier between them? She wonders if he knew he was dying. Would he have told her, if she wasn't in such strong denial? No one knows the answer.

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