The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4-6


In chapter 4, Didion continues to reflect upon the different ways of dealing with grief and the difficulties she had at the time thinking in a normal way. She does her best to go through with all the formalities, such as the funeral. However, she finds that the rituals are fundamentally dissatisfying for her, precisely because they do not bring her husband back.

She notes that since she was little she believed that literature was a way of understanding and therefore maintaining control over situations. Thus she looks through three kinds of writing for a way of grasping her husband's death: literary fiction and poetry, practical and inspirational guides, and professional medical and psychological literature. She reflects upon the reasonableness and applicability of certain theories of grief to her own life. She finds that sometimes she reacts emotionally against some and that others bring her back to memories with her family.

Chapter 5 recounts the events immediately preceding John's sudden death: that is, his and Joan's daughter Quintana's illness. Sometime between December 18 and 22, Quintana began complaining of the flu. On December 22, she was admitted to the Beth Israel North Hospital with a high fever. Over the next week up to December 30, the night John died, Quintana's condition worsened from the flu into a life-threatening full-body infection. Joan is at a loss for understanding how this could have happened. She remembers her and John's marriage on January 30, 1964 and Quintana's own marriage on July 26, 2003, not long before she was admitted to the hospital.

In chapter 6, Didion gives more examples of her inability to think normally after John's death and finds herself trapped in a certain self-pity. She thinks about how John was depressed about the worth of his work and seemed to know that he would die.


In these chapters, Didion begins to develop the idea of "magical thinking" that she posed at the end of chapter 2. She does so not by a straightforward or sentimental exploration of her feelings but by taking note of the points where it presses up against the edge of the reasonable. She is particularly interested in reining herself back when she goes too far into self-pity or gaining a certain control over herself paradoxically by noticing the points where she has lost control.

This loss of control happens most often, as Didion herself notices, when a certain detail takes her back on what could aptly be described as a memory trip. Rather than being a piece within the narrative, the anecdote - demarcated from the rest of the text by a different date and location - bursts in and draws the reader's attention away from the main story line. Didion writes this way not simply for the sake of effect but actually to try to represent as closely as possible her thought process at the time of her husband's death and, crucially, at the time of writing, when she is still feeling its effects.

She writes, for example, after a memory of driving through California: "No. The way you got sideswiped was by going back. The blossoms showing in the orchards off 101 was the incorrect track" (53). The irony, of course, is that as a writer, Didion could have easily decided to edit out the section she has labelled as being on "the incorrect track." Then again, her whole project seems to be describing her journey down the incorrect track.

One very interesting example of Didion going down the incorrect track, or getting "sideswiped," is when she reads a medical article by Vamik D. Volkan on "re-grief therapy" that arouses her strong resentment: "Were you there? No. You might have been useful with the thermometer but you were not there. I don't need to 'review the circumstances of the death.' I was there. I didn’t' get 'the news,' I didn't 'view' the body. I was there" (56). Immediately following, however, Didion catches herself, making the same move she made above when she tries to pull herself back onto the "correct track": "I catch myself, I stop. I realize that I am directing irrational anger towards the entirely unknown Dr. Volkan in Charlottesville" (56-7).

What is of particular interest in this passage is what follows: a long quoted passage from a book of etiquette by Emily Post that seems to fill in for Didion's explanation of why she gets sideswiped so easily and what it means as a grieving person. Didion is introspective and trying to figure out these reasons on her own using her own style as a writer. She presents these reasons to readers often through the arrangement of texts written by other people in genres as different from her own memoir-writing as etiquette books and medical articles. This demonstrates her flexibility in weaving together different texts - as she herself says, this is a matter of her personal experience and gaining a feeling of control over her own life as a writer.