The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What is distinctive about the tone Didion uses to depict her own grief? What significance does this tone have to the topic of the book?

    When we think of grief, we usually think of weeping and showy displays of emotions; we expect writing of grief to likewise show excessive feelings to the point of inarticulateness. However, Didion maintains a very clear and balanced poise throughout her book, even when she describes herself as being unbalanced. In many cases, after depicting some destabilizing episode she goes through, she will draw back to understand what has happened or simply stop before it becomes too indulgent.

  2. 2

    Why does Didion include and repeat so many specific dates throughout her book?

    We can understand Didion’s frequent use of dates, especially important dates such as John’s death on December 30, 2003, as a way to ground her written account in reality and to bring into the account the very time of her writing. The book is framed chronologically as the title suggests: it was completed almost exactly a year after John’s death and describes how Didion thought and felt during that year. This at once bookends it as a story and, by emphasizing the precise pace of the progression of events, makes it a very concrete and felt story that can be generalized to almost any person and any time.

  3. 3

    How do the long quotations from different sources such as medical texts and an etiquette book affect the overall tone and meaning of the book?

    The many quotations and allusions Didion weaves into her narrative round out the literary personality that she embodies in the book. She not only experiences things and then thinks and writes about them herself, but also reads about the experiences and reflections of others. Although Didion is describing very specific and personal events, she connects them to such a range of literature that at once enriches her story and gives it a more universal quality.

  4. 4

    Where is the place of love in this book, in which the word “love” is hardly ever mentioned?

    When Didion writes of John and what she appreciated in him or misses in him, she does not speak so much about tenderness or love, but more in terms of friendship, a “marriage of minds,” to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare. Their conversations are what she remembers – and misses – the most; even after he has died, his words and his personality seem to chasten and guide her at various points. She does not rely upon him in a directly emotional way, but rather as someone who shares with her in her enterprise of words. For someone to whom reading and writing matter so much, this is a very plainly – but forcefully – stated form of love.

  5. 5

    How does Didion as a writer interact with nurses and doctors at the hospital? What do these interactions say about Didion, on one hand, and the hospital system, on the other?

    In reading medical literature and memoirs by doctors and hospital administrators, Didion tries to gain an understanding into what is going on around Quintana so that she can involve herself somehow. As in writing or reporting, Didion knows that knowledge is power. However, her attempts to suggest treatments and oversee her daughter’s care frustrates some hospital workers, whom one supposes are not used or do not appreciate the patient’s family being so involved. This shows how Didion does not feel comfortable leaving things entirely in others' hands and how the hospital system may demand precisely that.

  6. 6

    What is an obituary, in relation to the narrative?

    An obituary is a notice of death published in a newspaper. When writing an obituary, many decide to include some biographical details about the person who passed away and offer various information about the deceased. After her husband’s death, Joan was asked to publish an obituary for her husband, something she avoided doing as she felt that by making her husband’s death public, she will never see him again.

  7. 7

    What is "The Song of Roland" and how is it significant here?

    "The Song of Roland" (or "Chanson de Roland" in French) is considered as the oldest surviving French piece of literature. It is an epic poem based on a real historical event, the battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778. The story takes place during the battle between the French and the Muslims, a war that spanned over a period of seven years. At the end of the seven years, the French army gets ready to sign a peace treaty with the Muslims. Roland nominated Ganelon to be a messenger and go to the Muslim king with the intention of signing a peace treaty. Ganelon turns against the French and offers inside information to the opposite side. Roland dies in battle but is hailed as a martyr for his efforts to fight against the Muslim army. "The Song of Roland" is mentioned in the story numerous times and John is even compared to one of the characters in the ancient poem. Thus, understanding the meaning of "The Song of Roland" is crucial for understanding the meaning of the novel.

  8. 8

    Who was Emily Post?

    Emily Post is an American author who lived between 1872 and 1960. Emily Post is best known for her books about etiquette, books Joan mentions in her novel. Emily Post was the daughter of a rich architect and she lived her life surrounded by financial wealth. Because of her background and knowledge of etiquette and proper behavior, she decided to write a book on the subject. The book is important for Joan because it offers her some kind of comfort after her husband’s death. While the other books she analyzed all propose a scientific approach, the book of etiquette written by Emily Post suggests a more emphatic approach, focusing on meeting the emotional needs of the person who lost a loved one.