A prop list for an unwritten script?

Didion’s decision first to offer details bereft of context and then contextualize these facts through reflections that elucidate the narrative of a personal struggle for purpose and meaning captures in a single passage the conflict between clarity and disorder that the stories told in “The White Album.” Didion uses the packing list to represent her continuous efforts to craft meaning, predictability, and purpose from the events that, as she depicts them in her essay, seem to consistently resist placement in any narrative that might elucidates their significance. The list, she explains, was

[M]ade by someone who prized control, yearned after momentum, someone determined to play her role as if she had the script, heard her cues, knew the narrative. There is on this list one significant omission, one article I needed and never had: a watch. I needed a watch not during the day, when I could turn on the car radio or ask someone, but at night, in the motel. Quite often I would ask the desk for the time every half hour or so, until finally, embarrassed to ask again, I would call Los Angeles and ask my husband. In other words I had skirts, jerseys, leotards, pullover sweater, shoes, stockings, bra, nightgown, robe, slippers, cigarettes, bourbon, shampoo, toothbrush and paste, Basis soap, razor, deodorant, aspirin, prescriptions, Tampax, face cream, powder, baby oil, mohair throw, typewriter, legal pads, pens, files and a house key, but I didn’t know what time it was. This may be a parable, either of my life as a reporter during this period or of the period itself. [35-36]

In this context, the packing list represents the cues and props necessary for Didion to act her part, while the absence of the watch undercuts both the list’s effectiveness and Didion’s own preparedness for the unknown and the unexpected. Significantly, she feels the absence of the watch most acutely at night, in literal darkness, and it fosters dependency, the very quality that the packing list ought to eliminate. Didion’s reflections on the impossibility of such a list to adequately prepare her for the situations she encountered arrives only after the props, and the props alone, are given. The reader, therefore, must first attempt to create his own narrative to explain the list Didion offers at the beginning of the section before Didion herself intercedes to juxtapose the intent and futility of both the list and the mindset from which it sprung


1. Besides the packing list, Didion includes other significant details in her explanation of its symbolic importance. Look especially at the paragraph on page 36. How do the specifics she includes shape the broader story she tells?

2. Why does Didion repeat the list, in prose form, at the end of this section? What does this bookending of the section emphasize, and how does the repetition work in the context of the significance that Didion elucidates, as narrator, in between the two iterations?

3. 3. Didion discusses, briefly, the significance of a couple of items on the list, but she clearly intends for the entire list to be read, as it appears twice. Do undiscussed items offer any further clues either into her aspirations or her actual condition in the era described?

4. 4. Contrast Didion’s use of specifics with Jonathan Swift’s: does the timing and context of their use of details overlap or work to similar ends, or do they deploy specifics on fundamentally different occasions?

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

1 February 2011