A View of Joan Didion through The White Album

Caroline Young, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

In "The White Album," Joan Didion uses events of the Sixties, in popular culture and in her own life, to create a mosaic of the decade and a metaphor for her own writing. The following passage presents three aspects of what Didion is writing about: the Sixties, her life, and writing itself. Her reference to her past apprehension of being old tied to finding out about multiple sclerosis allows her take a wide look through the lens of her own life out to the decade and her action of writing itself. Her fear of horrible things happening to herself provides the reader with a momentary glimpse into why she is so fascinated by the events she relates in other parts of the essay. This passage is a view into the author herself.

I had, at this time, a sharp apprehension not of what it was like to be old but of what it was like to open the door to the stranger and find that the stranger did indeed have the knife. In a few lines of dialogue in a neurologist's office in Beverly Hills, the improbable had become the probable, the norm: things which happened only to other people could in fact happen to me. I could be struck by lightning, could dare to eat a peach and be poisoned by the cyanide in the stone. The startling fact was this: my body was offering a precise physiological equivalent to what had been going on in my mind. "Lead a simple life," the neurologist advised. "Not that it makes any difference we know about." In other words it was another story without a narrative. [47]


1. What is the significance of Didion's choice of a knife-wielding stranger? Later in the passage she mentions other metaphors, but her emphasis initially on the stranger at the door suggests a preoccupation. How does this relate to her discussions of murder throughout the whole essay?

2. This passage is one of the places Didion becomes the most personal with the reader. Why was it important for the reader to know that she has multiple sclerosis?

3. What is the significance of the neurologist's comments? What does she mean by "simple life"?

4. What does the word "narrative" mean in "another story without a narrative"? What are her other examples of stories without a narrative?

Cited Works

Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

Last modified 1 February 2005