Joan Didion as Persphone and death as erotic in "The White Album"

Nina Strohminger, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

Consider the following passage from Joan Didion's "The White Album":

Each of the half-dozen doors that locked behind us as we entered Sybil Brand [Penitentiary] was a little death, and I would emerge after the interview like Persephone from the underworld, euphoric, elated. Once home I would have two drinks and make myself a hamburger and eat it ravenously. [from Chapter 1, 11]

This passage is undeniably erotically charged, from the "little deaths" (in French "le petit mort" is slang for sexual climax) to the ravenous consumption of liquor and red meat after her visit. Didion even compares herself to Persephone, whom, as you will remember, death found so attractive he tricked her into living with him in the underworld for nine months of the year, creating the seasons. Persephone is an erotic metaphor for the interplay between life and death.

Wolfe tracks American civilization in the sixties in a different manner, focusing on the struggles of various subcultures in America with class. The reason that subcultures develop at all, he implies, can be traced back to what seems like a universal human trait: desire for status. Keeping this in mind, how do you interpret Didion's reaction to the penitentiary with relation to Wolfe's view of society, particularly in the context of the 1960s? What relation, if any, is there between Didion's erotic response and the world as class striving? Do you think this has, consciously or unconsciously, shaped the narrative of either Wolfe's or Didion's work?

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Last modified 6 February 2002