Who's telling stories?

Joan Didion begins her essay “In the Islands” by describing her surroundings, gradually revealing the context of her observations as the first few paragraphs advance. She is with her husband and daughter in a hotel room in Honolulu. There has been a 7.5 earthquake in the Aleutians. They are awaiting a report from Midway Island about a potential tidal wave. The tension of the pending natural disaster is quickly relieved in the second paragraph, only to be replaced just as quickly with a new and perhaps more frightening form of anxiety. Without the threat of a tidal wave, Didion is left with nothing to distract her from the fact that her family is in Hawaii “in lieu of filing for divorce.” All of this context, says Didion, is not simple self-indulgence:

I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people. You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor. Quite often during the past several years I have felt myself a sleepwalker, moving through the world unconscious of the moment’s high issues, oblivious to its data, alert only to the stuff of bad dreams, the children burning in the locked car in the supermarket parking lot, the bike boys stripping down stolen cars on the captive cripple’s ranch . . . Acquaintances read The New York Times , and try to tell me the news of the world. I listen to call-in shows

“Somewhere along the line,” Didion became disillusioned with the world and is apparently quite bitter about it. Her disillusionment is unique in its self-awareness. Though Didion knows that her focus on horrifying events only makes things worse, she is seemingly powerless to stop it. Surely there must be difficulties presented by this kind of worldview.

You will perceive that such a view of the world presents difficulties. I have trouble making certain connections. I have trouble maintaining the basic notion that keeping promises matters in a world where everything I was taught seems beside the point. The point itself seems increasingly obscure. I came into adult life equipped with an essentially romantic ethic, holding always before me the examples of Axel Heyst in Victory and Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove and Charlotte Rittenmayer in The Wild Palms and a few dozen others like them, believing as they did that salvation lay in extreme and doomed commitments, promises made and somehow kept outside the range of normal social experience. I still believe that, but I have trouble reconciling salvation with those ignorant armies camped in my mind. I could indulge here in a little idle generalization, could lay off my own state of profound emotional shock on the larger cultural breakdown, could talk fast about the convulsions in the society and alienation and anomie and maybe even assassination, but that would be just one more stylish shell game. I am not the society in microcosm. I am a thirty-four-year-old woman with long straight hair and an old bikini bathing suit and bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a tidal wave that will not come.

Didion is a romantic disillusioned by a world which has failed to live up to her expectations. The blame, according to her, lies not with the society that promotes such false expectations nor with the expectations themselves, as she refuses to entirely abandon them. Instead, she seems to blame the world for failing to make sense and herself for failing to cope with that fact.


1. Why does Didion refer to her doubts about the romantic structure of the world as “ignorant armies camped in [her] mind”?

2. When Didion says that she is “not the society in microcosm,” is she referring specifically to the society of the time or to the human experience as a whole?

3. If Didion truly believes that the human experience has no underlying structure, why doesn’t she use that as her philosophical foundation? If she already does, why is she continually upset by evidence that there is no meaning to our lives?

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

1 February 2011