Slouching Towards Bethlehem
The City of Dichotomy in Goodbye to All That
New York City is an iconic hub of activity and acts as one of the most distinctive cities in the United States. Many people, mostly young, move to the metropolis each year seeking fame and fortune, and in the early sixties, Joan Didion adopted the role of one of these travelers. Throughout her personal essay “Goodbye to All That,” she constructs a dichotomy between her reality and her youthful tunnel vision by contrasting her affluent upbringing and what is now her lower-middle-class status upon living alone in such a demanding environment; she evaluates her family’s wealth and her suddenly fallen comfort level, and she then brings the difference into comparison by acknowledging her relentless and possibly naive belief that she undoubtedly will attain success in the big city.
Didon lays the foundation of this contrast by first establishing that her bleak current living situation does not correlate with her prosperous family history. For example, she recalls moments from her childhood that caused her awareness of her family’s affluence. She describes herself as “…a child who has always had an uncle on Wall Street and who has spent several hundred Saturdays first at F. A. O. Schwarz and being fitted for shoes at Best’s,” (231). This information prepares the reader’s mind to determine how Didion’s life has changed as she shifts her life into the focus of the massive city. That being said, one will note that shortly before this, Didion stated that she “never told [her] father that I needed money because then he would have sent it,” (229). The author explicitly admits to her lack of money while also asserting that she tolerated the continuance of her bare circumstances. Lastly, Didion sheds light upon her literal living situation by inviting the reader’s eyes into her dismal apartment. She describes that “…there was nothing at all in those four rooms except a cheap double mattress and box springs,” (232). This acts as the final convincing point for changing the reader’s thinking; Didion transitions her descriptions from her affluent childhood, to evidence of her mildly poverty-stricken yet relentless mindset, and finally to a raw depiction of the financial challenges she has faced. Overall, Didion bluntly relates how her lifestyle has dramatically turned from the comfort of affluence to a tight and even lacking budget in order to set the scene of the reality of spending her early twenties in New York City.
The author contrasts what she installs as the reality of her situation with the caught-up perspective of a twenty-something by providing the reader with her overly finance-trusting point of view. She targets this common mindset and brings it into focus by openly stating that many people still transitioning into total adulthood experience this naivete. In an almost accusing tone, she explains this false assurance by affirming that “…when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs,” (228-229). Didion’s mention of money acts as an indicator that her parents’ wealth is acting as her back-up plan and that only her subconscious is aware of this due to her apparent feeling of invincibility. In addition to this, Didion attributes her previous inability to understand the gravity of insufficient funds to her youthful immaturity. Continuing the motif of money, Didion explains that “[a]t that time making a living seemed a game to me, with arbitrary but quite inflexible rules,” (229). Furthermore, despite the clearly bleak living circumstances Didion was enduring at the time, she still is unable to internalize this reality by admitting, “I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month,” (229). This narration indicates that Didion is failing to grasp her life’s complete perspective. In essence, she is wearing a safety harness by relying on fate and luck instead of on herself and her own capability to earn a living and begin a career. Didion’s notion that she is still able to rely on the support of others and of chance despite her admittedly tough financial position indicates mentally living in the past and an inability to recognize a definite change in situation. The narrator challenges the reality she establishes earlier within her work in order to contrast her physical and external truth with her mental reluctance to change.
Didion feels comfortable utilizing her tone to lightly criticize herself throughout the essay because she has matured and grown out of the callow and excessively confident mindset she presents earlier in the work. As the essay covers the eight-year-long portion of the author’s life spent residing in New York City, readers are able to witness the dramatic shift in thinking that she experienced and covers in her narrative. She proudly declares that after several years in the city, she began to “[discover] that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it,” (233). This more advanced mindset marks Didion’s development into becoming more aware of the personal responsibility that she holds. She now is able to recognize that she is in fact an adult and accountable for directing herself towards the career that she moved to New York City for in the first place. Expanding on this, Didion also utilizes her iconic critical and mildly sarcastic tone to note that she is no longer entranced by the dreaminess of New York City. Speaking in hindsight, she denounces “…all [New York City’s] sweet promises of money,” (235). In addition to this detracting tone, the essayist also takes advantage of irony through finding fault in the main factor that caused her to be so delirious over her new life in the city. By proving to her audience that she has grown out of the tunnel vision that she experienced upon moving to the famous city, she gives herself the authority to be so critical of her past thoughts and actions.
“Goodbye to All That” describes a period in Didion’s life that was filled with maturation and the gaining of understanding. To reflect on the changes her mentality has undergone, she compares the two versions of herself and reveals the flaws that she was able to correct during this transformation. Through this, the author dichotomizes the two and lastly proves that she has earned the authority to criticize her previous naive mindset by demonstrating that she has matured.