Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Isolation as a Means of Resolving Despair
In both “Guaymas, Sonora” and “Goodbye to All That,” isolation is a motif that transitions in its meaning. In “Guaymas, Sonora,” Didion’s isolation is tied to her escapism. On the other hand, in “Goodbye to All That,” isolation accompanies Didion’s search to solve her despair in a youthful desire for independence. In both essays, Didion returns to a life in which she is not isolated. The motif of isolation illustrates how physical and mental isolation do not contain the ability to resolve emotional conflicts.
In “Goodbye to All That,” the physical settings of New York City and California illustrate Didion’s physical isolation, revealing how her acquisition of independence was aligned with her sadness. To some extent, New York is a city in which Didion will not be physically isolated. However, she is in a mental state of isolation during her time in New York which is exemplified when she addresses how she does not mention her struggles in the “letters [she] wrote to California”. California, another physical location, is the setting which Didion was attempting to physically avoid, where she feels dependent and trapped. By physically detach herself from the people she knows across the country, Didion is seeking independence. However, Didion’s sadness within this independence is revealed when the setting that once excited her turns into despair over the locations she previously frequented. When Didion was diagnosed with depression she pairs it with her inability to emotionally deal with the setting, such as her inability to “walk on upper Madison Avenue”. This emotional struggle to walk on a street in New York illustrates how her physical isolation was tied in with her mental state of despair. New York in turn becomes a symbol tied to her to sadness. Thus revealing how her physical isolation is aligned with her depression. To solve her sadness, Didion gets married and eventually physically exits New York. Her marriage, a companionship which would theoretically alleviate her isolation and end her youthful independence, was what catalyzed her exit of New York and return to California. This illustrates how Didion attempted to alleviate her depression by altering her state of physical isolation.
In “Guaymas, Sonora,” the setting of Guaymas, Mexico portrays Didion’s escapism through her and her husband’s physical isolation, painting isolation as an only temporary way to solve despair. This is exemplified when Didion discusses the emptiness of Guaymas, a setting which lacks experiences to take part in. Didion’s physical isolation in Guaymas is conveyed as being caused by her depression. Didion attempts to escape this with a shift in setting. However, the setting of Guaymas conclusively failed to provide Didion a solution to her despair in Los Angeles. This is portrayed as she and her husband looked for an activity, but could only find a “tracking station” or a film, which led her to believe it was time to leave the setting of Guaymas. Didion recording this realization that vacation in Guaymas had limits and they needed to return home illustrates the realization that isolation is but a temporary solution to despair.
The physical settings of Guaymas, New York City, and California are physical as well as mental places of isolation. While New York City, unlike Guaymas, had a plethora of activities to take part of during a youthful discovery of independence, Didion was still in despair and a majority of the city reminded her of this despair. On the other hand, Guaymas was a vacation spot, a method of escapism. Didion’s isolation in that physical setting paints isolation temporary medicine for sadness. Nevertheless, Didion realized in both essays that isolation was ineffective in completely resolving her sadness, and physically exited both settings with a companion. In “Goodbye to All That,” Didion attempts to resolve her disparity with mental isolation. On the other hand, in “Guaymas, Sonora,” Didion attempts to solve it with physical isolation. In both essays her resolutions are only temporary. Thus, the motif of isolation is painted as temporary solution to the emotional conflict of despair.
In “Goodbye to All That”, imagery conveys Didion’s hope that her experiences in the city will provide her a refuge to her mental state of isolation. This is exemplified in the plethora of olfactory and visual descriptions when she describes New York. From descriptions of the colors of traffic signals to the senses heightened when a breeze blows by, Didion conveys a level of imagery that captures her desire to feel and hold experiences deeply. The multitude of happenings in New York coupled with the imagery she describes essentially drown out her despair, temporarily. Her mental despair on the other hand is still apparent. While heightening imagery, representative of Didion’s heightened emotions, increased the intensity of positive experiences, it also increased the intensity of negative ones. Thus, the same imagery that brings her joy can bring her a negative experience and cause her to further recluse and mentally isolate herself into a state of constant sadness. While the imagery does evoke some hope in Didion’s acquisition of a new life and independence, it also conveys her orbit into despair and inability to escape, for the intense sense perception she experiences in New York makes it impossible.
The barren imagery in “Guaymas, Sonora” portrays how complete physical isolation fails to resolve one’s mental disparity. Visual and tactile imagery in this essay portray a relaxing, exotic vacation. However, the imagery being paired with a sense of repetition evokes an atmosphere of boredom. Didion continuously discusses the heat as well as the red and brown shades of the desert. This repetitiveness illustrates a lack of experiences and elicits little emotion, other than boredom. Thus, the eventual decision on Didion to return home due to a lack of activities to take part in makes logical sense. It also illustrates how her physical isolation had nothing stimulating for her mental state. The imagery provided an underwhelming sense of Didion’s which portrays how physical isolation fails to catalyze a mental shift in disparity.
In both essay, imagery conveys how sense perception is a driving force in the attempt to alleviate emotional disparity. In “Goodbye to All That,” Didion’s record of imagery reveals her attempts to drown out disparity through heightening her senses. A different effect of imagery occurs in “Guaymas, Sonora,” in which the repetitive, nearly monochromatic imagery highlights a numbness of the senses of Didion and captures her attempt to solve disparity through physical isolation from a world filled with a multitude of senses and emotions (a world that exists in New York). It is also important to consider that in the two essays, Didion is in different stages of her life. In “Goodbye to All That,” Didion is young and attempting to acquire independence. She is searching for new experiences, emotions, and in turn welcomes the different overwhelming senses the setting offers. On the other hand, “Guaymas, Sonora” is set after Didion’s experience in New York, a time in which she has settled down in Los Angeles and is searching for physical isolation accompanied with a lack of senses.
While “Goodbye to All That” focuses on Didion’s mental isolation and “Guaymas, Sonora” focuses on Didion’s physical isolation, both highlight the relationship between isolation and despair. Didion eventually returns to her home of Los Angeles in both novels, illustrating how her attempts to alleviate her emotional state were unsuccessful. Conclusively, both “Goodbye to All That” and “Guaymas, Sonora” convey the motif of isolation to illustrate that physical and mental isolation is but a temporary solution to resolving one’s despair.
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.