Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem

A Brief Structural Analysis

by Allan T. Grohe, Jr.

The general movement of Slouching Towards Bethlehem mimics the lack of a center that Didion expresses throughout the title essay.  That is, while "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" focuses on the decentered nature of life in Haight-Ashbury in 1967, it reflects Didion's inner life as well:  "The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun; those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern" (xiii, my emphasis).  Didion succumbs to the drugs and counter-culture in which she has immersed herself, and gets lost; she implicates the whole of her generation in causing the storm of the late 1960s:  "At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing . . .  These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society's values" (123).

The pattern Didion establishes in the title essay moves outward to the book as a whole; it is easiest to discern, however, from the book inward to the essay: Life Styles in the Golden Land establishes life in California in 1967 as the physical, emotional, and geographical center of the text; however, California is neither Eden, nor the Golden Land at the end of the rainbow of the American Dream, but instead the failed remnants of both (the original title to "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" was "How Can I Tell Them There's Nothing Left"). The first section ends with the title essay, concludes the movement into bad trips, dissonance, and chaos, and segues into part two, Personals, the physical center of the book (a center that, like the personal ads the title suggests, are blind gropings outward, pleas for personal communication, contact, and meaning).

The center that "was not holding" was thus Joan Didion, as well as the 19th century values of the WWI and WWII society which created her.  Hence the obvious emphasis on traditional values in essays like "On Self-Respect", "On Morality" (originally titled "On the Insidious Ethic of Conscience," a title that undermines morality in essay from within).   The aimless ruin of California haunts her, and she can't get that monster out of her mind.  Part two concludes with "On Going Home," an essay that focuses on "the place where my family is" (164), on the sense of "'dark journey,' for which [Didion's] generation strived so assiduously . . . [note the past tense, and the implicit sense of failure]" (166).  Didion can no more provide a center for her daughter than the WWI and WWII generations could for the hippies who fled in droves to the abandonment that was Haight-Ashbury.  The movement into part three, Seven Places of the Mind, springs from the lack of home at the end of part two, and emphasizes that the only center that can possibly be attained is that which we create, individually, for ourselves, in our own minds.  We have to decide just who is beside the point, if anyone.  Concluding with "Goodbye to All That," title to the WW1 memoir of Robert Graves, Didion leaves behind New York to come to California in 1964.  She thus concludes the book with the beginning of her descent into Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the beginning of the end of stability, of "the revelation . . . at hand" (xi).

Didion forces the reader to then position her dreams of youth in NYC against those of the hippies in San Francisco, her lack of center against their own.  She thus becomes, like the hippies, the victim of her own generation, and it's failure to establish and maintain community.  At the same time, positioned at the end of the volume, when Didion says "Farewell to the Enchanted City" ("Goodbye"'s original title), she takes leave from not only NYC, but Haight-Ashbury, and the WWI values of her own generation.  She leaves the center for the outer limits of the fringe, discards the past and the cause-and-effect connectivity it provides to daily life for the immediate gratification of the ever-fleeting moment that is the present, and gives up on the American Dreams of youth for the desperate clinging to fragments that is maturity.  Didion is the "rough beast" that "Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born" (xi).

Didion's lack of home, however, is merely a symptom to the lack of community that underlies the whole of the book.  The "atomization" Didion describes is the self surrounded by atomic particles just out of reach, in orbit but unavailable.  The atom ties in to the concept of the nuclear family, the atomic bomb (and hence WWII, and threats of nuclear holocaust a la The Bay of Pigs), and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.  The atom, as the foundation of matter, is the ultimate representative of the center, but it's hollow shell of electrons leaves it mostly empty.  Didion asks if the legacy of the 1960s is that emptiness, and concludes, I believe, with an emphatic "yes."


Return to Imrryr.