Why Diction Matters: A Close Look at Joan Didion

JoanDidionIn her essay titled In Bed, Joan Didion presents her subject – the evolution of her relationship to suffering consistent, frequent, and severe migraines -in the fifth sentence of the first paragraph by means of precise, implicative diction and phrasing. The fifth sentence is as follows:

“When I was 15, 16, even 25, I used to think that I could rid myself of this error by simply denying it, character over chemistry”(168).

The phrase that indicates an evolution in thought is, “I used to think.” The term “error,” phrases “simply denying it” and “character over chemistry” imply an internal struggle; the catalyst perpetuating her evolution in thought.

The reader is first made privy to the eventual change in Didion’s relationship to her ailment through the phrase “I used to think,” expertly foreshadowing the journey to come. Why does this clue the reader in? The coupling of terms used and to, in the past tense, is defined by New Oxford American Dictionary as:

“Describing an action or state of affairs that was done repeatedly or existed for a period in the past: this road used to be a dirt track | I used to give him lifts home.”

As a result, this exacting instance of “used to” implies the thoughts and attitudes expressed directly following are in the past. They are a product of thoughts she no longer has in relationship with her ailment. Consequently, the subject is introduced.

In Didion’s pivotal fifth sentence, the term error is used for the second time interchangeably with the term migraine. Error is defined as: “a mistake,” New Oxford American Dictionary gives the example: “The state or condition of being wrong in conduct or judgment: the crash was caused by human error.” The repeated use of the term error, in place of migraine, implies a migraine is the manifestation of a mistake in Didion’s character or rather a migraine is an error in and of itself. Utilizing error in this way, deepens of the reader’s understanding of Didion’s younger self’s judgment against her own condition. Secondarily, it serves to invest the reader in Didion’s journey.

The idiom that clues the reader in on the tone of the essay subject, is “simply denying it.” First, breaking down the idiom into singular terms, the word simply is defined as: “straightforward or plain manner.” Simply is further defined as “easy” or “merely” with the given example, “just: simply complete the application form.” Interestingly, the term simply also has the implication of “absolutely; completely (used for emphasis), it makes Terry simply furious.” Simply turns out to be not such a simple word. Not only should the act of denying the migraine be easy, it should be easily eradicated, entirely.

Next up in the idiom is term “deny,” again defined by New Oxford American Dictionary as:

“(a)Refuse to admit the truth or existence of (something): they deny any responsibility for the tragedy (b) refuse to acknowledge or recognize; disown : Peter repeatedly denied Jesus.”

Didion’s use of the term deny therefore clues the reader into the absurdity of the assertion. Didion’s younger self is admonishing herself for not being able to refuse to admit the migraine is real, therefore revealing the central friction of the essay: acute contradiction, the catalyst for Didion’s journey. “Simply deny it” has a mocking tone, begging a fight with anyone who would claim a migraine is the product of the imagination, particularly Didion’s younger self.

Didion ends the sentence on an exceptional clause, “character over chemistry.” She sets up an unrealistic dichotomy; how can character be over chemistry? Yet, this phrase has the ring of a common wisdom cliché. The narrator is self-mocking in her purposed opposition of her own mental capacity over her biological reality. New Oxford American Dictionary defines character as:

“The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual: strength and originality in a person’s nature: she had character as well as beauty.”

Character is further defined as: “a person’s good reputation: to what do I owe this attack on my character?” Ultimately, character refers to our social identity whereas chemistry is defined as:

“…the branch of science that deals with the identification of the substances of which matter is composed; the investigation of their properties and the ways in which they interact, combine, and change; and the use of these processes to form new substances.”

Didion’s use of the term chemistry foreshadows her assertions of scientific evidence for the validity of migraines further in the essay. She set her younger self’s ideas around character against her older self’s understanding of chemistry. Didion uses the term over to set the two in opposition. Over is defined as:

“(a) At the other side of; beyond : over the hill is a small village.(b) By means of; by the medium of : over the loudspeaker. (c) Higher in grade or rank than : over him is the financial director.”

The last clause “character of chemistry” employs a mocking tone, calling into question the idea of utilizing a socially constructed identity over one’s scientifically measureable biology.

Didion masterfully crafted an entire essay around the subject of her evolving relationship to the suffering of migraines. She introduces her ailment in the first four sentences and then plunges into the heart of the subject in the fifth sentence. Didion’s precise diction and phrasing not only intrigue the reader, but leave no doubt to the tone and direction of the essay.

Works Cited

Didion, Joan. “In Bed.” The White Album. New York: Noonday,

  1. N. pag. Print.

Stevenson, Angus, and Christine A. Lindberg. New Oxford American

Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

All definitions included are from this source.

About detangledprosereview

I am a human rights advocate with a knack for inter-contextually. I am a storyteller, a ceramists, a pan-art lover, a feminist, and a humanist.
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1 Response to Why Diction Matters: A Close Look at Joan Didion

  1. Illuminating! Thanks for sharing a well-crafted essay on a well-crafted essay.

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