A Book of Common Prayer Essay - Critical Essays

Joan Didion


Didion presents her central character, Charlotte, as a twentieth century Christ figure through the use of striking biblical allusions and imagery and through the use of Grace, the narrator, as an apostle who tells the “gospel” of Charlotte. Didion presents the Christian parallels through the incidents and accompanying imagery of Charlotte’s sojourn to Boca Grande to her death at the hands of undetermined assailants. This sacrificial death is meaningful both because Charlotte dies as a surrogate for Grace and because Grace is able to change her life as a result of her communion with Charlotte.

The first line of the novel, “I will be her witness,” begins the Christian allusions. Didion’s title comes from the Anglican book of sacrament, The Book of Common Prayer. The name of her narrator, Grace, in addition to its own religious significance, is probably an allusion to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Didion often writes about this cathedral in her essays, especially the one entitled “James Pike, American” in her essay collection The White Album (1979). Grace stays in Boca Grande only because she likes the light—the same kind of light which she finds in Charlotte. The Christian allusion is unmistakable.

As Boca Grande is an unusual location for rebirth, so is Charlotte Douglas an unusual Christ figure. She is, after all, a woman who left two husbands, traveling again with the first and leaving him to die alone. Charlotte says that she “lost one child to ‘history’ and another to ‘complications.’” Charlotte, however, is a Christ figure in the tradition of Ken Kesey’s philandering, gambling, drinking McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), who is sacrificed on an electroshock therapy table in a mental hospital. As Kesey does, Didion establishes the Christ figure through Christian imagery and symbolism. Also, as in Kesey’s novel, the story is narrated by the character whose life is most affected by the presence of the Christ figure. Didion’s abrupt style may block readers from easy recognition of the Christian symbolism with which Didion blatantly teases the reader from the first line of the novel to the final darkening of the sky following Charlotte’s execution. After her death, Grace relates that (like Christ), she was “immaculate of history.” Like Christ, Charlotte dies wanting to be...

(The entire section is 975 words.)