Democracy (Magill's Literary Annual 1985)
Joan Didion’s Democracy is a strange, and strangely unsettling, novel even in this, the postmodern age of aesthetic eccentricity. Odd in shape (at once too tall and too narrow), it is odder still in its texture. The large type, wide margins, short, simple sentences, and status as a Literary Guild selection suggest a “fast read”—as fast, in fact, as the contemporary world it describes. Democracy, however, is a painfully slow novel because—again like the contemporary world—Didion’s narrative is fragmented and confusing. Instead of propelling the reader forward, the white space and simple phrasings serve to retard progress, acting as visible reminders of the elliptical quality of contemporary experience and of Didion’s distinctly contemporary prose.
Although the focus here, as in her three earlier novels, Run River (1963), Play It as It Lays (1970), and A Book of Common Prayer (1977), is on a woman, Didion’s fiction is not fashionably feminist in its orientation. What interests Didion is not ideology and reform but instead her character’s existential situation and the way it confirms the author’s own mechanistic (or as she calls it here, “essentially circumstantial”) view of life. Having little of the optimism of certain feminist writers, including fellow Californian Alice Adams, Didion...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Joan Didion’s Democracy rewrites Henry’s Adams’ 1880 novel of the same name, about young widow Madeleine Lee’s attraction to and eventual distaste for American political power, from a more contemporary and specifically female point of view. Seven years in the making, Democracy, first titled “Angel Visits,” was originally set on Hawaii and dealt with three generations of a family that had benefited from and been shaped by the colonial imperative. Vestiges of that novel, “a study of provincial manners, in the acute tyrannies of class and privilege by which people assert themselves against the tropics,” survive in Democracy’s opening pages, but only as “the shards of the novel” Didion is “no longer writing.” Democracy focuses instead on one member of that family, Inez Christian Victor, and her relationship with the shadowy Jack Lovett. Inez and Jack are the novel’s most intriguing characters because, for Didion, they are the hardest to define, the ones who “seemed not to belong anywhere at all, except, oddly, together.” Together is, however, what Inez and Jack rarely are—except in 1952 when they first meet; again in 1960 when Jack, en route to one of his clandestine operations, visits her at the editorial offices of Vogue magazine, where Inez and Didion then worked; in 1969 in Jakarta, where Inez has gone with her husband, at the time a United States senator, on one of the many political...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Honolulu. Hawaii’s capital city, in which Inez Christian was born and grew up during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Her college experience on the U.S. mainland led to her marriage to Harry Victor. Despite his political career as a senator from California, and years of residence in Washington, D.C., and New York City, both family ties and fate keep pulling her back to Hawaii. In part this pattern may symbolize the tensions in American life in this era, when formerly East Coast-oriented political “actors” kept being drawn into obligations and conflicts in the Pacific arena.
Even into the 1970’s, life in Honolulu for Inez and her relatives retains many of the perks and institutions of its colonial past. Daiquiri poolside lunches and visiting ballet companies, investments in container corporations and Sea Meadow housing developments all play a part in the family’s illusion of a protected life. However, the occasional presence of Jack Lovett, a mysterious agent with covert, unspecified business all across the Pacific region, shows a different face of the island state. This is underscored by the scene at Schofield Barracks in which Jack and Inez watch television coverage of the simultaneous evacuation of several Southeast Asian capitals. Airfields are jammed with trans-Pacific commerce and rescue missions, and a faint sense of decay as well as luxury reminds the reader that Honolulu is a tropical city not entirely unlike the...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Didion’s novels and books of journalistic nonfiction have made her a unique figure in contemporary American literature, an acclaimed novelist and one of the most frequently anthologized essayists of her time. Despite her accomplishments—her distinguished works and distinctive style—and despite her preoccupation with subjects such as abortion, romantic love, mother-daughter relations, and sexual submissiveness, Didion has attracted surprisingly little attention from feminist critics (Katherine Usher Henderson and Stout being two important exceptions). Even as she adopts traditionally female forms such as the romance and rewrites typically male narratives such as Adams’ Democracy, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), and in her depiction of her female protagonists’ “passive detachment,” Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Didion proves neither polemical nor politically correct in assessing the damage that men (and male narratives) inflict on women.
As she explained to Susan Stamberg, her novels are “cautionary tales. Stories I don’t want to happen to me.” The language here is instructive: Didion’s “don’t want” rather than the more emphatic and determined “won’t allow.” Deeply skeptical of political rhetoric on the one hand and the American infatuation with Emersonian self-reliance on the other, Didion writes of the “doomed...
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Democracy (Masterplots, Revised Second Edition)
Inez Victor, the daughter of a once-prominent Hawaiian family and the wife of a senator, was disillusioned with her life in the political limelight. Alienated from her husband, she once again met with Jack Lovett, a man with whom she had had a brief affair as a teen. Inez and Jack, a mysterious “information specialist” working unofficially for the U.S. government, had been meeting by chance in political circles for more than twenty years.
The year had been difficult for Inez. Her husband, Harry, took the family to Jakarta on a mission to ascertain if human rights violations were occurring. However, it soon became apparent that Harry was chosen for this mission because of his willingness to overlook real political problems rather than daring to speak out and alienate the government or the voting public. Jack was finally able to rescue the Victor family by finding a place for them to stay until they were taken out of the country.
This was also the year that Inez’s sister, Janet, was murdered by their father in a fit of insanity. After dealing with this situation, Inez left her marriage and went with Jack to Southeast Asia to save her heroin-addicted daughter, Jessica. Jessica had gone to Vietnam to find a job just as the U.S. armed forces were being evacuated. They were able to rescue Jessica, but Jack was killed; Inez brought his body back to Hawaii for burial. Tired of her role as a senator’s wife, a role...
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The Legacy of the 1970s
Democracy was published in 1984, but the major part of the narrative focuses on the previous decade. An important political theme—the existence of individual wheeler-dealers brokering deals with the connivance of government, and sometimes at the government's bequest—touches upon one of the major political stories of the 1980s: the Iran-Contra crisis. The scandal was first revealed in 1986, when a secret CIA operative was shot down over Nicaragua. His cargo was a load of weapons intended for the Contras, a group of anti-Communist rebels. Further investigation into the matter revealed that this illegal shipment had been funded by secret sales of arms to Iran—a country under an arms embargo since hostages were seized at the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979. High-ranking members of President Ronald Reagan's administration were later implicated in the scandal, but most received pardons or were granted immunity for their testimony.
When Didion chose to write explicitly about this story in her 1996 novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, she set the events in 1984. Democracy's first readers were able to read the book with detail and background to the Iran-Contra events unfolding in real-time. Inevitably, early reviewers and commentators on the book drew attention to this. However, the primary political and social focus of the novel is still the 1970s and, to a lesser extent, the 1960s.
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Narrative/Point of View
"This is a very hard story to tell," the narrator declares at the end of Chapter 1. Immediately after this, Chapter 2 begins, "Call me the author," an echo of the famous opening line "Call me Ishmael" from Moby-Dick. This is immediately undermined by a playful pastiche, or imitation, on the intrusive voice of nineteenth-century British novelist Anthony Trollope. On the same page, there is a quotation from a Wallace Stevens poem: "A gold-feathered bird/Sings in the palm, without human meaning,/Without human feeling, a foreign song." Didion is at pains to establish that the narrator of Democracy is not a fictional character, but the author herself. Although the rest of Chapter 2 is largely about problems she, as author, has supposedly encountered with the structure of her story, the reader is also asked to accept her as a character in her own book, playing an important role as witness and reporter (the passer-on of direct evidence).
This dual presence of Didion the novelist and Didion the character—the artist constructing her fiction vs. the reporter recording true-life events— has a disconcerting effect upon the reader. The strongest presence is of Didion the novelist, so that although the reader is made vividly aware of several of the characters, there is never any serious attempt to tell events from their point of view. The unbroken awareness of the novel as artifice—of something being...
(The entire section is 857 words.)
"This is a very hard story to tell," the narrator declares at the end of Chapter 1. Immediately after this, Chapter 2 begins, "Call me the author," an echo of "Call me Ishmael" from Moby-Dick. This is immediately undermined by a playful pastiche on the intrusive voice of nineteenth-century British novelist Anthony Trollope. On the same page, there is a quotation from a Wallace Stevens poem: "A gold-feathered bird / Sings in the palm, without human meaning, / Without human feeling, a foreign song." Didion is at pains to establish that the narrator of Democracy is not a fictional character, but the author herself. Although the rest of Chapter 2 is largely about problems she, as author, has supposedly encountered with the structure of her story, the reader is also asked to accept her as a character in her own book, playing an important role as witness and reporter (the passer-on of direct evidence).
This dual presence of Didion the novelist— the artist constructing her fiction; the reporter recording true-life events—has a disconcerting effect upon the reader. The strongest presence is of Didion the novelist, so that although the reader is made vividly aware of several of the characters, there is never any serious attempt to tell events from their point of view. The unbroken awareness of the novel as artifice—of something being self-consciously manufactured by the writer—is compounded by Didion's stylistic quirks, which again draw the...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Didion's novel Democracy examines the relationship between politics and personal life.
1. Read some of the firsthand accounts of the American withdrawal from Saigon and identify details which Didion has used in her novel. Discuss why this event might be central to Didion's themes in Democracy.
2. Inez Victor is a study of the effect that being in the public eye has on a character. Considering the lives of Jacqueline Kennedy, Diana Princess of Wales, and other women subjected to the public glare through association with their husbands, attempt to analyze what Didion means when she suggests that the "major cost" of public life is "loss of memory."
3. Inez is the mother of two children, the twins Adlai and Jessie. How does being the product of a public, political up-bringing affect each of them?
4. Discuss the ambiguous identity of the narrator. How does the narrator function as a character in Democracy?
5. What, ultimately, is Didion saying about democracy in the novel?
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Democracy, Joan Didion's fourth novel, published in 1984, takes a sardonic look at the relationship between politics and personal life. The tension between the public and private persona of the novel's main character, Inez Victor, is examined in the context of a life led in the glare of mass media. As the wife of an ambitious congressman, senator, and aspirant to the presidency, Inez has been groomed in playing to the gallery. She is not at all comfortable in this role.
The novel is at its most biting when Inez and Billy Dillon, her husband's political adviser and public relations operator, are goading one another. Although she appreciates Dillon's ironic abrasiveness rather more than her husband's woolly political jargon, Inez resents, for example, interviewers deciding in advance the angle of their profile on the basis of library cuttings. It is as if she has lost all personal claim to her past. Her own memory, and hence her history, have been fictionalized. The main events of the novel occur in 1975, the year of the United States's withdrawal from Vietnam. It is therefore impossible to read the story of Inez's marriage, and her affair with the elusive Jack Lovett, as pure personal drama.
Democracy, as the title implies, is also the story of the way in which a nation has lost touch with its own past and with the principles that once guided it. Many of those who commented on the novel when it was first published greeted it as...
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Topics for Further Study
Read some of the first-hand accounts of the American withdrawal from Saigon and identify details which Didion has used in her novel. Didion's novel was originally going to be "a study in provincial manners" centered on one particular family in Honolulu. Investigate the business and social history of Honolulu during the 1940s and 1950s.
Didion's essay collection The White Album contains a piece about Honolulu—"In The Islands"—in which she writes at length about Schofield barracks and From Here To Eternity by James Jones. Reading extracts from Jones's novel and watching the 1953 Columbia movie version of the book, identify parallels and contrasts in Didion and Jones's portrayals of life in Honolulu.
The opening sentence of the novel refers to the testing of nuclear devices in the Pacific. Research the history of nuclear testing, and on a map of the Pacific area mark and date all places used for such tests.
Inez Victor is a study of the effect that being in the public eye has on a character. Researching the lives of Jacqueline Kennedy, Diana Princess of Wales, and other women subjected to public scrutiny through association with their husbands, attempt to analyze what Didion means when she suggests that the "major cost" of public life is "loss of memory."
Carry out a statistical analysis of Didion's one-line or very short paragraphs (do not include dialogue). You will need to set your own parameters for...
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A reading of Democracy, the 1880 novel by the nineteenth-century historian Henry Brooks Adams, helps to throw into sharper relief some of the cultural and political concerns which Didion's later novel of the same name explores. '
From Here to Eternity (1951), by James Jones, is a popular wartime novel set in Honolulu in the period leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
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The Last Thing He Wanted, Joan Didion's 1996 novel, was her first work of fiction after Democracy. It develops several of the same political themes.
Didion is admired as an essayist as well as a novelist, and the work in The White Album, her 1979 essay collection, evolved from a state of mind similar to the one which created Democracy.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Last Thing He Wanted, Joan Didion's 1996 novel, was her first work of fiction after Democracy. It develops several of the same political themes.
Didion is admired as an essayist as well as a novelist, and the work in The White Album, her 1979 essay collection, evolved from state of mind similar to the one which created Democracy.
From Here to Eternity (1951) by James Jones is a popular war-time novel set in Honolulu in the period leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
A reading of Democracy, the 1880 novel by the nineteenth-century historian Henry Brooks Adams, helps to throw into sharper relief some of the cultural and political concerns which Didion's later novel of the same name explores.
(The entire section is 118 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
The Atlantic. CCLIII, May, 1984, p. 122.
Chicago Tribune. May 16, 1984, p. 19.
Ching, Stuart. “ ‘A Hard Story to Tell’: The Vietnam War in Joan Didion’s Democracy.” In Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992. Ching’s chapter discusses Didion’s portrayal of the Vietnam War in Democracy.
Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, May 16, 1984, p. 19.
Felton, Sharon. The Critical Response to Joan Didion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. This text presents a sampling of the critical response to each of Didion’s books. One of these criticizes Didion for “borrowing” from her former novels.
Friedman, Ellen G., ed. Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations. Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review Press, 1984. Although none of the pieces concerns Democracy directly, the collection is nevertheless useful for Didion’s essay “Why I Write,” three previously published interviews, and Victor Strandberg’s analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s influence on Didion. (“Passion and Delusion in A Book of Common Prayer”).
Garis, Leslie. “Didion and Dunne: The Rewards of a Literary Marriage.”...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of Democracy in Atlantic Monthly, May, 1984, p. 122.
Stuart Ching, "A Hard Story to Tell—The Vietnam War in Joan Didion's Deomocracy" in Fourteen Landing Zones—Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason, University of Iowa Press, 1991, pp. 180-87.
Thomas R. Edwards, "An American Education," in New York Review of Books, May 10, 1984, pp. 23-24.
Barbara Grizutti Harrison, compiler, "Joan Didion: Only Disconnect," in Off Center: Essays, Dial Press, 1980.
Stephen Klinkhammer, "The Fall of Saigon, April 1975," in Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-three American Soldiers Who Fought It, edited by Al Santoli, Random House, 1981, pp 252-56.
Thomas Mallon, review of Democracy, in The American Spectator, August, 1984, pp. 43-44.
Mary McCarthy, review of Democracy, in the New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1984, Sec 7, p. 1.
Alan Nadel, "Postwar America and the Story of Democracy," in Boundary 2, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 96-120.
"Nixon's Thin Defense The Need for Secrecy," Time, June 4, 1973, pp. 17-23.
Michael Tager, "The Political Vision of Joan Didion's Democracy," in Critique, Vol XXI, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 173-84.
Janet Wiehe, review of...
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