The White Album Essay - Critical Essays

Joan Didion


The title essay of The White Album begins with one of Didion’s most well known and oft-quoted lines: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It is an opening that signals a central theme of both this collection and much of Didion’s subsequent nonfiction. In distinguishing what she calls the “disparate images” of “actual experience” from the stories “we tell ourselves”—that is, those narratives that provide a certain coherence to experience—Didion sets out the terms for her exploration of the cultural and personal dissonance she finds in the social upheaval of the late 1960’s.

As with her most important nonfiction, in “The White Album” Didion interweaves cultural analysis with threads of personal narrative, the one providing metaphors for the other. A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis represents, for example, “a precise physio-logical equivalent” for what she experienced at the time as a breakdown in the social order. A psychiatric evaluation that describes her as failing to cope adequately with the world “does not now seem,” she writes, “an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”

Didion also draws on cinematic metaphors: When she writes about “flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience,” it both suggests the failure of the old narratives and describes the shape of the essay itself. “The White Album” is about the breakdown of a certain kind of coherence, which Didion experiences as both cultural and personal, and her attempts to find new metaphors for that experience. The essay’s form, a collage, is sometimes read as a literal analogue for this breakdown.

The essay consists of fourteen segments, each separated by white space and each numbered. Some are whole vignettes; some...

(The entire section is 768 words.)