(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

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 writes from her own bleak perspective: “A hill is a transitional accommodation to stress, and ego may be a similar accommodation.”

In Democracy, it is Inez Victor who must accommodate herself to the seismic forces around her, ranging from the aftershocks of American imperialism in the Pacific (Hawaii, where she is born and grows up, and Vietnam, which dominates nearly all of her adult life). Like so many of Didion’s characters, Inez is an orphan of sorts, the daughter of well-to-do, absentee parents, Paul and Carol Christian, the one a playboy who assumes the role of romantic outcast, the other a woman who abandons her children after using them for a time to ease her own unbearable loneliness. From the doubly insular life of Hawaii’s upper-class white society, the twenty-year-old Inez—like Nora, in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879)—enters an equally insular world when she marries Harry Victor, a liberal politician who tries and fails to win his party’s presidential nomination in 1972. For Inez, the cost of being “Harry Victor’s wife” is extraordinarily high. Inez’s existence shrinks into a series of “photo opportunities” and rehearsed campaign-trail mannerisms that leave her distant, emotionally numb—a woman who no longer finds the words happiness and unhappiness relevant. “Add it up,” she tells her husband after twenty years of marriage, “you and I didn’t have such a bad time. Net.” Her accountant’s-eye view of the emotional life chills the reader, who comes to realize, however, that it is this same emotional detachment which enables Inez to maintain her tenuous hold on reality and to assess her situation in words as honest and dispassionate as Didion’s own. The “main cost” of public life, she tells an interviewer, is not “privacy,” the answer she has been coached to give, but “memory you lose track. As if you’d had shock treatment.” Didion agrees; detachment, she realizes, is “the essential mechanism” for living a life such as Inez’s: “Drop fuel. Jettison cargo. Eject crew.”

Harry Victor (another of the novel’s ironically named characters) is seemingly, which is to say politically, neither indifferent nor distant; nevertheless, he is ineffectual and, more important, deluded. His Alliance for Democratic Institutions is not the hope of the world but, instead, an “amorphous but inspired convergence of rhetoric and celebrity,” a way to keep Harry in the public eye, to maximize the “photo opportunities.” Inez, on the other hand, prefers solitude and silence. Her laconic manner reflects her intuitive awareness of the nonsignifying nature of both word and world. Her reticence accentuates the gaps that her husband’s abstract principles, political clichés, and transitional words (“In addition to which. Moreover”) are meant to fill.

A similar gap exists between Harry and his media-made image of himself and, too, between his “admiration” and “awe” of what he calls “the most socially responsible generation” of American college students and his own children’s irresponsible behavior. Harry and Inez’s son, Adlai, is a reckless driver who puts hospital visits to those he has injured on his “agenda.” His twin sister, Jessie, shoots heroin—not, as one might expect, as an act of rebellion but simply as a “consumer decision,” preferring heroin to coffee, tea, cigarettes, and aspirin. The therapeutic society provides Harry and Inez with other consumer choices which involve ways to treat Jessie’s addiction, choices that are as absurd and as much rhetorical abstractions as Harry’s political ideals. When Jessie grows bored with her methadone and occupational therapy (working part-time as a waitress in a seafood restaurant called King Crab’s Castle), she takes off for Vietnam, having heard that “they” need workers there. It is the spring of 1975; Saigon is about to fall; Jessie, of course, does not know this and doubtless would not care even if she did. She is, after all, another Victor, adrift in her particular delusion.

There are some other gaps (and therefore other delusions) as well—social, political, narrative—including the murders of Hawaiian congressman Wendall Omura and Inez’s sister, Janet, by Paul Christian. The most interesting gap, however, is the one that involves Inez and Jack Lovett. There is, for example, the difference in...

(The entire section is 2361 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 trips designed to keep him in the news; and finally in 1975 when Jack, playing the part of knight in shining armor, rescues his damsel in distress and, against the backdrop of the messy American pullout from Vietnam, carries Inez off, via jumbo jet, to Hong Kong.

In telling Inez’s (and Jack’s) story, Didion, writing several years after Jack’s death and Inez’s subsequent withdrawal from public scrutiny, deliberately and self-consciously resists conventional journalistic and psychoanalytic interpretations, and conventional plotting and characterization as well. She acknowledges, for example, what as a writer she “could do”...

(The entire section is 859 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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...

(The entire section is 651 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 408 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature, Masterpiece Edition)

The Story:

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...

(The entire section is 2302 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The Legacy of the 1970s
Democracy was published in 1984, but the major part of the narrative focuses on the previous decade....

(The entire section is 1061 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Narrative/Point of View
"This is a very hard story to tell," the narrator declares at the end of Chapter 1. Immediately after...

(The entire section is 857 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Didion's novel Democracy examines the relationship between politics and personal life.

1. Read some of the firsthand...

(The entire section is 159 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Democracy, Joan Didion's fourth novel, published in 1984, takes a sardonic look at the relationship between politics and personal...

(The entire section is 1258 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 273 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A reading of Democracy, the 1880 novel by the nineteenth-century historian Henry Brooks Adams, helps to throw into sharper relief some...

(The entire section is 62 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Last Thing He Wanted, Joan Didion's 1996 novel, was her first work of fiction after Democracy. It develops several of the...

(The entire section is 58 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

The Last Thing He Wanted, Joan Didion's 1996 novel, was her first work of fiction after Democracy. It develops several of the...

(The entire section is 118 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.:...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of Democracy in Atlantic Monthly, May, 1984, p. 122.

Stuart Ching, "A...

(The entire section is 570 words.)