Slouching Towards Bethlehem Critical Context - Essay

Joan Didion

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Didion’s concern with aesthetics and moral truth extends throughout her writings. Her career has been marked by an almost-even oscillation between fiction and nonfiction. Each of her four novels and three works of nonfiction stringently examines both the broad social panorama and its impact on individual lives. Individuality, continually assailed by forces outside it, forms the core of many of her writings.

Since the publication of her first novel, Run River, in 1963, Didion has developed into one of the most distinctive and important voices in American letters. Her essays and reviews appear in major newspapers and periodicals, and one measure by which the esteem with which her work is held can be gauged is how frequently her works are anthologized and taught in college classes.

In many of her works, especially Slouching Towards Bethlehem and her novel Play It As It Lays (1970), Didion reveals an awareness of and sympathy with existential thought. She knows the existentialist’s feelings of rootless anxiety and dread, and like the existentialist she has faced the void of existence and returned determined to make something of life. Furthermore, she realizes that the world is not an ordered place; events often occur randomly and chaotically but, also like the serious existentialist, Didion believes that the meaning of life lies in individual decisions. Her determination to view existence through the lens of commitment and responsibility demonstrates her belief that existence need not be meaningless.

With each publication, Didion’s stature has risen. One of her critics has described her as an “antiromantic realist”; as such Didion often holds a glass up to her times and scrutinizes what she finds there. Her vision is not always a popular or comfortable one, but it remains unflinching in its search for truth.