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Didion: Seacoast of Despair

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From the onset Joan Didion explicitly denounces the ‘comfortable’ and ‘happy’ lifestyles of the turn of the last century’s industrial rich as she takes us beyond the ‘handwrought gates’ of their Newport, Rhode Island mansions to expose an ugly, harsh reality that she sees as born from the very belly of industrial pits,rails and foundries. An ugliness that permeates from the underworld and taints the air of the island and therefore all that should inhabit ‘The Seacoast of Despair’. Didion successfully puts us in this under world and despite all its gilded trappings this Newport remains but that, …a gilded trap or cage for the women of the industrial rich as the women serve to add to the aesthetics that mechanically states we are ‘comfortable’ and ‘happy’ here at Newport.(Didion, 1993, pp10-12)

In this essay Didion’s style strays away from merely reporting the facts as it informs by engaging us with a narrative that allows us to experience the situation via an intimate dialogue with the author allowing her to give of her opinion thereby introducing a subjective approach to her work.

‘ … and Newport is a monument to a society in which production was seen as the moral point, the reward if not exactly the end, of the economic process.’…(Didion, 1993, p10)

In re-presenting the reality of Newport as experienced by her, Didion, effectively adopts a cultural interest in the lives and experiences of its inhabitors via the literary practice known as New Journalism. (Wolfe, 1974, p9) It is this literary exploration into the cultural values and experiences of the Bellevue Avenue residents of Newport that would make Didion’s work of interest to those in the field of Cultural Studies especially as she affords us a parallel between the women of Newport and the women of the Western Frontier.’…Newport is curiously Western,..”Didion begins and then goes on to add, “…And like the Frontier, not much of a game for women.” (Didion, 1993, p12) Here, she has placed the the two ‘women’ side by side inviting us to probe more deeply behind the ‘handwrought gate’, beyond the, ‘filigreed gazebos…’ to see the Newport women as she does, nothing more than a prize to adorn their men’s domain…a ‘happy’ ordament put out for display to attest to her man’s successful and ‘comfortable’ life.(Didion, 1993, pp10-11) Didion goes further to expose the raw yet fragile connections of these two women as she depicts the island much as we might expect someone to describe the Western Frontier.

“…the island is physically ugly, mean without the saving grace of extreme severity, a landscape less to be enjoyed than to be dominated…
..A contemplation of “Rosecliff” dissolves into the image of Big Jim Fair, digging the silver out of a mountain in Nevada so that his daughter might live in Newport..” (Didion, 1993, p11)

Like the ‘island’ the Western Frontier was also a landscape that men felt a need to dominate ..and so men did…try, at first with agriculture and buildings, then as gold and silver fever took hold mines were carved into the earth leaving scars and embellishments and to transport these earth’s offerings industries were born to fuel men’s dream of domination in the form of the Industrial Revolution and Newport, “…its logical extreme…”(Didion, 1993, p10) Didion sees that men, by hard work or other means, accumulate dominance over the landscape and success by measure of their fortune and assets. They then grant their chosen women the privilege of living in their Castle albeit homestead or mansion and yet as proposed by Didion, happiness remains elusive to them.

To equate the destructive domination of the landscape with the subsequent destruction of the main character/s is a thematic technique within the literature discipline, one that Didion utilises to bring what she sees as the ills of society to our attention…(Blom, 1999, p 172). As Didion refers us to the mean and ugly landscape and an air that…”proclaims only the source of money” (Didion, 1993, p11) so too does D.H.Lawrence in his ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ when he writes of the, “…utter soulless ugliness of the coal-and -iron Midlands …the house was full of the stench of this sulphureous combustion of the earth’s excrement.” (Lawrence, 1993, p13)

Lawrence’s Lady, Connie, arrives at Wragby, the ancestral Chatterley home that lords over the mining village of Tevershall. Gradually, the once voluptuous Connie has her vitality smothered in her, her life force drained by the very mines that supply her household with the means by which to live. The environment steals into the rooms of her home and her life and she soon finds herself feeling dis-connected, ill and as sterile as her husband. Although Connie is the Lady of the Manor, “…she felt she was living underground.” captive with no apparent escape nor will to,(Lawrence, 1993 p13)

“…Well, there it was: fated, like the rest of things!…but why kick? You couldn’t kick it away. It just went on. Life, like all the rest!” (Lawrence, 1993, p13)

As with Connie, so too with the women of Newport and the West as Didion concludes,

“…They could be cajoled, flattered, indulged, given pretty rooms and Worth dresses, allowed to imagine that they ran their own lives, but when it came time to negotiate, their freedom proved trompe l’oeil.” (Didion, 1993, p12)

Upon reading “The Seacoast of Despair”, and experiencing Didion’s literary non fiction treatment of Newport, I was immediately reminded of the writings of D.H.Lawrence, in particular his, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” Both authors allow us to to see through their eyes what they perceive as the hidden menace that consumes and masters the lives of those that ‘live’ upon their page. Both have their women trapped within an underworld tainted by money making mine pits, ‘a consumption ethic’ that is ‘devoid’ of a true ‘connection ‘to themselves, other people and, therefore, ‘…devoid of the pleasure principle’ (Didion, 1993, p10)


Blom M.B, 1999, Stories of Old: the Crisis of Historical Symbology in the 1970’s, vol 106, Uppsala University.

Didion J, 1993, The Seacoast of Despair, in Slouching towards Bethlehem, Flamigo, London.

Lawrence D.H, 1993, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, UK.

Wolfe T, 1974, “The New Journalism”, (online). Available from: www.answers.com/topic/joan-didion 14/04/2010

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