Relating Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem to Yeats’ the Second Coming
The time period following World War I and the 1960s were eras of chaos and rebellion in the modern era. World War I, as well as the years following it was a major period of conflict when murderous acts were committed. The sixties was also a chaotic time period due to the new ways in which teenagers were rebelling, as well as other conflicts, such as the Vietnam War. Many writers took note of these societal adjustments. Joan Didion and William Butler Yeats, for example, both wrote about their reactions to the undergoing transformations occurring in the world.
As a result of the chaotic time periods they were written in response to, Joan Didion’s collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming” share many themes including miscommunication, the loss of innocence, and change for the worse. One common theme between the two pieces is the miscommunication between those in need of guidance and those who are able to assist them. This issue can be seen in Yeats’s poem’s first stanza: “The falcon cannot hear the falconer” (Yeats Line 2).
The significance of this metaphor is that those in need of a helping hand, the falcon, are not listening to those attempting to give it to them, the falconer. This issue is also addressed through dialogue in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Didion interviews some of America’s runaway youth that had settled in San Francisco, many of whom were ingesting illegal substances severely detrimental to their health. These adolescents would not pay attention to their parents’ rules and expectations, and as a result, they fled from their loved ones. Didion encounters a couple, Debbie and Jeff, who have run away from home.
Didion asks why the couple ran away. Debbie replies, “My Parents said I had to go to church, and they wouldn’t let me dress the way I wanted” (Didion 91). Jeff says: “My mother was just a genuine all-American bitch” (Didion 91), which signifies the couple’s true rebellious attitudes regarding their parents’ and society’s expectations of them. Although Debbie did not want to go to church and did not like the way her parents wanted her to dress, running away from home was not beneficial; she was risking her future by dropping out of school and living on her own at such a young age.
Debbie and Jeff’s failure to accept their parents’ standards is the reason why they re-located to San Francisco to live alone. Where Yeats explores the theme of miscommunication through his quote, Didion explores it through the more specific dialogue of Jeff and Debbie. Both Authors also consider the loss of innocence, Yeats in the context of the post- World War I period, and Didion during the sixties. In stanza one of “The Second Coming,” Yeats writes, “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned” (Yeats Lines 5-6).
This passage suggests that many people seen as innocent and harmless were becoming evil and violent. Their innocence was being drowned with bloody thoughts. Patrick Keane’s article, “Eternal Recurrence: Things Fall Apart,” expands more on this idea. As Keane puts it, “The manuscripts of ‘The Second Coming’ serve a legitimate purpose in revealing the original historical counterparts of what became a universalized prophecy of an unleashing upon the world of anarchy and blood-drenched violence”(Keane 49).
This passage suggests many of the world’s citizens were becoming increasingly more violent and were willing to kill others, as they did in World War I and other conflicts that were occurring in the world. Similarly, Didion discusses Lucille Miller, a girl who lost her innocence by killing her husband. In Didion’s collection of essays, Didion describes, “Banyan Street was the route Lucille Miller took home from the twenty-four hour Mayfair Market on the night of October 7, 1964, a night when the moon was dark and the wind was blowing and she was out of milk, and Banyan Street was where, at about 12:30 a. . , her 1964 Volkswagen came to a sudden stop and began to burn” (Didion 6).
This dark night with heavy winds symbolizes the terror that occurred on the night that Cork Miller was killed. Prior to this evening, Lucille appeared to be innocent, and the couple seemed as if they were content. After Lucille’s murderous act, however, her innocence vanished from her soul. Didion also explores loss of innocence through which the rebellious teenagers consume illegal drugs. In San Francisco, Didion comes across a teenager.
She writes, “He tells me he’s been shooting crystal, which I already pretty much know because he does not bother to keep his sleeves rolled down over the needle tracks” (Didion 86). The visible marks on his arm display the destructive effects of this drug on his overall health. Seeing those marks and hearing him converse about his drug use really take away from the innocence many would expect to see in someone so young. The murderous acts committed by World War I battlers and Lucille Miller, as well the illegal use of drugs by juveniles, signifies both authors’ beliefs in the loss of innocence in society.
Both Yeats and Didion believed that the world was becoming exponentially more chaotic. In Yeats’s poem, he expresses that the world was “Turning and turning in the widening gyre” (Yeats Line 1). This passage suggests that the falcon spirals farther and farther away from where it is supposed to be, representative of society’s deviation from normalcy, now of which is spiraling out of control. Didion mirrors this sentiment in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
She states, “At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. In other words, authority figures failed to look after their children well and give them efficient advice on how to succeed in the world. As a result of the ineffective parenting and caretaking of children, many adolescents fled from their homes and lived unsafely. The unsafe living conditions children experienced, without the supervision of authority figures, created chaos in San Francisco as well as the other places youth were settling. Yeats and Didion argue through their pieces that the world was exponentially becoming a more chaotic place.
There are many connections between Slouching Towards Bethlehem and “The Second Coming. ” Both the sixties and the era of modernism were dysfunctional time periods. The hippie movement, World War I and other conflicts during these time periods made a major impact on the behavior of citizens. A lesson that both the poem and the collection of essays teaches us is that citizens need to help make our world a better place in order to prevent it from getting exponentially more chaotic.
Didion takes an optimistic approach on this theme by writing in detail about what is occurring and reflecting specifically about what is wrong with the way the world currently is. A major reason she wrote her essay collection was in hope of social changes. On the other hand, Yeats is more pessimistic. He does not specify what is wrong with the current state of the world. Instead, he just states that the world is chaotic without specifying why. Despite these differences, however, the ideas presented in both pieces show the themes of miscommunication, the loss of innocence, and change for the worse.