Bryan Harvey
English Language Arts
Material Type:
Activity/Lab, Assessment, Homework/Assignment, Lecture Notes, Reading
High School
  • Analysis
  • Essay
  • Nonfiction
  • Synthesis
  • License:
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike
    Media Formats:
    Downloadable docs

    Education Standards

    Coming to terms with Joan Didion's "On Morality"

    Coming to terms with Joan Didion's "On Morality"


    This resource introduces, suggests, and proposes multiple approaches for making Joan Didion's essay more accessible while trying not to oversimplify it. 

    Keep it simple and complex

    I taught Joan Didion's "On Morality" for a number of years before I fully understood it, which assumes I fully understand it. I'm still not sure that I do. Anyway, I've taught this essay from her book Slouching Toward Bethlehem in a number of ways. Sometimes I have had success. Oftentimes, I have not. 

    Some years I had students read W.B. Yeats' "The Second Coming" prior to reading Didion's essay. Some years I have had them read it after having read her essay. Some years we even revisited excerpted passages from Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart because, after all, his novel includes Yeats' poem as an epigraph. One thing I've never done, but wish I had done, is have students annotate Didion's essay with lines from Achebe or Yeats. I think the reverse could also be done. Didion's essay, I've found, often causes confusion; after all, her conclusion unnerves her even as she writes it. I think as a teacher or student working with this text you either have to embrace that confusion or parcel out the meaning. Perhaps you even have to do both. The annotating activity mentioned above embraces the confusion. 

    An activity that simplifies the essay is to have students storyboard the anecdotal scenes within the text, providing Didion's own words as captions for their illustrations. Doing so often helps make her meandering style--her avoidance to say what truly frightens her--more concrete. Doing so also helps visualize the essay, which helps students start to identify how the instances within her essay do overlap and are connected. Start with her in the hotel room and have them go from there. The practice will at least inform you as a teacher whether they can identify the concreteness of a passage. 

    The discursive nature of Didion's essay makes it difficult for student readers to draw a bead on her purpose and its significance. They probably need more than one walk through the essay. In the attached documents are an annotation guide, an idea for entry/exit pass tying her essay to discussions related to modern physics, and a handout that should help students generate an analytical outline for writing about Didion's essay. The entry/exit pass probably only works for English classes that have done some work earlier in the year to contextualize literature and rhetoric within an idealist-materialist dialectic, which would require at some point reading up on both Plato's idealism and Democritus' atomic theorizing. 

    Make Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem an independent reading selection.