On Self-Respect by Joan Didion

The essay On Self-Respect by Joan Didion explores the meaning of self-respect and the key qualities behind it of having honesty, integrity, and discipline to achieve it. Joan Didion explains why self-respect is so important and how it should be viewed in a positive light and not considered being full of oneself in achieving it.

The sentence, “To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves- there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect,” was very effective in giving a visual of what self-respect means to an individual. It uses the logos of clear reasoning to exemplify why self-respect should be revered so highly. People are weighed down by the influences of others in their lives and don’t take their self worth and honor first. It weighs down who we are as individuals and keeps us from pursing our own goals.

The memory of this piece gives a social context by using real life examples from the author’s life to get the message across. Joan Didion opens with an anecdote about not getting accepted into Phi Beta Kappa at her college. She mentions this moment in her life because it was when her self-respect was tested for what it lacked. She realized she didn’t need the approval of the Phi Beta Kappa to have self-respect and that this virtue can only be achieved from within. If individuals count on society to boost their self worth, they will be trampled upon over and over again with this ideal in mind. In this anecdote it is noted, “Innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.” The quicker a person realizes that they are vulnerable to other’s opinions, the quicker they can recover and start developing their own self-respect and building up their own character.

Pathos is used to evoke emotions that everyone has lived through when Joan Didion explains the feelings that many people get when they want to say “no” but can’t. “It is the phenomenon sometimes called “alienation from self”. In it’s advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say “no” without drowning in self reproach is an idea alien to this game.” Wanting to please and get approval from others is a universal feeling that most people want to achieve. In having self-respect, sometimes saying “no” can be good and shows confidence in a person in what they want to do and what they choose not to do.

–Addy Nichols

Didion opens with a concrete example of her own experience with self-respect to ground the rest of her essay, which is rather abstract. This opening is effective because Didion’s described situation is easy to visualize and empathize with. The pang of self-loathing that one feels after being rejected is nearly universal. Upon reading the description of Didion’s rejection from Phi Beta Kappa, the reader will likely think of a similar experience from their own memory. This gives Didion both pathos and ethos. It evokes pathos because the audience can relate their own painful emotions and feel empathy. It evokes ethos because the audience and Didion now have something in common in regard to self-respect, and the audience is likely to trust someone who has had the same experiences.

Didion describes herself writing “innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself,” when she was freshly rejected from Phi Beta Kappa. This is an emotional image of someone at war with herself. It is an uncomfortable and sad thing for the audience to think about. Didion then breaks the tension by lightly making fun of her past self, saying, “I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor”. This play at humor sets a lighter tone for the rest of the essay, which is fitting considering the subject is self-respect. The tone indicates that one can criticize themselves while still respecting themselves. The quote also indicates the Didion has matured a lot since her rejection, and therefore likely has some important wisdom to share on the subject.

Didion piles on metaphor after metaphor to try to pin down her abstract definition of self-respect. In one, she explains why she feels that Jordan Baker from The Great Gatsby, while “careless” and “incurably dishonest” actually had a lot of self-respect. Audiences familiar with the book will have no respect for Jordan Baker, and will wonder how she respects herself. The answer, Didion says, is not because Baker was faultless, but because she was comfortable with her faults. She had character, or “the ability to accept responsibility for one’s own life”. Using Jordan Baker as an example helped Didion clarify to her readers the abstract concept of how character relates to self-respect.

–Hannah Doll


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