Play It as It Lays Essay - Critical Essays

Joan Didion


Didion is a moralist, but her vision of morality is never sentimental, only clearly and rigidly stark. Play It as It Lays is an existential novel (and essentially a moral tale) about Maria Wyeth’s search for meaning, but in this novel meaning is found only by confronting its absence and, for Maria, by battling with the primordial fathers (the male world), who in this novel are associated with the desert and with spiritual disintegration. When one examines the fragmented episodes and the colored pages that make up Maria’s life through Maria’s eyes, it becomes clear how this hero’s descent into what might be called insanity (like the classical hero’s descent into the underworld) is both Maria’s means to salvation and a somewhat sane response to an insane world.

Throughout this novel, Maria is used and named as a sex object. Maria becomes a model because her parents encourage it and because in a male-dominated society there is a market for attractiveness. Maria is called a “whore” by the woman in Ralph’s Market whom she tries to help, and she is assumed to be a prostitute by the desk clerk in the Sands. In the film called Angel Beach, Maria is cast by her husband, Carter, in the starring role—she gets to “be” a woman raped by twelve bikers.

Like her role as a sex object, Maria’s role as “wife” is largely handed down to her by a society that often views married women as their husbands’ wives rather than as unique and separate individuals. (Maria’s quest begins when she becomes separated from Carter.) A man in an elevator gives Maria the look “dutifully charged with sexual appreciation, meant not for Maria herself but for Carter Lang’s wife”; Maria is not seen for herself but only as the property of a well-known film director. Even the nurse in the hospital refers to Maria as “Mrs....

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