I an exploring the subject of motherhood in Joan Didion's Play it as it Lays. Was Maria a good mother? What passages in the book display her either way? How can one analyze the abortion and blackmailing situation?
Maria Wyeth is a tragic figure. In Joan Didion’s novel Play as it Lays, she is the story’s main protagonist, and endures a series of morally dubious situations against a backdrop of a platitudinous atmosphere of moral ambivalence, otherwise known as Hollywood. Personal detachments are superficial and fleeting, and the intensity of the shooting schedules that dominate the modeling and film industries invariably facilitate the consummation of illicit relationships. Parenthood, however, especially the bond between a mother and her children, run deeper and transcend virtually all other such relationships. Such is the case with Maria. Her daughter, Kate, despite the latter’s disabilities, is still her daughter, and Carter’s decision to institutionalize the girl provides the evidence for the mother’s bond with the daughter denied to her. Early in the novel, contemplating her relationship with Les, the screenwriter with whom Maria has had an affair and the father of her unborn child, she reflects upon her little girl in a scene that illuminates her deeply-held love for her daughter:
“She leaned against the padded elevator wall and closed her eyes. If she could tell Les Goodwin about the actor in the elevator he would laugh. When she got home she thought about calling him, but instead she went upstairs and lay face down on Kate's empty bed, cradled Kate's blanket, clutched Kate's baby pillow to her stomach and fought off a wave of the dread. The time seemed to have passed for telling Les Goodwin funny stories.”
Later in the novel, in Chapter 10, Didion again provides evidence of Maria’s strong emotional attachment to Kate:
“Maria lay face down on the sand beyond the sun deck and tried to neutralize, by concentrating on images of Kate (Kate's hair, brushing Kate's hair, the last time she went to the hospital Kate's hair was tangled and she had sat on the lawn and brushed it, worked out the tangles into fine golden strands, they told her not to come so often but how could she help it, they never brushed Kate's hair), the particular rise and inflection of the masseur's voice.”
These passages describing Maria’s maternal instincts contrast vividly with the thoroughly amoral environment in which Didion’s novel takes place. Carter’s decision to force Maria to abort her pregnancy with Les is more illustrative of this morally vacuous environment than the passages that reflect more visceral displays of affection. Carter’s decision to essentially blackmail Maria is a disgraceful display of inhumanity occurring in an industry in which blackmail and extortion were tools of the trade. In addition to Carter’s exchange with Maria in which he tells her that an abortion is the only avenue to reunification with Kate, the unborn child in Maria’s womb is treated as an inanimate object to be discarded with abandon. Note in the following passage Maria’s conversation with an employee of the abortion clinic to which she’s been directed:
"You want an appointment with the doctor,' he said. 'When could he see me.' "The doctor will want to know how many weeks." "How many weeks what?"
There was a silence. "How advanced is the problem, Maria," the voice said finally.
This passage in Chapter 14 is illuminating for its cavalier treatment of abortion in a town in which such discussions were common. Maria loves Les, and any product of that relationship would presumably enjoy a great deal of compassion and care. That Maria will endure a series of horrific nightmares following the abortion further speaks to the innate humanity in this otherwise narcissistic individual. She is a loving mother, if only in her mind.