The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In many respects Maria Wyeth is a typical Didion woman—weak, confused, eccentric, and morbidly nostalgic for a traditional society with strong and loving fathers. Her only present link to that world comes in intermittent encounters with her father’s old business partner, Benny Austin. None of the men with whom she is sexually involved is strong (they range from weak to brutal), and none could be described as either loving or paternal. Indeed, what Didion depicts is a kind of sexual conflict that pervades American literature. In Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Leslie Fiedler speaks of the schizophrenia that informs American perceptions of sexual identity. He argues that just as women are frequently viewed as either virgin or whore, Earth Mother or bitch goddess; so too are men often depicted in terms of two extremes—as being either gentleman or seducer, rational suitor or demon lover. Accordingly, the protagonist in each of Didion’s novels is torn between Apollonian and Dionysian lovers. In Play It as It Lays the author has given her single Apollonian figure three Dionysian rivals.

One of the most harrowing scenes in the novel occurs when Maria encounters an egocentric young actor named Johnny Waters at a typically decadent Hollywood party. Waters is the sort of individual who plays “Midnight Hour” repeatedly on the tape deck of his car, mistakenly calls Maria “Myra,” and suggests that she “do it with a Coke bottle” when she rejects his sexual advances. Later, when he does get his way...

(The entire section is 631 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Maria Wyeth

Maria Wyeth, an unemployed actress. She is an attractive woman in her thirties who desperately seeks love and stability, which are frustrated by the vicissitudes of her life. Separated from her husband, lovers, friends, and child, Maria consents to an abortion and then spends most of her time aimlessly driving the Los Angeles freeways. Events of the novel open after she has been committed to a sanatorium for failure to intervene in a friend’s suicide. Maria, for all of her failings, is an existential heroine who comes to understand the full impact of nothingness in human existence.

Carter Lang

Carter Lang, Maria’s estranged director husband. Carter is a reasonably successful director but by no means a major influence in the film industry. Exasperated by Maria’s erratic behavior, Carter leaves her but remains in touch and prevails on her to seek an abortion. A man impatient with weakness and failure and given to striking his wife and other women, Carter seeks a rapprochement but continues to have affairs with other women.


BZ, Carter’s producer and Maria’s one friend. BZ is a homosexual trapped in a loveless marriage, which he cannot escape because his mother has made it financially difficult to do so. Despite all of their differences, BZ and Maria have arrived at the same psychological point but seek different solutions to their problems. BZ’s despondency is so...

(The entire section is 575 words.)