Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Play It as It Lays is an episodic novel that focuses on Maria Wyeth’s loss and regaining of identity in a patriarchal society where she has been labeled as her father’s daughter, as sex object, and as “wife.”

Set in the late 1960’s among the jet-set crowd in Beverly Hills, Maria’s story begins and ends with her voice—in a mental hospital. The first three chapters, set off from the eighty-four numbered chapters and entitled “Maria,” “Carter,” and “Helene,” are told from the viewpoints of these three characters and give the reader their accounts of Maria and what went wrong in her life. Most of the subsequent numbered chapters—from one to eighty-four—are told in the third person from Maria’s point of view and are, collectively, a flashback. This flashback constitutes the bulk of the novel and chronicles, in a series of nonlinear and fragmented episodes, the parameters of Maria’s exterior and interior life in the year preceding her breakdown.

The events of the novel are not as important as the setting in which Maria plays out her story, for it is the setting—a wasteland motif operating in a patriarchal framework—that is ultimately making Maria sick. Joan Didion uses the California setting as a metaphor for the exhausted possibilities of wealth, industry, and the “good” life. In Play It as It Lays, Maria’s associates are people whose main concerns are sex and appearances. Maria lives in...

(The entire section is 520 words.)