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.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Unlike Didion’s novels Run River (1963) and A Book of Common Prayer (1977), Play It as It Lays exists apart from a definite historical context (although it is set in the late 1960’s, her story is interior and timeless) and in a nonpolitical one (discounting the sexual politics). It is existential in nature but examines “madness” from a uniquely feminist perspective, although male critics have not drawn this connection, one calling it “a triumph not of insight as such but of style,” and another a “parody of the novel of despair.”

Maria is a quester/hero whose journey is to find what Adrienne Rich has called “the thing itself and not the myth.” Like Margaret Atwood’s protagonist in Surfacing (1972), like Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), like Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest in The Four-Gated City (1969), Maria must search to find herself amid the ruins of a culture that has given her few clues to her ancestry and identity.

The journey motif is certainly not new in women’s literature—the most famous quester/hero is probably Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in the novel by the same name (1847)—however, a woman’s quest is often and uniquely associated with madness. It is only quite recently that feminist critics have begun to analyze this madness in such books as Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic...

(The entire section is 438 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968. A collection of essays that preceded Play It as It Lays. Three of the essays in this collection have particular significance to that novel: “On Morality,” “Los Angeles Notebook,” and “Goodbye to All That.” Each is an indispensable aid in understanding Didion’s sensibility and worldview. Similarities between the text of the novel and Didion’s own life are readily apparent.

Didion, Joan. “A Conversation with Joan Didion.” Interview by Lewis Burke Frumkes. The Writer 112 (March, 1999): 14. Didion discusses her life, work, and writers who have influenced her. She also discusses her love of poetry, her methods of composition, and her marriage to writer John Gregory Dunne.

Felton, Sharon, ed. The Critical Response to Joan Didion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Critical essays present a detailed study of Didion’s various works, including Play It as It Lays. A biographical introduction, as well as a selected bibliography make this a valuable resource.

Fracasso, Evelyn E. “Exploring the Nightmare Landscape’: Didion’s use of Technique in Play It as It Lays.” CLA Journal 34 (December, 1990): 153-160. An analysis of Didion’s narrative technique in the novel....

(The entire section is 403 words.)