Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

If there is any positive theme in this otherwise nihilistic novel, it is suggested by Didion’s title. “Always when I play back my father’s voice,” Maria says, “it is with a professional rasp, it goes as it lays, don’t do it the hard way. My father advised me that life itself was a crap game: it was one of two lessons I learned as a child. The other was that overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattlesnake. As lessons go those two seem to hold up, but not to apply.”

In expecting to find a snake under every rock, Maria is symbolically acknowledging the pervasiveness of evil in an essentially hostile universe. (She has suggested earlier that it is a universe in which one cannot even count on Darwinian logic to prevail.) So, how does one live in such an environment? By playing it as it lays, by never taking the hard way in anything. Although Maria has learned this lesson in childhood and continues to live by it, she concedes that such stoic acceptance (if that is what it is) does not really work. It is simply one arbitrary method among many for dealing with the void in which humanity is doomed to live. It is a lesson that seems to hold up “but not to apply.”