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The Feminine Wasteland: Gender Roles and Women's Mental Health in Joan Didion's Run River and Play It As It Lays


  • Hanna Jyrinki

Summary, in English

The American author and journalist Joan Didion was especially known for her non-fiction that pertinently described the culture she lived in, but her novels also offer a frank and realistic perspective on American society. In her two first novels Run River (1963) and Play It As It Lays (1970) Didion portrays the respective main characters, Lily Knight McClellan and Maria Wyeth, as fragile women who are failing to live up to the gender roles that were imposed on them. Lily and Maria attempt to balance marriage, motherhood, and, in Maria’s case, a career, but ultimately fail and decide to give up. The restrictive gender roles that these mid-century American women are instructed to incarnate develop into their prisons. Due to the outside pressure, their mental health worsens, and the characters feel trapped in their personal wastelands.

In this essay, I argue that the mental health issues that Lily and Maria face are based on a dissonance between their personalities, and the role that society encourages them to play. In addition to Didion’s novels, I have also used Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) to contextualise the setting of the novels.


Publishing year




Document type

Student publication for Bachelor's degree


  • Languages and Literatures


  • Joan Didion
  • Run River
  • Play It As It Lays
  • Betty Friedan
  • The Feminine Mystique
  • Gender Roles


  • Annika Lindskog