Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Women are often sad, often lonely. They are afflicted with an inconvenient biological system, which frequently incapacitates them, from puberty to death. Driven to motherhood, they are usually trapped by it. Yet if they deny the instinct, they deny their own completeness. Given these facts, Marjorie, Grace, and Chloe, along with all of their sisters, must find some way to make life worth living.

Obviously, the answer is not in rejecting it, like Grace with heartless sex and frequent abortions, like Marjorie with sexlessness and fascinating hypochondria. Nor is it in timid self-annihilation, the method, says Chloe, of her mother, of Esther, and certainly of herself. Once Chloe realizes that by obeying Oliver and by agreeing with him, she is encouraging his tyrannical puerility, she is able to become a free woman. Oliver’s world is illusory. In it, women shop while men work, women prevent men from reaching their goals, women cannot see the world as men can, and women can control the sexual appetites which men are biologically incapable of resisting. Above all, women cannot be real friends. Unfortunately, Chloe has permitted Oliver to live in his illusory world for too long. She cannot change the pattern of their lives. Yet she can refuse to believe him; she can even laugh at him, as she finally does. Above all, she can leave him, secure in the female friendships which sustain her. The novel concludes, “I no longer wait to die.... I put my house... in order.... Oliver says ’But you can’t leave me...’ and I reply, I can, I can, and I do.”