Drabble’s concern is with the ways in which ordinary people, as represented by Rose and Simon, find it impossible to break the patterns they have established over a lifetime. While others, such as Simon’s mother and Rose’s nurse, have helped to instill these patterns, there is no doubt that Rose and Simon have chosen to follow them, or that even the strongest motivation will not make it possible for the patterns to be changed. Both Simon and Rose think about being married, and both know that such a marriage would bring them happiness, but neither has the strength to break through to new ways of behavior.
Drabble’s theme is that one is what one has chosen to be, and her characters must find what happiness they can within those choices. The happiest people are those whose choices suit them best, such as Miss Lindley, the teacher of one of Rose’s children, or the lawyer Jeremy Alford and his pregnant wife; life for them seems genuinely good. For those who have had to struggle against their origins to make choices, however, life is not easy and cannot be made so.
Even for these characters, however, Drabble sympathetically but without sentimentality sees modest hope. Rose and Simon cannot attain real happiness, but by the end of the novel each has found some contentment. Rose has given up her cherished independence and her hopes of Simon, but she has rid herself of guilt and she has not lost her children. Simon’s marriage is much less grim that it had been, and he still finds pleasure in his occasional outings with Rose. Both have achieved identity, which is Rose’s final hope for all human beings.