The social backdrop to the novel is one in which women’s roles are prescribed and limited. In many cases, women's roles are presented in relation to men and how a male society perceives them. These roles are promoted by women as much as being imposed by men.
Throughout the book, Joy struggles with her identity. In her relationship with Paul, she attempts to define herself by creating the best home she can. She cooks and cleans for him. Her role is almost like a servant to Paul's
When Paul withholds emotional contact, Joy seems lost. She tries to find a connection, first with David and then with Michael. It is as if without being in a relationship with a man she does not know who she is.
Joy seeks to fulfil social expectations of a woman's role. Like Ellen, she cooks and bakes, even when it is not clear who she is doing this for.
She struggles to meet the physical and emotional ideals presented in magazines. These define women in terms of:
Together these are impossible to attain. While they are presented as positive they have the opposite effect of making Joy feel inadequate. She even feels guilt that she is
a good wife going to waste.
Joy struggles to feel worthwhile of herself. Instead she desperately needs to feel accepted and acceptable to others. To do so requires being passive, unthreatening and
good. Joy explains the definitions of goodness in the roles she feels forced to play:
where good = productive/hardworking/wouldn’t say boo,
where good = value for money,
where good = not putting anyone out by feeling too much, blank, unobtrusive
If I was a good [ie patient, thoughtful, uncomplaining] girl long enough I would reap the reward.
This list could be taken to suggest a wider idea of how women are judged in society.