Society expects Esther, a well-educated middle-class girl, to find a nice, responsible young man and become his loving wife. As Mrs. Willard explains to Buddy, “What a man is is an arrow into the future, and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from.” In her conventional view, a woman must support her husband by creating an attractive and orderly home and by nurturing him and his ambitions. This vision troubles Esther, who has always nurtured ambitions of her own, and has never aspired simply to help a husband. It seems that she cannot have both marriage and a career, and that marrying someone would mean relinquishing her dreams of writing. Failing to marry Buddy would strike most people as lunacy, however. Mrs. Willard and Esther’s mother, grandmother, and classmates see Buddy as an ideal match: he is handsome, intelligent, and ambitious. Esther herself thinks him the ideal man before she gets to know him. But she soon understands Buddy’s limitations. He cares for Esther, but he cannot understand her passion for literature, he patronizes her with his supposedly superior understanding of the world, and, perhaps worst of all, he is boring. Something of a mama’s boy, he seeks a woman who shares his values and does not aspire to anything beyond wifely duties and motherhood.
Buddy separates the pleasures of sex from the pleasures of cozy domesticity. Because he imagines Esther as his future wife, he does not imagine that he could have passionate sex with her. Instead, he removes his clothes in front of her as if their sexual encounters will be a clinical duty. Because he does not associate Esther with sex, he feels only a twinge of guilt at sleeping with Gladys, a passionate girl he does not plan to marry. Examining her own feelings, Esther realizes that she does not object to sex before marriage, but she does object to Buddy’s deception. She hates the fact that he presented himself as pure.