I recently read an article on how my particular job title tends to get blank stares and awkward silences at cocktail parties. Before reading this chapter of Atlas Shrugged, I might have nodded along with the article and felt smug about my clear superiority. Having now seen this perspective in excruciating detail in Hank Reardon, I have learned my lesson. I now roll my eyes and want to tell the article writer to suck it up. No matter how dull the party-goers are, you can find a conversational topic. And if none of the topics you are interested in, interest them, then maybe it’s time to ask questions and learn about a new topic that they find interesting. If all the other people at a party are super boring, maybe you need to consider the fact that you might be the boring one.
With that lead up: In Chapter 6 of Atlas Shrugged, we have one of the most uncomfortable parties ever.
Let’s have a quick rundown of the focal characters who are present:
Dagny is there looking magnificent and fragile and feminine — ignore any contradictions in her description, she is simply all things wonderful in appearance. She’s also looking with casual disdain on everyone else who is present. She’s at the party for a reason, but knows that the party is wasted on everyone else there. In general, I think this perspective is a waste. In this case, however, she may very well be right.
Lillian Reardon is the beautiful and elegant hostess who has intentionally worn her jewelry to showcase how crass and ugly the bracelet her husband gave her is. She makes pointed and passive-aggressive comments about how selfish and emotionless her husband is at every opportunity. I’m sure that made her various guests real comfortable.
Hank Reardon arrives back at the house in time to start off the party but then, in a bout of self-hatred and self-sabotage, described in detail, decides to read his business mail and make himself late enough for his wife to complain about. He then spends the first half of the party avoiding everyone because he refuses to talk about anything not-business related because he finds it boring and he refuses to talk about business because he’s decided that it is inappropriate for parties. So he sulks in a corner snubbing everyone.
Balph Eubank (Yeah, Balph. That’s not a misspelling. And apparently it’s a chosen name. He wanted to be called Balph.) is an idiot of a philosophy professor who stands around pontificating about philosophy mostly by reciting what is essentially the doublethink phrases of Orwell’s 1984, along the lines of “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.” (Incidentally, the book 1984 was published in 1949, eight years before Atlas Shrugged. Balph is almost certainly an homage.) He is surrounded by various socialite sycophants who ask for explanations, but Eubanks just mocks them for their lack of understanding and they remain cowed.*
There’s an unnamed woman who, in a mysterious voice, recounts an explanation of who John Galt is. Apparently he was a millionaire who found the lost city of Atlantis. He, his fortune, and all of his crew (volunteers, all) sank their ship in order to go to Atlantis. All except for one crew member who returned to tell the tale? I guess?
Francisco is there with his mocking eyes and a variety of mysterious statements. Despite having gone out of his way to ruin a great many people financially, he’s still a necessary guest at any party and apparently well received by everyone. Only Hank Reardon thinks he’s out of place, and they have a conversation where Francisco is super mysterious. He also confirms to Dagny the strange woman’s story about John Galt. Of course, he also says that the woman in question “doesn’t know that she was telling [Dagny] the truth.” Despite the woman’s stated belief in what she was saying and, you know, the fact that she is telling the story at all.
There are also a bunch of random other socialites who twitter around being looked at disdainfully by all of our focal characters.
The big event of this chapter, though, is the exchange of bracelets. Lillian is mocking the bracelet Hank gave her, offering to trade it, and Dagny decides to take her up on it in one of the rudest ways possible. Given the population of Atlas Shrugged tends to be really stupid, I’m not sure if they noticed that Dagny very publicly laid claim to Hank Reardon, essentially telling Lillian that she would be taking her husband. It was pretty blatant.
Anyway, the narration covers with loving detail on all the awkward bits and skims over quite quickly the part where Hank Reardon spends the rest of the party making polite conversation and being super attentive to his wife and friends. Instead, there’s some more pages of Hank Reardon castigating himself for how horrible he is and wondering why his wife ever married him (I’m certainly wondering the same: currently I’m thinking family pressure on her side) but failing to actually attempt any communication other than the telepathic. (Spoiler: none of these characters are actually telepathic.)
This is one of many classic stories that involve a focused look at a bunch of really unhappy people. Despite it being high literature, I miss reading my regular more schlocky books in which there are people I like actively working towards being happy.
Nonetheless, I will persevere…
* That whole situation reminded me a lot of Bane, from Dark Knight Rises. Bane spends a lot of time speaking to the crowds about how he is going to allow people freedom by preventing them from either giving or receiving assistance from anyone else, and thus they will be free and self-sufficient, etc. Then he kills anyone who tries to be a good citizen. I suppose, given the circumstances, I can forgive the citizens of Gotham for failing to stand up and point out the contradictions in Bane’s philosophy. I’m less forgiving of the people in Atlas Shrugged.
I had my suspicions before, but this chapter clinched it: Lillian Rearden absolutely hates her husband. The party was not only boring to the reader, but it seemed purposefully filled with the kind of people that Hank would find boring and annoying. It is becoming increasingly obvious to me that everything Lillian does and says is consciously intended to attack her husband in some small way. (The party totally reminded me of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”)
Hank still appears to believe that his wife is simply childish and not very bright, but not malicious; I very much disagree and I imagine them in a sort of vicious circle, where Hank married Lillian for her looks, but Lillian wanted his respect. After years of failing to get his respect or even his attention, she now downright hates him and has turned all of her attention to simply making his life an unhappy as hers.
Unlike you, I actually do sort of like reading about miserable people, but I feel like these characters so far are in a bit of a middle area where they aren’t happy enough for you and aren’t quite miserable enough for me, though they are getting there. I really would like to delve into Lillian’s story a bit more, though, because I bet it is fascinating (and miserable).
I keep on wanting to take both Lilian and Hank aside and give them relationship advice. It’s not like I’m the most knowledgeable person or even close, but I sure am better than them. You’re right, though: Lilian makes a lot more sense as a character if her hatred for Hank has completely overshadowed all of her other desires. I still want to have a little chat about not cutting off her nose to spite her face.
It also occurs to me that we haven’t seen anything at all from Lilian’s perspective. As much as Hank I-married-her-for-her-silhouette Reardon objectifies and infanticizes her, Rand’s narration does just as much, and often extends that to Dagny as well, describing her as secretly fragile and running with childlike delight, etc.
Given the time period this was written in, I imagine Rand was dealing with a lot of catch-22’s regarding feminism.