Chapter Seven clarifies a number of things that have been either suggested or implied earlier in the novel. It clarifies what Jack Burden’s earlier relationship with Anne Stanton was and why that relationship has remained in a state of limbo. It also clarifies the ways in which Jack has insulated himself from genuine human contact, and it clarifies Jack’s general attitude toward life, plus it fills in a number of key details about Jack’s past.
After his father left, the thing that seems to have been most important to Jack during the years in which he was growing up was his friendship with Adam Stanton. He and Adam did many things together, and most often Anne, who was four years younger than Jack, was always with them. Indeed, as Jack looks back, he realizes that her presence was at least as important to him as Adam’s was.
It was not, however, until he was twenty-one and Anne was seventeen that Anne meant anything special to him. Then he fell in love with her. His schoolboy cynicism about the relationships between men and women was pierced by her simplicity and her naturalness, and he fell in love. She, too, fell in love with him. During that summer, they explored each other in a variety of ways; their attempt at sexual intercourse is, however, interrupted when Jack’s mother returns home. Anne is willing to have him make love to her, and Jack wants to, and the affair would probably have been consummated if his mother and some of her friends had not returned early from a party. Jack does seem to have had a genuine tenderness for Anne, and the relationship obviously has greater meaning for him than he had ever realized before.
Although they later fight bitterly over whether or not Anne should go to bed with him, the real reason that she does not (or will not) marry Jack lies in his character and her expectations. At twenty-one — in about 1918 — Jack was already very much like he is eighteen years later, in 1936. He has no inner sense of direction, no sense of purpose; there is nothing that he wants to do. He simply drifts on the currents of the summer, reacting rather than acting. And it is this that is disturbing to Anne. She wants him to have a sense of purpose and direction. She does not care what it is; money and position do not seem to matter to her, but she expects Jack to want something badly enough to go after it, to follow it. Of course, her expectations are based on the purposefulness which she has seen in her father and in Adam, and it has become an important element in her own character and in her own life. Given the period in history in which she grows up, she has not been expected to have a predetermined social direction for herself or to have some professional purpose of her own; that must be provided by the man — or men — in her life. As Jack recognizes, it is this lack of meaning and direction in himself that eventually drives Anne Stanton into the arms, and into the bed, of Willie Stark, who does have the vision and the drive which she has been looking for.
Jack’s marriage to Lois Seager confirms this and other aspects of his character. He knows why he married her: she was very good-looking and a very good bed partner. In contrast, he does not know why she married him. He suspects that the name Burden had a great deal to do with it, since she was socially ambitious. He mentions the possibility that she might have loved him, but he doesn’t really believe it. Indeed, he seems to believe that no one could love him; this could well be a consequence of the abandonment he felt — and still feels — after his father left, and his mother remarried, and he was sent off to boarding school.
Jack’s relationship with Lois seems fine as long as he can depersonalize her. That is, he is quite satisfied with being married to her as long as he can think of her as being only a body or as being only a machine whose primary function is sex. When he finds himself thinking of her as a person, he finds that he doesn’t like the person that she is. (This may well be a defense mechanism; one has to be close to another human being to think of him or her as a person, and Jack is not willing to let anyone come that close, since it means that he might be hurt. Especially after Anne refuses to marry him, Jack shuts himself off from any genuine human contact.) When Jack begins to think of Lois as a human being, he reacts, rather than acts.
He reacts against her friends, against her taste in furniture, against her efforts to improve his clothing, and finally, against her. His penultimate reaction is to drift into the Great Sleep, and his final reaction is simply walking out the door and never coming back.
In other words, Jack’s reaction to difficulties in his life is to gradually withdraw and, then, finally to run from them. He withdraws from Anne and finally drifts away. He withdraws from the story of Cass Mastern and leaves it — or the physical evidence of it — behind him when he leaves; even when it follows him, he does not even disturb the wrapping paper. He withdraws from Lois Seager psychologically before he runs away physically. He even runs away from the fact that Anne Stanton has become Willie Stark’s mistress. He simply does not want to face up to his problems, and this reflex goes much deeper than simply a refusal to face the immediate problems; Jack also fears that if he looks too hard at his problems, he will have to face a far more fundamental problem, the fear and loneliness and rootlessness that he has bottled up inside himself. It is a significant sign of the beginnings of change in him that he does examine his relationships with two of the three women in his life (his mother is the third). It is even more significant that he admits Anne’s liaison with Willie Stark has its roots in a flaw within Jack Burden.
Jack is not, however, quite ready to emerge from his shell; he is not yet ready to accept full responsibility for his actions and for the consequences of those actions. He still feels that he must insulate himself from other people, that he must repair the damage done by the realization that Anne Stanton had held such a significant position in his life for so long.
The first step in repairing Jack’s defenses is to reduce all human action to what he calls “an itch in the blood,” a twitch in a nerve. Anne’s response to him that summer, and his feeling for her, were — or so he tells himself — nothing more than that, nothing personal at all. And, with that decided, he leaves Long Beach, California, to return home.