Part 3—Hortense Briggs and Rita Eksler
Dreiser’s Hortense Briggs and Rand’s Rita Eksler are both femmes fatales, but whereas Dreiser seethes with resentment that such a girl exists, Rand admires her and gives her her due.
Hortense Briggs is Clyde’s first love interest. The courtship is short-lived, but it gives Dreiser the opportunity to set up and knock down the pretty, sensuous, and hard Hortense. Hortense is an energetic thrill seeker—“Gee, I’d die if I had to stay in one night”—who tries to make the most out of her youth and situation, “You gotta have a little fun when you work all day” (American Tragedy 72). Hortense, Dreiser complains, likes to look nice, likes to go out on dates, thinks highly of herself, and likes to draw attention to herself. Readers of Ayn Rand might wonder what the problem is. For Dreiser, the problem was that the ego was a fiction, and Hortense’s self-interest is a fiction too. Hortense’s actions have nothing to do with ego and everything to do with pathology, in keeping with Dreiser’s view of human nature—“an insignificant, will-less machine, buffeted in an inexorable complex of nature along with billions of other heedless machines” (Swanberg 61). Hortense, Dreiser insists, is no better than anyone else, regardless of what she thinks.
Hortense cares about her appearance, a trait that Dreiser ridicules. He describes her efforts to look nice not as a sign of self-esteem but as a sign of conceit. For example, on a date with Clyde, Hortense appears “smartly dressed in a black velvet jacket with a reddish-brown collar and cuffs, and a bulgy round tam of the same material with a red leather buckle on the side.” She has also carefully applied her makeup: “And her cheeks and lips were rouged a little, and her eyes sparkled.” None of this is complimentary, however, according to Dreiser, and he disparages her fashion sense and the pleasure she takes in her appearance: “as usual she gave herself all the airs of one very well content with herself” (American Tragedy 79).
Still, Hortense’s good looks and style get her lots of dates, and some evenings she rushes from one eager young man to another, eating, drinking, and dancing with them all. But rather than depict her as popular, and a young woman worthy of male appreciation, Dreiser describes her and the young men in the worst possible terms. Hortense is a user “who was just reaching the stage where she was finding it convenient and profitable to use boys of her own years or a little older for whatever pleasures or clothes she desired” (American Tragedy 75). The young men are contemptible. The problem, as Dreiser sees it, is that even though they pay for pretty things for Hortense, she won’t put out: “You better not get too stuck on that Hortense Briggs. I don’t think she’s on the level with anybody. She’s got that fellow Gettler and others. She’ll only work you an’ you might not get anything, either” (American Tragedy 75).
Clyde is as horrid as he is inept. He is crushed, for example, when Hortense initially loses interest in him because he can’t dance: “To think that this girl, to whom all those here he was most drawn, could dismiss him and his dreams and desires thus easily, and all because he couldn’t dance” (American Tragedy 74). Having learned a few dance steps, Clyde tries to show her who is boss by insulting her, “You’re a flirt, you are. You don’t care who you jolly, do you?” To which Hortense replies, “Well, I haven’t tried to jolly you very much, have I?” That is (unintentionally) funny enough, but Clyde is the real punchline. First, he tries to bribe her, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing, . . . I could spend a lot more on you.” Then he begs, “Gee, I’d give anything if you’d only be nice to me” (American Tragedy 76).
Even as Dreiser depicts Hortense as a gold digger, he won’t give her any credit for it. Her feminine wiles notwithstanding, Hortense is merely, someone with “a very high estimate of herself” (American Tragedy 72) who “clattered on about herself” (American Tragedy 82) while “no more [knowing] her own mind than a moth” (American Tragedy 75). She’s sadistic, and “liked to think that [Clyde] was suffering,” but only on account of having “the temperament of a spider that spins a web for flies” (American Tragedy 106-107). Ultimately, Clyde and Hortense reach an understanding:
She conceived the notion of being sufficiently agreeable—nothing more—to hold him, keep him attentive, if possible, while at the same time she went her own way, enjoying herself as much as possible with others and getting Clyde to buy and do such things for her as might fill gaps—when she was not sufficiently or amusingly enough engaged elsewhere. (American Tragedy 84)
The romance literally comes crashing to a halt one Sunday afternoon when the driver of the car the couple is riding in speeds around a corner and hits and kills a little girl trying to cross the street. They flee the accident, only to crash into a wood pile on the side of a dark road. Hortense receives several cuts and scratches on her face, and it is on that note that Dreiser sums her up: “Her one thought in regard to Clyde was that he was the one who had invited her to this ill-fated journey—hence that he was to blame, really. Those beastly boys—to think they should have gotten her into this and then didn’t have brains enough to manage better” (American Tragedy 144). Meanwhile, Clyde crawls away on his hands and knees in order to elude the police. He leaves town, never to return, and feeling sorry for himself that such a terrible thing should happen to him.
The whole relationship, Dreiser concludes, was terrible, and “she was no good to him really” (American Tragedy 84). I would have to agree, especially as Hortense treated Clyde exactly as Clyde treated Roberta Alden. And Hortense blamed Clyde for her problems exactly as Clyde blamed Roberta. Still, unlike Clyde, Hortense stopped short of murder.
In We the Living, Ayn Rand gives us a vamp with a healthy ego who knows exactly what she is doing. Rita Eksler is candid, theatrical, sexually frank, and ruthless. She is a grotesque in the manner of Victor Hugo—a real man eater, and a bright light in the otherwise dreary Soviet night life. Like Lydia, Rita is not a Randian hero. She has a bit too much Nietzsche in her, but she is a character worth her salt.
Rita first appears at a party, striking a Theda Bara pose: “Rita Eksler was the only woman in the room who smoked. She lay stretched on a davenport, her legs high on its arm, her skirt high above her knees, red bangs low over pale green eyes, painted lips puckered insolently around a cigarette” (WTL 151).
Rita is also the only women in their social circle in the Soviet era to have a past, or at least to have done enough to make people think that she did. She took to the breakdown of the Romanov aristocracy like a fish to water, and even though she shows no signs of holding any Bolshevik principles, she picks up immediately on the underlying currents of sexual license: “Many things were whispered about her. Her parents had been killed in the revolution. She had married a commander of the Red Army and divorced him two months later” (WTL 151).
While not particularly good looking, Rita nevertheless has the self-esteem and the sexual confidence that Ayn Rand admired. She used her mind to great effect, not her looks, and she frequently succeeded where the pretty girls failed: “She was homely and used her homeliness with such skillful, audacious emphasis that the most beautiful girls feared her competition” (WTL 151). Like Hortense, Rita plays the field, and she talks about her boyfriends the way an art collector talks about her collection, like a challenge and as a way to demonstrate her particular, personal taste: “A boyfriend of mine wrote from Berlin,” she begins, then goes on to repeat an anecdote about a night club there in which they perform burlesque. Rita matter-of-factly relates the erotic details of a dance troupe who was arrested for dancing naked on stage. The authorities release them and they return to the stage the next night wearing “little chiffon trunks, two gold strings crossed over their breasts, and huge fur hats” in military fashion. “They were considered dressed,” Rita laughs knowingly. It is Leo she is telling this story to, the only one in the room worth her while, and she looks straight at him while she talks. Leo accepts the compliment, and returns one, “with a straight mocking glance of understanding that insulted and encouraged Rita at the same time” (WTL 151).
Rita is confidently rakish and frankly sexual. She is not, however, a seductress or a gold digger. She does not offer anything but skillful sex, and as a trader she is more or less “take it or leave it” in her attitude. It is easy to imagine her as a very expensive call girl under other circumstances. She appears to respect skill in others, as is apparent from the rapport she has with Leo. At one point they dance together, “their eyes meeting in a silent understanding, her body pressed to his expertly, professionally” (WTL 155). Leo is equal to her prowess, nevertheless, there is no question of hurt feelings with Rita. Sex is sex, not to be confused with anything else. At the end of the night, Rita, seated on a mattress qua couch, gets up “with a little shrug” (WTL 58) when Leo sits down with Kira.
A few years later at a wedding celebration nearly everyone else is the worse for wear and tear. Rita remains robust and chatty. The years of Soviet rule have not dampened her spirit as she provocatively talks shop with the bridegroom: “Victor sat on the arm of a chair occupied by red-headed Rita Eksler. He leaned close to her, holding his cigarette to light the one at her lips. Rita had just divorced her third husband; she narrowed her eyes under the long red bangs, and whispered confidential advice. They were laughing softly” (WTL 313). When the bride tries to get Victor’s attention away from Rita, Victor stays put. “We can’t neglect our guests” he explains. Rita expresses no qualms about monopolizing the bridegroom, but rather watches “through a jet of smoke” as Marisha walks away, and then “pull[s] her short skirt up and cross[es] her long thin legs” (WTL 313) for Victor’s benefit.
Later, Rita canoodles with a drunken Leo and another girl, and wins one on Kira: “Leo’s head, thrown back, was leaning heavily against an armchair. His one arm encircled Rita’s waist; the other was thrown across the shoulders of a pretty blonde who giggled softly at something he was muttering. Rita’s head rested on his shoulder and her hand caressed his disheveled hair.” When Kira tells Leo it is time to go home, Leo, like Victor, tells her to leave him alone. Rita’s triumph is real, if short lived, and she eventually finds herself pushed aside as Leo gets up to argue with Andrei (WTL 319). Rand does not tell us any more about Rita Eksler, but more of the same is the logical conclusion, and thus we can assume she did just fine. In Soviet Russia, Rita is in her element. Love, after all, is a bourgeois sentiment. In a culture hostile to marriage, family, and religion, there is no need for her to hide her sexual proclivities.