The next day, Frank sits reading a magazine. April went alone to her second performance the night before, and they are still not speaking. A fashion photograph in the magazine reminds Frank of Maureen Grube, a girl from his office who he kissed at the last Christmas party. Feeling unhappy with himself, Frank approaches April as she does the dishes, taking her by her elbows and saying he doesn’t care who was to blame. She rebuffs him, saying she is sick of pretending that everything is all right. Jennifer approaches and asks Frank to read her and Michael the comics. Feeling grateful for the children’s forgiveness, Frank reads to them, but is annoyed when they insist he read a toothpaste advertisement aloud. He looks forward to that night’s visit from the Campbells, because April will have to pretend they aren’t fighting in front of Shep and Milly.
Frank struggles with his self-esteem when he is not on speaking terms with April, as her approval is important to his sense of worth. He tries to distract himself with sexual fantasies, but this is insufficient. Then he tries to make up with April so that he can feel better about himself, but she rejects him. Next, Frank tries to take pleasure in the love of his children, but finds that he is bored and irritated because they lack an adult’s awareness of the world. In the end, he looks forward to a social occasion because he expects that April will conceal her anger with him to conform to their friends’ expectations.
That evening, Shep and Milly arrive, and the four friends arrange themselves with their drinks in the living room in relaxed postures, ready to have a good time. They talk briefly about the play, and April mocks how the other cast members kept repeating “it was a lot of fun anyway.” Then they talk about their children and prices, slowly realizing that, for the first time in their friendship, they have nothing to talk about. In the past, they would talk about the sad state of America, conformity, the suburbs, and the mediocrity of all their neighbors. It was because of this sense of isolation that they had initially become interested in participating in the Laurel Players, which seemed like it might be a step towards bringing culture to the suburbs. But there is no outside cause for the play’s failure, and they are stumped to find a topic.
The Wheelers and the Campbells have created a friendship by making one another feel that they are exceptional. They are used to stroking one another’s egos by belittling all the other people they know and creating the impression that they are superior to their surroundings. They also talk about topics that they consider sophisticated and fit for freethinkers like themselves. But the experience of the play’s failure has made it difficult for them to sustain this attitude. The inability to find new topics reveals how shallow the friendship between the two couples really is—they’re not true friends at all.
To fill the silence Milly talks about gardening, and Frank asks if she knows what “seecham” (sedum) is, saying Helen brought them some. Milly is unsure what it is. Milly suddenly remembers something to tell the Wheelers. She asks if they know that the Givingses have a son. The Wheelers remember seeing his photograph and that Helen said his name is John and he hated the navy, but is a brilliant mathematician. Milly shocks them by revealing that John is now at the state mental institution Greenacres. The other three begin to pepper Milly with questions, and Milly excitedly reveals that John had been in and out of a private sanatorium in California, quit his job and disappeared for several months, then turned up at the Givingses’ house. He held them there, locking the doors, cutting the phone lines, and breaking the furniture. Only after a cleaning woman escaped and called the police were his parents freed. Then the state troopers came and took him to Greenacres.
Milly talks about gardening – a stereotypically female activity – in an attempt to fill the empty conversational space with an acceptable topic. She is trying to keep the evening from seeming awkward because, like Helen, she feels that maintaining a demeanor of cheerful pleasantry is part of her role as a woman. But when she recalls the story of John Givings, she is excited to be able to tell it, even though it sounds like a painful situation for the Givings. Whatever truly happened to the Givings, John Givings clearly acted in opposition to the prevailing ideal of domestic peace and harmony. The news of an acquaintance’s child failing to act as a dutiful, loving son is an exciting, dangerous-seeming piece of gossip for this cloistered world.
April says that she has felt that Helen wanted to say something to them, but couldn’t get the words out. Without quite looking at Frank, she asks him if he agrees, and reluctantly he does. Milly begins to talk to April about what it would feel like to have an insane child, while Shep begins to ask Frank practical questions about the legality of institutionalizing a person forcibly. Frank fears the night is turning into a boring, typical suburban evening during which women speak to women and men to men. He raises his voice to address the group and delivers a speech, railing against the overreliance of society on psychiatry, and the self-deceptive way everyone in the suburbs pretends everything is fine no matter what is happening under the surface. Usually, the other three would have rushed to agree with him and pontificate, but instead a silence falls when he stops speaking.
Frank is used to time spent with the Campbells making him feel good about himself. He immediately seizes on the topic of John’s hospitalization as a topic that can reinvigorate the two couples’ conversation—but Shep, Milly and April each likely have their own reasons for refusing this topic. After the experience of the play, they may feel themselves to be no better than their neighbors. Or they might be struck by the tragedy of the Givings’s situation. Or, perhaps, they feel that a mental breakdown is not so foreign from their own experience. Either way, they do not want to use the story of what happened to John to boost their own egos, at least not publicly.
Disappointed, Frank goes into the kitchen to get fresh drinks. Seeing his face in the mirror, he is disgusted by its look of weakness. Then he remembers something and nods at his reflection with a bitter smile. Going back into the living room, he announces that his thirtieth birthday is tomorrow. Feeling drunk, he tells the story of his twentieth birthday during the war. In the past, talking about the war had always brought the four of them close together. But as he finishes telling his anecdote, Frank realizes that he told the Campbells this story the year before when he turned twenty-nine. The Campbells pretend to be amused, and the worst part is that April looks at him with a look of pitying boredom. Frank continues to stew over her look as he sleeps alone that night, and on into the next day as he takes the train to work.
Frank’s self-esteem suffers when he cannot elicit the response he wants. He wants to be reassured that he is interesting and exceptional, because these qualities are what have earned him respect in the world and made him feel like a “real man.” Trying to boost his self-confidence, he tells an anecdote about the war, because this was a time when he felt he was becoming strong, confident, and masculine. When Frank realizes that he told the story a year before, however, its telling takes on the exact opposite meaning, instead showing how unoriginal and desperate for approval he is.