The unexpected Ayn Rand

Critics claim Ayn Rand’s characters are too godlike, with few human characteristics and no inner conflicts. But the subtleties of Rand’s characters reveal they're actually quite human — even tender. Take a closer look. Maybe it wasn’t her characters that she turned into gods.

You’ve read Atlas Shrugged, right? Okay, what color is Dagny’s hair?

When I first read the book, I thought Dagny was a blonde. Then I looked again and saw, when Dagny is first introduced, that Rand calls Dagny’s hair “brown.” Not even “light brown,” just brown.

I was surprised. Others have had the same experience. I guess we’ve all seen too many Clairol commercials.

The problem here is not any failure on Rand’s part to put in the subtle touches; it’s just that we don’t notice the subtleties amid all the thunder — Rand’s own thunder, that is, followed by the thunder of the world’s reaction to Rand.

Read the scene between Dagny and Cherryl, just before Cherryl’s death (Chapter 4 of Part 3, hardcover and Centennial paperback page 888). Dagny reminds Cherryl that they are sisters. Cherryl replies, “No! Not through Jim!” And Dagny says, “No, through our own choice.”

We don’t notice the subtleties amid all the thunder.

That new and deeper meaning Dagny gives to her relationship to her sister-in-law shows the genius of Ayn Rand — it’s what makes this author famous and a never-to-be-forgotten experience for millions of young readers.

Dagny then expresses care and concern and tenderness to the abused and frightened Cherryl — all those qualities you have heard about Rand not possessing.

Here’s another moment in Atlas I’ll bet you don't remember: Eddie, in one of his dialogues with the worker in the cafeteria (page 218), says that he was working at Dagny’s desk one day when she walked in and said, “Mr. Willers, I’m looking for a job. Would you give me a chance?”

And she laughed. Then she sat on the edge of her desk, telling Eddie to stay seated.

Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden and Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged: Part I

Pretty easy-going boss. Not a tyrant. Dagny is intense, in intense scenes, but there is one of those humanizing touches that Rand isn't supposed to have in her books.

How many readers of Atlas remember Galt’s breakfast-making scene? If that scene makes it into Part III of the Atlas movies, you might notice it and see the humanizing touch. Galt makes breakfast for Dagny after she crashes in the valley.

He heroically fries eggs! He makes toast! With a single bound! You want humanizing touches? — there they are.

But Rand also integrates that little scene with the story and with Galt’s characterization: Dagny asks him whether he learned those kitchen skills from Dr. Akston. She met Akston in his diner, remember? Galt replies, “That, among other things.”

Here’s another one for Dagny: On page 81, Ellis Wyatt comes bursting uninvited into Dagny’s office. An unforgivable breach of office etiquette. Reading this at thirteen, I thought, Yeah, that’s the stereotyped so-called individualist — someone with passion but no manners. Stock character.

That’s the stereotyped so-called individualist — someone with passion but no manners.

But on page 440, Dagny is in the opposite situation. She is desperate to see Ken Danagger, but she waits nervously in his waiting room for hours. She will not barge into his office. He has a right to decide when to see her, and she will not violate that right.

That’s when I got it. Rand is deliberately setting up the same situation in order to say, See? That was the old idea of an “individualist,” and now here is my new idea of an individualist: Someone who sees the deeper meaning in individualism, someone who respects individual rights. Another new and deeper meaning.

Some more surprises in Rand:

Rand’s villains are supposed to be government employees, but the fact is the villains are as often businessmen — crony capitalists — as politicians and bureaucrats. The politics of the Atlas Shrugged villains is fascism or mercantilism, not socialism.

And they are old-money, Ivy-league types; you can tell from their nicknames, like Tinky Holloway (a bureaucrat and stooge of Orren Boyle, head of Associated Steel — read: US Steel in real life).

Galt’s Gulch is not supposed to be read as a model for all society. The people of the Gulch — no more than a thousand, Rand guessed, and more likely one or two hundred — are there by individual invitation and only for one month a year, so it’s more like a big party.

Renting out a car rather than lending it for free, Galt explains, is a custom that helps them rest from the things they came there to rest from. It’s not meant to be a rule for all people at all times.

Did you know that Galt mentions, in his speech, generosity as one of the virtues? And so does Dagny, on page 276.

Galt says people are taken advantage of because of their generosity and prodigality. Some people don’t seem to get the point that that means anyone — not just ambitious captains of industry.

Even people with little prodigality to give sometimes give what they can and are taken advantage of by their personal parasites. (That’s why Prof. Muhammed Yunnus’s Grameen Bank loans money only to women: Men in Bangladesh, he found, will spend the loan on booze and gambling while the wife does the work.)

Rand hated children, we are told, and we know this because there are no children in her novels. But there are. Did you know that Dominique is only nineteen when we first meet her in The Fountainhead? No wonder she’s screwed up — she’s still a brainy, neurotic college freshman not yet out of her teens. There are two kids in Galt’s Gulch, aged seven and four — and more in We the Living.

Rand’s novels have just a few children, but they have no elephants at all! That’s because she didn’t happen to be writing about elephants.

There are personal references in Galt’s speech that you will miss if you skip it, as some do. “Do you hear me, Dr. Robert Stadler?” “Do you hear me, my love?”

Rand’s heroes have no inner conflicts. That’s why she’s a bad writer! — you’ve heard.

Inner conflict is what the whole novel is about — the inner conflict of deciding to go on strike. Hank and Dagny are seen agonizing over this decision, and Francisco, and even Galt too.

Inner conflict is what the whole novel is about.

The conflict had to be between each hero and the others and between each hero and himself because the villains are not, and cannot be, strong enough to threaten the heroes that deeply.

Especially Jim Taggart, whose evil is so profound, his evasions so reckless, that he couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if there were instructions on the heel.

That’s because of how Rand had by that time decided to define evil. That point needs a whole article, so ... to be continued.

Rand’s heroes are a sign of bad writing because they are godlike and not human.

You’ve heard that one. But as Dr. Akston tells Dagny in the valley (page 791): “Every man builds his world in his own image.”

Rand is not making gods of her characters or of herself. She is making a god ... of you.

Frederick Cookinham gives New York City walking tours, available through In Depth Walking Tours — including five on the subject of Ayn Rand and six on Revolutionary War sites. He was interviewed at the Atlasphere in 2005. He is the author of the book The Age of Rand: Imagining an Objectivist Future World and has also written articles for The New Individualist, Nomos, Full Context, and The Pragmatist.

21 comments from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
I have never understood the perspective that Rand’s principal characters were somehow lacking in human emotions and the ability to express them. In all of her novels the principal characters struggle with complex life conundrums, challenges, and choices. While her heroes are unusually confident and competent individuals, they suffer, often quietly and alone, quite a lot. They express anger, joy, contempt, love, humor, wit, sadness, hate, fear, doubt, affection, and about every other emotion, and often surprising compassion.

One can argue until the cows come home about Rand’s perspectives as presented through her characters. Indeed, people have been arguing for 75 years and the cows still have not come home. Regardless of the ideas these characters represent, and especially her heroes, I don’t see how, with the possible exception of writing Galt’s character, it can be perceived that her characters are not infinitely rich with a full spectrum of human feelings and emotions. [I sight Galt not in the notion that he lacked emotion, but my personal view that Rand didn’t succeed as well in drawing out his emotional qualities, and accept that others may disagree. There are passages, related to Dagny, where his quite suffering is well drawn.]

While Rand’s novels are primarily about ideas, they could be labored reading were it not for how those ideas are expressed through the inner struggles that characterize the processes and transformations that many of the principal characters undergo as the novels progress. These struggles are the heart of the novels – human beings confronting deeply perplexing problems of personal morals and ethics in complex, often life-threatening circumstances. The struggles and choices are often gut wrenching. That gut wrenching is presented, in most cases, no-holds barred.

Rand, herself, while clearly a powerful intellect, was anything but an emotional wallflower. She seemed a pretty live wire who wore her emotions on her sleeve and seemed to have little concern for suppressing them. Indeed, the stories of people’s fears of her outbursts are legendary, as well as their stories of her humor, generosity, compassion and concern. After all, she was a human being, and an expressive one. Those emotional expressions are well represented in the struggles of the dynamic characters she introduced in her novels, whether or not one resonates with the worldview she concocted.
Well written, Frederick. My only comment is that Objectivists should move away from using the term "crony capitalist." Use of this term implies that a person who obtains wealth by bribing the government is a type of "capitalist." Actually, such a person is the opposite of a "capitalist" and should be called a "crony socialist."
Yes, Objectivists should avoid that term. Trouble is, the capitalists try to have it both ways: They want use capital as long as they are in the black, then get bailed out by the gummint when they are in the red. See the history of the British East India Company, beginning with Benjamin Carp's DEFIANCE OF THE PATRIOTS, about the Boston Tea Party. Talk about Too Big To Fail! Then it was called "Mercantilism".
I couldn't agree more, I use the term "crony socialist" because a "crony capitalist" is an oxymoron. A Capitalist wins without force, if I make guns, I don't force anyone to buy my guns nor do I demand the government shut down gun competitors, I advertise them, sell them, and let individuals buy them if they choose.
I'll accept "crony socialist", but I almost would rather go with "private sector collectivists".
Well done. Much of Ms. Rand's appeal has always been her ability to present ideas in a way which makes them so obvious that the understanding reader almost misses the argument and moves immediately to apprehension; it appears her fiction is crafted with the same subtlety. I must surely not be alone in having missed most of Mr. Cookinham's examples while seeing Rand's characters far more vividly than her detractors seem to have done.

The free bird (above) is exactly right -- Rand's opponents almost invariably resort to broad ad hominem attacks on Rand and her readers rather than offering reasoned arguments against her ideas, a tactic which constrains them far more than it does anyone else. While articles like this one are invaluable to those with free minds -- and I look forward to the "... to be continued" -- is is vanishingly unlikely that closed minds will be changed even by such clear refutation.
"The politics of the Atlas Shrugged villains is fascism or mercantilism, not socialism."

Sorry, I have to disagree there. First of all, the only difference between fascism and socialism is nationalism. Fascism was invented by Mussolini, who was the son of a communist and grew up in communist circles. Mussolini realized that the "workers of the world unite" mentality was stupid because an Italian cares for other Italians, not for some foreigners in foreign countries he has never met.

I love geography, I know that Nauru is an island nation is the pacific infamous for phosphate depletion and pirate banking practices. However, I'd be lying if I told you that I care about the people of Nauru because I haven't met them.

Mussolini knew that communism was not going to work in Italy, so he did the next "best" thing with fascism, he allowed some economic freedom with the understanding that the State would be in charge. Corporations were tolerated as long as they set the prices and produced the goods the State approved. Hitler did the same thing but with the Germans. In fact, Nazi stands for National Socialist, if you read some of the principles of the Nazis, they're not that different from some of the things Democrats advocate such as pensions for old age (social security), public healthcare, gun control and confiscation, usury bans, mandatory physical education, smoking bans, etc. Both Democrats and Nazis are collectivist thinkers, everything is for the common good, the constitution is "living" so they can interpret the Second Amendment as the National Guard and the Fourth Amendment as a partial-birth abortion, the First Amendment as gay marriage and the "general welfare" as Obamacare.

There's no fascism in Atlas Shrugged, but there is plenty of socialist internationalism. Americans are asked to sacrifice while the government sends provisions to countries that are doing worse. That's why Ragnar becomes a pirate, he gets tired of seeing the wealth of some stolen and given to others.

I recommend the book "Liberal Fascism" by Jonah Goldberg. He's not an objectivist, just a conservative, but his book documents the forgotten history of Italy and Germany and exposes the American progressive movement that supported those systems.
Here's the fascistic economics of the villains of Atlas: The leadership proposes a pooling arrangement among Rearden and other steelmakers. Rearden points out to them that while Orren Boyle's Associated Steel is much bigger than Rearden Steel, Rearden is so much more efficient and productive that any pooling between them is merely Rearden giving and Boyle taking. That kind of pooling was a big part of Mussolini's "corporatism" and similar arrangements in Nazi Germany, except that there, Boyle and Rearden would have no choice about it. Socialism is not the pooling of Rearden and Boyle, but their dispossession.
Socialism also involves control of production, General Motors today is a socialist company, they produce the vehicles Obama approves of, which is why they no longer fight emissions standards and wasted a fortune with useless crap like the Chevy Volt.

General Electric which owns NBC, is also a good example. Every year, NBC has a green week in which all kinds of environmental BS are promoted, in exchange, Obama gives them lucrative government contracts.

I don't see the pooling as fascistic but as socialist, like I said, the difference between fascism, socialism and communism is INTERNATIONALISM. Fascism hates internationalism, but on economics they're not that different from the socialists and the commies, they just don't care about other countries.

Frankly, I don't know why you're defending the socialists, is it because they don't have concentration camps? I assure you there's more than one kind of evil.
It is delightful to have someone as perceptive and analytical as Fred Cookinham highlight these minor scenes and their meaning. Thank you, Fred.
I'll second that! Nice job, Fred.
Jurgis Brakas
I don't believe Rand's literary style rose to the level of those authors she most admired but neither did any of them attempt to take on such a large array of issues as she. It's difficult to overrate her imperfect (human) effort to shed light on the human condition. Any reader with an ounce of objective curiosity owes a great deal of debt to her work.
This is a great article. It's effect on those who are intellectual opponents and thus looking for warts or flaws will probably be minimal as they are not open to reevaluation.

It's bigger effect will be on those of us who are already fans, encouraging us to reread, looking for the 'deeper layers'.

Fred's point: "we don’t notice the subtleties amid all the thunder" is well-put and worth thinking about. After you get the first level of meaning - and especially if that is such an important one, you may be willing to take that to the bank and rest content. But the best thing is to go back and look for additional meaning, for additional layers.

It's like seeing a great movie or a moving work in art in a museum. Go back and see it a second time or simply stand still and stare at the picture on the wall or the sculpture on the pedestal, drinking it all in. No matter how long it takes. (Unitl the museum guards start looking at you funny.)
I agree, good commentary. One thought I had though, is that those who posit the various critiques are the opposition, those who reject Rand's message. Rather than conduct a dialogue of ideas however, they attack the writing, and they attack Rand fans as simplistic, juvenile, etc.

Answering their red-herring attacks is not going to change their minds. For myself, it is absolutely amazing how closely her novels track real-life events. That would be the analysis to send back across the net - comparing Tinky Holloway to Jeffrey Immelt, Wesley Mouch to Sarah Ingram.
Gil R
1 points
I appplaude, and agree with your article Fred, I'm looking forward to your next one even more!
Thank you Jose for reminding us of another great scene in Atlas Shrugged.
You obviously don't think so.
The Wet Nurse, after an arduous road through a steel mill, finally acquired a set of values.
Reardon became the embodiment of those values and the boy was killed in a desperate attempt to stay true and loyal to those values.Tragic,sad, pitiful but certainly a scene with many emotions.
For me there was nothing subtle about it. More the impact of an sledge hammer.
Anybody who thinks the lessons to be learned from Rand's protagonists. The lessons come from the despicable antagonists, the union leaders, Mr. Thompson, Wesley Mouch, James Taggart and the rest. Those are the characters that show up every day on the nightly news, in Congress, and in the newspapers.

Anybody that wants to tear down the heroes misses the point entirely.

And X Teeth, you don't have a clue.

She nailed the conditions that we are living in today, and it has all been caused by the villains, which are many. How we could be so stupid as a society is beyond me. There is nothing that can be done to stop the eventual collapse. We were assured of that on November 6th 2012.

Who is John Galt?
Thank you for taking time to write this column. Her depiction of the heroes and heroines of her novels are as you stated. The issue I would have is the way she describes the thoughts and actions of her villains. I don't think I have ever known any person as bad as what she describes. (But then again I don't know anyone in prison either.) That is only possible criticism that I would possibly have against her wonderful novels.
The same critics have no problem praising someone like Barack Obama for being too godlike.
This comment by Jose P has been hidden by users, for lack of value. »
Any Rand was a great writer. Her characters do seem a little cartoonish and far fetched at times. Example: The Wet Nurse killed in an effort to help Hank. REALLY?
No sillier than Tom Wolfe's characters. Really? A southern throwback bonehead of a real estate magnate who becomes a tent-revival preacher for Zeus?

Wolfe is admittedly a mishchief, his characters often hilarious - but his stories pack a social-commentary wallop.

Perhaps a better example is "Invisible Man." Seriously? The guy becomes trapped in coal silo? (Or oil tank, or whatever - it's been a while...)
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.