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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.