Elizabeth Hong, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
Choose one of the following pairs, and compare and contrast each character’s approach to life and basic motivation:
a. Hank Rearden and Francisco d’Anconia
b. Dagny Taggart and Lillian Rearden
c. Eddie Willers and James Taggart
“Dagny, you’re wonderful,” Francisco d’Anconia tells Dagny Taggart (101). “Lillian, you’re wonderful!” Jim Taggart cries to Lillian Rearden (404). The same words are spoken, but the meaning behind them sharply differentiates the two women they laud. Francisco’s words honor Dagny for her virtues: her ability, her self-esteem, her dauntless challenge to a world formulated to crush her. Jim admires Lillian’s depravities: her inability to do anything but destroy, her hatred of life and self, her cruel enslavement of Hank Rearden as simultaneous sacrificial victim and meal ticket. These differences between the two women’s basic motivations and approaches to life exemplify two moral codes which battle for the fate of human civilization in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
Dagny is the personification of action — the marriage between movement and purpose. She is the mind that moves the trains of Taggart Transcontinental, the driving force without which there can be only stagnancy, waste, and lifelessness. This state of static death is the goal of Lillian’s existence. She lacks the genius to run a railroad or create a superior metal alloy as her husband has done; she cannot, through the sheer power of the mind, squeeze oil from shale or mine copper from rock, or invent a motor to draw electricity from the air. Those who are able to turn the workings of their minds to material production are the affirmers and sustainers of life: Dagny’s railroad forms a capillary system that feeds the nation with the blood of oil and the sustenance of industry made possible by Rearden Metal. Those who do not utilize their reason in support of life are by default the agents of death. Lillian, like Jim and the other looters, operates under the irrationality that life, not death, is the default state — that creation and production are passive processes that can be unhooked from their makers and transferred, that one can survive without the creative use of the mind merely by consuming the products of the mind. The result is a perpetual destruction hurtling toward a static zero, an empty absence of movement or purpose or life.
This is the motivation behind Lillian’s marriage to Hank Rearden. She explains to Jim, “If you had the most powerful horse in the world, you would keep it bridled down to the gait required to carry you in comfort, even though this meant the sacrifice of its full capacity (399).” Lillian feeds off of Rearden’s ability, living off the products of his mind. In so doing, she executes a two-fold destruction: the effective negation of the material resources to which Rearden has given value via his production and which she consumes without trade for value of her own creation, and the destruction of Rearden’s life by demanding he sacrifice and waste his ability. Lillian’s concept of love is an extension of this looter mentality: she seeks to buy Rearden’s value with her worthlessness; she demands that he sacrifice his joy and sense of justice in exchange for her misery and hatred. She asks to be loved not for her virtues, but for her vices: “To love her for her vices is to defile all virtue for her sake — and that is a real tribute to love, because you sacrifice your conscience, your reason, your integrity and your invaluable self-esteem (305).”
Dagny, in her relationship with Rearden, demands no such sacrifice. Unlike Lillian, she is secure enough in her self-worth to deem unnecessary the irrational affirmation acquired through destruction executed for her sake. Dagny trades joy for joy, value for value; never would she engage in Lillian’s fraudulent trade of anti-worth: “If ever the pleasure of one has to be bought by the pain of the other, there better be no trade at all (425).” She wants Rearden because of his greatness, and she would not accept him as a lover unless it was her greatness that he loved. Unlike Lillian, who esteems as virtue the misery of mutual worthlessness and hatred, Dagny celebrates in the joy of being alive. Her relationship with Rearden is a declaration of the virtue of happiness, “the state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values (1014).”
Lillian is incapable of achieving happiness because of the contradictions inherent to her moral code. Her values are anti-values, esteemed for their inability to bestow joy to those who attain them. Her vision of the human being is that of mindless impotence; her vision of enlightenment is “not to do anything (308).” She worships the absence of reality, the absence of individual rights, the absence of identity; this is at the root of all her proselytizing on selflessness — she wants human beings to be utterly without self. What results is a falsified, arbitrary existence based on the irrational commandment that the weak and needy have the right to enslave the strong and able, that those who are able to sustain life do not have a right to their own lives, but must sacrifice themselves to those who torture them. Lillian’s success at keeping Rearden under bondage for so many years is based on one fact alone: his consent to his own enslavement. Her greatest achievement was to convince him of his lack of self-worth, to turn his uncompromising sense of virtue against him by forcing him to apply his moral standards to her destructive values. Only by commanding his guilt could she keep him trapped in her faked reality. Her motivation behind her calculating destructiveness is more than mere survival — indeed the greatest contradiction in her philosophy is that she is destroying the very person she needs to survive. She destroys Rearden because she hates his ability, his capacity for joy, his love of life. His very existence is a reproach and a threat to hers, and her every effort is to bring him down to her level of nothingness. She tells Dagny, “You have always acted on no will but your own — a luxury I have not been able to afford. For once and in compensation, I will see you acting on mine (849).” If to live is to act on one’s own will, to produce worth by the force of one’s mind, Lillian realizes that she does not have the worth to afford to live. She resents that Rearden and Dagny do, as if their ability to live takes away from hers; thus she exacts her “compensation” by attempting to destroy their productivity, joy, and agency, in hopes that the destruction of their worth will give value to her life. It is the ultimate aberration of a society where property rights do not exist — even life is viewed as a limited, disembodied resource that has no ownership and thus can be stolen and transferred at will.
In contrast, Dagny’s vision of the human being and his society is that of heroic potential. She values the unique capacity of the human mind to break from the circle of nature with the straight line of purpose, to think rationally and to find joy in living. It is her uncompromising adherence to these values that enables her to withstand the ever-deadening weight of the world upon her shoulders. Where Rearden’s error is in applying his moral code to Lillian’s values, Dagny’s error is in extrapolating her values to the moral code of the looters: in attributing to everyone indiscriminately the capacity for reason and the desire to live. In the society that she imagined at the meeting of the railroad tracks beyond the horizon and which she found in Galt’s Gulch, this assumption is correct — her values are indeed universally recognized as a necessary reality. But in the society she slaves to save — the world of looters and moochers and dead-eyed impartials — unreality and irrationality reign. This is the world Dagny cannot understand, or is perhaps too hopeful to clearly see. So strong is her conviction in the justice and reason of her moral code, so brilliant her love of life, that she cannot bear to attribute the unfathomable evil of deliberate irrationality and quest for death to any man. Even when society crumbles around her by dint of the looters’ destructiveness, she believes that she will inevitably convince them to think rationally and act in self-preservation. She asserts, “So long as men desire to live, I cannot lose my battle (807).” That is precisely why she fails.
Both Dagny and Lillian fail in the quests for which we see them fight for the majority of Atlas Shrugged. But where Lillian’s loss of Rearden leaves her reduced to precisely the empty, miserable, impotent image of man she has always upheld as the ideal, Dagny’s loss liberates her. At last she realizes that the moral code of Lillian and the looters cannot be reasoned with or outlasted, but must necessarily lead to the destruction of all who adhere to it. It is her sanction of their irrational unreality that allows it to persist, and so long as she uses her energy and mind to produce and live, she grants the looters an extension on the inevitable day when they can no longer fake reality. By refusing to carry the world any longer on her shoulders, Dagny and the other strikers give the looters the destruction they crave, and thereby free the men of the mind to abide by John Galt’s code: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine (731).”
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Plume (Penguin Putnam Inc.), 1999.