Atlas Shrugged: Rearden Family Values

Atlas Shrugged, p.38-48

After a long day at the mills, Hank Rearden returns home to his family. And holy cow, but the ensuing scene is an appalling glimpse into Ayn Rand’s mind. She manages something truly remarkable: she writes so as to portray Rearden as thoroughly rude, thoughtless, and self-absorbed, while at the same time making it clear that she expects us to identify and sympathize with him and not with his family, who all seem to have very reasonable complaints.

Waiting for him at home are his mother, his wife Lillian, his brother Philip and a family friend, Paul Larkin. His wife says – correctly, from all textual indications – that he’d promised to join them for dinner that night, but stood them up without even a note of apology or regret:

“Why, darling,” she said in a bright tone of amusement, “isn’t it too early to come home? Wasn’t there some slag to sweep or tuyères to polish?”
…”I’m sorry,” he answered. “I know I’m late.”
“Don’t say you’re sorry,” said his mother. “You could have telephoned… You promised to be here for dinner tonight.”
“Oh, that’s right, I did. I’m sorry. But today at the mills, we poured—” He stopped; he did not know what made him unable to utter the one thing he had come home to say; he added only, “It’s just that I forgot.” [p.38]

Rearden’s mother is upset with him because a friend of hers was there for dinner earlier that night, a woman who wanted to meet her famous industrialist son, but who ended up leaving disappointed. It’s strongly implied that this isn’t the first time this has happened:

“You’re not interested in any of us or in anything we do. You think if you pay the bills, that’s enough, don’t you? Money! That’s all you know. And all you give us is money. Have you ever given us any time?” [p.40]

The text says that Rearden reacts to this accusation with a “heavy, murky feeling” of disgust. And yet, again, Rand herself tells us that his mother is absolutely correct, because she says of Rearden: “He felt nothing for them now, nothing but the merciless zero of indifference” [p.43].

But the most astonishing part is what comes next. Lillian wants to throw a party: “I know that you’re so very busy, but it’s for three months from now and I want it to be a very big, very special affair, so would you promise me to be here that night and not in Minnesota or Colorado or California?” Rearden initially refuses to participate at all, saying, “You know that I can’t tell what urgent business might come up to call me out of town.” But she persists:

“The date I had in mind was December tenth, but would you prefer the ninth or the eleventh?”
“It makes no difference to me.”
She said gently, “December tenth is our wedding anniversary, Henry.”

When she says this, Rearden’s family is all watching him “as if they expected a look of guilt” – as well they might. But all they get from him, instead, is “a faint smile of amusement”.

“All right, Lillian,” he said quietly, “I promise to be here on the night of December tenth.” [p.41]

Not even a word of apology, much less a glimmer of acknowledgement that this date should matter to him too! His only response is a long-suffering sigh of reluctant agreement, granting what the text calls “her victory”. (If Randians see their personal relationships in the same zero-sum spirit as a business contract, that would go a long way toward explaining passages like this.)

Finally, to close out the scene, Hank announces that he’s brought his wife a gift. It’s a bracelet made from the first pouring of Rearden Metal: “The links were heavy, crudely made, the shining metal had an odd tinge, it was greenish-blue.” [p.41]

Now, this may be technologically significant, and doubtless it’s personally meaningful to Hank Rearden. But it’s clearly not a romantic gift – Rand herself tells us that it’s heavy and crude! – and yet, he presents it as if he expects Lillian to treat it as one: like “a returning crusader offering his trophy to his love”. And then he’s befuddled when his brother and mother, quite accurately I think, both call him “conceited” for it.

So, to summarize: Rearden only cares about running his business and making money; he feels nothing for his wife and family but empty, merciless indifference and has no interest in their lives. He works such long hours they almost never see him, he repeatedly breaks plans with them, and on the rare occasions he does talk with them, it’s mostly in monosyllabic grunts. He gives his wife a piece of industrial metal as a present. He forgets the date of his own wedding anniversary, and refuses even to feel embarrassed about it when reminded. And he’s supposed to be the hero we admire and sympathize with, while his wife and family are portrayed as shrill nags and greedy parasites whom we should despise.

It’s such a perfect emblem of Rand’s bizarrely warped worldview that she expects readers to accept this. Given the way Rearden is introduced, in any other book or movie he’d be the distracted and obsessed workaholic who learns the error of his ways and recommits himself to his family by the final act. That’s a hoary cliché – but it’s a cliché because the vast majority of people believe that family and friendship are more important than work, and treat someone who thinks otherwise as a sign of distorted priorities.

Rand not only doesn’t hold that view, it doesn’t even seem to occur to her that any of her readers would either, which is why she doesn’t try to make her protagonists less unappealing. If she’d wanted to make Rearden more clearly in the right, she easily could have. For example, she could have written his family as greedy and ungrateful, always demanding more wealth and luxury from Hank no matter how many comforts he furnishes them with. But that isn’t the case. If anything, their only complaint is that they want to spend more time with him!

This is a more fleshed-out vision of the same philosophy expressed by Dagny, who, as I mentioned earlier, doesn’t see the point of climbing mountains, rescuing people from burning buildings, or doing anything except running a corporation. None of Rand’s protagonists have any close family, any real friends (as opposed to business associates), or any hobbies or interests outside work, which consumes every moment of their waking lives.

This isn’t human; it’s basically the worldview of an assembly-line robot. And what’s worse, anyone who does display normal-human-being behavior, even their own mothers, they treat either with uncomprehending bafflement or sneering contempt. Ayn Rand expects us to view this as supremely noble and admirable. I think any motionally healthy person would disagree.

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