Atlas Shrugged: Meet Francisco d’Anconia

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter V

When Dagny gets back to the office, Eddie shows her a newspaper saying that after seizing the San Sebastian mines, the Mexican government has discovered that they’re worthless: there are no copper deposits there and there never were. D’Anconia Copper spent millions of dollars to cut empty mine shafts, seemingly for no reason at all.

The government of the People’s State of Mexico was holding emergency sessions about their discovery, in an uproar of indignation; they felt that they had been cheated. [p.88]

When Dagny finds out about this, she decides she has to get some answers. She makes an appointment to see Francisco d’Anconia, who’s staying at a hotel in New York.

This is the cue for an extended flashback explaining their personal history. Dagny Taggart, Francisco d’Anconia and poor, tragic Eddie Willers are childhood friends, and young Dagny and Eddie always looked forward to the one month each summer they spent with him on the Taggart family estate:

There was a birch tree on the hillside, halfway between the road and the house; Dagny and Eddie tried to get past the tree, before Francisco could race up the hill to meet them. On all the many days of his arrivals, in all the many summers, they never reached the birch tree; Francisco reached it first and stopped them when he was way past it. Francisco always won, as he always won everything. [p.89]

This is Rand’s cue to tell us about Francisco, who “could do anything he undertook, he could do it better than anyone else, and he did it without effort”. Dagny and Hank are merely implausibly competent, but Francisco is impossibly competent. She spends many pages telling us about all his talents: learning to speak five languages, driving a motorboat the first time he sits down at the controls, teaching himself electrical engineering and automotive mechanics, and at one point, getting hired as a call-boy for Taggart Transcontinental without anyone’s knowledge (somehow – we never find out how – “he had managed to by-pass all the child labor laws”).

Here’s a typical example:

Dagny and Eddie spent their winters trying to master some new skill, in order to astonish Francisco and beat him, for once. They never succeeded. When they showed him how to hit a ball with a bat, a game he had never played before, he watched them for a few minutes, then said, “I think I get the idea. Let me try.” He took the bat and sent the ball flying over a line of oak trees far at the end of the field. [p.91]

But the deliriously, transparently ridiculous height of this must be the part where he independently reinvents calculus at the age of twelve:

…a complex system of pulleys that Francisco, age twelve, had erected to make an elevator to the top of a rock; he was teaching Dagny and Eddie to dive from the rock into the Hudson. Francisco’s notes of calculations were still scattered about on the ground; her father picked them up, looked at them, then asked, “Francisco, how many years of algebra have you had?” “Two years.” “Who taught you to do this?” “Oh, that’s just something I figured out.” She did not know that what her father held on the crumpled sheets of paper was the crude version of a differential equation. [p.92]

This is a good place to bring up the concept of the Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a character who’s implausibly perfect, lacks any significant weaknesses or flaws, and is praised and beloved by all the other protagonists. The concept came out of Star Trek fan-fiction, as a way of mocking devoted fans who wrote themselves into their own stories as wish-fulfillment fantasies, but the meme has become more mainstream as it’s recognized that even canonical characters can be Mary Sues.

Francisco meets every criterion for Suedom: Dagny and Eddie dote on him, he’s an instant expert at everything, he never fails or makes mistakes, and he has no weaknesses or flaws. Rand herself points it out: “It was as if the centuries had sifted the family’s qualities through a fine mesh… and had let nothing through except pure talent” [p.92]. And the most amusing thing is that he isn’t even the most Mary Sue-ish character in the book. (We haven’t yet met the one who is, but you can probably guess his name. Who is John Galt?)

A Mary Sue character is usually just a sign of bad writing, but Rand is a better writer than that, so I think we have to look deeper for the cause. As I said last time, accepting Rand’s philosophy requires her devotees to view themselves not just as skilled or talented people, but the indispensable elite – the keystones without whom civilization would collapse. Obviously, that’s not plausible for merely run-of-the-mill human beings. If her protagonists could be replaced by any of millions of people who would do just as good a job, their threat to go on strike and withdraw from society would be meaningless. For them to be irreplaceable, they have to be superhuman. It’s Rand’s bad philosophy that leads to bad writing, not the other way around.

This ties in with another common thread here, which is that Rand isn’t good at writing children. Even when they’re physically children, her characters are never child-like – they’re just miniature adults, with exactly the same desires, personalities and interests as their grown-up selves. (We saw this in an earlier scene showing Dagny at age nine.) Since Rand never had children of her own, it’s likely she lacked the first-hand experience that would have made for a more realistic depiction of them. But again, it could also be bad philosophy that’s at fault: how can an Objectivist worldview, built on a bedrock of rational selfishness and trading value for value, accommodate the inherently altruistic task of raising children as they really are?

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