Atlas Shrugged: The Heroic Sociopath

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter VII

There’s one more part from Dagny’s interview with Dr. Stadler that will be important later, so I’ll mention it briefly. Before she leaves, he unloads some reminiscences on her:

“When I was at the Patrick Henry University,” he said, “I had three pupils… Theirs was the kind of intelligence one expects to see, in the future, changing the course of the world.” [p.181]

We’re told that these three students all chose to major in both physics and philosophy, and that Stadler had a friendly rivalry with Hugh Akston, head of the philosophy department, over which one of them would be their mentor.

He turned and looked at her. The bitter lines of age were visible now, cutting across his cheeks. He said, “When I endorsed the establishment of this Institute, one of these three damned me. I have not seen him since…

“These three men, these three who held all the hope which the gift of intelligence ever proffered, these three from whom we expected such a magnificent future – one of them was Francisco d’Anconia, who became a depraved playboy. Another was Ragnar Danneskjold, who became a plain bandit. So much for the future of the human mind.”

“Who was the third one?” she asked.

He shrugged. “The third one did not achieve even that sort of meritorious distinction. He vanished without a trace – into the great unknown of mediocrity. He is probably a second assistant bookkeeper somewhere.” [p.182]

OK, hold on a minute here. We’re told that in Rand’s world, the mysterious phrase “Who is John Galt?” is on everyone’s lips, that it means something like, “Why ask questions that can’t be answered?”

Obviously, John Galt was the third student, and he’s the one who started the meme. Even if Stadler doesn’t know that there’s a connection, I found it just a little too convenient that after spending so much time telling Dagny about his three students that he remembers so fondly, he never manages to mention the third one’s name. (It would have made a big difference later on if he had.) He never even says something like, “You know, here’s a funny coincidence for you to chuckle at…”

When she gets back to New York, the construction of the Rio Norte Line is at a standstill, and Jim Taggart is panicking:

“We’re caught. We can’t give up that branch and we can’t complete it. We can’t stop or go on. We have no money. Nobody will touch us with a ten-foot pole! What have we got left without the Rio Norte Line? But we can’t finish it. We’d be boycotted. We’d be blacklisted. That union of track workers would sue us. They would, there’s a law about it. We can’t complete that Line!” [p.183]

Because… unions are adamantly opposed to new projects that would mean jobs for their members? In a world where the economy is crumbling and poverty is rampant? In any plausible scenario, the union ought to be the biggest backer of completing that line. If anything, it would be more realistic for them to demand side branches and spurs while Dagny fights them to keep the cost down.

While Jim moans that all is lost, Dagny cuts him off and delivers an ultimatum:

“I am going to complete the construction of the Rio Norte Line. I personally, not Taggart Transcontinental. I will take a leave of absence from the job of Vice-President. I will form a company in my own name. Your Board will turn the Rio Norte Line over to me… After you have seen how the Rearden Metal rails can take it, I will transfer the Line back to Taggart Transcontinental and return to my job. That is all.” [p.183]

Jim goes along with this scheme, but forces her to agree that Taggart Transcontinental won’t help or support her in any way, that she’ll never return to her vice-presidential job there if she fails, and that she’ll sell them the controlling interest in the Rio Norte Line at cost if she succeeds, earning no reward for saving the company.

I don’t think that we’re meant to draw the conclusion, “Boy, that Jim Taggart is a crafty businessman who drives a hard bargain!” – but that kind of seems inescapable to me. I mean, isn’t the whole point of Objectivism that self-interest reigns above all else, and if you can make someone agree to a deal on very favorable terms, then good for you? Surely Ayn Rand isn’t asking us to believe that Jim must be a bad person because these conditions he’s placed on Dagny are unfair to her?

Once the deal is made, Jim asks what she’s going to call her new company. Naturally, her first choice is the Dagny Taggart Line, but he points out that that could be viewed as clashing with Taggart Transcontinental’s trademark (again, shrewd businessman!):

“Well, what do you want me to call it?” she snapped, worn down to anger. “The Miss Nobody? The Madam X? The John Galt?” She stopped. She smiled suddenly, a cold, bright, dangerous smile. “That’s what I’m going to call it: the John Galt Line.” [p.185]

Dagny thinks this is a grand joke, but when Jim mentions how she might have to apply for various permissions, she is most definitely unamused:

“Listen, Jim,” she said; he had never heard that tone in any human voice. “There is one thing you can do as your part of the deal and you’d better do it: keep your Washington boys off. See to it that they give me all the permissions, authorizations, charters and other waste paper that their laws require… Jim, people say that our ancestor, Nat Taggart, killed a politician who tried to refuse him a permission he should never have had to ask. I don’t know whether Nat Taggart did it or not. But I’ll tell you this: I know how he felt, if he did. If he didn’t – I might do the job for him, to complete the family legend. I mean it, Jim.” [p.186]

Such noble courage! Such indomitable spirit! It’s so inspiring the way Dagny threatens to murder anyone who makes her ask permission for anything she wants to do… wait, what?

Confirming that the story of Nat Taggart was no fluke or authorial misstep, Rand reinforces it by depicting Dagny, her protagonist, as a heroic sociopath perfectly capable of committing deadly violence on people who try to stop her from making money. Remember, even when you’re building a major piece of infrastructure across several state lines, any law or document saying you need any kind of permission is just so much worthless “waste paper”.

This seems like a good time to bring up one of the more startling episodes of Rand’s life: her admiration of an infamous murderer named William Hickman. In 1927, Hickman kidnapped a 12-year-old girl named Marion Parker, demanded a ransom from her father, but strangled her anyway – and then dismembered her and threw her body out of the car in front of her father’s horrified eyes. He was later caught and hanged.

In 1928, Rand made notes for a never-finished novel called The Little Street, whose protagonist was, no joke, modeled on Hickman. According to Anne Heller’s biography Ayn Rand and the World She Made:

Of the protagonist in her story, a murderer, she wrote, “He doesn’t understand, because thankfully he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning or importance of other people.” [NB: Rand meant this as praise.]

As to the actual Hickman… she spends pages describing his admirable qualities, including his “disdainful countenance,” “his immense, explicit egoism,” and the fact that he is, in her estimation, “a brilliant, unusual, exceptional boy” [p.70].

It seems almost too bizarre and loathsome to be true, and yet it is. (See Michael Prescott’s article Romancing the Stone-Cold Killer for more on Rand’s infatuation with Hickman.)

Although Rand never did write a novel starring a heroic child-murdering protagonist, it’s hard not to think that some of these ideas filtered through into the books she did write. What else can you conclude, when she implies that the heroes of Atlas could cold-bloodedly murder someone under the right circumstances, and that they’d be justified in doing so?

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom
Atlas Shrugged: Fiat Motors
Atlas Shrugged: The Social Atom
The Hypocrisy of Tolerance at the Touro Synagogue
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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