Atlas Shrugged: The Madonna-Whore Complex

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter IX

As the next chapter begins, we fade in on Dagny waking up in bed with Hank, the two of them still in Ellis Wyatt’s house:

She looked at the glowing bands on the skin of her arm, spaced like bracelets from her wrist to her shoulder. They were strips of sunlight from the Venetian blinds on the window of an unfamiliar room. She saw a bruise above her elbow, with dark beads that had been blood. [p.237]

Say what? This is one of those double-take passages, especially since Rand seems to find this so unexceptional that she doesn’t even tell us how it happened. What kind of rough sex leaves a woman bruised and bloody?

My imagination is failing me here. Did Hank bite her hard enough to break the skin? Did she accidentally slam her arm against the bedpost? Rand doesn’t write explicit sex scenes as a rule, but the book might have benefited from one here, rather than just a fade-to-black interval between the end of the last chapter and the start of this one.

When Hank wakes up, he’s not happy. He berates himself for giving in to his lust the previous night – but he also angrily berates Dagny for going along with him:

“What I feel for you is contempt… I don’t love you. I’ve never loved anyone.” [p.238]

Three cheers for the first honest statement of self-reflection from a Randian protagonist!

“I wanted you as one wants a whore – for the same reason and purpose. I spent two years damning myself, because I thought you were above a desire of this kind. You’re not. You’re as vile an animal as I am.” [p.238]

You’d think that after hearing a rant like that, a sensible woman would recognize that her one-night stand is carrying some serious emotional baggage. Hank is sunk up to his eyeballs in a virgin-whore complex, consumed with lust for Dagny, yet he despises her for giving him what he wanted. He doesn’t apologize for hurting her, nor does he seem to feel any guilt for cheating on his wife (all he says about it is, “Now I am to lie, to sneak, to hide”). And instead of kicking Hank out, which certainly seems like the appropriate response to his laying bare this simmering inner cauldron of rage and misogyny, Dagny laughs in his face. Apparently she finds his behavior charming, rather than terrifying.

But we’re not done plumbing the depths of Hank Rearden’s emotional issues. The next scene adds a big dollop of violent jealousy, as Dagny returns to New York and Hank comes to see her again:

Hours later, when they lay in bed together, his hand moving over her body, he asked suddenly… and she knew, by the intensity of his face, by the sound of a gasp somewhere in the quality of his voice, even though his voice was low and steady, that the question broke out of him as if it were worn by the hours of torture he had spent with it:

“Who were the other men that had you?” [p.251]

Again, this is less a red flag than a signal flare. Hank and Dagny have just started a relationship, and already he’s consumed with anxiety over how many men she’s had sex with and who they were. This seems like a huge danger sign to me. Dagny, on the other hand, isn’t put off by it – but when she understandably takes the position that this is none of his business, Hank becomes physically violent:

“There was only one other, Hank.”

“When?”

“When I was seventeen.”

“Did it last?”

“For some years.”

“Who was he?”

She drew back, lying against his arm; he leaned closer, his face taut; she held his eyes. “I won’t answer you.”

“Did you love him?”

“I won’t answer.”

“Did you like sleeping with him?”

“Yes!”

…He twisted her arms behind her, holding her helpless, her breasts pressed against him; she felt the pain ripping through her shoulders, she heard the anger in his words and the huskiness of pleasure in his voice: “Who was he?”

She did not answer, she looked at him, her eyes dark and oddly brilliant, and he saw that the shape of her mouth, distorted by pain, was the shape of a mocking smile. [p.252]

Ye gods, Dagny, get out of there! Call the police; you could easily have him arrested for that. Or there are domestic violence crisis centers you can call, if you’d rather not get the courts involved. But whatever you do, get some help, before it’s too late. (Remember what Rand thinks about initiation of force? This is another piece of evidence that it doesn’t apply to her heroes.)

This is only their second date and already he’s becoming abusive: bloodying her during sex, berating and insulting her, and physically hurting her to try to force her to give up private information about her past partners. This may be Rand’s idea of a romantic relationship (and Dagny doesn’t seem to object to any of it), but in real life it’s the textbook description of a dangerous, controlling stalker.

* * *

There’s one other subplot in this chapter that I’m going to touch on briefly, which is Jim Taggart getting married. Like most of Rand’s subplots, it’s tedious and repetitive, but it’ll be important for a point I want to make later.

So: Jim is walking the streets of the city, in a sulk over the success of the John Galt Line. He wanders into a dime store, where he randomly strikes up a conversation with the salesgirl behind the counter, whose name is Cherryl Brooks. It turns out that she came from a poor family and heroically abandoned her parents and siblings to seek her own fortune, explaining that they deserved it for being poor:

“My old man’s never been any good, and Ma didn’t care whether he was or not, and I got sick of it always turning out that I was the only one of the seven of us that kept a job… So I bought a railroad ticket one day and left. Didn’t say good-bye. They didn’t even know I was going.” [p.244]

Cherryl recognizes Jim from the newspapers, and admires him because, basically, she thinks he’s Dagny. She doesn’t realize that he’s an evil looter and his sister is the real power behind the throne. Unusually for an Atlas protagonist, this requires her to carry the Idiot Ball for every conversation they have. But in spite of that, Rand clearly wants us to consider her a sympathetic and likable character, which makes it all the more shocking what’s going to end up happening to her later on.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: Natural Capital
The Hypocrisy of Tolerance at the Touro Synagogue
Atlas Shrugged: There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom
#BeyondMarieCurie: Women in STEM & Medicine
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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